1.3 Foster a sense of community
Learning online is not an individual process – there are many ways of bringing learners together in order to support their studies. Wenger’s (1998) concept of ‘communities of practice’ has become popular in education over the past two decades. Wenger suggests that people who share a common goal or purpose can form a community of practice through which they share insights and experiences. Members of one of these communities are practitioners in a particular area. For example, they might be learning technologists who discuss their ideas and experiences in a shared online space. Participating in a community of practice is a social activity that provides opportunities for learning and strengthens the connections between members.
Building a sense of community is important for online learning, as learners can readily drift away or feel isolated due to the nature of online engagement. It is therefore important to keep students together and engaged. This might involve reminding them of what they are supposed to be working on at any given time. Drawing on the concept of communities of practice, an educational institution can emphasise that connecting and sharing with like-minded others can be very beneficial.
Educators may find that they spend less time engaging with students through lectures or traditional sessions because the material is presented in a form that students can access independently at any time. In an online environment, the role of the educator can become more supportive and collegiate, making students aware that their teacher’s primary role is to help them to succeed on the course. To this end, it can be useful for educators to construct an individual relationship with each student rather than always relying on mass or automated emails.
Activity 3 Benefitting from a community of practice
Consider the opportunities you have to engage with a community of practice. This might be within your institution, or a wider engagement with people in a similar role or subject area. Take a few minutes to think about the ways you have made links with others, whether offline or online. Have your activities been mainly social and to develop your network? Or have you also had some academic or practice-related activities, for example discussing ideas about your projects, practices and research? If you have not engaged with a community of practice, think about the reasons for this.
Now that you have reflected on your engagement (or lack of engagement) with a community of practice, decide whether you would like to make any changes to your practice. The changes involved in taking teaching online often provide opportunities to make new connections with people who have had similar experiences.
Members of a community of practice often engage with the community for a variety of purposes. Sometimes their activities are purely social or purely academic, and sometimes they include a mixture of different activities. Research has shown that when the community is engaged with a balance of different activities, the members benefit the most. Therefore, if there is a community of practice in your area, consider engaging with both social and academic/practice-related activities.
If you have time, and this is a subject that interests you, follow this link to learn more about communities of practice [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .