The Ins and Outs of Online Learning Communities

Whether you're studying on the Web or in the classroom, you'll find that many of your college courses utilize online learning communities. Read on to learn more about what these communities are, how they work and what they can do for you.

Virtual Classroom

The 21st Century Classroom

The most basic definition of an online learning community is a place, on the Internet, that facilitates long distance interaction between a group of learners. The advantages of these communities are obvious for online classes. They simulate many of the missing parts of a face-to-face classroom, allowing students to share ideas, ask each other questions and benefit as a group from discussions with the instructor.

However, the use of online learning communities is also becoming more and more common in on-campus classes. In large lecture courses, they can give students a chance to be 'heard' and have more intimate interactions with their instructors and classmates. They're also useful for coordinating group projects and providing after-hours assistance with class concepts and assignments.

Many instructors even use the communities themselves as a tool for learning. Some professors have students participate in a wiki where they can get points for answering each others' questions correctly. Others ask students to start blogs within the community, encouraging them to engage in deeper (and shared) reflection on the ideas presented in the class. And in the digital age, when being tech-savvy is an essential skill for school and the workplace, simply using these tools can be an important learning experience.

Digital Collaboration

The Many Faces of Online Learning

Researchers have categorized online learning communities, or 'e-learning communities,' into three groups: Knowledge-based, task-based and practice-based. Knowledge-based communities are geared toward sharing information, task-based ones tend to be used for handing out assignments or coordinating projects and practice-based ones are focused on the learning experience of using the community. Of course, since learning communities are inherently as fluid as the people who use them, many fall into more than one of these categories.

Technologically speaking, there are many different types of tools that can be used for communal e-learning. Some are synchronous, meaning that they allow students to communicate in real time with tools like instant messaging. Others, such as message boards, are asynchronous, meaning that student communication is mediated by the technology and doesn't necessarily happen in real time.

Wikis and similar applications are known as collaborative tools, and many online learning communities also avail themselves of social media such as Flickr or Del.icio.us. Blogs, as mentioned above, are popular e-learning tools, as are 'learning object repositories' - places where professors can leave instructional material such as videos for students to utilize.

Course management applications are perhaps the largest category of e-learning technology, and the most unfamiliar to people who haven't participated in online learning communities. They're comprehensive applications such as Blackboard, Weebly and Moodle that typically include tools for group communication, course management, class assignments, group projects and more.

Since course management applications are increasingly common in the college classroom, students who know their way around them will be at an advantage when class starts. Keep an eye on this blog to learn more about some of the most popular online learning suites.

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