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Proceedings of the Seventh IASTED International Conference

Web-based Education
March 17-19, 2008 Innsbruck, Austria
ISBN Hardcopy: 978-0-88986-723-9 / CD: 978-0-88986-724-6



Richard A. Schwier, Dirk Morrison, Ben Daniel

Virtual Learning Communities Research Lab
College of Education, University of Saskatchewan
28 Campus Drive, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

ABSTRACT 2. Formal, Informal and Non-Formal

This paper explores the pedagogical implications of the Learning Contexts
catalysts, elements & emphases model of formal virtual
learning communities [1] for non-formal learning Formal educational contexts are usually characterized by
contexts, drawing on findings from a four-year program learners in classes being taught by teachers who deliver
of research on virtual learning communities in formal comprehensive, multi-year curricula, which is
learning environments. The paper compares how learners institutionally bound to a graduated system of
in formal and non-formal learning environments can certification [11]. In sharp contrast, informal education is
make use of virtual learning communities. Ultimately, we often characterized as unorganized, unsystematic, and
argue that there is a need to extend basic theory on formal regularly unintentional [12]. This type of learning was
virtual learning communities (VLCs) to elaborate our described by [13] as the lifelong process by which people
understanding of learning and pedagogical practices in acquire and accumulate knowledge skills, attitudes and
non-formal online learning environments. insights gathered from a lifetime of experiences. For the
purposes of this research program, a third category of
KEY WORDS education is proposed, one that straddles these two
Web-based education, community, non-formal learning seemingly polar learning contexts, and this is non-formal
learning. Selman, Cooke, Selman, and Dampier identify
1. Introduction non-formal learning as that which “comprises all other
organized, systematic educational activity which is
Important questions orbit the design, implementation, carried out in society, whether offered by educational
pedagogy and effects of virtual learning communities, and institutions or any other agency [14]. It is aimed at
the socio-educational aspects of learning in these learning facilitating selected types of learning on the part of
environments. Traditional pedagogy appears to drive the particular sub-groups of the population (p. 26). For
design of most online courses, making it difficult to example, non-formal education may include such
determine the actual contributions of unintended activities as professional development interest groups or
collaboration in virtual learning communities [2], [3], [4]. community education initiatives. These alternative group-
At the same time, there is growing attention in the learning contexts are usually characterized by a sharing of
literature to the need for and design of collaborative expertise and knowledge amongst the membership, which
online learning environments [5], [6], [7], [8], [9], [10]. may or may not include a “content expert.”
Another aspect limiting our current understanding of how It is clear learners, within the context of non-formal
learners make use of virtual communities is the fact that learning environments, need to exercise various degrees
existing research focuses almost exclusively on formal of self-directedness in their approaches to their learning.
learning environments—post-secondary courses managed Some authors have characterized the self-directed learner
by institutions of higher learning. Formal environments as learning alone, whether under the tutelage of an
often require learners to engage each other online in instructor or agency, or completely independent of such
specific, externally defined ways, whereas non-formal structures [14], [15]. However, we would expand the
environments may impose fewer controls on learner notion of independence to being independent of the
activities. This paper extends what we have learned about structural contexts of education; any particular learner or
VLCs in formal learning environments to how learners in group of learners may manifest elements of self-
non-formal learning environments will make use of VLCs directedness in their learning, whether it is within a
to enhance informal learning. formal, non-formal, or informal learning environment.

610-060 321
3. Virtual Learning Communities 3.2 Emphases of VLCs
Formal learning environments emphasize various
The metaphor of community has been used to describe a purposes, and we suggest these are important to
wide range of contexts, from distributed communities of understanding how any VLC operates. The current model
practice in the corporate world [16], to virtual community suggests five tentative emphases: ideas, relationship,
networks [17], [18]. Communities are collections of reflection, ceremony and place. Each of these purposes
people who are bound together socially for some reason, defines a focus for individual participation. While some
and that reason defines the boundary of the community. communities are deliberately constructed to promote one
A learning community emerges when people are drawn or more of these purposes, any particular emphasis is also
together to learn, when a group of individuals is engaged the result of the individual’s intention for using the
intentionally and collectively in the transaction and/or community.
transformation of knowledge. Although learning
communities emphasize outcomes in education, their 3.3 Elements of Formal VLCs
power resides in their ability to take advantage of, and in What turns the group into a community rather than merely
some cases invent, a process for exchanging ideas and a collection of people with a shared interest? Thirteen
learning collectively. Virtual learning communities elements were identified in a series of grounded theory
happen when the process of learning takes place outside studies of online graduate-level seminars and subjected to
the boundaries of face-to-face contact (although face-to- social network and modeling analyses [22]. These
face and virtual experiences may be blended), and often elements underscore the idea that communities are a
outside the boundaries of formal education. complex of many factors and variables. Any adequate
In order to understand the characteristics of understanding of virtual learning communities needs to
community in formal online learning environments, we recognize that these variables interact multi-
developed a conceptual model of VLCs from existing dimensionally.
literature and later refined it [1]. The model of formal Historicity. Communities are stronger when they share
virtual learning communities included three interacting history and culture. Conversely, they are weak when
categories of characteristics: catalysts, emphases and they are based on general interests and abstract ideas.
elements, and it is this model that will serve as the starting Identity. Communities foster a sense of shared identity.
point for the pedagogical implications offered here. This Successful virtual learning communities need to have
model illustrates a theoretical framework that exists in the boundaries—an identity or recognized focus.
larger context of communities of practice and social Mutuality. Communities spring from, and are maintained
capital theory [19], [20]. by interdependence and reciprocity.
Plurality. Communities draw much of their vitality from
3.1 Catalysts of VLCs intermediate associations such as families, churches,
Communication is a catalyst for community, and when and other peripheral groups.
communication is vibrant, community can emerge; when Autonomy. Communities respect and protect individual
communication is absent, community disappears. Four identity. Individuals interact with each other and
notions act as catalysts and orbit communication in a have the capacity to conduct discourse freely and
virtual learning community: awareness, interaction, meaningfully.
engagement, and alignment [1], [21]. These are the Participation. Social participation in the community,
products of communication when it acts as a catalyst for especially participation that promotes self-
community. Awareness is a prerequisite variable to determination supports autonomy and sustains the
communication and it is drawn from theoretical community.
discussions of social presence and social capital [19]. Trajectory. Learning communities are not static; they
Interaction includes exchanges between learners and create movement in a direction.
content, learners and instructors, and learners with other Technology. In virtual learning communities, technology
learners. Engagement is more than interaction; it facilitates and development of community, but may
describes when interaction becomes mutually beneficial also inhibit its growth.
to the individual and the group. To become a contributing Social Protocols. Conventions and rules of engagement
member of a community, some kind of engagement has to are usually prescribed in formal learning
happen, and ultimately it is important for the tacit environments, but even in informal learning
knowledge held by community members on the periphery environments, participants follow conventional
of the community to be made explicit. If this does not patterns of interaction.
happen, then it mitigates the effectiveness of the Reflection. Communities exhibit conversational flow, and
community. The third notion is alignment. When later conversations often make reference to earlier
individuals engage in a virtual learning community, some conversations and interactions.
measure of alignment occurs. Individuals align personal, Intensity. Strong communities exude a sense of urgency,
private purposes with the collective, public purposes of that involvement in the community is purposeful and
the community. meaningful.

Trust. When people build communities, they commit Temporal boundaries often exist in non-formal
themselves to each other through trusting social environments too, so they offer similar challenges. To
relationships. promote historicity, a moderator can incorporate what
Learning. Learning is a central element of virtual members have contributed and make their stories part of
learning communities, although the nature of the the community culture. Explicit mention of the culture,
learning can be broadly defined and contextual. value and context of the virtual community is possible.
Identity. In formal VLCs, and instructor can use
4. Comparing Characteristics of Formal and team-building exercises, develop community logos, and
Non-Formal VLCs publicly acknowledge accomplishments by the group and
individual members within the community. Teachers can
Although a comprehensive comparison of implications articulate the focus or purpose of the community, and
that obtain in virtual online learning environments is outline the requirements and rituals accompanying
beyond the scope of this paper, we offer a sample of membership in the community. Participants may wish to
comparisons here. Also, we want to emphasize that while remain anonymous or to protect their identities as
we are relatively confident about the composition of communities move from formal to informal. Fictitious
VLCs in formal learning environments, given that they identities may be used to guard identity in some non-
are based on empirical data, we are speculating about how formal settings, yet participants can be encouraged to
these characteristics apply to non-formal learning engage each other in authentic ways.
environments. Mutuality. In formal VLCs, a teacher can include
First of all, we suggest that the catalysts and group exercises, assignments, activities that require each
emphases of non-formal VLCs are similar to those in member to contribute to the final product. Ask leading
formal VLCs. Learners build awareness, interact, engage questions that encourage members of the community to
and ultimately align with each other over time. The invest in concerns held by other members, and to share
mechanisms of social capital are at work, and learners ideas and possible solutions. In non-formal settings,
build interest and confidence that the social network will learners have more control, but team challenges and
provide useful avenues of communication. We presume problem solving exercises can be used to encourage
that one potential difference is that learners may feel participants to self-select groups to maximize the team's
fewer obligations to communicate in non-formal likelihood of solving the challenge.
environments—the social imperative to participate may Plurality. A teacher employing a formal VLC can
be more intrinsic and less based on the extrinsic encourage membership and participation from and
inducements that are familiar in formal learning association with groups related to the learning focus.
environments. Strong teacher presence is typical in formal These might include businesses, professional associations,
VLCs, with directed discussion and deliberate strategies or groups in other countries exploring similar issues.
employed to engage learners with each other. In non- Similar intentions can be promoted in non-formal settings,
formal VLCs, teachers may not be as directive, and but self-directed learners will decide which peripheral
learner engagement will arise or diminish based on how associations can be revealed. Instructors can encourage
compelling the perceived need is to communicate. participants to elaborate on their contributions with
Similarly, formal and non-formal VLCs can both examples from other parts of their lives, but ultimately,
emphasize undulating combinations of ideas, learners have more authority over what they offer and
relationships, reflection, ceremony and place. In formal what they do not because there are fewer external
VLCs, emphases are institutionally or centrally defined. inducements for participation.
Most formal VLCs emphasize communities of ideas, Autonomy. In both formal and informal VLCs it is
although other reasons for participating may motivate important to foster individual expression and comment
individual members. Non-formal communities are also explicitly on its value. Educators in either environment
typically designed with particular emphases in mind, will set up protocols for respectful communication and
either institutionally or by groups of participants, and acquire consensus in the group. Savvy teachers will also
participants congregate based on shared interests, but create strategies for settling disputes or inappropriate
outcomes are individually defined. behaviour before problems occur. Acknowledging
Significant differences seem to play out when we autonomy is probably even more important in self-
consider the socio-pedagogical implications of VLC directed learning environments. Explicitly respecting the
elements in formal and non-formal environments. We will choices of individuals, and using consensus-building
compare each in turn and provide an example of how the strategies are important approaches.
differences might manifest themselves. Participation. Instructors in formal VLCs often
Historicity. Given the confined course timetables in promote participation in a variety of ways: allowing
formal learning environments, a sense of shared history members of the group to shape learning agendas, giving
may occur by the end of a course, or from the reputation guidance to new community members, and promoting
of a course from one offering to the next. An instructor opportunities for established members to go outside the
can promote and nurture historicity, but the temporal boundaries of the learning event or focus. They can also
boundaries of formal environments mitigate its growth. encourage lurkers and spectators to participate actively.

While active participation is just as important in non- moderator may encourage participants to reflect on
formal VLCs, fewer external controls over individual learning at key stages but, reflection is largely an
investments translate into greater control by learners individual choice, and opportunities may not be taken.
about their own levels of participation. Educators can Intensity. As an explicit strategy, instructors in
attempt to stimulate discussion by offering intense and formal VLCs will often introduce provocative or
engaging topics for discussion, and suasion is an significant social issues related to topics of conversation
important tool, but ultimately learners will determine to a to provide context and authenticity for online
larger extent how much they will participate. This can conversations, and to ignite controversy and debate in the
influence the momentum of the group, as dwindling or community. Similarly in non-formal VLCs, a moderator
intermittent participation by group members can or participants can introduce provocative or significant
ultimately erode the incentive that active participants have social issues, but the participants determine authenticity
to continue trying to communicate. and relevance. Controversy and debate in the community
Trajectory. In formal and non-formal learning may be attractive to some participants, but may cause
environments alike, educators may employ a number of other participants to leave the VLC.
explicit strategies to promote an inward-bound trajectory Trust. In a formal VLC, an instructor will often spend
of participation and to propel the trajectory of the group in a considerable amount of energy trying to build trust
a particular direction. They might ask participants to among participants and between the instructor and
describe ways they will use what they have learned in the participants. She/he might provide opportunities for
community in the future, or conduct "visioning" exercises members to collaborate on small activities in the
to determine new initiatives to be undertaken by the community, or participate in simple, non-competitive
community. Participants can be encouraged to discuss the activities, such as co-moderating discussions to promote
directions being taken individually and collectively in the the development of trust among individuals. As part of
learning environment, but ultimately the individual and these activities, an instructor often invokes an element of
group trajectories are determined by the participants. co-reliance, such that the success of the team depends on
Technology. In any VLC, formal or informal, the participation of everyone in the group. As informality
technology provides affordances and imposes barriers. In increases, the development of trust may become more
any learning setting, it is important to employ technology elusive, as participants choose to trust or distrust other
that allows meaningful communication, and which is easy participants based on episodic experience. Cohesive
for participants to use. In formal learning environments, groups in non-formal settings, such as cohorts of
it is critically important to provide support for learning employees undertaking voluntary professional
how to use communication features of the technology- development activities, may offer similar opportunities
based system used by the group. In non-formal settings for trust-building activities as formal environments, and
transparency and ease of use are paramount. Participants trust may emerge as awareness and familiarity among
will locate alternative loci for learning if the technological participants grows.
context for learning is awkward or difficult. Social Protocols. In a formal learning environment it
Learning. Learning is one of the key elements that is the responsibility of the teacher to establish clear rules
differ in intent between formal and non-formal learning and expectations for engagement, especially for setting or
environments. In formal environments, a community negotiating the acceptable and unacceptable ways of
moderator will often remind participants of externally behaving in a community. As the sense of community
imposed learning intentions, and intervene when grows, the group can review existing protocols and be
interaction drifts too far away from the learning focus. given responsibility for monitoring engagement in the
One goal of moderators is to muster communication community. In non-formal and informal settings, rules
around a topic. They will also induce individuals on the and expectations are typically the product of ongoing
periphery of the community to contribute their tacit social negotiation, so they may be more fluid than in
knowledge to the explicit knowledge of the community. formal environments. In non-formal contexts sub-groups
Non-formal group learning, by comparison, is often often form around shared interests, and each sub-group
characterized by a sharing of expertise and knowledge may elect to use different protocols to govern interaction.
amongst the membership, which may or may not include
a “content expert." Learning agendas may be more 5. Conclusion
personalized and diverse within a group, and learning
outcomes may be self-determined. Non-formal learning In each of these cases, it is important to recognize that the
environments may articulate central purposes and goals, differences depend, at least partially, on how an educator
but learners will adapt them to satisfy individual or learning leader chooses to operate with the group
purposes. online. Any educator, even those in highly formal and
Reflection. A moderator can look for linkages in institutionalized learning environments, may elect to use
conversations over time and in some cases even require VLCs in very informal ways. Any given class may be
participants to comment on how a current conversation comprised of formal and informal learning events and
relates to a course topic or conversation thread in formal structures. When we discuss formal and informal learning
learning environments. But in non-formal environments a environments, we refer to those events and structures, not

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