Online Learning Communities in Secondary School Environments: Social Constructivist perspective

Thesis submitted as part of the degree of Master of Education (Leadership),

The University of Queensland in 2009 School of Education

Nathan Hutchings © 2009

Nathan Hutchings © 2009


Table of Contents
Preface........................................................................................................................................ 3 ICTs, The Social Web and Schools ........................................................................................... 4 Vygotsky and Social Constructivism ......................................................................................... 6 Vygotsky Key Concepts ............................................................................................................ 8 Zone of Proximal Development ............................................................................................. 8 Mediation of Meaning.......................................................................................................... 11 Language and Thought ........................................................................................................ 12 Communities of Practice .......................................................................................................... 13 Online Communities ................................................................................................................ 15 Online Communities of Learning ............................................................................................ 21 Where do we go from here? ..................................................................................................... 25 References ................................................................................................................................ 26

Nathan Hutchings © 2009


This essay will discuss the importance of understanding and supporting the growth and development of online learning communities in secondary schools. The theoretical approach that will be used to frame the discussion will be Social Constructivist with specific reference to Vygotsky’s key concepts of Zone of Proximal Development, Mediation of Meaning and Language and Thought. Before discussing Vygotsky and Social Constructivism the impact of the Internet upon education and society will be canvassed including the recent emergence of a more socially interactive Internet, Web 2.0. Following this, Vygotsky’s key theoretical concepts will be outlined then what constitutes a community of practice will be defined. In addition, online communities and online communities of learning will be described in detail. After having outlined the societal and educational impacts of the Internet, discussed key Vygotskian concepts, described communities of practice, online communities and online communities of learning Vygotsky’s key theoretical concepts will be used as a lens to focus on future research possibilities of online learning communities within secondary schools.

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ICTs, The Social Web and Schools
The World Wide Web (WWW) has become a major global depository of information offering unparallel access to a large and growing store of human knowledge with a “60,000% increase in the quantity of available information in less than 10 years” (Lawless & Schrader, 2008, p. 222). Schools and homes that are not connected to the Internet are fast becoming the exception rather than the norm (ABS, 2007, 2008). The ubiquitous mainstreaming of the WWW and proliferation of wireless internet connectivity now enable individuals and learning communities to communicate almost unfettered by time and place (Huett, Moller, Foshay, & Coleman, 2008). In addition to the exponential uptake of Internet use, the nature of the Internet has recently undergone a metamorphosis from an information and entertainment delivery channel to a global interactive social space that cannot be ignored by educators (Solomon & Schrum, 2007). The Internets shift from a passive to a social and interactive medium is referred to as the WWW moving from Web version one to Web 2.0 (O’Reilly, 2005). Web 2.0 has created new ways for people to learn and communicate online, tools such as Podcasting, VodCasting, Wikis and Blogs are beginning to be used tentatively by educators (Hsu, 2007; Lamb & Johnson, 2007; Mindel & Verma, 2006; Solomon & Schrum, 2007). In addition to recent developments in online communication tertiary intuitions are placing more and more of their learning material online enabling students to complete postgraduate and undergraduate degrees exclusively via the WWW (see e.g., http://ocw.mit.edu/; www.swinburne.edu.au; www.deakin.edu.au). Many of these Universities libraries are also incorporating interactive web based technologies like online chat, RSS feeds, and online booking and renewal of loans (e.g., www.library.uq.edu.au) or use social tagging services such as http://delicious.com to aggregate links to useful sites for students (see e.g., http://www.lc.unsw.edu.au/). Web 2.0 social networking applications like FaceBook (www.facebook.com) are ubiquitous among University students, and increasingly teenagers and other general computer users are heavy users of social networking applications (Golder, Wilkinson, & Huberman, 2007). Despite the arguments that decry the academic merit of the knowledge on the WWW the following is certain; it is a social phenomena, it is both an asynchronous and synchronous discursive Nathan Hutchings © 2009


space, people invest large amounts of time and emotional energy in creating content for it and many people are gaining access to the WWW at an increasingly younger age (Finger, Russell, Jamieson-Proctor & Russell, 2007; Lacina, 2007; Pegg, Reading, & Williams, 2007). The continued development Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and specifically the Internet have changed the way people communicate and view the world. Solomon and Schrum (2007) reported that students view technology as a necessary tool for learning and it is so embed in their way of communicating that it directly affects how students live and communicate and when, where, and how they learn. Students increasingly expect that learning occurs in concert with ICTs and are somewhat baffled when teachers view ICTs as something novel, something to be bolted on to teaching and learning. Despite this many students and teachers do use online sources to find information, expand their knowledge base, and enrich their lives. However, schools have not kept up with the growth and potential of the WWW or the more recent shift to Web2.0. So why are secondary schools lagging behind the rest of society when it comes to openly engaging with World Wide Web and ICTs? Groundwater-Smith, Brennan, McFadden, and Mitchell (2001) report that change in secondary schools is often painfully slow and crisis driven and often superficial. In addition Wellington (2005) also reports that rigid organizational patterns and forms of schooling are not conducive to ICT innovation and any ICT innovation is smothered by structural rigidity of schools. To create schooling that is relevant for the 21st century learner and connected with the digitally interconnected world outside schools, there is a need to move from traditional paper based learning to a digitally based operational paradigm (Lee & Gaffney, 2008). However, despite these criticisms there does appear to be a slow paradigmatic shift spurred by exponential developments in ICTs and more recently the WWW. Current research by Meier (2009) indicates an increased uptake in the use of ICTs in secondary schools and a shift towards a growing recognition that the use of ICTs increases student engagement, supports new and innovative approaches to learning and can also be used as a tool and process for developing new ways of learning and thinking. In addition, Solomon and Schrum’s (2007) publication, Web 2.0 new tools, new schools and Leading a digital school edited by Lee and Gaffney (2008) provide hope that Cranston’s (1999) call for a re-invention of the craft of teaching and re-engineering of schools is being heard. Nathan Hutchings © 2009


Furthermore, publications by Finger, Russell, Jamieson-Proctor, and Russell, (2007), Egbert (2009) and Thorsen (2009) all indicate a paradigm shift in the educational community a shift that recognises the “…rise of information and communication technology (ICT) in schools is unstoppable, and developments in ICT encapsulate broader trends in education. ICT touches every aspect of education, building in new networks of teachers and driving new paradigms of teaching and learning, and putting teachers and students in contact with each other on a truly global scale.” (Cohen, Manion, & Morrison, 2004, p.59)

Educational change is happening, albeit slowly, and the change is coming from within the ranks of teachers spread across the globe who are using the WWW to create online communities to discuss the use of ICTs in education and learning, for example http://www.classroom20.com/, which provides a place for teachers to discuss the use of emerging Web 2.0 tools in their classrooms. These online communities are dynamic and the constant interactions between members via text, audio and video cause the emergence of new knowledge and the questioning of established knowledge and practices; these communities socially construct knowledge. To analyze and understand these communities, and support their continued growth, it is necessary to utilize a theoretical approach that has at its core the idea that knowledge is socially constructed and the use of language in all its textual, signified and spoken forms is the primary tool for the creation, communication and mediation of knowledge and meaning. The theoretical approach that encompasses these core ideas is the Social Constructivist theory of Lev Vygotsky.

Vygotsky and Social Constructivism
Social Constructivism is founded on the idea that people collectively impose meaning on the world (Ormrod, 2006). One of the founders of Social Constructivist theory was the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky who was born in 1896 and died in 1934. It was not until the mid to late 1970s, due to Soviet suppression, that the work of Vygotsky became widely available in the West but since then Vygotsky and Social Constructivist theory has been widely used in education, psychology, and the social sciences (Newman & Holzman, 1993).

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To understand Social Constructivism it is important to first understand the place that the individual takes within Vygotsky’s philosophical-psychological frame work. Vygotsky’s work helps us to resolve the bridge that connects the individual to the social what Rio and Alvarez (2007) refer to as a, “no-mans land, generally left uncultivated and unexplored in dualistic approaches” (p. 282). Social Constructivists see the social as preceding the individual this precedence provides an epistemological bridge on which the individual comes to know itself and according to Robbins (2001) individual consciousness itself originates in society. Therefore to understand the formation of individual knowledge one must first focus upon the social context in which the individual is situated. To understand the inner mental processes of an individual the social constructivist investigates the socio-cultural context in which humans are situated (Van Der Veer, 2007). Learning and knowledge are a social phenomenon, not solely created by the individual in isolation, disconnect from peers, friends and society (Grandin, 2006; Paslincar, 2005); knowledge is also in a continual state of flux, dependent on the social meanings and discursive practices embedded in society at large and via immediate social and professional communities such as school, peer groups, family (immediate and extended), and more recently online and virtual communities (Grandin, 2006; Hedegaard, 2007; Iriberri & Leroy, 2009; Lave & Wenger, 2005; Van Der Veer, 2007; Yue, et al., 2009). Grandin (2006) states that knowledge is a social phenomenon and that to understand the origin and development of higher order cognitive processes it is necessary to understand that they have their origin in social processes. Therefore, the construction, modification, and repudiation of knowledge are the result of a symbiotic relationship between the individual and the social, a relationship that generates an epistemological friction from which situated individual knowledge emerges. And so, to gain insight into the development of higher cognitive processes the social and cultural milieu is the first place to look. Individuals inhabit varying social and cultural milieus and construct meaning as they experientially interact within them. These cultural milieus are permeated with numerous formal, such as school, and informal, such as family, contexts and, “through both informal conversations and formal schooling, adults convey to children the ways in which their culture interprets and responds to the world” (Ormrod, 2006, p. 34). To complicate matters such Nathan Hutchings © 2009


contexts are not fixed and the meanings that the learner derives from them change, “in response to the person’s actions, capacities, age, and so on” (Van Der Veer, 2007, p. 23). For example, the attention that a six-year-old child would pay to an adult is very different from that of a teenager even though the cultural knowledge that is being discussed may be similar or identical. Within such contexts adults, and others, act as mediators of meaning with the primary tool of mediation of social meaning and social experience being language; language that is presented in a myriad of forms, spoken, written, visual, symbolic, and musical. The social world is the source of ideas, facts, skills and attitudes (Finger, Russell, JamiesonProctor, & Russell, 2007). This world is the crucible for the formation, challenging and repudiation of new of existing knowledge. The individual brings to an existing social context their own interpretation of existing knowledge and when this comes into contact with socially constructed knowledge individual knowledge is transformed, created or left unchanged. Vygotsky’s theoretical concepts elucidate this dialectic between the individual and society an interplay of how the individual perceives their current state of knowing within the social context in which they are situated and how this social context reflexively creates the known within the individual. To understand the reflexivity of the social and the individual it is necessary to discuss Vygotsky’s key concepts in more detail.

Vygotsky Key Concepts
The key concepts that Vygotsky developed during his career were, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), Scaffolding for Learning, Mediation of Meaning and the link between Language and Thought. Of these four key concepts ZPD and Scaffolding are the most familiar to contemporary teaching practice and often studied by new teachers and form part of their theoretical understanding of teaching and learning. To fully appreciate the utility of Vygotsky’s key concepts for 21st century ICT enriched teaching and learning it is necessary to review each concept prior to explaining how Vygotsky’s ideas can explain and support online learning communities in secondary school environments.

Zone of Proximal Development
The ZPD encompasses the tasks that the individual cannot yet perform without assistance; the gap between what has already been mastered and what can be achieved with support. The aim of the educator is to discover what has already been mastered, preventing needless repetition Nathan Hutchings © 2009


of already mastered tasks and develop learning experiences that move the learner towards the formation of new knowledge and mastery of new skills. …the zone of proximal development. It is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Rio & Alvarez, 2007, p. 278). The ZPD is one of Vygotsky’s most commonly referred to concepts by educators and psychologists. However, ZPD according to Rio & Alvarez (2007) is often misunderstood because it refers to “developmental courses or trajectories” (p. 278) these courses and trajectories are mistakenly viewed as fixed linear categories which can be used to compare and classify a learners progress. The important difference between ZPD and other psychological theories of mental development is the ZPD is described prospectively and is framed in such a way to implicitly create opportunities to describe what is currently known and how this can be linked to what can be known; “the notion of a zone of proximal development enables us to propose a new formula, namely, that the only good learning is that which is in advance of development” (Rio & Alvarez, 2007, p. 279). Vygotsky did not advocate the use of standardized test to ascertain current levels of mastery rather learners were encouraged to explain their understanding of concepts with others who had greater proficiency (Rio & Alvarez, 2007). By explaining their current understanding of a particular area of knowledge learners in conjunction with others who have demonstrated mastery in the area being investigated come to understand gaps in the learner’s knowledge. During the process of discovering a student’s ZPD, and because it is defined prospectively, opportunities for extending learning rather than classifying and labeling student potential are created. Having identified gaps in the learner’s knowledge the teacher creates a learning experience focused towards the zones upper limit. By focusing on the zones upper limit the learning experience becomes a means to expand the learner’s ZPD and over time the learner’s zone becomes richer with new knowledge and skills which in turn support further expansion. However, describing what knowledge is within a learner’s ZPD is problematic because a child’s ontological framework could be extensive. To describe a learners pre-existing knowledge it is useful to view knowledge in two conceptual frames, scientific concepts and spontaneous concepts. Nathan Hutchings © 2009


Daniels (2007) describes Vygotsky’s concept of “scientific concepts as those that were introduced by the teacher in school and spontaneous concepts as those that were acquired by the child outside of the contexts in which explicit instruction was in place” (p. 310). Scientific concepts are concepts that “form a coherent, logical hierarchical system” (Daniels, 2007, p. 311). Scientific concepts are explicitly taught and in conjunction with spontaneous concepts form an interdependent relationship and the basis for new concept formation. However, scientific concepts delivered by one way verbal communication and devoid of context result in rote learning of words rather than meaning. … the child learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken over by the child through memory rather than thought. This mode of instruction is the basic defect of the purely scholastic verbal modes of teaching which have been universally condemned. It substitutes the learning of dead and empty verbal schemes for the mastery of living knowledge. (Daniels, 2007, p.312). It is how the scientific and spontaneous are bought together within a learning experience that creates new concept formation a growth in knowledge. Describing the ZPD by using scientific and spontaneous conceptual frames provides a teacher an overarching frame of reference to describe the learner’s knowledge in a prospective manner. Using this frame of reference to define a learner’s knowledge boundaries is very valuable; however, it is the combination of understanding what the individual cannot yet perform without assistance and then closing the gap between what has already been mastered and what can be achieved by the use of Scaffolding that creates an optimal learning experience.

Scaffolding for Learning
The ZPD provides a survey of the learners’ current state of knowledge but it is scaffolding for learning that allows both the learner and the teacher to traverse the known and head towards the unknown. The ZPD in conjunction with Scaffolding for Learning are key pedagogical concepts for creating effective learning environments as ZPD delineates what is known and what is to be learnt and Scaffolding for Learning provides the necessary support for the student to expand their knowledge of a domain. Scaffolding is a term used in general teacher parlance but care should be taken when using the term Scaffolding for Learning as its meaning is dependent upon the theoretical framework in which it is discussed. Nathan Hutchings © 2009


The elements that are used to create Scaffolding for Learning successfully are the learners already established knowledge and skills and the use of language and shared experiences. Christensen (2001) reported that Russian psychologist Davydov (1975) found three teaching strategies useful for Scaffolding learning when teaching mathematics. The first approach was to ask leading questions to “prompt students to think about a concept in a new and productive way” (Christensen, 2001, p. 71). Questions would be phrased in a manner that limits the amount of yes and no responses and encourages more reflective dialogue. The second approach discussed by Christensen was for teachers to stage mistakes, “by deliberately posing an erroneous conclusion” (p. 71). In doing so students hopefully recognize the error and in discussions with the teacher and their peers explain why the conclusion that has been reached is incorrect. And the third approach, clashing, similar to staging a mistake but entailed the presentation of students work that when examined closely reveal a misunderstanding of basic concepts and “provide an opportunity for interaction which encourage children to explore, extend and justify their understanding” (Christensen, 2001, p. 72). Daniels (2007) reports that the key idea of Davydov’s approach is the realization that theoretical knowledge is central to the development of learning and without it learning becomes transmission of isolated and meaningless facts. Therefore, to create Scaffolding for Learning it is essential for the learner to “develop a capacity for relating to problems in a theoretical way, and reflect on one’s thinking.” (Daniels, 2007, p. 315).

Mediation of Meaning
Mediation of meaning is described as central to Vygotsky’s cognitive psychology and is a process divided into two forms meta-cognitive mediation and cognitive mediation (Karpov & Haywood, 1998). Metacognitive mediation has its origins in interpersonal communication, for example, a child learns from its parents via verbal instructions and in time these instructions are externally verbalised (egocentric speech) eventually these verbalisations are internalised (inner speech) and form the basis of self regulation. Research by Winsler and Naglieri (2003) supports Karpov and Haywood’s (1998) interpretation of Vygostky’s concept of the transformation of egocentric speech in to inner speech .Winsler and Naglieri’s comprehensive study included a large scale representative sample of 2,156 children between

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the ages of 5 and 17 years. They found that

“The developmental progression from overt to more covert types of private speech observed here is consistent with Vygotskian theory and the existing longitudinal and cross-sectional private speech literature.”(Winsler & Naglieri, 2003, p. 672)

These internalised verbalisations form a set of psychological tools which the individual, “transforms natural impulses into higher mental processes” (Robbins, 2001, p.35). Cognitive mediation is the acquisition via verbal instruction of problem solving methods which can be applied to specific knowledge domains for example; a young student learns how to conduct an experiment using the scientific method and in doing so acquires a functional understanding of the application of a specific approach to problem solving. In contrast to constructivist views of cognition Vygotsky believed that children should acquire scientific concepts via precise verbal definitions which contrasts Piaget’s staged development of cognition in which children gradually acquire scientific understanding via direct experience (Ormrod, 2006).

Language and Thought
The common thread that binds Vygotsky’s cognitive psychology and social theory is language. The active use of language, speaking, and thinking for social constructivists are inexorably bound together and each cannot exist without the other for Vygotsky, “thinking and speaking are not linearly, causally, teleologically, purposefully or functionally related; they are dialectically unified by meaning” (Newman & Holzman, 1993, p. 51). Meaning making is the process of the intertwining of thinking and speech, language is the key human technology that is both thought in action and the transmitter of collective social memory and knowledge. A word without meaning no longer belongs to the domain of speech. One cannot say of word meaning what we said earlier of the elements of the word taken separately. Is word meaning speech or is it thought? It is both one and the same time; it is a unit of verbal thinking. It is obvious, then, that our method must be that of semantic analysis.

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Our method must rely on the analysis of the meaningful aspect of speech; it must be a method for studying verbal meaning. (Newman & Holzman,1993, p.51). Therefore verbal meaning when transmitted to the individual directly impacts and modifies the subjects’ cognition this is the process of meaning mediation in action. If we take the Social Constructivist view that; knowledge and consciousness have their origin in the social, language and thought are bound together to form meaning, meta-cognitive and cognitive mediation of meaning is reliant upon speech then Social Constructivist and Vygotskian theory provide a theoretical frame work ideal to the analysis of socially constructed knowledge.

Communities of Practice
Social and professional communities give meaning to interpersonal interactions and provide a milieu to seek understanding of knowledge that is new or problematic. Communities of practice (CoPs) greatly assist teachers to discuss their approaches to teaching and learning. Often these CoPs are of an informal nature such as a social get together after work or a shared group morning tea or lunch within or across faculties. However what is common amongst most if not all CoPs is that members all share a passion about a certain topic and have the desire to deepen their knowledge by meeting on an ongoing basis (Verburg, 2006). Within these communities of practice individuals confer with peers and experts to clarify their understanding, crystallize concepts and build on prior knowledge and within these communities verbal and textual discourses work together to delineate understandings about specific points of knowledge, topics and things; Cooperating employees develop a shared repertoire of routines, vocabulary, stories, symbols, artifacts, and heroes that embody the accumulated knowledge of the community. This shared repertoire serves as a foundation for future learning (Verburg, 2006, p. 15).

CoPs have a shared interest in a domain of knowledge, a desire to improve their understanding of this domain and to learn from others; CoPs are also communities of learning which reflect the fundamental social human capacity and drive to socially construct Nathan Hutchings © 2009


knowledge (Wenger, 1998a). The artifacts that are created by CoPs are email communications, verbal conversations, newsletters, construction of professional development courses and journal articles in trade and academic publications. These artifacts become the shared knowledge and memory of a social group a body of knowledge that is constantly drawn upon by the community. New member to a CoP engage in the practice of studying a communities journals attending their professional development courses resulting in a gradual acculturation of the individual to accept a CoPs paradigm (Kuhn, 1996). Wenger’s (1998) description of CoPs learning occurring at the core and on the boundary of the community dove-tails with Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) when applied to a community of learners, the limits of the groups knowledge is analogous to an individual’s upper limit of their ZPD. The core within CoPs is the center of expertise defined by the sum of information contained in various manuals, procedures, written communications, policies and shared understandings of how to get things done. The boundary of a CoP is the face the community shows to the world, it is the first point of contact between other CoPs and divergent bodies of knowledge. Wenger (1998b) describes the CoPs boundary as the location where new insights occur and ignoring this can cause a CoP to become insular leading to the ossification of its core knowledge. In order to explain how new insights emerge at the knowledge boundary of a CoP Saussure’s (1959/1985) concept of the linguistic sign and the process of semiosis, the production of meaning via the dyadic of the signified and the signifier resulting in the creation of signs. The CoPs boundary can be likened to a permeable membrane constantly absorbing new knowledge, language being the medium within which the CoPs signs, meanings and concepts come into contact with external signs, meanings and concepts. New insight or serendipitous semiosis occurs when there is an incongruity of signified concepts at the boundary of a CoPs. Similar concepts clash when there is confusion or disagreement at the point of signification which is the point at which the signified, the form which the sign takes, and the signifier, the concept it represents. The use of the concept of semiosis on the CoPs boundary provides a theoretical micro analytical tool to drill down from the macro view of the group meaning making. Group meaning making is the process of the intertwining of thinking and speech with language as the key human technology that is both thought in action and the transmitter of Nathan Hutchings © 2009


collective social memory and knowledge. In order for organizations to take advantage of CoPs and support their continued growth they need to understand the processes that drive semiosis and meaning making within a CoP. Wenger (1998b) notes that value of a CoP appreciates when its core and boundaries actively complement each other. Therefore, organizations need to develop the capacity and processes to support the continued growth of CoPs in order to take advantage of their learning potential. Increasingly CoPs that are wholly online or supported by Information Technology are the subject of investigation (Hara & Ling, 2005). Wenger, McDermott and Snyder (2002) also report that it is common for online CoPs to arise across organizational and company boundaries in the rapidly changing Information Technology industry so members can keep abreast of change.

Online Communities
Online communities are the result of public online interaction between individuals on a going basis; social aggregations that over time develop a critical mass of emotion so that participant’s feel a sense of belonging, concern and friendship with other members of the online community (Reingold, 1993, 1998). More recently the term Virtual Communities and Online Communities are often use interchangeably. However, the term Online Communities predates Virtual Communities as it has its origins in describing the socially interactive textually based activities of computer users that predate the development of the World Wide Web, specifically graphically based browsing software (Reingold, 1993, 1998; Iriberri & Leroy, 2009). The term Virtual Communities does not restrict itself to internet based communication it also includes telephone and newsletter based communication media and members usually do not meet face to face. For the purpose of this essay the term Online Communities will be used because it relies on computer networks as the primary communicative medium. Kim (2000) and Wenger (1998) suggest that online community participants go through a five stage process that define how they are viewed by other online members and the level of commitment and participation they demonstrate to a particular online community. Initially participants start as lurkers, visitors to the community who pop in for a look around and do Nathan Hutchings © 2009


not make a contribution to the community. The transition from a lurker to a novice occurs when the participant starts to actively participate in the communities’ activities such as, posting to forums, answering members’ questions participating in online chat sessions and uploading data. After a period of active participation the novice member becomes a regular someone who frequents the communities’ online space and their prior participation and contributions become part of the core shared history and knowledge of the community. The transition from a regular member to a leader occurs when the participant becomes a moderator of choice for discussions within the community and their depth of participation and contribution to the communities’ core knowledge is substantial. Eventually the member may leave the community once it no longer serves their needs, they become outbound members. Viewing an online participant’s experiential trajectory within an online community as a five stage process provides reference points from which the process of an individual’s coming to know a body of core knowledge can be observed. The online participant transitions from one stage to another is the result of what Wenger (1998) describes as the negotiation of meaning. For Wenger (1998) an individual’s negotiation of meaning is a two step process, participation and reification. For someone to have a meaningful experience it is necessary from them to participate in the process of meaning making. In order for an individual to obtain a sense of meaning about themselves, their interaction with the world and others, they must constantly interpret their experiences; Wenger (1998) views this interpretive process as dynamic, a process in which the individual both effects and affects the meanings they construct and the meanings of others they encounter during the process. Wenger (1998) uses the term reification to describe a social agreement about the meaning of particular process, concept or thing. Importantly, Wenger’s (1998) use of reification does not end at the objectification of an object but is reflexively connected to the participatory process of meaning making; it is both a process and a product. Defining the trajectory and processes that occur for participants of an online community provides only a partial explanation of what an online community is. To fully understand online communities it is necessary to describe the constantly changing research perspectives that have been applied to online communities. Describing these perspectives provides insight

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into the technologies and ideological perspectives that have driven the development of online communities. Iriberri and Leroy (2009) conducted an extensive literature review of online communities’ research to indentify common measures and approaches for building successful online communities; the review was restricted to articles published from 1993 to 2007. The review encompassed the disciplines of computer science, information systems, psychology, sociology and management and was restricted to peer-reviewed articles. The key search terms used where online communities and virtual communities and the databases searched were PsycInfo, Sociological Abstracts, ABI/INFORM, ACM Portal, IEEE Xplore, and AIS Digital library. One of the results of Iriberri and Leroy’s (2009) structured literature review was to indentify four overlapping waves of online community research activity spanning from 1993 to 2007 with each wave characterized by an increased amount of discipline specific research activity. The first wave of research activity occurred from 1993 to roughly 1996 and was driven by sociological investigations with the primary focus begin online communities as a social phenomena. During the first wave Iriberri and Leroy (2009) found that sociologists turned their attention to investigating how the internet affected how individuals interacted with society. During the first wave Iriberri and Leroy (2009) noted that researchers indentified positive effects of internet use such as increased social capital and encouraging civic participation, decreased social isolation for individuals and opportunities for increased parent to teacher and teacher to teacher communication via online communities. During the second wave 1996 to 2002 management researchers investigated how online communities could be used to identify customer needs, build customer loyalty, improve marketing and conduct transactions online all with the aim of increasing profits and reducing transaction costs. Iriberri and Leroy (2009) also noted that during this period management researchers investigated how online technologies are used to support communities of practice, store organizational knowledge and improve project management practices (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder 2002). During the third wave, 2002 to 2007, of online community research activity psychologists focused on how individuals developed relationship via online communities. These studies investigated how people formed attachments to online groups and the formation of Nathan Hutchings © 2009


relationships that sometimes transferred to face to face interactions and long term relationships. The fourth and ongoing wave of research, 2002 to date, was lead by information systems researchers. According to Iriberri and Leroy (2009) these researchers sought to integrate prior research perspectives to create more empirically based research agendas to support the ongoing development of online tools and approaches to improve online teaching and positive outcomes for online community participants. Overall Iriberri and Leroy (2009) found that most researchers from all of the four waves agreed that the greater the number of messages exchanged in an online community the more successful a community is. Preece (2001) in particular provides a number of metrics to measure online community success and divides these into two frame works, sociability and usability. Within the frame of sociability Preece (2001) indentifies three criteria, purpose people and policy. Purpose is measured by how much interactivity is occurring and the quality and quantity of these interactions. The criterion, people, is a measure of the number of participants in a community and the range of age, experience and roles these people have. The criterion, policy, includes both formal and informal guidelines that outline community governance and guide how people interact. The second frame, usability, includes the design criteria dialogue and social support, information design, navigation and finally access. The Dialogue and social support criterion measures the time it takes to send and receive messages and how these messages are managed by the system and the users. Information design measures how long it takes for users to find information and their ability to retrieve and remember the same information at a later date. The navigation criterion within the usability frame measures the length of time it takes a user to navigate their way through the site to get to where they want to go. Finally access measures how long it takes to download and run any additional software required to participate in the community. Preece’s (2001) measures when applied to an online community yield a rich data set and importantly many of the criteria can be measured by unobtrusive means such as server logs. However, Preece (2001) warns against using individual criteria to draw conclusions and recommended triangulation of the gathered data with data gathered by other methods for example, survey and interview approaches. The combination of a triangulated set of data as suggested by Preece (2001) with the inclusion of Wenger (1998) concept of an individual’s two step process of negotiation of meaning provides the basis for the construction of a rich Nathan Hutchings © 2009


ethnographic analysis of online communities. However, despite the possibilities for enhanced learning and positive interaction between individuals presented by online communities Parsell (2008) mentions that a certain level of caution should be exercised when discussing the potential of the most recent form of online communities, social networking sites.

Social networking sites have one purpose, to encourage the interaction between friends by exchanging images, short text messages called updates and other forms of multimedia exchange (Iriberri & Leroy, 2009). One of the most popular social networking sites is Facebook (http://www.facebook.com ) and unlike the social network site LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com ), which is aimed at people seeking business opportunities and employment, its focus is to encourage social banter with the user based being primarily university undergraduates (Golder, Wilkinson, & Huberman, 2007). Despite social networks ability to reduce the amount of time spent by undergraduates studying many universities have created groups to tap into this popular type of online social networking; using the search term official facebook university groups in google reveals how this form of online communication is becoming another mainstream advertising medium for tertiary institutions. If Iriberri and Leroy’s (2009) findings that the greater the number of messages exchanged in an online community is an indication of online community success then FaceBook could be regarded as success par excellence. However, Preece’s (2001) warning that a reliance on a limited number of measures is unreliable for drawing conclusions about online community success is particularly pertinent when applied to social networking sites. Another criticism leveled at social networking sites is they can create a reduction in a plurality of views resulting in a polarization of opinion (Parsell, 2008).

The greatest attraction of social networking sites is the ability to connect with others who share the same views and tastes. Because of the massive global reach of sites like FaceBook and MySpace (http://www.myspace.com) people with almost any type of interest, passion or prejudices can create narrowly focused online communities, referred to by Parsell (2008) as narrowcast communities. Of particular concern is the formation of online narrow cast communities that revolve around illness. The support that people receive from online communities while dealing with a serious illness can be positive. However, Parsell (2008) suggests that these communities can also compound the severity and produce unfortunate Nathan Hutchings © 2009


outcomes that individuals initially sought to avoid. Online narrow cast communities that have a focus on health issues can result in users constructing their identity around their illness resulting in a reduced capacity for users to seek well informed treatment options. An extreme example of a troubling narrowcast community is boylover (http://www.boylover.net) which despite the best efforts of many concerned parents and legislator is still online, (see http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/resources/internetsafety.html ). This community’s sole purpose is to support and try to defend predatory homosexual pedophile activity and is an unfortunate example of the power of narrow cast communities to attract and perpetuate dangerous behaviors at great social cost to the community. In spite of the dangers of narrowcast communities identified by Parsell (2008) online communities that support people through serious illness are here to stay and do provide a life line to those in the greatest of need, an example of this is the Australian Cancer Council (see http://www.cancer.org.au/Home.htm ).

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Online Communities of Learning
Online communities of learning like all successful online communities seek to develop social aggregations that over time develop a critical mass of emotion so that participant’s feel a sense of belonging with other members of the online community. However, online communities of learning (OCL), unlike online communities in general, ideally have a one primary goal, to provide an opportunity for learners to engage with a learning environment that enables learners and teachers to discuss current understandings, create new meanings and construct/deconstruct new and existing knowledge. OCL need to provide learning experiences and online interactions that extend beyond a specific class or course and support the development of a community of learners rather than a group of disparate learners. Despite what course a student is taking they need to be viewed firstly as a member of a learning community then as a participant in the classes or courses they are taking within the community. Furthermore, studies suggest that online learning research focuses primarily on online course based implementations of existing offline courses and overall online learning research is hamstrung by the paucity of more interpretive research approaches (Herrington, Reeves and Oliver 2006). However, a recent extensive structured literature review by Iriberri and Leroy (2009) may indicate that the research in the area of online communities is reaching a point of theoretical synthesis between the various academic disciplines that have studies the history and development of online communities. However, more specific research in the area of OLC is still yet to reach the same level of maturity. Therefore the cases discussed are drawn largely from online learning research not OLC specific research which is possibly in a nascent stage of development. Unfortunately despite the great advances in online communicative technologies, in particular the emergence of Web 2.0 applications, many online learning approaches are largely based on traditional classroom practices. Herrington, Reeves and Oliver (2006) found that in the tertiary sector online learning is largely governed by a reductionist stance to online learning. Tertiary online learning environments are shaped by limitations of the learning management system in use and online learning is seen as a way to push stand alone packets of learning, for example stand-alone tests and assignments, reduce costs and increase the reach of course offerings; an OCL needs to be far more than a upload/download, click and pick drive through learning experience. A truly effective OCL needs to have the following characteristics; Nathan Hutchings © 2009


transcend traditional approaches to teaching in realization that online teaching and learning is different, be interactive and available 24/7, incorporate both asynchronous and synchronous means of communication, include content that is media rich, be a place students and teachers genuinely want to meet and frequent and also be responsive to learners and teachers changing needs. Herrington et al. (2006) call for a synergistic approach to online learning and at its core authentic tasks should be used to drive the design and delivery of online and distance education. The key to a successful online learning course according to Herrington et al. (2006) is it must be learner centered, utilises problem-based learning, incorporates computersupported collaborations and has learning activities that are authentic or relevant to the learners. Herrington et al. (2006) approach does not simplify the process of developing online learning materials but provides, according to its authors, a firm theoretical base to build online courses. Their approach breaks an authentic task into three elements, Learners, Task and Technologies then each of these elements are ascribed attributes which are used as markers to describe how the course follows the authentic task ideal. The authentic learning element, Learners, is assigned the following attributes, ICT literate, problem solver, reflective learner, collaborative learner, self sufficient learner. In addition the Tasks element is assigned the attributes, complex activities, ill-structured, based on real-life scenarios, resulting in a professional product. An finally the Technologies element is describe as requiring these attributes, provides access to rich media, 24/7 connectivity to resources for learners, access to rich resource collections, support extensive functionality and ubiquitous access and availability. Nicholas and Ng (2009) designed and deployed an online learning course that demonstrated many of the characteristics of success outlined by Herrington et al. (2006). The course developed by Nicholas and Ng (2009) demonstrated attributes of being available 24/7 provided connectivity to resources and synchronous and asynchronous communications. In addition the learners that were involved were ICT literate, self sufficient and collaborative learners and seemingly comfortable with complex activities. Interestingly Nicholas and Ng (2009) found that the participants did not experience the full advantages of the online learning course because they were hampered by already established ways of learning. Interestingly the Nicholas and Ng (2009) study may suggest that Herrington et al. (2006) Nathan Hutchings © 2009


claim that online learning in a tertiary environment is largely informed by a reductionist stance to online learning may now not be the case. Nicholas and Ng (2009) found the open structure of their course a barrier when dealing with secondary school students because they are unfamiliar with ill-structured learning environments. Furthermore, a recent report by Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) regarding their experiences in implementing an online introductory physic course further indicates a break away from a reductionist stance to online learning. Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) found that using an online learning platform to supplement face to face teaching encouraged students to review in greater depth concepts that were covered during face to face lessons. Students who regularly accessed additional multimedia representations of physics concepts, custom java applets where used, were found to improve their performance on the theoretical exam when compared to the prior cohort of students. The most popular items of the course were lecture notes which were loaded onto the site after the delivery of the lecture and online quizzes used by students to check their knowledge of the content covered; Interestingly Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) found that students who were initially reticent to engage with the online learning platform made their first tentative steps after accessing lecture notes. Furthermore, Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) suggested that there was anecdotal evidence to indicate that students found the ability to post questions, read the responses of others and also receive rapid responses from their lecturers as a major factor in student becoming more actively involved in their learning. The research canvassed above all involved investigating online learning from a course perspective with each view restricted to a either a specific subject area, undergraduate introductory physics (Martín-Blas & Serrano-Fernández, 2009) , or a learning event, creation of extension material for high achieving secondary students (Nicholas & Ng, 2009), or implementation of a pedagogical approach to constructing online learning courses, use of authentic tasks to drive online learning environment development (Herrington et al., 2006 ). Each piece of research provides good advice on how to create effective online learning courses, how to increase student engagement and improve student learning. In particular Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) provide details of how to use user logs and data to draw conclusions about student user experiences from the Learning Management System Nathan Hutchings © 2009


Moodle and Herrington et al. (2006) provides a descriptive framework to guide the creation of authentic learning experiences. However, OLC consists of multiple courses, interactive events that may not necessarily have an obvious connection to a course being taught and possibly participants that act in the role as both a teacher and learner. Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) do detail ways to measure student involvement and a possible correlation with improved student performance. Yet neither Martín-Blas and SerranoFernández (2009) nor Herrington et al. (2006) or Nicholas and Ng (2009) provide a way to measure the development of a sense of community within an OLC. In order to create an OLC that enriches the learning experience of its members creates a sense of belonging and concern for others and supports the continued intellectual growth of all its members and way of measuring a sense of community needs to be detailed.

Dawson (2006) investigated the possible correlation between types of online forum discussion and a sense of student community. The study investigated the possibility that the quantity of student forum posts was an indicator of a sense of community. In order to find if a correlation existed between sense of community and forum posts Dawson (2006) used the Classroom Connectedness Scale developed by Rovia (2002), a self reporting online survey, and forum posting data. Unlike Martín-Blas and Serrano-Fernández (2009) and Nicholas and Ng (2009) the student group studied was all students studying within the Faculty of Education at an Australian university across 21 teaching units rather than a single class or group. Dawson (2006) classified the forum data into three interaction types, learner to learner, learner to content and system. The learner to learner type was applied to all forum communications between students and peers. Learner to content interactions described the interaction between teachers and students. And finally the system interaction type described all posts to forums that did not elicit a response. Dawson’s (2006) findings indicated that the quantity of forum posts was not an indicator of community. However, Dawson (2006) found a moderate relationship between the sense of community and the number of learner to learner interactions and more importantly a significant correlation between the cumulative learner to learner and learner to system interactions and a sense community. The possible implications of Dawson’s (2006) research is that it provides the initial research results to develop automated means of classifying communication data within an OLC to gauge community.

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In view of the above it appears that it is possible to measure a sense of community within an OLC, although the classification and forum data extraction process would need to be more fully documented to aid in replication of the process. In addition Martín-Blas and SerranoFernández (2009) provide valuable strategies to extract descriptive data from Learning Management System logs to gauge the effectiveness of student learning. Herrington et al. (2006) provide a framework to develop authentic student centered learning and Nicholas and Ng (2009) have provided some precautionary advice about developing online courses for secondary students. Therefore it is possible to measure, describe and envisage an OLC that can provide an opportunity for learners to engage with a learning environment that enables learners and teachers to discuss current understandings, create new meanings and construct/deconstruct new and existing knowledge.

Where do we go from here?
Online Learning Communities (OLC) are socially constructed and consist of a collection of participants who are actively seeking to construct new knowledge; therefore the Social Constructivist theory of Vygotsky, which is founded on the idea that individuals collectively seek to impose meaning on the world, is an ideal theoretical perspective to frame our understanding of OLC. Key Vygotskian concepts of the Zone of Proximal Development, Scaffolding for Learning, Mediation of Meaning and the link between Language and Thought can all be explored by applying them to OLC. Furthermore almost all communication within OLC are in textual form, emails, short messages, posts in forums, chat logs, wikis, blogs and machine readable and so provides a rich set of data for analysis. In addition to communications being machine readable the very environment in which knowledge is being constructed is programmable which gives an extraordinary level of control to the researcher and designer.

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