Where is the Community?

Topic Progress:

It is one thing to talk, read, and write about ‘community’ and ‘group cohesion’ when referring to synchronous learning environments where learners are all moving through the content together, submitting their assignments at the same time and generally talking about the same things.

But what if the course is structured for independent study where students are working independently and at their own pace? Who belongs to my group when I am the only one who started this course this month? Who do I connect with and talk to as an student studying independently?

The answers to these questions have been sought for a very long time. Fortunately, the early 21st century has seen significant advances in digital technologies. Among the most notable is the notion of ‘Web 2.0’, otherwise called the ‘read/write web’.  Originally the web only connected users to information. Now, however,  we have seen the beginnings of a web that connects users to each other and allows us all to contribute.

The fact that this course is hosted in WordPress is a testament to the technological advances of the last several years. One of the key structures of blog software is the idea of RSS, or ‘Really Simple Syndication’. RSS is a tool that can be used to aggregate or subscribe to ‘feeds’ from various different sources on the web and display them on a different site. The same protocols can be used to syndicate content to external sites.

The technical details behind RSS are beyond the scope of this course, but it is helpful to recognize that the ease with which anyone can aggregate content from a wide variety of sources or syndicate their own content to other sites or make it available for others to aggregate, is critical for modern independent learners.

The simplicity of RSS enables learners to act as creators of their own communities. Instead of being forced to only communicate with other learners inside the protected walls of a siloed LMS, learners can communicate with anyone. Instead of being limited to learning from those in their particular section of the course, learners can connect with experts in their field, both local and distant,  and they can get feedback from the authors of books and articles that they review. Furthermore, they can produce work that actually contributes to the collective knowledge of society rather than completing throw-away assignments for an audience of one.

A powerful example of using RSS to create a community of learners is the website for a course called Digital Storytelling 106, or DS106, offered by the University of Mary Washington. You can see the feed for the course at http://ds106.us/flow/. Looking at the feed, you can see that the posts there are from students all over North America as DS106 is offered on campus for credit, but it is also freely available for anyone who would like to participate.

If Learning Designers create course materials that encourages independent learners to engage with experts in the field (and IT departments support the software), then learners have the ability to create their own communities of inquiry.