A continuum of learning
To design a successful learning community, attention needs to be directed firstly to the instructional design. Before considering technological details, such as what etools are needed, decisions need to be made concerning the learning approach and the group learning structure to be used. Familiarity with group learning structures such as; learning partnerships, learning circles, teaching by learners, debating teams, peer learning groups and networked classrooms, will assist in deciding on an instructional model for any specific learning community.
A continuum of learning models from "independent" to "collaborative" is described by Gan and Zhu (2007, pp. 215-216). Amongst the collaborative approaches, "knowledge building" is the approach that best prepares students to enter the knowledge society. Gan and Zhu (2007, p. 219) provide a summary of the key stages (with relevant cognitive behaviours) for knowledge building that should be used to help with the design of online learning communities.
Maintaining social interaction is critical to the success of building a sense of community. Bulu & Yildirim (2008) studied communication behaviours and trust in collaborative online teams and found that when there was higher trust levels among the members, there were less posts to the community activities but there were more regular patterns of posting.
The members of the community need to feel connected to each other to promote learning. The social presence of a member of the learning community is an important aspect of connectedness. Kear (2010) reported ways for members to communicate to increase their social presence in the community. Also, members should be encouraged to develop personal online profiles as these have been found to encourage members to interact within learning communities (Berlanga, Bitter-Rijpkema, Brouns, Sloep & Fetter, 2011).
Developing a sense of community is critical to the learning community. McInnerney and Roberts (2004) provide a sense of how important social interaction is to the development of that sense of community. As the participants in the community are an essential part of this process, it is enlightening to also consider the community from the participant perspective. Liu, Magjuka, Bonk and Lee (2009) report interaction strategies that were found to help build a sense of community.
Now it is time to consider the roles that are involved with the operation of a learning community. While the facilitation of learning is critical in these communities, there are other important roles than also need to be fulfilled for the successful operation of a learning community. As well as the facilitating role, Hartnell-Young (2006) also describes designing, managing and mediating roles. The choice of learning approach is an important decision in the designing role but a deep understanding of that learning approach is necessary to optimise the facilitation role.
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