Constructing community in online classes
What we presently face in many online classes are "pseudocommunities" that suppress conflict through rote agreement with one another (Havelock, 2004). In my experience, students consult the teacher about the quality of their own or their peer's contributions, and feel uncomfortable providing critical feedback. Students express fear of hurting another's feelings as well as fear of the teacher's judgment about how they respond to peers. Problems in developing effective online learning communities can be attributed to such passivity in addition to a lack of motivation (Pena-Shaft, Altman, Stephenson, 2005). Such pseudocommunities do not meet the requirements of a true community where socially interdependent people "participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices that both define the community and are nurtured by it" (Havelock, 2004, p. 59). To Havelock, learning communities specifically must share a sense of purpose and commitment to the community's values; further, members should share information, support one another, be treated equally, and be able to participate voluntarily. He also notes that participation in these activities fosters respect amongst members and helps novice members merge into the community.
According to Havelock (2004), definitions of communities of practice often do not include visions of that practice. In recent years, attempts have been made to construct strategies for developing online learning communities. Waltonen-Moore, Stuart, Newton, Oswald, and Varonis (2006), acknowledging that little is known about group development in virtual communities, sought to create cohesive communities by the end of a 5-week course. Their efforts were successful with the use of discussion boards, and they identified five stages of online group development: Introduction, Identification, Interaction, Involvement, and Inquiry. However, the final and arguably most significant stage, Inquiry, involved users' synthesis of readings rather than critical feedback for peers. This model provides insight into how a learning community is constructed around course readings rather than conversations about each other's writing.
Seufert et. al. provide a set of progressive assignment categories that can be applied to nurture a growing learning community: 1) Contact Studies that would encourage the introduction among participants, 2) Self-Studies that facilitate interaction and involvement, and 3) Context Studies that enable learner-created knowledge through problem-oriented, real-world projects. What remains, however, is the implication that students are only engaging in these processes because of the assignment, and therefore view their interactions as required rather than voluntary. Meanwhile, the role of the teacher is to be friendly and welcoming, encourage "netiquette," maintain group harmony, and model desired behaviors (Hewson & Hughes, 2005). This diverges from prior theories that claimed teachers of distance courses need to maintain their authority and function as what Moran (2001) calls "strong moderators."
While attempts are being made to create and cultivate online learning communities that feature assignments and activities unique from traditional classroom communities, there is still a lack of understanding in the ways in which these communities create and sustain themselves. Online courses need to facilitate communication where students can argue about their ideas on topics they know, because "explaining, elaborating, and defending one's position forces learners to integrate and elaborate on knowledge in ways that facilitate higher order learning" (Black, 2005, p. 9). If we continue to see only psuedocommunities in our classes, then students will struggle to experience the kind of communication that motivates them to learn from one another and respect their peer's contributions.