Building communities through open education
Open education allows people to connect regardless of individual characteristics (location, age, gender or culture) and leads to online communities. These communities magnify local knowledge and diversity, and encourage a culture of learning. At the core of the concept of online communities lies the principle of knowledge as a ‘public good’ that should be available for everyone to share. Online communities are destinations on the internet where a group of people with a common goal or shared interests facilitate peer-to-peer learning.
This blog post highlights the fundamental elements necessary to build and sustain online communities. It also highlights some of the barriers faced by online communities that prevent open online communities from flourishing. Building a website is not enough to create an online community. There are several key elements to bear in mind when creating an online community:
Develop interaction and a sense of belonging
In order for participants to engage and develop a sense of belonging, they need to take part in interactive activities. These can include problem solving; seeking experience, coordination and synergy; discussion developments, visits, mapping knowledge and identifying gaps.
To further develop a sense of membership and a feeling of shared participation, members need to have access to social networking or computer-mediated communication such as shared discussions (synchronous or asynchronous).
Interact around shared learning outcomes
Interactions should be articulated around shared learning outcomes to create a sense of purpose. Often a tutor or group of participants can formulate these outcomes.
To develop trust and a personal connection within a learning community, participants should be provided with information about their fellow community members, including peers and tutors. This can be done through profile pages or blogging. This can help to develop trust and a sense of personal connection.
Choose the type of community to build
Within the field of education, there are two types of communities that are of particular interest:
Virtual learning community
A virtual learning community exists when a group of people who share common academic goals and attitudes meet semi-regularly to collaborate on classwork. A virtual learning community can be applied in a course or adopt an interdisciplinary approach, or a multidisciplinary approach involving students.
There are many benefits to setting up a virtual learning community. Learners who often assume the more passive role of a reader in a traditional setting can be encouraged to become output producers. In turn, this can help to increase their course completion and understanding of the topic, and share their sense of intercultural diversity with a set of participants.
A virtual learning community can encourage scholars to share their knowledge with a broader group of people and assume a more public role by sharing their content openly.
Community of practice
This community type is focused on practitioners. It provides a space for them to share a concern or passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better. A community of practice highlights the fact that open education does not only lead to sharing resources but also to exchanging know-how.
Examples of such communities of practice in education include the Open Discovery Space who are funded by the European Commission and provide resources for teachers, and EPALE where adult education providers can share good practices.
Overcoming barriers to online communities
Scholars such as Strunga have advocated that certain fields of education (e.g., higher education) have a critical need to develop more virtual online communities in order to boost knowledge sharing and learning. However, online communities face barriers that need to be addressed. This includes practical barriers such as access to appropriate equipment. Often solving this issue requires investment from educational institutions or the government and it can vary from country to country.
Awareness raising can help to overcome any cultural norms or concerns about security and commercial interest. The key individuals who promote open communities may work toward alleviating any of these concerns.
Within the education field, there can be resistance to introducing new technologies within teaching and learning. However, these can be overcome through experimentation and innovation. Such resistance to new technologies may be the result of uneven technological skills across educators throughout Europe.
It is suggested that drawing upon existing networks or using local champions within the community to develop skills can allow people to make an informed choice about their learning and their use of digital technologies for that learning.
In conclusion, online communities are a powerful application of the concept of knowledge as a common good. They require careful consideration around a set of key principles, including how to develop a sense of belonging or trust, and how to overcome barriers in order to be successful and sustainable.