Community is more than interaction; it has positive effects on the development of the students. Saffer and Anundsen indicate that we all share a “human yearning for a sense of belonging, kinship, and connection to a greater purpose” (qtd in Palloff and Pratt 27). While students in a classroom might sense a shared purpose (i.e. grade acquisition), this greater purpose alone does not generate a benificial community. Instead, the class needs to develop a type of “conscious community,” which Palloff and Pratt describe as “community that emphasizes the members’ needs for personal growth and transformation, as well as the social and survival aspects of community” (28). In other words, the type of community that is most beneficial to students is one wherein the participants use mutual respect and care to help facilitate learning. In instances where this kind of community has formed, students are supportive of their colleagues, avoiding “‘outbursts’ of verbal violence” that were commonplace in early courses that used online tools to facilitate dialogue between students (Amy 113).
By analyzing one online class’ use of blogs to form community, it becomes apparent that specific patterns of response and elements of course design may actually impede community building, but that community may develop organically outside of a systematic course design. These classroom exchanges are from a six-week online graduate class on teaching writing at a distance. The class consists of twelve graduate students.
During the course of the class, students were asked to produce five blog posts. Each of these posts was to be a summary and review of an article related to the course subject matter. The post could be no more than five hundred words and was to begin with the citation for the article being reviewed. No replies on the blogs were required by the professor, but students were told from the beginning of the semester that they would be required to analyze the means though which community was fostered as a result of class blogs (i.e. this assignment).
Patterns in Response
For the purposes of this analysis, the comments from the beginning of the semester until June 10th are considered. June 10 was elected as the cut-off date for this analysis because it was the day before the last blog assignment was due. The last week of blogging was excluded because it was anticipated that any increase in blog commenting during that week would be motivated by an awareness of this assignment (a community formation analysis) rather than a natural draw toward engagement. The students in the class were randomly assigned a number (one through twelve) to serve in place of their names throughout this write up.
Both of these tendencies might be conceived of as problematic for community building. Students that post often are communicating by pushing content into the class blogosphere, but not responding to reactions to their own material. Meanwhile, other students are engaging peers, but only when those peers take the time to come to their own turf (i.e. others start the conversation on their peer’s blog). If blogs are to truly create community amongst students, the channels of communication ought to better represent dialogue. Otherwise, comments on blogs can come across as one-way communication much in the same way that an initial blog post can.
Contributions of Course Design
Obviously since blog comments were not required by the course design, students had less incentive to engage in response. However, this requirement (or lack there of) is not the only characteristic of the design that might be said to contribute to the modest development of community through blogs. The blog assignments themselves had tight parameters and were largely summary of the work of others. Thus these posts might appear to be more like notes than the beginning of a discussion starter. This style of blog might foster community in the same way that more open or reflective blogging assignments might. The opportunity for students to develop ideas and make connections to experiences might provide peers more content with which to engage.
However, the addition of an assignment wherein students had to assess the level of community in the class most certainly increased awareness of community building as being a relevant classroom issue. It is likely that many students engaged more actively in the blog commenting because they would have to complete this assignment. As a means to save face, students might have participated more to ensure that they did not appear to be less engaged than their peers, or because they wanted to appear to be good classroom citizens before both their peers and their professor.
Community Beyond the Course
While the blog interaction might be characterized chiefly by one-way communication, other tools within and beyond the classroom context aided in the development of classroom community overall. This particular course was held synchronously through two-way video communication. This use of video conferencing allowed students and the professor to see facial expressions and hear tone of voice. In addition the video conferencing software, WebEx, allowed for continuous chat throughout the class period, both class-wide and private between two users. Some students also elected to use Google Chat to further class-time discussions and interaction also took place between some students (and the professor too) via Facebook throughout the class time-frame.
What each of these tools provided the class, which blogs alone did not, was the opportunity to feel immediate connection to one’s peers as well as the chance to move engagement beyond the class material. Rather than commenting and awaiting to see whether a peer would agree with one’s response, in-class discussion with video gave students the opportunity to experience the warmth of a classroom full of head nodding as well as encouragement one would not ordinarily find in face-to-face classroom. The chat feature allowed students to shout out “good point” and “I agree” as students contributed. This continual positive support throughout the learning experience aided greatly in developing a sense of solidarity and camaraderie amongst the students. These qualities both aid in the construction of community.
There is likely no single formula to follow to guarantee community forms in any classroom environment. Multiple factors will determine class culture each term. However, from this analysis, it appears that there are things faculty can do to encourage community development through blog interaction.
Faculty can, as Guglielmo does, be careful to foreground community as a value in the classroom context. By drawing student attention to its value, they are more likely to see the authentic motive to participating. Additionally, building in activities that give students responsibility for fostering community or even analysis of such environments can serve as a means to give agency in community development.
Perhaps such constructivist approaches might have a more positive effect than a system of penalties for lack of engagement. Community should be a support structure to students, not simply an additional hoop they must jump through. Therefore, faculty might best serve students by giving them access to a series of options for facilitating community engagement in their classroom and then orchestrating some type of analysis to help students understand why such community can benefit them during their educational experience.
Amy, Lori E. “Rhetorical Violence and the Problematics of Power: A Notion of Community for The Digital Age Classroom.” Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing. Eds. Michele Gibson, Marcia Dickson, and Jonathan Alexander. Hampton: Cresskill, NJ. 2005. Print.
Breuch, Lee-Ann Kastman. “Enhancing Online Collaboration: Virtual Peer Review in the Writing Classroom.” Online Education: Global Questions, Local Answers. Eds. Kelli Cargile Cook and Keith Grant-Davie. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., 2005. Print.
Guglielmo, Letizia. “Feminist online writing courses: Civic rhetoric, community action, and student success.” Computers and Writing Online (Spring 2009). Web. 10 June 2012. Palloff, Rena M. and Keith Pratt. Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Print.