Online Education is a tremendous opportunity for personal growth, credentialing for a new career, or for preparing for more responsibilities in your current field, and even for undergraduate education. But it is also a tremendous opportunity to grow in community. What? Yes. Community. Online. Online community is not only possible, but likely—with certain conditions.
The absence of a peer-to-peer “iron-sharpening-iron” dynamic has been a long-held, often-cited critique by well-meaning faculty (I have been one of them in times past) against the very concept of online learning. Yet, the advent of newer platforms that encourage synchronous learning (live) and asynchronous learning with discussion questions, research paper posting, chat rooms, and other instruments for classroom discussion, the online educational experience (and it is that, an “experience”) can, in many ways, be even more personally enriching than non-virtual (“non-virtual,” i.e., upfront , live human-to-human—okay, a little tongue-in-cheek here) models. Don’t get me wrong. I love the organic models. A mentor in doctoral gown and student sitting under a tree with a classical book and a cup of tea, with sheep bleating in the distance, still sounds good to me (I went to the university in the photograph above this article). But online is here to stay. The goal is the fullness of education—content, relationship, and resources for a life of learning—is to honor God and help others. It is more than a mere transaction to be sure. I would urge that we always must remember that. But why not bring that fullness of education to as many as we can? Why not leverage technology to serve an increasingly greater number for the greater good? Indeed, in terms of the potential for personal enrichment in learning I have come to believe that with the right pedagogy and comparable technology online learning can offer just as much as traditional learning models. Frankly, it is rather difficult to “hide out” on the back row of a live, synchronous classroom where you are, say, in a Hollywood-Squares-onscreen-sort-of-a-presentation with each other. If you have been there you know what I mean.
It is my experience, in developing online courses, teaching online courses, and being an online learner myself that there are simple, tactical ways to enhance this amazing experience. Much more could be said, but this is not a research paper. So here are four foundational features of a solid online student community. These are the basics to help you in online learning:
- Check your course wall daily. Folk don’t always post at the same time. You cannot, usually, just go in on one day per week. Neither do you need to spend hours per day. Just check in each day, like you do at other social media sites. See what your colleagues have posted. See if the professor has uploaded any new files. Treat your platform as a community site that you need to visit frequently.
- Be a good community citizen. Your class is a community. You are a citizen of that community. Be engaged as a citizen. Not only do you need to do a daily check, you need to read what others are saying. Read and respond. That is the blessing of this form of learning. Deeper learning is ignited when students read the required texts for the week, do the assignments, answer the discussion questions online, and then interact with each other, occasionally even venturing out into “suggested readings” to find answers or to check positions before stating them. A good online community citizen is a helpful and cheerfully engaged citizen.
- Be kind, but display critical scholarship in your posts. There is a beautiful balance to be had between glowing praise for every post on the discussion wall, even when you really disagree with a point made about the lesson that week, and being downright rude. Work really hard to find that sweet spot. When you do it will be a benefit to all and will encourage healthy, intellectual debate with courtesy (never, ever ad hominem responses; never, ever crude language—if you wonder if it is, just don’t write it).
- Write as a scholar. Online learning may be more casual and you may even be writing your answers in your pajamas, but online learning is, nevertheless, an academic endeavor. Respect the classroom! It is your class, your school. Your online classroom wall is not the place for displaying how cool you are with your knowledge of social media abbreviations. For those of us, like me, who just learned that “LOL” does not mean “lots of love”—this is not a joke—please write according to standards (APA or Turabian, accordingly).
Online or distance learning is now employed by places as diverse as Harvard, Belhaven University, Stanford, UNC Chapel Hill, Cambridge University, Erskine College and Seminary, and the U.S. Army Chaplain Center and School—and a whole bunch more. The platforms are changing, technology is ever-changing for the better and making learning more accessible for many. As you are in there getting your piece of this opportunity use the experience to its utmost. Learn wisely. It is never truer than in online learning that you will certainly take away that which you invest.