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Learning a sense of community online

Children and their teachers are already benefiting from online learning communities such as the Oracle Education Foundation's, but there is a real opportunity for richer learning with such systems that is yet to be tapped.

Elizabeth Hartnell-Young of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Nottingham and freelance statistician Karen Corneille of Victoria, Australia, writing in the International Journal of Web Based Communities, describe how they have taken as a case study and investigated how a free, password-protected online community can support children's learning.

"We found that many children engaged readily with the site," says Hartnell-Young. Even those children with less developed ICT skills benefited from interacting with others. She adds that, "educators played a powerful role in mediating learning, managing the communities, setting guidelines for participation, and linking students with outside experts." Such online communities are not yet mature enough to provide a fully rich learning experience, however, the researchers add.

As part of their assessment of the online learning community, the team defined the process of learning as not simply rote learning of events and objects but the creation of knowledge products, including information, principles and theories. Building knowledge obviously underpins learning.

The researchers also point out that modern teaching does not simply involve a teacher imparting knowledge to students but a more creative process in which teachers lead students and help them build knowledge. Such a process still needs boundaries but is more of a partnership with student and teacher essentially "learning" together. Such online communities have a long way to go to reach their full potential for Learning, however, they add.

Translating the concepts of teaching, learning, and knowledge building to an online community is no simple task. The Web is a disparate mix of useful, informative, entertaining, misconstrued and malicious material. The boundaries provided by a protected online learning system allows teachers to mediate the learning process in a secure and safe way, the researchers explain.

The team set out to find instances of how, as an example of an online learning community, helps the learning process. They assessed how such a system encourages a range of "digital" literacy, through enabling students to create their own material, and cases of interaction and collaboration between users in different learning tasks.

"As evidence of digital literacy, we considered individual students' pages," Hartnell-Young explains, "and the range of text, files and images with which they filled these pages." The team also investigated whether a sense of identity and audience existed and the kinds of social skills developed by users on message boards and voting. They also sought examples of joint tasks where groups worked together within a school, between different schools, and even internationally.

They found that the best way that teachers and facilitators could help students reap the rewards of using an online community is by encouraging their active engagement by designing accessible and provocative online activities, managing access to useful resources and, most of all, asking relevant and thought-provoking questions that challenge the students. "Teachers need to play an active role in encouraging student voice and ensuring that students can create and identify quality content," Hartnell-Young says.

For their part, as students start to share their pages and engage more widely within such a community, they can get positive feedback from fellow students and their teachers as well as benchmarking their own efforts against those of others.

Jim Corlett | alfa
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