Electronic Portfolio: Academic Writings
 

 

Building an Online Learning Community:
The University of Maryland University College / Oldenburg University
Online Master of Distance Education (MDE) Program

This paper is the capstone project prepared during the final semester in the MDE program. It reflects the author's experiences with the MDE and her extensive research on learning communities. It is hoped that this paper will contribute to improvements in the MDE learning community that will benefit students, alumni, and the university partnership.


I. Introduction

An important aspect of a distance education program offered online is the degree to which that program is successful in building a community of learners. In this discussion, definitions of “learning community” will be considered based on current and recent literature on the topic. Lessons drawn from successful learning communities will be examined in order to more clearly define the characteristics that are essential to the establishment of a learning community that provides participants with added value in their personal and professional lives, and which can be sustained over time as individual and institutional situations evolve.

Based on the definition and characteristics of online learning communities, the online Master of Distance Education (MDE) Program offered through the partnership of the University of Maryland University College and Oldenburg University will be examined in terms of the various components of the program that contribute to its existence as a community of distance education scholars and practitioners. The degree to which the MDE program fits the definition of a learning community will serve as the foundation for a critical discussion of areas where the MDE program needs to strengthen its support to learners who are new members of the community. As a final step, recommendations designed to provide advanced students, alumni, and staff with new ways to support the MDE community of learners will be proposed.

The essential objective of this discussion is to suggest ways that the MDE program can learn from those communities that have been successfully established and that encourage retention of the community members over time.

II. Learning Communities: History, Characteristics, and Challenges

Development of the concept of Internet communities was initiated almost simultaneously with the introduction of the Internet and the World Wide Web to the broader population in the United States in the mid-1990s. Early observers focused on the social aspects of computer-based communities. Terming this “social computing,” Kollock (1996) emphasized the sociological challenges faced by Internet communities within the context of graphical virtual worlds, where visual representation along with the traditional text communication is used to support social interaction and organization. With the 1993 publication of the first edition of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, Howard Rheingold, a well known figure in the popular media, refocused attention away from the computer-generated and –supported alternative cyberspace environments to those more straightforward online communities that were blossoming on the Internet – specifically the WELL (Rheingold, 2000). With the WELL was formed the concept of the virtual community, where people relate, exchange resources and ideas, and form friendships with others who share their values and interests. This commonality of interests is what binds people together in virtual communities. Building on ideas proposed by Oldenburg (1991, 1999), Rheingold argues that Internet conferencing, while it is not place-based, nonetheless serves a similar purpose to the barber shop or town square, permitting communities to form and hold together in ways that were no longer possible with the replacement of town squares with shopping malls (Rheingold, 1999). Indeed, the WELL itself has been the subject to a more recent consideration of its value as an example of “learning through social interaction” (Nichani, 2000).

Since the introduction of the concept of virtual social communities in the 1990s, the growth of the Internet into every aspect of contemporary life has led to the establishment of a “vibrant social universe online” (Horrigan, 2001). In the Pew Internet and American Life Project on online communities, the authors find that connecting with groups in online communities has become a “central part of Americans’ experience” (Horrigan). At the same time, this ability to join “cyber-groups” has fostered connections to local communities, increased civic involvement, and allowed Internet users to “build bridges” to other groups (Horrigan, p. 19).

Today, reference to “learning communities” and “communities of practice” has become ubiquitous in the literature of distance education. In 2003, discussion of learning communities dominates many distance education conferences, journals, and online forums. However, the first notable use of the term “learning community” came in the context of Jonassen’s discussion of constructivism in 1995, where he focused on the role that technology could play in creating communities of learners and practitioners (Jonassen, 1995). Such constructivist learning environments would be designed to facilitate knowledge construction through collaboration, reflection, and conversation with other learners (Jonassen). Computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) tools and technologies, including group decision support systems, project management tools, electronic conferencing systems, and shared editors, would permit groups in distributed environments to engage in the construction and negotiation of solutions, which are the “hallmarks of constructive learning” (Jonassen, p. 18). In the constructivist view, a consistent and meaningful community of online learners is “key in sustaining the type of interactive exchange that in turn promotes both retention and knowledge-building” (Conrad, 2002). Moreover, the key to the design of a constructivist environment is its authenticity, or the “extent to which the environment faithfully reflects the ordinary practices of the culture” (Jonassen, p. 21).

As attention has focused over the past few years on the characteristics and benefits of learning communities, definitions of the term have slowly developed into an accepted understanding of what we mean when we refer to learning communities. As Palloff (1999) points out, “because community is no longer a place-based concept, we are redefining what community is and is not” (p. 21). At the center of an educational community is the focus on “learning about learning” (Palloff, p. 23). And while the community may not be placed-based in the physical world, it may nonetheless be considered a “conscious community” through the sharing of goals, communications styles, and behavioral norms (Palloff, p. 23).

Rogers (2000) defines a learning community as one which embodies a “culture of learning in which everyone is involved in the collective effort of understanding” (p. 384). Responsibility for learning is shared among group members in an online learning community. Collaboration is essential to a learning community, in that the process of working together on a task enriches learners’ repertoire of learning processes (Rogers). The result of collaboration is thus a richer, more dynamic product that has been built by group members helping each other and participating actively in the creation of their own learning processes.

Wenger (1998) extends the concept of community to a social theory of learning. In his view, social participation is central to learning. Summarizing Wenger’s conclusions, Rogers argues that practice brings coherence to the community because the community members form relationships with each other and with their tasks. However, in order for this to happen, three characteristics must be present: mutual engagement, shared repertoire, and joint enterprise. Mutual engagement requires that there be a means for members of the community to engage meaningfully in shared activities. Joint enterprise means that the community can extend its boundaries and its understanding of practice beyond those established when the community was first created. Shared repertoire means that members not only share in a pool of resources but contribute to it and continuously renew it. Thus new ideas are created out of the shared repertoire (Rogers).

Under Wenger’s concept of the community of practice, learning for individuals focuses on their engagement in and contributions to the common practices of the communities of which they are part. For communities, learning involves refining their shared practices so the community can ensure it will have new generations of members. For the larger organization, learning is what sustains the communities that make up the organization, and makes it more effective and valuable (Wenger, 7-8). Learning involves active engagement in the negotiation and internalization of meaning and practices, within a specific experiential and social context (Wenger, 226-7). Thus, in order to be effective and to be sustained over time, learning communities must reflect the following characteristics:

Authenticity. The learning community faithfully reflects the ordinary practices of a particular environment or community (Jonassen, p. 21).

Shared values. The community is formed based on shared values rather than on the basis of place (Palloff, p. 25).

New concept of place. Although an online learning community does not occupy a physical space in the accepted meaning of the word, nonetheless the computer network itself becomes a “place to link with other people” (Harasim, 1993, p. 17).

Common practices and tasks. The community’s knowledge is based on shared common practices and on tasks that are analogous to those faced by real-world members of the community (Jonassen, p. 21; Palloff quoting Shaffer and Anundsen, p. 25).

Guidelines, boundaries, rules and norms. The community is built based on collaboratively negotiated guidelines and norms. Mutually agreed-upon, clearly-defined boundaries and rules are developed through participation of community members, and match the community’s goals and environment. Mechanisms are put in place for internal monitoring of community members’ behavior and resolution of any conflicts that might arise (Kollock; Palloff).

Collaboration, participation and shared responsibility. Community members take an activist, constructivist, deliberately collaborative approach to learning and to building and maintaining the learning community. Membership in the community is based on participation. Non-participants are not there. Participants take responsibility not only for their own learning, but for others’ learning as well (Brown, 2001; Jonassen, p. 21; Palloff, p. 29, 37).

Knowledge and problem-solving. The community’s focus is on important problems or questions that require a base of knowledge, knowledge construction, and judgment in the application of knowledge and skills in identifying effective resolution of problems (Jonassen, p. 21).

Access to resources. Access to resources commonly available to those engaged in solving real-world problems faced by members of the community is provided. Guidelines are developed for use of the community’s collective resources (Kollock, Jonassen; Kollock; Palloff).

Social interaction and “identity persistence.” Social communication is considered essential to the learning process. Individuals are able to identify each other and know each other’s histories, thus encouraging the development of reputations, which can be an important source of social information and control. While some have claimed that the “fluidity of identity” is an attractive feature of the online environment, the ability to identify the people with whom you are interacting is considered a necessary feature of the cooperative relations essential to an online community focused on learning (Kollock; Palloff).

Affiliation. Ongoing interaction and affiliation is promoted, thus encouraging continuity of the community. By learners supporting one another, student satisfaction, retention, and learning is improved. The desire and ability to continue to interact thus helps to sustain the learning community, promoting lifelong affiliation with the specific community and the institution, and potentially providing new sources of financial support beyond the online classroom.

Institutional memory. The community maintains records of the history of the group and encourages sharing of information about members throughout the group (Kollock).

In higher education specifically, an online learning community that hopes to develop and establish itself based on the foundation of required course requirements by online learners faces considerable difficulties and practical obstacles (Conrad). In Conrad’s 2002 study, the online classroom represented not much more than a “structured habitat” that was accepted and valued by learners for what it could deliver to them and for them. This attitude could well be the result of learners not having a clear concept of community. Moreover, in the early stages of their online classroom experiences, learners were more concerned with the practical aspects of understanding course requirements, schedules, assignments, and the technology they were using (Conrad). Some expressed discomfort with public dissemination of their words and the “permanence” of archived online communications. Conrad concludes that in the online learning environment in higher education, participation in the online course activities exists before community. The online course contributes to building and maintaining the community. However, shared expectations, common purpose, and a passionate affinity, which are, as we have seen, essential to the formation and sustenance of an online community, may not necessarily be present in an environment where acquiring learning through completing courses is the primary focus of membership in the group (Conrad).

A significant challenge faced by distance education in higher education is retention of students (Hill, 2000). Two reasons stated in Moore (1996) are the level of interaction and support for distance delivered courses. Plus, student satisfaction among learners in on-line courses is closely associated with retention (Hill). The lack of community where learners have no face-to-face contact may be one explanation for high drop out rates and dissatisfaction (Hill).

In her 2000 study of social support and community development among members of a distance learning program, Haythornthwaite (2000) asks how we can ensure that online programs are more than electronic correspondence courses. She concludes: “Key to overcoming the correspondence model is moving the student from the position of an isolated learner to that of a member of a learning community.” However, specific strategies and techniques for building community in online distance education are only now being identified, as distance education programs develop some history and experience with best practices (Hill).

We now turn our attention to the MDE teaching “community,” to determine to what extent community building in higher education may be affected by the nature of the field of study.

III. The MDE Learning Community

The MDE program serves in this discussion as an example of the development of a learning community, which permits consideration of

1. Various approaches taken to student participation, interaction, and group work, and the degree to which those approaches contribute to the establishment of an MDE learning community;

2. The significance of groups of students learning together as a contributing factor to the "feeling" of community among participants;

3. The involvement of well-known distance education experts in various courses and the degree to which their personal involvement encourages the building of community;

4. The international aspect of the program, from the partnership between UMUC and Oldenburg University to the involvement of faculty and students from around the world, and how this aspect of the program contributes to the establishment of an online learning community; and

5. How the experience of participating in the MDE online learning community contributes to students' entry into and participation in the distance education community of practice.

Development and establishment of the MDE program grew out of successful virtual professional development seminars on distance education that were offered in 1997 and 1998 by the University of Maryland University College in collaboration with the Center for Distance Education at Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg/Germany (Bernath, 2003). The online MDE program was officially launched in September 1999, and the students were enrolled in the first course in January 2000 (Bernath). The primary mission of the program is to provide adult working students with the qualifications they need to be managers of distance education (Bernath).

Since its beginnings, the MDE program has required the completion of 12 courses totaling 36 semester credit hours: seven core courses, four elective courses, and a final project where students prepare a “capstone” project and an electronic portfolio (Bernath). Students may also earn one or more of four certificates of distance education, each requiring the completion of four courses (12 credits). Courses may be applied to both the MDE degree at to the certificates.

Participation in the online MDE program presents the unique experience of learning about online education by participating in and reflecting on various aspects of that experience. Over the course of the program, students learn about online learning communities and communities of practice, thus extending that reflection to consideration of the characteristics of learning communities based on participation in the formation of such a community.

The MDE program may be described by the following characteristics.

Information for prospective students. Information for prospective students is provided at the University of Maryland University College Graduate School, Master of Distance Education Web site at http://www.umuc.edu/mde/. Bernath (2003) points out that the promotional strategy to ensure a continued influx of new students relies primarily on the Web site and on word-of-mouth recommendations from current students (Bowes, 2002). Links are provided at the MDE Web site to the course requirements for the program, technical requirements, and to Frequently Asked Questions about the MDE. Information for prospective students is also available at the Master of Distance Education Information Page. University of Maryland University College at http://info.umuc.edu/mde/, although there is no apparent direct link to this additional information from the UMUC Graduate School of Master of Distance Education pages.

Orientation for new students. General UMUC orientation is provided to graduate students by means of the University of Maryland University College Graduate School, Orientation for New Graduate Students Web page at http://www.umuc.edu/grad/orientation/. This includes links to a general orientation to distance education, application and registration information, library services, and textbook information. All students in the MDE program are required to take OMDE 601, The Foundations of Distance Education, as their first course. Thus, in the first semester, all new students are grouped together because of this initial course requirement. However, while this course serves as the student’s introduction to the methods, techniques, protocols, and tools of the MDE program, its purpose is also viewed as a “gate keeping” function, which permits the MDE program administrators to better predict the demand for the program and for additional courses after the student’s first semester (Bernath).

Student advising services. Once enrolled in the MDE program, students may be assigned to a UMUC Graduate school advisor. This individual, while not enrolled in or specifically familiar with the MDE program, is provided in order to answer questions about registering for classes, program completion requirements, and access to other UMUC Graduate School services.

Information about ongoing activities services of the program. The MDE program maintains a Master of Distance Education Information Page available to the public and to current students at http://info.umuc.edu/mde/. This is where announcements related to the program are posted, and, more significantly, where key information for new MDE students is provided, in one location. The online document “Getting Started and Being Successful in the Online MDE Program” is provided at this page, along with links to several key guides for participants in the program:

• “Writing and Citing the APA Way” (Revised) - The MDE Guide to using the American Psychological Association referencing style, which is required of all MDE participants, at http://info.umuc.edu/mde/apa.html;

• The “APA Electronic References Guide” at http://www.apastyle.org/elecref.html, which specifically covers standards for citing materials on the Internet;

• “Research Skills Tutorial,” a link to University of Maryland University College Graduate School, tutorial, “Library Skills for the Information Age” at http://www.umuc.edu/library/tutor/intro.html, which as UCSP 20610 is a required course for all graduate students by the time they register for their fourth course in their program of study;

• Guidelines for the MDE final project and portfolio completed by MDE students in their final semester;

• Guidelines for building an electronic portfolio on UMUC’s server; and

• Other useful guides and tools for creating Web content.

The MDE Information Page also provides links to other UMUC services at http://info.umuc.edu/mde/umuc_services.htm, a recently established discussion area, and information about the latest distance education news, jobs, and professional development opportunities.

Technology. Courses in the MDE program are offered using the WebTycho course delivery platform, which was built and is maintained by UMUC staff. Information about the WebTycho online course system is available to prospective and current students on the Web at http://www.umuc.edu/grad/online/webtycho.html. Anyone can take an online tour of WebTycho and can access the user guide, faculty guide, information about using text in WebTycho, and the knowledge base for solving problems in WebTycho at the WebTycho Help and Support page at http://tychousa1.umuc.edu/help.nsf, thus providing new students with the kind of direction relating to technology that they particularly need in the beginning of their programs (Daley, 2001). Once a student enrolls in a course in the MDE, the student is granted access to a user name on the WebTycho system. Each semester, updated functionality information and “help” files are provided to all WebTycho users.

The online classroom. The focal point where specific online course activity takes place is the WebTycho online classroom. The classroom contains several standard features, which are built by the individual faculty member responsible for that class. These features include:

• Announcements
• The course syllabus
• Course content
• Reserved readings
• Conferences
• Study groups
• Webliography
• Assignments folder
• Portfolio for the specific class
• Chat room
• List of class members with e-mail addresses

Course content may include hyperlinks to documents on the Web or downloadable documents in Word processing or Adobe Acrobat (PDF) format.

Interaction between students and faculty members. The primary vehicle for providing opportunities for interaction among students, and between students and faculty members are the asynchronous conferences created in the WebTycho online classroom for the particular course. The opportunity for social interaction may be provided by means of a “café” conference available over the course of the semester to all students enrolled in the class. The instructor may also provide a conference for questions about the course or for updates to the course content or syllabus.

The primary form that conferences take is the asynchronous threaded discussion, with the overall topic of each conference provided by the instructor, and with comments and discussion points added by students. Often, the course requirements include an interaction requirement, whereby students are expected to participate in conferences throughout the semester. Files may be shared by instructors and students by means of attachments. The reliance on threaded discussions illustrates the importance that Edelstein (2002) attributes to these discussions as the primary mechanism for achieving student participation in knowledge building.

The online classroom synchronous chat room also provides instructors and students with the opportunity to participate in synchronous chats. While participation in synchronous chats are not usually a standard requirement for course completion, in certain courses, experiments with chat rooms are conducted as part of the achieving the learning objectives for that course.

Instructors have the ability to monitor student participation in the conferences and submission of assignments by means of the portfolio feature in the online classroom, which records participation on the fly, and thus maintains a record throughout the semester of every aspect of a student’s activity (Crompton, 2002). Students can also monitor their own activity for that class by accessing their respective online portfolio.

Consistent with some of the requirements of an effective online community environment, the WebTycho online classroom provides the ability to view the name, subject, time, and date of each contribution, file and image sharing, the ability to bookmark the last message read, and the ability to edit one’s own contributions (Crompton).

Collaboration. The main mechanism for enabling small group collaboration is the study group feature in the WebTycho online classroom. Students may be assigned to study groups or they may volunteer to participate with specific other students in those study groups. Assignment of students to study groups is handled by the instructor. Once assigned, students in a particular study group have access to a collaborative document area, conferences specific to that study group, a study group chat room, and a list of specific study group members with e-mail addresses.

In the MDE program, collaborative online projects are used to give learners practice with the medium and with the tools available (in this case, the platform WebTycho). The study group may be the focal point for completion of particular assignments, such as essays, case studies, simulations, or the creation of Web sites, depending on the particular course. Students are encouraged to see the value of collaboration as essential to the study of distance education. While some students resist collaborative activities in study groups, the MDE program provides everyone with tips for effective group work at http://info.umuc.edu/mde/collab.html, and utilizes initial limited ungraded collaborative projects to help learners become accustomed to this somewhat unfamiliar method of learning together.

Since no formal guidelines or requirements for establishment of study group protocols or organizational features are provided, MDE students often devote the initial period of collaboration to developing their own protocols, organizing tasks, and dividing up responsibilities. Thus, study groups are the focal point for learning the soft skills required for working effectively in teams (Barajas, 2000). An important aspect of trust in a collaborative environment involves group members trusting each other to make their respective contributions to completion of the assigned task (Hughes, 2002). Of course, since this is a distance education graduate program, it is to be expected that students will address issues of organization of group tasks without being given a template for this activity. The discussion that occurs during task engagement is considered to be a critical component of collaboration (Curtis, 2001).

It should be noted that the WebTycho study group environment provides a collaborative document area, which provides study group members with very basic tools for creating and editing a common document. However, this capability is very limited, and does not reflect the current white boarding technology that is becoming more common in online learning and collaborative environments.

International aspects. By the nature of its foundation in a partnership between a US and a German institution of higher education, the international aspect of the MDE program is designed to provide a platform for consideration of cross-cultural issues and cooperation across national boundaries (Barajas, 2000). Faculty members represent a number of nationalities, including the Australia, Canada, England, Germany, Israel, and the US (Bernath). Students, on the other hand, are predominantly from the United States; those who are non-US residents appear to be Americans living abroad (Bernath). The predominantly American student body undoubtedly results from the lower tuition for state of Maryland residents, the fact that the program is offered uniquely in English, and the fact that many institutions in other countries do not charge tuition to their residents (Bernath).

The predominantly national nature of the student body is a significant departure from the predecessor of the MDE program. The Virtual Seminar included participants from 24 countries, who participated actively in a collaborative, non-degree, seminar approach that engendered a high level of cross-cultural sharing, thus more clearly representing the global nature of distance education (Barajas, Bernath).

Expert involvement. Involvement of visiting and guest faculty members is a vital feature of the program. By involving such notable figures as Tony Bates, Borje Holmberg, Michael Moore, Hilary Perraton, Otto Peters, and Greville Rumble as guest participants in MDE courses, the program provides students with an incomparable opportunity to interact directly with well-known contributors in the field of distance education (Bernath). It also provides an important source of tacit knowledge about various aspects of the field of study (Crompton). The involvement of knowledgeable members of the wider community helps illustrate the concept of shared enterprise, where students can share in the culture and values of the international distance education community, and can come to understand how things get done in that community (Rogers).

Distance education teaching tools and strategies. While “learning about learning” is essential to the MDE program, learning about teaching is also a key aspect of learning to be a distance education manager (Palloff, p. 23). All students in the MDE program are required to complete OMDE 607, Instructional Design and Course Development in Distance Education (Bernath). This course provides important guidance in the relationship between instructional design and the applications of technology to teaching in an online context (Barajas). Students in this course, also receive the UMUC faculty training CD, which provides specific guidance on how to set up and facilitate an online class using WebTycho.

Library and search services. MDE students have access to the University of Maryland University College Information and Library Services on the Web at http://www.umuc.edu/library/. Enrolled students can search the “MDUSA” library databases; obtain copies of articles online, order textbooks through the inter-library loan service, and get help directly from a librarian. Along with a library handbook and a research skills tutorial, a guide to writing and research, a grammar and writing guide, and guides to searching the various library databases are provided. It should be noted that the various document links and downloadable documents provided in the online classrooms for particular courses are not available through the standard UMUC library search services, nor is there a central repository for documents and links provided in the various MDE course online classrooms.

While learning about learning communities is certainly implicit in the content of various MDE courses, learning about building a learning community is not explicitly addressed in the program curriculum. Nonetheless, it could be argued that participants in the MDE program learning about building learning communities by participating in a learning community and by reflecting on various aspects of that experience. Haythornthwaite observes that even if members of an online community do not consider themselves to be members of a formal community, members often exhibit behaviors that support common goals a commitment to the purpose of their community. “How can we ensure that online programs are more than electronic correspondence courses?” Haythornthwaite asks. Moving beyond delivering information to remote learners to building community among them is the next challenge of the MDE program.


IV. The MDE Learning Community: Recommendations for Improvement

The Virtual Seminars, which were the predecessors of the MDE program, have been viewed by Peters as “virtual knowledge-building communities” (Bernath, 2003, quoting Peters, 1998). Each seminar was considered to be a community, where participants “met, talked, agreed, sometimes strongly disagreed, sympathized, empathized, and formed relationships” (Bernath). While the seminars differed from the MDE program in that the participants represented a community of peers, nonetheless there are lessons to be learned from them that could provide important pointers for building and strengthening the MDE learning community. It is widely believed that forming a community of learners who support each other helps to overcome the feelings of isolation experienced by many distance learners, and is an important factor in improving student satisfaction, retention, and learning (Brown).

In this section, a number of recommendations designed to contribute to a true MDE online learning community and thus to improve student retention, satisfaction, and learning are proposed.

Learning community environment. A comprehensive community environment for the MDE program should be established and introduced to program participants at the point where they initially enter the program. By introducing the concept of a learning community and its benefits early in the program, through a process known as “foregrounding,” MDE program sponsors, administrators, and faculty improve the chances that students will connect with this community early in their enrollment period.

The new learning community environment should be a comprehensive, integrated system (Crompton). Its key features should include access to all of the various important student services, databases, tutorials, and other key information about the MDE program. Participants should be able to share files, documents, and images beyond the realm of the independent classroom (Crompton). The new learning community environment should provide search facilities based on keywords, dates, and authors, and should permit the creation of communities of interest based on the search habits of users. Resources should be interconnected, so that members of the learning community have a “place” where they can organize projects, access resources and services, collaborate, “engage in personal dialogue, or exchange social chitchat” (Harasim, p. 17). In short, the MDE learning community should become what Harasim terms an “educational networld” with “virtual classrooms, online work groups, learning circles, peer networks, electronic campuses, and online libraries in a shared space, a networld, that connects people from all over the world” (p. 21).

Under the current WebTycho technology platform, the classroom metaphor is used as the basis for the learning community, thus dividing students into groups that may have little or no contact with each other. Each classroom under the current configuration becomes its own learning community. A new platform independent of WebTycho that provides the ability to assign program participants to the larger group of MDE program participants, and potentially to subgroups based on their particular interests, may well be a requirement for creating and supporting the new comprehensive learning community concept. The new platform could exist along side of WebTycho, which is closely linked to the University’s catalogue and registration system, and currently serves as an essential mechanism related to registration, monitoring student progress, submission of student assignments, and recording of student grades.

Student orientation program. Developing “spirit” early in the process is essential to learners feeling connected and part of the group (Roval, 2002). This helps support the motivation to learn and the development of trust, which is essential to people forming relationships (Roval). Thus, a new MDE student orientation program should be implemented that centers on the new global MDE learning environment space, described above and throughout these recommendations.

The new orientation program should take the form of a boot camp, designed to promote initial bonding, initiate strong feelings of community, and reduce feelings of isolation, which are key objectives at the beginning of a student’s program when they are coping with new technologies and new ways of interacting (Haythornthwaite).

Because communication is “at the heart of online communities,” and participant learning is strongly affected by the chosen technology, students need to be given direction at the beginning in acquiring and using the chosen technology (Daley). While new students are given the opportunity to explore the online classroom community in WebTycho and participate in an online café conference, this occurs within the context of the student’s first course (OMDE 601, Foundations of Distance Education). Developing student confidence in their ability to communicate within the online medium would be better achieved through an online technology orientation outside the realm of the classroom, where students are generally very conscious of their performance being monitored.

The initial orientation boot camp should provide an introduction to all of the various student support services, databases, course requirements, reference and writing standards, and ways to be successful as an online learner. Boot camp conference could be used as an opportunity for new students to interact with more advanced students, faculty, and alumni, and would give the latter groups new ways to support new students in the program.

Cohort groups. In some online education environments, students begin and proceed through the program within a fixed cohort group of students. In such environments, the cohort organization may be a significant contributing factor to the feeling of community among participants.

In the MDE program, while students begin at the same point, in the OMDE 601, Foundations of Distance Education course, they proceed through the program at their own pace. Some may enroll half time every semester, while others take one course at a time, or may drop out for a semester for personal or professional reasons. Thus, maintaining a cohort approach, while it might contribute to student satisfaction and feeling of community, is not possible throughout the length of the MDE program or of the individual certificate programs.

Nonetheless, cohort groups could be organized in the student’s first semester based on enrollment in OMDE 601 and through boot camp participation during the pre-week of the student’s first semester (Haythornthwaite). New boot camp MDE students would be introduced to the larger community of MDE students, administrators, and faculty, within the MDE learning community environment. Depending on the number of new students, the boot camp participants could be divided into teams corresponding with their section of OMDE 601, and could engage in group collaborative activities, problem solving, and completion of goals, all of which contribute to learners’ sense of involvement in a joint enterprise (Hughes). Combined with the mentor proposal (see below), this organization would set the stage for ongoing community involvement throughout the student’s experience in the MDE program.

Mentoring program. Based on a survey and study of MDE participants, Walti (2002) proposes the establishment of a peer-to-peer mentoring program within an MDE community of practice to provide ongoing support MDE students. This initiative is viewed as a way to provide prospective students with experienced information about the program, help newer participants learn the ropes in the course and program environment, and as a way to provide a forum for advanced students to exchange ideas and experiences (Walti).

Within the context of the current analysis and recommendations, an MDE student mentoring program, combined with the new orientation program and with the cohort organization of new students, would provide a greatly enhanced support structure for entering students. It would also provide a way for senior students to become involved on a voluntary basis with new members of the MDE learning community. Mentors, acting in much the same capacity as traditional distance education tutors, would provide guidance and direction, but not answers or solutions, to small groups of new students engaged in the joint learning enterprise (Hughes).

Mentors could also provide entering students with help determining their respective course progression paths. Since OMDE 601 is currently the only prerequisite for the other courses, some entering students will clearly need some help determining the best way for them to progress through the program, given their specific interests and planned enrollment patterns.

The establishment of a mentoring program, along with orientation, cohort groups, and many of the other recommendations to follow, assume the establishment of an online learning community platform or environment that is independent of the WebTycho technology and classroom model.

Social interaction. The new MDE learning community environment should provide for multiple means of communication to support the need to engage in work and social interaction. Social presence is considered essential to the development of a healthy learning community (Roval). Thus, the MDE learning community should build opportunities for students to learn more about each other to facilitate “early discovery of commonalities” (Brown).

While social interaction by means of the café conference is a common feature of WebTycho online classroom in individual courses, entering students need an initial opportunity to learn that social interaction is an acceptable and very positive aspect of a learning community, and to gain practice in online social communications. The new MDE learning community environment should provide an introductory café where new students can interact with each other, with senior students, and with faculty and administrators. In this way, new students begin to divulge their identities, and everyone can discover at an early stage where they have similar or particularly interesting backgrounds, interests, and goals in the program.

The opportunity for social interaction outside the classroom environment should be provided on an ongoing basis to everyone who is part of the MDE group of participants in the new community environment. This is where announcements of MDE events, gatherings, and personal and professional achievements can be shared, thus providing a true community context to the MDE experience.

Improved training and techniques for interaction. Online conferencing, also known as threaded discussion, is the primary mechanism for achieving student participation in knowledge building in an online program or community (Edelstein). A key focus for conferencing in the establishment of an online learning community is the creation, sharing, and use of tacit and implicit knowledge among members of the community (Crompton). Moreover, it is through the “relationships and interactions among people” that knowledge is primarily generated (Edelstein).

The current MDE program technology, WebTycho, provides the conferencing tools needed for extensive interaction and knowledge sharing within the online classroom. However, no mechanism currently exists to provide new program participants with an introduction to the importance of conference interaction, knowledge sharing, and knowledge building in the MDE program, or with the opportunity to get some initial practice in this new form of interactive communications.

Therefore, the MDE learning community environment should include an introduction to interaction and the opportunity to practice skills communicating in this way, outside the realm of the online classroom, where new students may consider that conference participation and performance is monitored and judged.

Improved collaborative techniques and tools. The importance of collaborative activities in study groups in the MDE program for developing a strong sense of mutual engagement, joint enterprise, knowledge building, and problem solving has already been established. However, the fact that some students react negatively to group collaborative projects, and that some study groups are unsuccessful in achieving a positive result in terms of collaborative activity or work product, would seem to suggest that additional guidance in the effective use of collaborative study groups is needed.

The introduction of cohort groups during the pre-week of the student’s first semester in the program, within the context of the MDE learning community space, provides an excellent training ground for providing students with a preview of how best to approach collaborative projects. It is at this point in the program that students’ potentially negative attitudes toward collaborative work need to be diverted, through a successful experience within the orientation period of the program. By achieving goals and solving problems together, under the guidance of a mentor who provides direction, students can begin to see how knowledge is generated through relationships and interactions (Hughes). Students can become accustomed to the social aspect of online learning, where the absence of normal social cues can makes students reluctant to speak up (Hughes). If managed properly, the early introduction of collaborative study groups can reduce feelings of disconnection, lack of engagement, and set the stage for a more positive experience later on in the program, when collaborative projects become essential to the student’s online learning experience and understanding of how distance education works.

A specific aspect of the technology that currently doesn’t work well is the collaborative work space within WebTycho. A number of add-on or external alternatives for white boarding should be explored and beta tests conducted, in order to begin to move toward improvement of the available technology to support collaborative study groups.

Knowledge base. MDE program participants need access to a comprehensive, searchable database of published articles, records, interactions, archives, raw data, collaborative activities, and student and faculty work products, within the MDE learning community space.

Under the current management of information and materials to support the program, students have access to the searchable UMUC library services databases. Instructors in the individual courses provide links to online articles and related materials, and upload documents in word processing, HTML, and PDF formats, so that students have easy access to the reading assignments for that particular course. However, these resources are not available outside the specific online classroom that supports the course in which the materials are presented or required.

Sharing resources is a key characteristic and function of a healthy learning community. The community’s knowledge management tools should include not only information about the community and how to participate in it, but hosting tools, methods for organizing relevant information contributed by the community, such as resource collections and databases, and a recorded history of the community (Bowes). Web-based archives of interactions and exchanges with online experts should be maintained. Access to student and faculty biographical information, publications, and event transcripts should be available as part of the community knowledge base.

Sklar (2000) describes a system called the “Community of Evolving Learners” or CEL. This system provides links to published materials, access to tools and raw data, dialogues with community members, collaborative activities, exchanges with experts in particular fields, and archives of student work. The MDE learning community should establish just such a knowledge management system.

Student leadership development. As the MDE program grows and continues to graduate new distance education managers, it needs to begin to foster the development of its own leaders from within its ranks of senior students. Schlager (2002) points out that an online community of practice needs to be given time and resources to develop its own social norms, to grow its own leaders, and to assimilate into the dominant culture. Encouraging student leadership development would provide the MDE program with a cadre of potential mentors for incoming new students, group leaders for special projects, subject matter specialists to assist other students with research in their fields of expertise, and community leaders to participate in spreading the word about the MDE program to other potential program participants.

Teaching and technology strategies. Within the field of distance education, there is a need for special training in online education, for developing competence in technological and organizational aspects of distance education, and new skills for apply relevant didactical and teaching methods (Barajas). Future distance educators need practice implementing instructional design principles, learning theories, and learning styles. They need to be introduced to technology and its application in the educational area in order to be able to measure the whole range of possibilities available for organizing education and teaching in this virtual context (Barajas).

In the MDE program, the need for student involvement in teaching and technology strategies should be implemented through special teaching assistant assignments and assignment to technology review groups. Senior students, especially those who have demonstrated their leadership qualities, could be given the opportunity to compete for teaching fellowships designed to explore the development of teaching strategies, to experience online teaching and learning from an instructor’s point of view.

Likewise, committees assigned to review and evaluate potential new technologies, such as synchronous tools, collaborative white boarding, and the implementation of an MDE program-wide community space, should involve student participation, in order to ensure that new implementations will effectively reflect the student’s point of view.

Enhanced international aspects. The MDE program presents great potential for building cooperation across national boundaries, for addressing cross cultural issues, and for taking a global approach to learning and the formation of an online learning community (Barajas). The foundation has already been set through the partnership between UMUC and Oldenburg University, and through the involvement of faculty and students from around the world.

However, it is time for the MDE program administrators, faculty, and students to begin to work together to recognize, pursue, and implement new partnerships with other international learning communities that wish to collaborate on a global scale in an effort to bring distance educators together as members of the same community. This may involve forging partnerships outside the formal US degree boundaries that are currently the primary home of the MDE program. It may involve revisiting the concept of the Virtual Seminars, which were enormously successful in bringing together peers involved in distance education. The next step might be to involve those new members of the community who have come out of the MDE program, and wish to continue their development as professional distance educators. It might involve participants from Canada, England, and Asia who are already focused on distance education theories, practices, technologies, and teaching and learning methodologies.

Together, members of the MDE learning community – instructors, students, administrators, and graduates – should pursue these various approaches to expanding the community beyond the boundaries of the MDE program.

Synchronous tools for online meetings. While face-to-face meetings are not essential components of the MDE program, nonetheless, three such meetings have been convened since the program was initiated. These meetings are attended primarily by students who are geographically close to or reside in Maryland, and by MDE faculty who are meeting to discuss MDE issues. While there is only anecdotal evidence to support the suggestion that students who are unable to attend harbor some negative feelings about these face-to-face meetings, program administrators need to assume that other steps should be taken to provide for involvement by students who can not be physically present.

The MDE program should explore the use of third-party synchronous conferencing tools, in order to make such meetings and guest events (see below) available to all program participants.

Expert involvement and guest events. In the MDE program, the personal involvement of well-known distance education experts in various courses is an important factor that encourages the building of the MDE learning community. Access to experts provides a source of tacit knowledge about the field of distance education (Crompton).

Under the current organization of expert involvement, guest lecturers participate in conferences in particular online classes. While there may be transcripts maintained of their conference participation, these records are not made available to students, nor should they be in their raw form, which would be cumbersome and less meaningful outside the context of the particular class.

However, value and quality could be added to the program by organizing guest events as structured activities offered via the Web for all program participants (Bowes). Synchronous third-party tools could be used and full transcripts of the events, along with conferences, discussions, and additional reading materials, could be provided via the event Web site. Such involvement by outside experts could by facilitated by access to an index function in the MDE community knowledge base.

As an alternative, such special events could be conducted as hybrids, both face-to-face and Web-cast, providing participants with a choice as to mode of attendance. The key goal of such an activity, and providing records of the activity, is to widen the circle of the distance education community members who have access to the experts.

Promotion of the learning community. Designing and implementing a comprehensive learning community for all program participants could have important implications for ensuring the continued influx of new community members and for retention of current community members (Bowes).

In order to serve as an effective recruitment and retention tool, the new MDE learning community space should be immediately accessible to all members of the community (new students and faculty), to students who continue to progress in the program, and to graduates of the program. The learning community thus becomes a benefit of membership in the community. It also encourages and provides for the continuation of community-building after completion of the program (Brown). Not only does it meet learners’ needs while they are in school, but it contributes to the institution’s need for continued fundraising, networking, and community support for the program.

An essential characteristic of the MDE program is that participants learn about distance education by learning at a distance. With the implementation of a program-wide MDE learning community space, another essential characteristic is added. Participants learn about building a learning community by building and participating in just such a community.


V. Summary and Conclusions

In this discussion, the characteristics of online learning communities as demonstrated by those who have created and studied them have been identified and described. The University of Maryland University College Master of Distance Education (MDE), offered in partnership with Oldenburg University, has been studied in terms of the various components of the program that contribute to its qualifications as a learning community for students of distance education. Finally, a number of recommendations have been made to reinforce and strengthen the community aspects of the MDE program, and in some cases to implement new approaches to developing this learning community.

Every effort has been made in this analysis to avoid the easy solution that implementing a certain technology will provide all the answers. WebTycho has provided a platform that works, for the most part, in delivering the essential capabilities of an online classroom. Nonetheless, it should be understood that many aspects of these recommendations rely on identifying new tools for building and maintaining a group space for community members beyond the walls of the WebTycho online classroom. This space can not be external to the MDE program, since so many of its features – the expanded knowledge base, implementation of a new orientation program, sharing of information and work product from program participants, expanded access to expert involvement, improved training, techniques, and tools for interaction and collaboration – belong to the MDE learning environment. While it is important for alumni to support the expanded learning community concept, they can not implement it.

Essential to the formation of a learning community is that students willingly and enthusiastically share responsibility for learning. We have examined a number of ways in which MDE students participate in the creation of their own learning. Their experiences as participants in the MDE online learning community, the relationships they have built, and the community activities in which they have participated can only strengthen over time their membership and participation in the broader distance education community of practice.


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