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Optimal Online Learning Community by Mind Map: Optimal Online Learning Community
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Optimal Online Learning Community

(2) Cover Page

Optimal learning community for the Certificate and MS students enrolled on Online Teaching and Learning Courses



(3) Main Objective: Increase learning acquisition

Because the online learning environment has the potential to create isolation, there is a need to counteract that tendency. Twigg (2009) found that, “helping students feel that they are a part of a learning community is critical to persistence, learning, and satisfaction” (Twigg, 2009, p.9). This finding is echoed by the Higher Learning Commission (n.d.), a regional, post-secondary accreditation association, in its guidelines for affiliated colleges and universities offering online programs. The first item listed in the “Best Practices” begins, “education is best experienced within a community of learning ...” (n.d.). As early as 1997, there was recognition of the need for community in distance education. “Students …want to be part of a larger (learning) …community” (Galusha, 1997 in McInnerney, 2004, p.74). More recently in their review of research into online teaching techniques, Tallent-Runnels, et al., (2004) found, “results suggested that it is important to establish a community of learners” (p.96). These communities of learning by definition include in-depth communication between the members. Therefore, it is necessary to review the research on fostering in-depth communication in the online environment and to incorporate the findings into online courses.


Collaboration is important in online learning communities because, as Soren Kaplan, Ph.D. (n.d.) and Founder of iCohere Inc. states: •Approximately 70% of what an employee needs to know for success is learned outside of formal training*** (e.g., on the job, through mentoring, etc.). Communities extend learning by creating a structure whereby people can learn from "informal" interactions. •Tacit knowledge - the informal knowledge about "how things really get done around here" and ultimately, how to be successful in one's job - is extremely difficult to capture, codify and deliver through discrete learning objects and traditional training programs. Communities are a way to elicit and share practical know-how that would otherwise remain untapped. •Creating and structuring opportunities for people to network, communicate, mentor, and learn from each other can help capture, formalize, and disseminate tacit knowledge, and thus accelerate learning and organizational effectiveness. Communities become a boundaryless container for knowledge and relationships that can be used to increase individual effectiveness and a company's overall competitive advantage. - Regardless how much people learn academically, it’s important to discuss real world scenarios where theories get put into practice. Andragogy strategies state that adults learn best when subjects are relevant to their work or personal lives, also that problem-solving assists in the learning acquisition. So interacting with others in a learning community on how they use educational knowledge to solve work or personal problems can help in the learning process.

Group Identity


Diversity The online educational community will, by its very nature include students from diverse cultures and age groups. In order to develop effective online learning communities, online instructors and instructional designers must find ways to accommodate this diverse group of learners to foster inclusivity for all involved.  As Hughes (2007 ) states, “Where there is identity congruence, we would expect an individual to be much more likely to participate fully in a group than where there is incongruence” (p 714). However, online communities have a tendency to be less inclusive than face-to-face communities because of the ease with which participants can disengage from the group (Bayne, 2004 in Hughes, p.711) Therefore, in order to encourage inclusivity online instructors must be “responsive to the needs of different types of students” (Wang & Reese 2007, p. 2). This site will address cultural and age diversity.  


In an online learning community, building trust and attention to building relationships through anonymity, humor, and socialization are crucial factors. They promote deeper levels of thinking and critical reflection and engagement, turning lurkers and casual learners into active members of the learning community and reducing reliance on an instructor or facilitator.  

(8) References

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), Research & Development. (2010). What is universal design for learning? Retrieved from:

Capponi, M., Nussbaum, M., Marshall, G., & Lagos, M. (2010). Pattern Discovery for the Design of Face-to-Face Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Activities. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(2), 40-52. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Chlup, D. T., & Collins, T. E. (2010). Breaking the Ice: Using Ice- breakers and Re-energizers with Adult Learners. Adult Learning, 21(3/4), 34-39. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Colvin Clark, R. (2008). Building expertise: cognitive methods for training and performance improvement. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.

Conrad, D. (2008). From Community to Community of Practice: Exploring the Connection of Online Learners to Informal Learning in the Workplace. American Journal of Distance Education, 22(1), 3-23.

Deters, F., Cuthrell, K. Stapleton, J. 2010. Why wikis? Student perceptions of using wikis in online coursework. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. 6(1).

Dittmann, M. (2005). Generational differences at work. A psychologist studies ways to help traditionalists, baby boomers, gen Xers and millennials work better together, despite their generational differences. Monitor, 36(6), 54. Retrieved from

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Hockly, J. (2010). Top ten moderator skills for 2010.

Hoostein, E. Wearing Four Pairs of Shoes: The Roles of E-Learning Facilitators Retrieved on October 23, 2009 from

Huang, J. S., Yang, S. H., Yueh-Min, H., & Hsiao, I. T. (2010). Social Learning Networks: Build Mobile Learning Networks Based on Collaborative Services. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 78-92. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Hughes, G. (2007). Diversity, identity and belonging in e-learning communities: some theories and paradoxes. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(5-6), 709-720.

JARVELA, S., VOLET, S., & JARVENOJA, H. (2010). Research on Motivation in Collaborative Learning: Moving Beyond the Cognitive-Situative Divide and Combining Individual and Social Processes. Educational Psychologist, 45(1), 15-27. doi:10.1080/00461520903433539

James, D. (2004). A need for humor in online courses. College Teaching, 52(3), 93-94.

Job-Sluder, K, & Barab, S.A. (2004). Shared "we" and shared "they" indicators of group identity in online teacher professional development. In S.A., R Barab, Kling (Ed.), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning (pp. 380). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Kaplan, Soren. (n.d.). Strategies for Collaborative Learning. Retrieved from

Lo, M. and Clarke, M. (2010). Practicing or preaching? Teacher educators and student teachers appropriating new literacies. In Ed. Pullen, D. and Cole, D.(Eds.), Multiliteracies and technology enhanced education: social practice and the global classroom (p. 148). Hershey, New York: Information Science Reference

Loza, R.M. (2006). Cross cultural barriers: United States to Europe. University College, University of Denver.

Mayer, R.C., Davis J.H., Schoorman F.D. (1995) An integrative model of organizational trust. Academy of Management Review. 20(3), 709-734.

McInnerney, J. M., & Roberts, T. S. (2004). Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community. Educational Technology & Society, 7(3), p. 3.

Menchaca, M. P., & Bekele, T. (2008). Learner and instructor identified success factors in distance education. Distance Education, 29(3), 231-252. doi:10.1080/01587910802395771.

Paul, R., PHD and Elder, Linda, PHD (2006). The Art of Socratic Questioning. Retrieved on February 23, 2011 from, p.48.

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Shea, P., Li, C.S., Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. Internet and Higher Education 9, 175-190.

Su, F., & Beaumont, C. (2010). Evaluating the use of a wiki for collaborative learning. Innovations in Education & Teaching International, 47(4), 417-431. doi:10.1080/14703297.2010.518428

Swan, K. (2002). Building learning communities in online courses: the importance of interaction. Education, Communication & Information, 2(1), 24-49.

Twigg, C. (2009). Using asynchronous learning in redesign: reaching and retaining the at-risk student. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 13(3), 147-155.

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(4) Design details


“Since free collaboration does not necessarily produce learning (Dillenbourg, 2002), it is essential that the collaborative learning process be performed in an appropriate manner,” (Capponi, Nussbaum, Marshall, & Lagos, 2010, p. 40). This means taking steps to provide appropriate activities to support learning objectives. The article also states that it is important to consider taskwork vs. teamwork. Which is more important, the final product of the activity, or the process of learning throughout the activity? Depending on the desired outcome, it may be important for the instructor to dictate how groups form, how they communicate, how they collaborate, and how they solve problems.

Online Community Tools

The choice of collaborative tools is essential if you want to design the optimal learning community. Menchaca & Bekele (2008) noted that “Learning was considered a social, problem-based and collaborative phenomenon. Faculty and students repeatedly mentioned the importance of collaborative discussion and reflection supported by multiple tools. Through collaborative tools, students were more likely to comment on each other’s work, providing critical feedback and suggestions for modification.”  (p. 247). As we found in our own small group, the tools must assist in stimulating discussion (such as threading, sorting, searching), not just allowing for chronological posts. The tools must be easy to navigate, so members will be able to find the right topic, or a previous post to update it in a timely manner. The tools should have an easy to use WWSIWG editor, so members do not need special skills for posting. The tools should have spell check. The tools should have version control. Should be able to upload files, embed youtube videos, etc. According to a study of online learning community in the workplace, eight out of ten participants “indicated a high degree of cognitive comfort with their learning activities and with the quality (authenticity, critical thinking, problem solving, knowledge construction) of their learning, using the spectrum of learning tools available to them (chat, e-mail, discussion boards) to communicate with each other,” (Conrad, 2008, p.19). Learning how to use new tools in conjunction with learning something school-related can be intriguing for some, but can be a hindrance for others.  It’s important that students have the pre-requisite skills to be successful in completing their final product, as well as in the process of creating it. “The use of multiple tools coded at the highest percentage. The availability of technology-based tools, such as online collaboration, electronic communication, and web publishing, provided students the strongest opportunity to participate and collaborate with each other. Student and faculty data indicated students would more actively participate in discussions and meetings than if these tools were unavailable,” (Menchaca & Bekele, 2008, p. 247). The wrong choice of tool can make or break a collaborative effort. There is no online learning community without a way for members to learn effectively with each other.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Applying UD during the development stages of each of these online learning components can be easier and therefore less expensive than quickly developing accommodation strategies each time a learner that requires accommodation or modifications enrolls in a program. UD can also make these programs more flexible to meet the needs of all students. US Federal Statute defines Universal Design for Learning as a scientifically valid framework for guiding educational practices that: (A) provides flexibility in the ways information is presented, in the ways students respond or demonstrate knowledge and skills, and in the ways students are engaged; and (B) reduces barriers in instruction, provides appropriate accommodations, supports, challenges, and maintains high achievement expectations for all students, including students with disabilities and students who are limited English proficient. UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone, not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs (Cast, 2010). Applying universal design to learning means moving beyond making sure that the classroom is accessible, but UDL is about making sure that there are alternatives, that there are ways in which every student in the class can learn. UDL is making sure that everyone can access the curriculum and in particular making sure everybody can receive the learning. The key goal in UDL or in curriculum materials that are universally designed is to build flexibility into the materials themselves so that a teacher or a student can provide the individualization (SFSU, 2010).

Role of a Community Manager

Hockly (2010) compiled a list of ten skills necessary to effectively moderate an online learning community. Her list includes Development of a personal learning network Enthusiasm Communication Presence Develop discussions Scaffolding Empathy Sensitivity Socializing Cycles (Hockly 2010) These skills support the goals listed in this site. Communication is directly related to development of trust. Effective communication includes the ability to ascertain what students are implying in their posts and to support their needs. Hughes (2010) writes about presence in relation to supporting inclusivity in a diverse online community. Discussions are an effective tool for collaboration. Scaffolding can be used to support diversity as well as to engender trust. Empathy and sensitivity are also attitudes that help to develop both trust and inclusivity in the online community. Socializing can incorporate the aspects of humor and play into the online community. Finally, cycling is much like scaffolding. All of these skills help to support the effective online learning community.

(5) Future Research


One of the considerations when incorporating universal design into an online learning community is the  VARK learning styles. The development of best practices for building effective online learning communities would benefit from additional research comparing the effectiveness of various community building activities for each of the VARK learning styles.  


Though much has been written about inclusivity and cultural diversity in online learning communities, few researchers have examined the effect of generational differences. The multi-generational nature of the online student body dictates the need for additional research into best practices for building a cohesive group identity among these students.

Group Identity

Future research in Group Identity might focus on the spontaneous nature of the formation of Groups of Practice.  What environmental prerequisites exist for this group formation to occur, and how can we provide those in an online format? Also, moving from an online classroom into a larger sphere, can existing Communities of Practice be leveraged during instruction?  For example, can practicing technicians assimilate trainees into their community of practice, during training, to streamline the transition?


As Social Media, a media for social interaction becomes a more integral part of an online community, it will turn more communication into interactive dialogues. This will provide more opportunities to build trust in online learning communities.

(6) Summary

Summary   Extensive research has verified the importance of learning communities to the success of online courses in aiding authentic transfer of academic to practical knowledge. Four important aspects of those communities have been identified: collaboration, group identity, diversity and trust. Collaboration is a key element of learning acquisition. Learning does not just happen on its own because students are collaborating, it is important to provide appropriate activities to support learning objectives. The choice of collaborative tools is essential in designing the optimal learning community, as there is no online learning community without effective vehicles. Group identity is the way a group defines itself relative to non-group members and is central to building a community of practice (Job-Sluder & Barab, 2004). Length of group contact, dialogue and sharing, collaborative small group work, and simplicity and transparency of course infrastructure are all factors in the effort to foster group identify. Because online learning communities tend to be comprised of a diverse group of students, instructors and instructional designers must foster identity congruence. “Where there is identity congruence, we would expect an individual to be much more likely to participate fully in a group than where there is incongruence” (Hughes. 2007. p 714). Instructors can span the gap between cultures and generations by considering the differences and accommodating for them in their course design and by practicing direct facilitation until trust is developed. Trust and relationships are crucial factors in the creation of successful online learning communities. Anonymity, humor, and socialization can be incorporated to support these goals. They promote deeper levels of thinking, critical reflection and engagement, turning lurkers and casual learners into active members of the learning community and ultimately, reducing reliance on an instructor or facilitator. To support the development of collaboration, trust and group identity, appropriate activities such as synchronous and asynchronous discussions, group activities and ice breaker must be incorporated. The availability of technology-based tools, such as discussion boards, blogs, wikis, chats and conferencing tools make those activities possible. Additionally, to ensure accessibility, all aspects of the online learning experience must meet universal design standards. Finally, this site addresses the role of the community manager, or online instructor in the design and support of the online learning community and lists ten essential skills for effective moderators. By navigating through this mind map and incorporating the recommendations, an instructional designer or online instructor will be able to design and support an effective online learning community.  

(7) Conclusion

Conclusion The JeKeLL team of the OLT 6707 course has created this mind map as a guideline for developing online learning communities. It is a tool that can be used by instructional designers and facilitators of online courses. This list of considerations is not exhaustive and some areas lend themselves to additional study. Future studies in collaboration could lead to learning activities that are simultaneously cooperative, yet cater to individual learning styles. Roles and members can change in a group over time, so research may indicate how much energy should be spent maintaining group identity in a community of practice vs. allowing it to grow naturally. The multi-generational nature of the online student body dictates the need for additional research into best practices for building a cohesive group identity among these students. Social Media studies may turn more communication into interactive dialogues and increase trust. In conclusion, online learning is an ever-changing science, technology is an always moving target, and online communities are a fickle affair to maintain. The information regarding today’s online learning communities will continue to change, yet pave the way for tomorrow.  

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