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.
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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;
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
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:
The course syllabus
Portfolio for the specific class
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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