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Community Analysis

What is Community?

Community is having a sense of belonging to a group. Several key concepts are embedded in this simplified definition, the first being the idea that community is sensed or felt on an emotional level. This intangible quality is also suggested in definitions that position community as “a phenomenon” that “does not appear to have a concrete existence” (Brent 214). Phenomena by their nature are not wholly quantifiable, but scholars can work descriptively to identify reoccurring aspects of community.

A second key concept is that of group, which are based on common bonds; the commonality may be being part of the same course, program of study, or organization. Common bonds lead to having shared experiences. Communal experiences strengthen the group dynamic, creating shared history and increasing understanding; students feel closer when they have gone through the same challenges and successes. This also leads to a mutually constructed culture; the community establishes norms and expected/acceptable behaviors.

Another key concept from that initial definition is belonging. Members of community feel that their some aspect of their identity is reflected by a specific group. However, self-identification alone does not lead to community inclusiveness. The individual must also be accepted by the existing group members. Therefore, a community both reflects and reinforces individual characteristics.

This belonging is also reinforced by an egalitarian power structure with foundations in “co-presence and interaction” (Pratt qtd. in Amy 114). This is valuation placed on each member, so that his or her contributions are respected and integrated. Even in communities where power may not be completely equitably distributed among members—a president or team captain for example—power variations are not abused. A community needs a balance between the freedom of speech and behavior and restriction of any violence, verbal or otherwise, that could be directed toward any member (Amy 120). Without co-presence and power balance, individuals are not likely to feel a sense of belonging and community become unsustainable

Meaningful communities must emerge organically. For example, in any of the groups listed above, there will be certain interactions that are established: class meetings, discussion board assignments, or an organization’s event. These interactions may dictate participation in a group, but without that phenomenological feeling, this is not a community. Communities do not “exist in every place, and the differences between places are not necessarily based on the differences between them as communities” (Brent 217). In other words, a community may develop in one class and not in another, even if the conditions set by the instructor—the place— are identical. Camaraderie can be invited by the group interactions, but whether a sense of community emerges seems to rely on the unique chemistry and psychology of the group’s individuals.


Interactivity versus Community:

Public blogs are often assigned in online writing courses, with students interacting in posts and responses, but whether this interaction is a community or simply the surface appearance of one is debatable. On the one hand, “even if an illusion,” community “has very real effects” (Brent 216). Junco et al’s study suggests that requiring students to interact using Twitter did lead to greater student engagement and academic achievement by clarifying content and providing emotional support. Even if the students did not feel they belonged to a community, the participation had real effects as Brent suggests. Therefore, even if assigning blog writing and responding does not establish a meaningful community, it will encourage interaction that in and of itself has benefits.
The assignment to write blogs in this course supports this argument because peer comments leads to affective relationships between classmates. I know that for me, when I saw that Carol, Laurie, Margie, and Daniel had left comments on my posts, I felt a greater sense of belonging and respect as a community member because I knew they took the time to read and respond. These relationships are then strengthened as I appreciated their efforts and reciprocated my feelings of respect.

However, there is also the argument that embedded within all communities is “conflict and division” (Brent 214). Cliques will be present in an online setting because virtual “communities mirror inequity” in society (Amy 117). Students are bound to be offended, remain silent, and not participate at all (Amy 117). As a result, the interactive blog assignment could potentially result in the kind of power inequities and rhetorical violence that devastate community-building efforts.

While violence did not occur in our class assignment, I can see how there was division. With the exception of Laurie, I have had previous classes with each of the aforementioned commentators. This suggests that within a community, previous experiences will impact how we interact. Others may feel excluded or not as well respected by some peers if they are not receiving the same level of interaction. Even if the selective interactions were a product of comfort rather than intentional exclusion, as Brent argues, effects can be very real.

Another issue is that blogs are not “informal rap sessions with close friends,” they are performances in a class for grades (Amy 122). For example, in the responses I had to my first blog post, I responded to Laurie’s post directly, but when she responded it was to the thread of discussion started by Carol’s response. Then Margie started yet a new direction for the conversations. This shows that although students may be reading and commenting, this work is not necessarily integrated in a way that develops deep communication and community. Responses may only be “performing” interaction for the instructor audience where the performance is satisfied by the existence of a post without sustained involvement.

Facilitating Community with Assignment Design:

Interaction has benefits even if that it does not result in a sense of community, so requiring commenting on blogs is worth noting as a design element. However, it is possible use assignment design to also encourage community in an online course if the right intangible mix of students exists—primarily with synchronous activities that can serve “the needs of writers in terms of forming community” (Breuch 151). Breuch notes that “speech patterns and behaviors become lost because of the disruptions of time and space that occur in virtual environments” (144). For example, when Margie left her comment on the first blog entry, I had already posted the last review and I did not respond to her directly. Online students can read and respond to one another at any time, but this can result in responses being posted after the writer has moved on to other assignments and concepts. If we responded to one another in real time, like we did with the tool review, it could overcome any time-related irrelevancy. Maybe adding break out groups, as afforded by Adobe Connect, would help students to engage with the reviews and build conversation that eliminates the effects of time separation. These groups could also help “students have the opportunity to get to know one another,” fostering new relationships and mediating the potentially divisive pre-existing relationships (Breuch 148).


Community Outside the Blog:

As many of my peers will probably discuss, our community lives vivaciously outside of the blogs in our Facebook class group. I started this closed group before our first class meeting, and was inspired to do so after having the experience of being invited to a group for previous classes. I wanted to repeat the positive experiences of support, humor, and clarification of content, which seems to align with Brent’s argument that “the concept of community always seems to contain nostalgia, the idea of an imagined past” (220). We also use this space to build community because it mimics the informal conversation and interaction that occurs in informal physical spaces like student lounges. Through sharing emotional experiences and challenges, we engage in the history-making, culture construction, and norm setting that builds community. Carol has even noted that she was not much of a Facebook user before the class, but engages there more and more. This is because even though a “community may lack tangible substance…it possesses a gravitational pull, a magnetic existence that creates real effects - at its best, social relationships of mutual care and responsibility” (Brent 221). We create these outside communities because we “desire to overcome the adversity of social life” (Brent 221). The adversity of graduate school is very real, and we all express feeling insecure about our abilities and our right to belong to the larger PhD program. We create community to feel accepted as we are, to find “connectedness in all [our] imperfections” (Brent 222). While the instructor may not be able to do more than set conditions for community to grow, not standing in the way of these informal connections is an important step in facilitating community. Past experiences and indirect instructor support are two powerful reasons why interaction outside the course assignments will occur and foster community.

Educational communities have enormous benefits to students. They often provide support and assistance both for personal and academic challenges. For groups facing especially difficult academic expectations, this support system function of community can help people enter “the maelstrom rather than succumb to it” (Brent 216). This support system can often be the difference between discontinued or sustained academic participation, and should therefore be encouraged at every level of the institution.


Works Cited:

Amy, Lori E.. “Rhetorical Violence and the Problematics of Power: A Notion for the Digital Age Classroom.” Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Jonathan Alexander and Marcia Dickson. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2006. 111-132. Print.

Brent, Jeremy. “The Desire for Community: Illusion, Confusion, and Paradox.” Community Development
Journal
39.3 (2004). 213-223. Web. 17 Jun. 2014.

Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “Enhancing Online Collaboration: Virtual Peer Review in the Writing Classroom.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Eds. Kelly Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie. Farmingdale, NY: Baywood, 2005. 141-156. Print.

Junco, Reynal, C. Michael Elavsky, and Greg Heiberger. “Putting Twitter to the Test: Assessing Outcomes for Student Collaboration, Engagement and Success.” British Journal of Educational Technology 44.2 (2013): 273-287. EBSCO. Web. 26 May 2014.

Blog Assignment #5: Article Review

Mandernach, Jean B., Amber Dailey-Herbert, and Emily Donnelli-Sallee. “Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom.” Journal of Interactive Online Learning 6.1 (2007). 1-9. Google Scholar. Web. 9 Jun. 2014.


The authors of this study acknowledge the significant investment of time initially required to prepare a course for online delivery; however, they are interested in the time demands on faculty in facilitating an established online course. This study aims to establish some “empirical information to guide the frequency and nature” of faculty involvement in asynchronous discussions; evidence-supported information the authors note as underrepresented in the literature (2). They argue that with students’ increased expectations for instructor availability, greater quantitative data about the investment of time is needed. This quantitative study evaluated a random sample of ten undergraduate courses that students rated as highly effective in promoting understanding of course material. The authors analyzed the course management archives for each course. The results indicate that faculty time spent facilitating discussions is highly variable: each week faculty responses ranged from 0-22 posts, their time logged in ranged from 22-450 minutes, and they logged in on 4-6.8 days. The authors conclude that facilitating discussions in “online courses may not take any more time than facilitating discussion in face-to-face courses, but that “the time investment is distributed differently throughout the week” with greater time spent working on the weekends being “one of the biggest shifts in online faculty workloads” (6). The authors caution that the study is limited in that it does not measure other means of facilitation that cumulatively require greater time demands. I find this study helpful in that it begins to measure the amount of time needed to complete the various functions of the online instructor. Anecdotally, teachers in online courses report that they are making a significant investment of time, but studies like this can provide the kind of administratively valued quantitative data needed when arguing for limiting online class size or reduction of teaching loads. As courses are encouraged to be moved online, considerations must be made for the workload inequity between online and face-to-face courses. The collation of previous studies of the increased demands on time and the value of discussion threads in the literature review are especially useful for building an evidence-based case for reasonable online faculty course loads and class sizes and for the pedagogical value of incorporating discussion when designing courses. I think that although the authors are not willing to suggest guidelines based on this study, it is useful as a starting point for new instructors wondering how much time to spend responding to students. The mean time spent in discussion boards was 187 minutes per week over a mean of five days each week. I think this is valuable because the students reported that these courses were highly effective, and with this in mind, instructors can remind themselves that daily, extensive involvement in discussion boards is not necessary: a little more than three hours over five days can be enough. This is obviously not the only responsibility of the online instructor, and more time will be spent in other ways, but it can help to find at least one boundary.




Blog Assignment #4: Article Review

Murphy, Elizabeth and Maria A. Rodriquez-Manzanares. “Rapport in Distance Education.” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 13.1 (Jan 2012). 167-190. ERIC. Web. 4 Jun. 2014.

Murphy and Rodriquez-Manzanares’s study examines distance education teacher-student rapport. They focus on the indicators of rapport, the challenges to the distance educator in building rapport, and the reasons why rapport is important. For the purposes of this study, rapport is defined as “harmonious interactions between teachers and students,” and relationships with “mutual understanding and satisfactory communication” (168). This qualitative study included 42 distance education teachers, with data collected in individual interviews with participants, the transcripts of which were coded and unitized according to thematic similarities. To establish the importance of rapport as a classroom variable, the authors first provide an extensive literature review of texts arguing that rapport is linked to “enhanced learning, attention, motivation, attendance, and involvement for students” (168). They also provide a synthesis and classification of rapport manifestations from the literature into the following categories: honesty/respect, support/monitoring, individual recognition, sharing/mirroring, social interaction, accessibility, caring, and effective communication. One study result is that distance education lacks the benefit of face-to-face communication and thus has a heightened need for rapport’s effects on student learning and motivation. In addition, there exist specific challenges to building rapport at a distance, specifically geographic dispersion, asynchronicity, heavy teacher workloads restricting time to invest in rapport-building activities, software limitations, and teachers not recognizing positive rapport as a significant aspect of learning. Murphy and Rodriquez-Manzanares argue the most significant of the rapport categories apparent in the literature are individual recognition, accessibility, and social interaction; however, due to the nature of distance education, there are two additional necessary manifestations of rapport: having non-text-based interactions (such as video conferencing) and paying attention to the tone of interactions (generally positive and jovial). Following the findings, the authors provide charts of behaviors, specific to distance education, that can build rapport in each of the identified categories. The authors suggest these charts can be used prescriptively by distance education teachers interested in building rapport. Finally, they conclude that unlike the spontaneous rapport-building in the face-to-face classroom, rapport in the distance classroom must be premeditated, consciously promoted, and is only achieved with a significant investment of time and more work. I strongly recommend this article to both researchers in the field of distance education and those looking to enhance their online pedagogical practices. The authors’ work in classifying rapport are both theoretically and practically significant. Rapport tends to be a variable that borders of the mystical, as an intangible outcome of the classroom chemistry and thus irreproducible or transferrable. However, this work provides specific rapport categories and how to achieve each one. The authors note as well, that this provides a starting point for future research in developing and refining rapport categories while giving teachers applications to use at the same time. If rapport is as significant to student success as the literature suggests, then this article is an important initial steps in moving the variable toward the quantifiable, measureable, and implementable.