The virtual community or online learning community is a phenomenon of the Internet, an increasingly commonplace product of the new age of communication and connectivity. Online learning communities can be based on personal interests
or hobbies, or academic, business, or other intellectual pursuits. Within these groups there is generally a sense of purpose and connectivity. That purpose may be for fun and creativity, for accessing an immediate information source, for
distraction from other daily work activities, for learning, networking or collaborating on work projects.
The learning community 21 BEAT St., an acronym for the intersection of Business, Education, Arts and Technology in the 21st century, was created in 1994 for high-school students studying creative writing, and educators interested in learning
more about teaching, technology and facilitating learning online. This is perhaps the first time in all of human history where such a development has been possible, and it has fostered friendships and community growth among the students by
erasing external pressures commonly prevalent in regular school environments. The educators, in turn, learned how to augment and/or deliver their teaching online by engaging with the younger students, much like a student-teaching experience in a
Our program has attracted interest and participation from an impressive array of people — visiting authors and poets, groups of students, and individuals ranging in age from adolescent to 80, signing on from around the world. Participant
numbers have ranged from 20 to 120 since the program’s inception. Clearly, on-line communications serve to enhance geographically proximal ones and eradicate distance barriers for learners in remote locations.
The transactional nature of learning with students and teachers, youth and adults as co-learners, replaces former transmission models with the teacher as authority and imparter of knowledge. On-line learning focuses not only on course content,
but on interpersonal relationships. The social, collaborative, and communicative aspects of constructing knowledge are central to on-line learning environments.
From the outset, the 21 BEAT St. creative writing program was envisioned as a learning community. In the first few months, students delineated a range of goals. One explicitly stated goal was "...to grow as a learning community". As
facilitator, I chose to ask the students: "What is a learning community? How might we improve our community?"
Their responses were varied, frank, and highly interesting, for their insight and for the underlying values which they illustrated. I have listed those replies here:
1. Community is organic and group specific, growing and evolving as a whole while core characteristics remain constant in the flux.
By confining participants into pre-arranged groups and enforcing participation in a range of topics over which the students have no control, traditional schools quite literally force their students into forming their own sub-communities,
unrelated to the process of learning. In the highly communicative, wholly voluntary online learning community, able to adapt to the needs of a wide range of participants, such tensions are almost irrelevant.
2. Trust of other members necessarily produces a sense of community.
A degree of mutual trust may even be considered the defining characteristic of all communities, as it permits members to interact and rely upon one another, so that real avenues of communication and exploration can be opened. Without the usual
adolescent hierarchies of class and appearance, an online community can offer a degree of trust which the conventional school paradigm can only look upon, and envy.
3. There is a balance and necessary dialectic between freedom and structure.
There is no question that the excessively rigorous rule-structure of conventional classes discourages many students, and alienates them from the learning process by destroying the simple joy of learning. The difficulty lies in finding a
balance that will at once provide a motivational framework, set of practices to emulate, or goals to be achieved, and also leave them the greatest possible freedom to explore and express themselves.
This is an edited extract of a draft paper presented to the International Telecommunications Union/Telecom99 conference, Geneva, Switzerland, October 8-16, 1999. The full paper can be downloaded here.