FACILITATING LEARNING THROUGH THE DEVELOPMENT OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES
One of the key components of distance learning is to involve students in every aspect of the course. Involving students increases their level of satisfaction with the course. Online education means there are fewer opportunities for people to engage in face-to-face meetings. A challenge of distance learning is to overcome the communication constraints of time and space that traditional, in-class situations do not encounter. Because of the lack of contextual clues in distance learning courses, distance learning students miss opportunities to share their knowledge and collaborate with others. A key component in an online course is communication. A highly effective way of fostering communication is to establish a social presence through learning communities in an online course. Social presence in distance learning is the extent that an instructor is perceived as a real, live person, rather than an electronic figurehead. Learning communities offer an avenue to connect instructors with students and students with students. By forming learning communities, some of the barriers of distance education are removed and students are able to use aspects of the communication process found in a traditional setting and apply them to online settings. There are many proven ways of involving students in learning communities such as icebreakers, chat rooms, discussion boards, structuring of activities, and so forth. In order for learning communities to be utilized optimally, the instructor must be involved as a facilitator each step of the way. Research has shown that students that are involved in learning communities where a social presence has been established have a better retention rate in distance learning courses.
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