ESTABLISHING COMMUNITY IN A VIRTUAL CLASSROOM
Virtual education is no longer a concept belonging to the future; it is a reality for today's students and educators. The virtual classroom provides new opportunities for instructors to empower students and encourage discovery learning. The concept of virtual education extends the traditional boundaries of educational facilities and creates a student centered learning environment learning becomes interactive for the students; the instructor becomes the facilitator and not the guru of the educational process. students no longer make their scheduled trips to the Meccas known as classrooms; instead they decide when they will listen to a taped lecture, when they will utilize technology to access vast amounts of information, and how they will use technology to take responsibility for their education. The virtual classroom offers students an opportunity to experience academic empowerment while creating self directed learning experiences. When a student participates in a virtual learning experience the sense of community created by a traditional classroom often disappears. No longer does a student sit face to face with other classmates and experience the traditional sense of community created in a real life classroom by body language, personal conversations, and mutual interests. Creating a sense of community within a virtual classroom is an ongoing challenge for instructors of on-line classes. The sense of camaraderie and trust needed in writing classrooms for groups to function productively and for peer evaluations to be successful can be especially difficult to generate via a modem. To meet this challenge the instructor must connect with the students, must help the students connect with each other, must facilitate students in connecting to the learning process through the use of available technology, and must provide a variety of ways for students to connect with the instructor. Creating this sense of community was a primary goal when developing the first Internet class for Western Wyoming Community College.
Creating a sense of community within the constructs of a virtual classroom begins with the perquisites of the class. It is important to identify the skills students will need to be successful in the virtual learning environment. If students start out on fairly equal footing, with comprable skills, they will develop a sense of community quicker. If a student does not have adequate typing skills, or is unfamiliar with using a computer for research, that student may feel displaced in a virtual environment and his chances of success will diminish. An instructors perquisites should adequately define the skills necessary for students to participate in a challenging but rewarding learning experience.
A clear, concise course description combined with a well structured schedule of assignments will also add to a sense of community for those enrolled in a virtual class. Clear course descriptions inform the student of the curriculum prior to enrolling in the class. A student enrolling in an English class needs to know if a class is literature based or writing based. Many traditional students expect English classes in College to follow the same format of their literature based high school English classes. When students understand that the instructor of the course they registered for expects them to demonstrate their understanding of the various stages of the writing process by synthesizing information and presenting it in a clear and well ordered essay, the students chances of success increase because the expectations are clear.
To support clear expectations and continue building a sense of community structure into the class an instructor needs to have a clear, well-developed focus regarding the class content. Instructors need to be able to effectively communicate this focus to their students. If the class in question is a writing class, it is important for students to understand the writing genre practiced. The focus of the class should inform students if it is a creative writing class, a formal writing class, or even a technical writing class. In a virtual classroom, just as in a traditional classroom, students need to be aware of the knowledge they will gain and how it will effect their future. Focusing on the class content in a virtual classroom can be more difficult than focusing in a traditional classroom. In a traditional classroom it is easy to reiterate the pragmatics and semantics of the class content through lecture, group interactions, and gentle reminders. Maintaining focus on the class content in the virtual classroom requires that the instructor rely on the students understanding of the information posted to the web pages. Clear expectations create a sense of community in any learning environment. When students understand what an instructor's expectations are, and how those expectations connect with the focus of the class content, those students are more inclined to trust the teacher. When students do not have a clear idea of the instructors expectations and focus they often fear a hidden agenda with criteria and expectations they are unaware of.
Crating a sense of community also includes helping students understand the goals and objectives of the course they are taking and how these goals and objectives are tied to assessment. When students understand these issues, the expected work and the methods used to complete the requirements of the course become more meaningful for them. If instructors design goals around the concept of student success, the student feels an important part of the overall picture. Basing the evaluation of student work on the goals and objectives of the class keeps students and instructors focused. One way of accomplishing this is to state the goals and methods of assessment in the course outline. Then incorporate assignments that generate the outcomes you are wanting the goals to focus on and use the assessment process to help students understand their level of achievement in respect to the goals. If a class has a goal to help students learn to communicate competently and solve problems, students need to understand that the methods used to reach this goal may include demonstrating the ability to clearly and logically express ideas and concepts in written format. Participation in peer group evaluation sessions and collaborating through a writing project to solve a problem may also be part of the process and assessment. To future enhance the sense of community, students need to feel that they are all equally aware of the means used to assess the completion of any goal connected to the course they are taking. This level of understanding can help students place more value on writing assignments such as journal entries, collaborative writing exercises and per group evaluation participation. If students understand that they need to demonstrate the ability to write unified and coherent topic sentence paragraphs because it is a course objective, they often approach assignments connected to this goal with an increased level of attention.
A clear understanding of the goals connected to a class also helps students understand the class design and helps create a sense of community for participants. Instructors can implement class design to build in many learning activities that enhance the sense of community and begin to foster trust between class members. When students become acquainted with each other they begin to develop a sense of friendship and trust. This sense of friendship and trust is especially important in a writing environment. Students in writing classrooms take risks every time they share their paper with another student, offer criticism to a classmate, or collaborate on a writing project. Sometimes it is easier for a student in a virtual learning environment to take these risks because the face to face encounter is missing,, but often the difficulty comes from wondering if the unknown person is a reliable source to receive comments from. If students have developed a sense of trust with fellow classmates many of the activities built into the class structure will feel less risky. This helps create a healthy learning environment and establishes a sense of community often found in real life classrooms.
An example of using structure to build this sense of trust and friendship comes from my first few weeks as an on-line instructor. During the first week of English 1010 NT students participate in an autograph party. This activity consists of asking other students in the class preset questions via e-mail. Students search for a classmate who has more siblings than they do, for someone who likes the same movies they like, for someone who has knowledge of things they might not know about. They send out e-mail messages to all of the other students enrolled in the class. When they find someone who has more siblings than they have or who drives the same kind of car they do, the student can enter that name in the blank on their sheet. At the end of the first week the Autograph party sheet is sent to the instructor. They often find many things in common with other students and this starts the connection necessary to build friendship and trust. At the end of the first week students have a better idea of who their classmates are.
During the second week of class students interview another class member via e-mail and write a profile about that individual. Again, a personal connection is made and a sense of trust begins to build. The sense of community increases when students find pictures of themselves and others posted on a web page entitled "Meet Your Classmates." During the first week of class students must , as part of an assignment, send a photo and short biographical sketch to the instructor. The instructor posts these to the web page along with the students e-mail address. Students can connect faces, addresses, and personal information with a classmates name. The increased sense of community seems to enhance student communication. This helps prepare students for the nest step in becoming acquainted with their classmates.
The next step towards increasing a sense of community in English 1010 NT is a personal interview. This also serves as a short writing assignment. Students download an interview form and determine what questions they will ask another classmate. They send these questions to the individual and wait for a reply. The rule connected to this assignment informs students that if they have already received an interview form from a student they cannot fill out another one. This increases the opportunity for every student to participate in the interview process. Using the information gathered on the interview form, students write profiles of their classmates. This assignment helps students anticipate meeting each other on the MUD. Incorporating a MUD into the structure of the virtual classroom can help develop a sense of community, especially in a writing based class. The MUD can provide a number of services for the students and the instructor. Students can meet each other in this virtual space and discuss their writing assignments. MUDS provide an excellent environment for peer review groups and collaborative writing projects. An instructor can schedule entire class meetings or small group meetings in the MUD. Teachers can create Wizards to answer those frequently asked questions. The incorporation of a MUD into a virtual classroom complements the other structures that contribute to a sense of community in a virtual learning environment.
Creating a variety of student interactions helps establish a sense of community, as does an instructor who stays connected with the students. This may be one of the most difficult aspects of virtual education. Today's students expect visual and audio stimulation to facilitate learning. The lack of this stimuli through the virtual classroom mode of delivery makes it necessary for instructors to find other meaningful ways of connecting with students.
One important aspect of maintaining a sense of community and staying connected to the students is a timely response from the instructor. The teacher response time to an assignment is even more crucial in a virtual classroom than in a physical classroom. Students expect validation of their work through a timely response from the instructor.
For the student in a virtual classroom this becomes more important because as soon as they send an assignment to the instructor they begin to wonder if the assignment will reach its destination and how soon the teacher will respond. Becky Lane, a student in English 1010NT stated, "I always wonder if it really reached your. I am never sure, because when I send it the work is gone and I do not see where it goes" (Lane). Written responses to a students work become a building block in the community structure of a virtual classroom. For most students, writing is an intense process, revealing part of their inner self. If instructors do not provide timely responses to students writings, students can feel ignored and neglected. These feeling are especially fragile when students are writing journal entries or completing expository writing exercises. An instructors quick response to a students work demonstrates to the students the importance of the work and often validates the students in other ways.
While student to student and instructor to student connections play a major role in developing a sense of community in a virtual classroom, the role the of student to instructor connection is also important. Instructors should encourage students to connect with them. This could be accomplished through the "Autograph Party" assignment. Teachers could welcome questions from students. When a teacher participates in such an assignment they learn a great deal about their students and the students begin to feel that the instructor is approachable. Instructors should act as facilitators in MUD sessions. As in a traditional classroom, they should participate but not monopolize the time. It is interesting to throw out a conversational comment or an academic question and then provide students time to respond. Often, the most difficult part of MUD instruction for a teacher is allowing students enough response time. Response time is just as important in the virtual classroom as it is in the traditional classroom.
Instructor links can help encourage this student to teacher connection and increase a sense of community for students in your virtual classroom. Instructors should post a web page with their picture and some biographical information. They should also use this page to provide a variety of ways students can connect with them. This could include e-mail, webphone, MUD schedules, telephone numbers, a snail mail address and invitation for students to stop by and visit if they are ever on campus. A video taped introduction to the class can also encourage students to connect with the instructor. Initiating a contact with students via a talking web page or a video presentation often encourages students to contact the instructor.
A sense of community becomes vital when the virtual classroom faces one of the many problems connected with technology. It is important for students to feel a sense of belonging when faced with their computer crashing, they e-mail system failing, or are unable to access their provider to send assignments. Internet connections are unpredictable. If students have experienced a personal touch from the instructor prior to any one of these diastase, they are less likely to give up. Students who experience community connections in the virtual classroom are more likely to be successful, despite technical problems.
There are many other obstacles related to the concept of virtual education. One of these is grading students papers. In a traditional classroom setting teachers collect papers, make comments on them, offer suggestions for correcting errors post a grade and return the papers to the students. Grading papers for an Internet class can be a bit more challenging. How does one make critical comments and offer suggestions for improvement without downloading and printing every essay? One effective method is to use brackets and capitalization. Bracket the problem area and write your comments in capital letters inside the brackets. By embedding your comments next to the problem, the students gain a clearer understanding of the problem. This also draws the students attention to the problem areas and separates the students text from your comments. The major problem with grading students work in this manner is the tendency to appropriate students work. Be sure you are offering suggestions and making critical comments that will encourage critical thinking. Appropriation of students' work can destroy a sense of community in the virtual classroom; however, clear and concise comments based on critical analysis can foster a sense of community for your students.
The structure of the virtual classroom should go beyond that of an electronic correspondence course. Designing a virtual classroom with Internet components demands more of an instructor than designing a correspondence course.; nevertheless, students often maintain a higher level of interest in a well designed virtual classroom, learn more regarding the expanding technology available, and experience many of the things students in traditional classrooms experience. To create an Internet class instead of a correspondence class, the instructor must facilitate student to student interaction. The instructor must also facilitate student to technology interaction through assignments and class design. This interaction can include requiring students to write papers using the Internet libraries as their only sources of information. It can also include connecting your students with museums, libraries, and writing labs around the world. Instructors need to foster critical thinking skills in their students and one means of accomplishing this is to have students analyze information and determine what is viable and valid. Creating peer review groups and requiring students to evaluate the work of others also moves the virtual classroom from the realm of the correspondence class.
These methods of creating and maintaining a sense of community in a virtual classroom are proving successful In English 1010NT, at Western Wyoming Community College. Students in this particular Internet class experience student to student, instructor to student, student to technology, and student to instructor communication. The sense of community created by adding personal contact to the course structure and integrating it with the goals and assessments of the class create a friendly learning environment where students encourage each other to learn.
The focus of education is changing. Colleges and universities are no longer site bound or limited to minimal outreach programs. With the available technology people can take classes from several different educational facilities t one time. The community of the traditional classroom is no longer the only option for those individuals seeking education. Internet education is an evolving paradigm. As instructors, administrators, and educators, we must meet the needs of our students with the most current technology. We must enable them to compete in an electronic society where knowing how to find information is more important than being the storehouse for that information. While moving in this direction, it is imperative that we create and maintain a sense of community that will assist students in experiencing many different kinds of successes in the virtual classroom.
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