Virtual learning communities are those “based on shared purpose rather than actual geographical location” (Lewis & Allan, 2004). The learners from different parts of the world are drawn together and they can form their learning groups formally or informally. This is facilitated by appropriate information and communication technologies such as the internet and video conferencing (Lewis & Allan, 2004).
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Since virtual learning communities are based on real-time communication, the learners can be taught at the same time by a single instructor. Consequently, most online degree programs focus on building virtual learning communities to enhance their teaching and students’ learning process. This paper seeks to analyze the importance of virtual learning communities in an online degree program. The challenges likely to be faced while building such communities will be illuminated.
The Importance of Virtual Learning Communities
Initial Cohort Seminars
Most online degree programs have an initial course that focuses on introducing the students to the online learning process. Such courses facilitate the building of social relationships among the students. Through such relationships, the online instructor and the students can easily explore both social and academic challenges faced by distance students (Assaf, Elisa, & Fayyuoum, 2009).
To build strong relationships between the instructors and the students at the beginning of the program, they must interact for a long period. This means that the normal online class time needs to be extended through a system that facilitates a seamless exchange of information among the students and their instructors. This objective is best achieved through a virtual learning community that promotes unlimited exchange of ideas among the stakeholders in the learning process (Assaf, Elisa, & Fayyuoum, 2009). This is because the students can integrate their office hours with the learning process thus enabling them to access more information.
Continuous Mentor Involvement
According to the behaviorism theory, learning is enhanced if students can follow and master the facts or skills taught by the instructors (Lewis & Allan, 2004). This means that the instructor must be constantly in touch with his or her students to impart knowledge effectively. The virtual learning communities enable instructors in online degree programs to share knowledge with the students as well as get frequent feedback from them (Brown, 2001).
This helps in assessing the students’ progress as well as recommending timely remedies for the underperformers. In addition to this, the virtual learning communities enable the online degree programs to provide a student mentor. The mentor, through the virtual learning community, works closely with the learners throughout the program (Brown, 2001). Through the mentorship programs, students can acquire skills that enable them to overcome the challenges they face in learning. The motivations accruing from the mentorship programs thus facilitates a high completion rate.
According to the constructivist theory, students learn new ideas through active interactions with their peers (Lewis & Allan, 2004). The virtual learning communities bring together students and instructors from different walks of life. Consequently, the students can share their diverse experiences, ideas, and skills seamlessly. The learning communities enable the instructors and the students to volunteer their questions (McEliath & McDowell, 2008).
The questions and their proposed answers are normally challenged by different students. This not only enhances a better understanding of the question or the topic under discussion but also facilitates the discovery of new ideas. Besides, the insights on the question or topic under discussion will be readily available to all the students using the learning community. Thus each participant will expand his or her critical thinking as they acknowledge diverse perspectives. This will enable them to “construct a fuller understanding of the topic of investigation” (McEliath & McDowell, 2008).
Instructor’s Role in Learning
Most online degree programs are characterized by an e-moderator who presents the course content to the students. In most cases, the e-moderator dominates the video conferences used to impart knowledge. In such a case, the students play a passive role in the learning process. However, this strategy of teaching is less effective since the students tend to lose interest in the course as they lose control over the learning process. To avoid this problem, the role of the e-moderator should shift from addressing the technical or social concerns of the students to facilitating the learning process.
This means that the moderator’s task should be limited to facilitating “exchange of information, knowledge processing as well as practical processing” (Vesely & Bloom, 2007). This can only be achieved if the moderator’s authority and control over the learning process is progressively shifted to the students. The students should have greater autonomy over the learning process to encourage active participation and better results. The virtual learning communities enable online degree programs to give students autonomy over the learning process (Vesely & Bloom, 2007). The students set the pace that suits their abilities while the e-moderator clarifies communication and encourage diverse perspectives from students.
Organization of Resources
Under normal circumstances, students usually categorize and organize online resources in different ways. Their diverse organization process is meant to suit their specific searching habits and conveniences (Williams & Humphrey, 2007). However, the lack of a standard method for organizing online resources makes it difficult to access such resources. Thus the online resources will not be of any value if they can not be accessed by the majority of the students and this leads to poor quality education.
In response to this challenge, many online degree programs embark on the use of virtual learning communities to distribute the learning materials as well as enabling students to share their learning materials effectively (Williams & Humphrey, 2007). The virtual learning communities not only use standard methods of accessing information but also have a dedicated support team that assists students to access the needed materials.
Challenges of Building a Virtual Learning Community
Despite the benefits of a virtual learning community to an online degree program, building it is often characterized by several challenges. Some of the challenges experienced by online degree programs in their attempt to build an effective virtual learning community include the following.
Since most students enrolled in online degree programs are from diverse socio-cultural backgrounds, they tend to speak different languages. Most online degree programs use English as the official instructional language even though not all students are proficient in English. Lack of a good command of the language used in the virtual learning community can limit the students’ ability to share information with their peers as well as their instructors (Fontainha, 2008). Besides, the intended meaning of a text may change due to the improper use of language.
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This presents a great difficulty in the learning process since information will not be shared seamlessly. Attempts to solve this problem through the translation capabilities of the internet have yielded little results since the internet can only translate English into a limited number of languages (Fontainha, 2008). In some cases, students with poor listening and writing skills have failed to benefit from the virtual learning communities by misinterpreting information. Thus presenting information in a manner that is highly understandable given the communication capabilities of the students is the main challenge in building a virtual learning community.
Diverse Technical Backgrounds
Users of virtual learning communities have diverse technological backgrounds. The students’ ability to use modern information and communication technologies depends on their prior exposure to such technologies in their countries of origin (Vesely & Bloom, 2007). However, due to disparities in economic development and technological advancements across the globe, some students have a richer technological background as compare to their colleagues. The consequence of this technological imbalance is that students with little exposure to modern communication technologies will not benefit from the virtual learning communities (Brown, 2001).
The greatest challenge thus is to develop a virtual learning community that takes into account the diverse technological background of its users. This has been difficult as most learning communities embark on modern and sophisticated technologies to enhance efficiency. Thus students who are not able to use the learning community due to their poor skills will have to invest in further training. However, such training further increases the cost of the online degree hence lowering its demand. From a learning perspective, the inability to use the virtual learning community will lead to poor learning outcomes (McEliath & McDowell, 2008). This is because the students will not be able to fully access all the needed information.
Due to disparities in financial status and technological advancement, students from various parts of the world use diverse equipment to access virtual learning systems (Fontainha, 2008). For example, students who use a fast internet based on optical cable technology will benefit more from the virtual learning community as compared to those who use outdated technologies. The computer operating systems used by the students might also not be compatible with the technology that supports the virtual learning community system. Thus the main challenge is developing a learning community software package that is compatible with a variety of both hardware and software packages. This has discouraged most online degree programs from using the learning communities.
These include varying levels of understanding and the intentions of the users. Students have different levels of understanding. Consequently, some of them can not understand the course content if they do not get personalized instructions (McEliath & McDowell, 2008). Providing personalized instructions has always been difficult since most instructors focus on the “learning community as an entity rather than individuals” (Brown, 2001). Varying intentions of using the learning communities also limits the students’ ability to share information.
The above discussion indicates that a virtual learning community is a system that brings together learners from diverse backgrounds (Lewis & Allan, 2004). Most online degree programs have adopted it to enhance learning. Its main benefit is facilitating the seamless sharing of information and networking among students. However, implementation has been difficult due to the reasons discussed above. Thus to overcome the above challenges, the system should be flexible enough to accommodate the communication and learning needs of the students. Besides, real-time support should be available to enhance usage.
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Fontainha, E. (2008). Communities of practise and virtual learning communications: benefits, barriers and success factors. Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, 3(2), 120-130.
Lewis, D., & Allan, B. (2004). Virtual learning communities: a guide for practitioners. New York: McGraw-Hill.
McEliath, E., & McDowell, K. (2008). Pedagogical strategies for building community in graduate level distance education courses. Journal of Online Teaching and Learning, 4(1), 117-127.
Vesely, P., & Bloom, L. (2007). Key Elemnts of building online community: comparing faculty and student perceptions. Journal of Online Learning and teaching, 3(1), 234-246.
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