Matt Renwick is an elementary school principal in Wisconsin Rapids, WI. His new book 5 Myths About Classroom Technology: How Do We Integrate Digital Tools To Truly Enhance Learning? is available now. He also writes about literacy, technology, and education on his blog Reading by Example.
Online learning communities can be defined as digital spaces that allow for multiple people to communicate with each other, share resources, create new content, and increase a group’s collective intelligence. But before we delve too deeply into this concept, how would you define “community”? With today’s availability of an Internet connection in almost any location, this term needs to be revisited.
The idea of a professional learning community is still fairly new to the education landscape. “PLCs” were introduced to schools by Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker in their seminal resource of the same name in 1998. Looking at the concept of community more broadly in society, they have often been viewed as “third places,” neither work nor home but rather a common location that “offers the great ease of association so important to community life” (Oldenburg, pg. xviii). These locations include coffee houses, pubs, independent bookstores, and civic organizations open to the public. Think “Cheers.” Save the imbibing, schools would be smart to connect the attributes of third spaces with professional collaboration.
This deeper understanding of community bears the question: If our conversations about teaching and learning can be facilitated online, what are the benefits and what are the costs?
Considering the possible negative aspects of online collaboration, the most important concern is the lack of in-person communication. It can be challenging to come to consensus when people are in the same room together, discussing a complex issue. But the challenge is not diminished when we use online communications to mediate these conversations. In fact, they can becoming even more challenging.
For instance, we don’t see the look on a person’s face when we post a comment in an online community. The inability to watch a person’s reaction reduces our ability to empathize. The speaker lacks the knowledge of knowing when to pause and reconsider their words, or to reflect on what they said afterward. Likewise, the “listener” is more likely to misread the words posted online by a colleague. People tend to assume the worse when they cannot associate what someone says with their body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions.
Sherry Turkle, MIT scientist, has studied this “flight from conversation” with online tools for decades. She is suspicious at best about digital collaboration. “We use technology to ‘dial down’ human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. People avoid face-to-face conversation but are comforted by being in touch with people - and sometimes with a lot of people - who are emotionally kept at bay” (pg. 29). Turkle views the ubiquitousness of mobile technology and the web-based communications it offers as “part of the move from conversation to mere connection” (pg. 29).
The biggest advantage that online learning communities provide is the ability to collaborate with others about a topic or focus in which it is not possible to work together otherwise.
As a principal, I have tried online learning communities within our school walls. We’ve had mixed results. At first, the novelty of having dialogue within one digital space was exciting. We could come back to our posts and add replies when it was convenient. However, we found these connections were replacing possible in-person conversations. Quite simply: We wanted to see each other. Digital tools still have a place in our school, such as web-based agendas, minutes, and comments. But our decisions regarding our school are made in the physical presence of others.
In a district where there are several schools spread out geographically, an online learning community has been a welcomed addition. For example, I am helping facilitate a graduate course on action research for several district faculty. The use of an online learning community has allowed both the instructors and participants to post their ideas, questions, and comments. The class only meets once a month. Access to a third space on the Internet allows access for everyone to connect with each other. This learning experience has been enhanced, not diminished.
"Access to a third space on the Internet allows access for everyone to connect with each other. This learning experience has been enhanced, not diminished."
Similarly, many connected educators who live in different locations have also utilized online communities to make collaborative learning a possibility. Just recently, I presented on the topic of action research at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) convention with three other educators. One is from Ohio; the other two live in Boston. We initially connected with each other via Twitter and our respective blogs. This led to creating a collaborative document about our ideas regarding our proposal for action research. After continued conversations via email and video conferencing, we put together and presented a quality session for other educators at the NCTE convention. The best part: We had not met each other in person until the day we all arrived at the convention.
What I know right now about online learning communities is it all depends on the context in which one uses them. If you are able to meet with others in person for collaboration, that should be the priority. Don’t replace these experiences with technology. If the only way to communicate with a colleague is through web-based tools, we should take advantage of them. In summary, a conversation is only as strong as the community in which it creates.
DuFour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Oldenburg, R. (1999). The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community. Boston: Da Capo.
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. New York: Penguin.