Designing for community: Understanding sense of community in virtual learning environments.

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    Boyer, D. Matthewpresented 16 April 2009 at AERA 2009

    Poster Session:Design Thinking: Across Formal and Informal Learning Environments

    Designing for Community:

    UnderstandingSense of Community in Virtual Learning Environments

    As teachers increasingly go online to support their professional learning, they are met with a

    wide array of opportunities for engaging in what researchers and developers have termed virtualcommunity. In 2004sDesigning for virtual communities in the service of learning(Barab et al.,

    2004), as with other reports of research surrounding online communities, various authorsinvestigate what community means in virtual environments. Comparing these online groups to

    physical-world communities of practice, researchers continue to explore the ways in whichvirtual environments can support professional learning communities.

    What is not clear is just what community means for researchers, designers, and participants. This

    paper begins to summarize various aspects of community that authors have previously identified,in an attempt to create a framework for understanding not only what community means in a

    virtual learning environment, but also how designers who seek to build online community canapproach the creation of their online environments.

    This framework supports understandingsense of community, an individual participants thoughts

    and feelings about their identity and connection to the online group. While the broad termcommunity is discussed, the purpose of this paper is to focus on creating both conceptual and

    operational descriptions of sense of community. Through an interpretation of current literature,as well as analysis of an online learning environment intentionally designed to support a sense of

    community in participants, this research provides a design framework that both informs and isinformed by research, and suggests ideas for practical design applications.

    I begin with an overview of several areas related to community in virtual learning environments,

    specifically research around communities of practice, teacher professional development inlearning communities, and virtual communities. From this foundational information, I present a

    framework to identify the aspects of a virtual learning community that contribute tounderstanding an individuals sense of community. I discuss this emerging framework as it is

    informed by research, as it looks in practice, and as it may be intentionally designed.

    Purpose

    As is evidenced by scholarly investigations into online community from a variety of researchperspectives (Barab et al., 2001; Dede, 2004; Gray, 2004; Neff, 2002; Palinscar et al., 1998;

    Preece, 2000; Riel & Polin, 2004; Schlager & Schank, 1997; Selwyn, 2000; Smith & Kollock,1999), we as researchers have been intrigued by the possibility of taking what we know about

    physical world communities and using that knowledge to create virtual environments thatsupport similar types of connection and communication between community members. The

    ability to facilitate organizations online has led to the use of virtual environments to supportprofessional learning, from virtual organizations like TappedIn (Schlageret al., 2002) and the

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    Apple Learning Interchange, to online courses for graduate work or other ongoing professionaldevelopment.

    The purpose of this research is to sift through the ever-increasing body of research on online

    learning and virtual communities in order to identify the important characteristics for those

    seeking to analyze, design, or construct virtual environments that support an individuals senseof community. This paper presents an important clarification: central to the creation of asustained, supportive community of practice, whether physical or virtual, is attention to a set of

    issues related to developing a sense of community in individual participants. These issues arecombined in a research and design framework that can be used to inform ongoing research on

    virtual learning environments as well as facilitate the development of future online projects.

    Process

    Before developing this framework, I began by examining foundational research on a variety ofareas related to online communities of practice for teacher professional development. Summative

    information about these areas is presented in the Perspective section of this paper. From thisbackground information, I move to a discussion of the framework itself, presenting six aspects

    that contribute to understanding sense of community.

    To build this framework, I used existing research to inform the different aspects, along withinformation from an analysis of an online graduate course designed to support a sense of

    community in individual participants. Through this two-pronged approach, I was able to refinemy observations of the virtual learning environment with research literature from previous

    studies. The resulting framework is a conceptual overview, meant to assist researchers in theiranalysis and designers in their creation of virtual learning environments that seek to develop a

    sense of community.

    Perspective

    To understand how an individuals sense of community can contribute to their successfulparticipation in virtual learning environments, it is necessary to reflect upon foundational

    research into areas related to communities of practice and professional learning. The followingsection presents information on the areas of communities of practice, teacher professional

    learning, and virtual communities. This foundational research helps to understand not simplywhat community means in a broader sense, but also why community can be such a powerful

    concept when developing learning environments and activities.

    Communities of Practice

    Communities of practice have existed as long as man has created social structures aroundbuilding collective knowledge. From the time of apprenticeship-based guilds and communities

    of artisans, there have existed groups of people seeking to engage in discourse around commonexperiences and share in the construction of new understanding toward collective goals. More

    recently, industries and organizations have developed their own communities of practice, geared

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    toward the development of communal understanding and the creation of new knowledge. Thesecommunities are pervasive to our culture, existing in endless iterations (Wenger et al., 2002).

    These communities are also important to our continued expansion as a knowledge-based society,as groups come together to create a dynamic structure for investigation and creation. In these

    communities, knowledge is not simply an information artifact, but rather a dynamic process of

    co-creation where learning is a living process, socially constructed through discourse andsharing. At times, understanding is tacit to the group, existing as the underpinnings of thecommunitys creation and central to their ability to function. Other times, the knowledge created

    becomes explicit, in that it is shared between members and possibly outside of the communityitself.

    Communities of practice exist across many dimensions, including time, location, participants,

    size and purpose. For example, a group of twenty teachers may come together for a five-dayprofessional development workshop at their school with the task of creating a scope and

    sequence for a future unit of study. In another example, four architects situated in separate citiesaround the globe use communication technologies to complete a building design over a period of

    months. These communities can continue past their current iterations or choose to dissolve oncetheir task is completed; the community of practice defines its own structure and sustainability.

    In one model of communities of practice, there are three criteria for examining these

    communities: domain, community and practice (Wenger et al., 2002). Domain refers to thecommon ground shared by the participants. Community involves the social interactions that

    become the foundation for the construction of new knowledge. Practice includes severalvariables: framework, ideas, tools and information. Framework defines the component structures

    for communication and sharing, while ideas are the concepts and topics for investigation. Toolscan be anything from communication technologies to the physical implements used to create and

    display the information as artifacts.

    Put another way, communities of practice involve the creation of shared knowledge and beliefs,while bringing together individual histories that intertwine interdependent participants involved

    in a communal enterprise. The participants develop relationships that respect individualdifferences and viewpoints, but allow for everyone to interact within an ongoing and

    reproducible endeavor (Barab et al., 2004).

    A community of practice exists through ongoing interaction focused on the sharing ofinformation toward the social construction of new knowledge. Situated in practice, the members

    engage with archival and current material while interacting with each other (Anderson et al.,2000). Through this communal work, an individual participant creates an identity that is related

    to their role in the community, but can also come to understand the purpose and importance oftheir work within larger contexts (Gray, 2004).

    Teacher Professional Development through Professional Learning Communities

    Under many current models of teacher professional development, teachers are asked to leave

    their classrooms to participate in educational activities designed to improve their teaching andhave a positive impact on student learning and achievement. They are removed from the very

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    situations they wish to improve and provided with provocative panaceas that promise positivechange. When they return to their classrooms, the status quo environment that has inhibited the

    development of organically instigated change by its very structure, teachers are expected tointegrate their newfound knowledge into faulty existing structures. It is customary to assume

    that teachers can implement change without providing environmental or systemic change. They

    are removed from their practice, provided with episodic anecdotes of innovation, and thenreturned to the realities of their classrooms (Grossman et al., 2001).

    Professional development must be informed by new perspectives and constructed towardappropriate goals. Rather than episodic, it must be a career-long process with ongoing

    involvement. Instead of removing it from the classroom, it must occur in context, or at the veryleast, be tied directly to context for positive transfer of training to occur. It must begin with the

    work of the teacher. It must focus on student knowledge and achievement. It must beappropriate to the current stage of the teachers career (Schlager & Fusco, 2004).

    For change in professional practice to occur, it must be change that is self-sustaining and

    generative (Franke et al., 1998). Teachers can only practice the changes they have encounteredwhen their environment provides ongoing support for innovations to take hold and prosper.

    Also, the practices must be part of continual growth, in which necessity requires investigationand this inquiry leads to further change. Change in the system does not occur without change to

    the individual, but change in the individual cannot happen if the system does not provide roomfor this to develop (Christiansen & Ramadevi, 2002). This interrelationship necessitates a

    communal and systemic approach to change.

    Collaboration between teachers supports the very things that current professional developmentactivities lack: ongoing cognitive and emotional support for teachers (Marx et al., 1998). In such

    professional learning communities, teachers are able to learn new information, converse abouttheir new understanding, and explore and reflect upon current and new practices. They support

    each other as they attempt to integrate innovations, while providing the environment to take risksand experiment with new ideas.

    In these types of community, teachers have opportunities to participate in both formal and

    informal learning experiences. A more structured focus on a particular topic may provide theattention to a necessary innovation, while engaging in informal exchanges provide the necessary

    connections that help to create and sustain a community of practice (Palinscar et al., 1998).Through these formal and informal experiences, participants have the opportunity to connect to

    new content, new practices, new colleagues, new curricula, and deeper opportunities for learning(Cox, 2004).

    Teacher professional development situated in professional learning communities can involve a

    wide range of participants, but can be most effective when there is a diversity of individuals whoeach bring their expertise and experiences to the group. For example, a community that involves

    both classroom teachers and university researchers and students allows participants to not onlyuse their individual strengths, but also try on different roles, developing their individual

    understanding through the different perspectives of other community members. Teachers canlearn from the research-based knowledge of university participants, and the university

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    participants can place their academic understanding within the context of classrooms andpractice (Putnam & Borko, 2000).

    Within these communities, there is the possibility that each group will create its shared goals and

    choose to focus on specific or general topics to develop through their interactions. This mutual

    investigation of a topic can have either a cohort or issue focus, engaging in communalprofessional discourse toward more general understanding or progressing toward a prescribedgoal centered on a particular topic (Sherer et al., 2003).

    Current norms of professional practice can inhibit the development of such professional

    communities of teachers. Most teachers are accustomed to practicing in private, with littleinterference from peers (Thomas et al., 1998). They do not engage in critical analysis of their

    own work, let alone allow others to reflect critically on their professional practices. For manyteachers, collegial discourse is not the norm, and must be supported throu...

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