And yet, for the generation of students now entering university, social online interaction is as much a part of the fabric of their life as, well, their t-shirt. Social media is arguably the ultimate manifestation of social constructivist forms of learning as first proposed by Vygotsky (1978). If learning is a process of constructing understanding through discussion with others, then it's hard to deny that social media has increased learning opportunities exponentially. And whether tutors choose to explore these opportunities or not, students will continue to access information through social channels in order to enhance their learning.
So how does this relate to teaching and learning in Higher Education? This article sets out five reasons why building an online community of learners can be beneficial to your students.
1. Help students adjust to university life
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Building an online community around students' experience provides them with a supportive social structure, helping cultivate a sense of belonging in the crucial early stages of a course. This can be a key factor in improving retention, particularly for international students who are grappling with unfamiliar surroundings (Sovic, 2008), with the discussion in the community showing the student that they are not alone and share common concerns with their peers.
2. Increase peer-supported learning
An online community makes it possible for students to form friendships quickly, overcoming issues of shyness and confidence, and provides a forum where students can ask questions and share information outside of the classroom. The community space provides a forum in which students can answer each other's questions, thus reducing the amount of queries directed at the tutor.
Cultivating an online community around a course also enables students from all cohorts to interact. This can be useful for not only improving inter-year communication but also in providing opportunities for more experienced students to mentor newer students. 2nd and 3rd years are often happy to share their experiences with the new cohort, and this behaviour is consistent with the Communities of Practice model (Wenger, 1998) in which new members of a community gradually move towards the centre as they grow in confidence and experience.
3. Monitor engagement and quickly diagnose problems
An online community enables a tutor to monitor student engagement and identify students who might be having difficulty with their work. Although not all members of an online community will participate regularly in discussion, the tutor will be able to see whether students are logging in to read updates. If a student has not logged in for some time there is a risk that they are becoming disengaged from the course, and the tutor can then contact them to ask whether they are having difficulties.
Setting regular, fun tasks asking students to post examples of their work or an update about a given topic can be a useful means of stimulating engagement, particularly during university holidays. This printable leaflet contains ideas for community-building activities, and if you need more here are 50 Community Building Tips from online community expert Richard Millington.
4. Enhance student employability by developing digital literacy
Providing opportunities for students to develop transferable skills is a key aspect of any university degree. An online community enables students to develop a sense of professionalism and become accustomed to communicating effectively in an appropriate tone. Encouraging students to share examples of their work online obliges them to consider their target audience, from customers to employers, and develop their ability to present themselves in a professional manner. Encouraging students to engage in online discussion helps them develop critical thinking, writing, reflective and communication skills, and fosters an ability to seek out new information and ideas to share with their peers.
The vast majority of graduates will require an ability to use online communication tools in their chosen career. Building an online learning community creates opportunities for students to develop and sharpen skills that will form a key part of their future employability, helping them to function effectively in a range of online environments.
This excellent Slideshare from Stephen Downes provides further supporting evidence of the benefits of ways in which an online community can enhance students learning:
Maslow, A. (1954) Motivation and personality. New York: Harper
Oberg, K. (1960) Culture shock: adjustment to new cultural environments. Practical Anthropology, 7, pp.177-82
Sovic, S. (2008) Coping with stress: the perspective of international students. Art, Design & Communication in Higher Education, 6 (3). pp. 145-158. ISSN 1474-273X
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind and society: the development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press
Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E. (2006) Communities of practice: a brief instroduction. Available at http://www.ewenger.com/theory/