Virtual communities

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1 Virtual communities for learning

Laura Crawley, Memorial University of Newfoundland

2 Definitions and background

Community refers to people who have come together physically or by another means, because they have something in common (Garber, 2004).Virtual communities are “online social networks in which people with common interests, goals, or practices interact to share information and knowledge, and engage in social interactions” (Chunngam, Chanchalor & Murphy, 2013, p.863).

Engagement in communities of practice such as virtual communities is a process through which people learn and teach (Hough, Smithey & Evertson, 2004). Within virtual communities, learning is distributed across a range of participants, and customary notions of learning and knowledge are challenged (Lewis, Koston, Quartley & Adsit, 2010). Through Web 2.0 tools, virtual communities allows broad-based participation and information exchange, facilitating social construction and dissemination of knowledge by enabling all participants to share content (Lewis et al., 2010).

Essential and familiar principles and practices of socially constructed knowledge, social discourse in learning, and situated learning are at the core of virtual community learning relationships (King, 2011). Virtual communities are typically large and do not have a specific schedule. Their success is dependent on the voluntary engagement of their members to share their knowledge and experiences and require time to reach the stage at which most members are fully engaged in the kind of social activities resulting in learning and knowledge desired (Santos, 2012).

3 Affordances

Several benefits of virtual communities have been identified such as: Nurturing social factors and growing a learning community (Garber, 2004), participating online authentic audiences (Pasfield-Neofitou, 2011), technologies supporting communities and enabling it to function; as it may include individuals from a variety of backgrounds(Garber, 2004), lack of timing and space constraints (Hough et al., 2004), members are committed to the learning process or have a willingness to share knowledge with other members (Garber, 2004), and finally, contributing and active participation through “reciprocity” based on trust between the community members (Garber, 2004).

Virtual communities allow asynchronous communication and allow tasks to be given to students to provide a flexible and effective learning environment (Hedberg & Corrent-Agostinho, 2000). A virtual community, supported by technology, mediates between community members and participates in the building and sharing of knowledge about a particular topic (Santos, 2012). Virtual communities as self-organizing social systems represent a means to learn through social participation (Chunngam et al., 2013). The use of virtual communities for teacher discussion and reflection results in the adoption of a more colleague-like approach between beginning and experienced teachers helping novices develop an understanding of the language and workings of that domain and greatly enhances professional learning (Hough et al., 2004).

A virtual community, existing in cyberspace, provides a flexible yet effective learning environment for individuals to informally build and share knowledge, find individuals who share interests or co-explore diverse topics through computer mediated communications (CMC) in discussion spaces and chat rooms, together with computer managed learning (CML) (Chunngam et al., 2013). Hung & Cheng (2013) posited that users join virtual communities in order to share their knowledge related to common interests and topics. Virtual communities serve as storehouses of knowledge, in which people can absorb or share information (Hung & Cheng, 2013). In addition, with the help of technology, knowledge can spread rapidly (Hung & Cheng, 2013). Using Web 2.0 tools, virtual communities break down barriers to collaboration and promote the free exchange of information, suggesting that educators consider technology when improving accessibility (Lewis et al., 2010).

Through virtual communities, a sense of being heard and understood increases participants’ sense of achievement, and increases the likelihood of their continued engagement (Pasfield-Neofitou, 2011). Virtual communities may help individuals with low psychological well-being due to few ties to friends and may also help to motivate shy and introverted adolescents with few social skills to open up and find new friends (Tomai, Rosa, Mebane, D’Acunti, Benedetti & Francescato, 2010).

4 Constraints

Hough et al. (2004) acknowledged that constraining features of virtual communities are unclear and there are few instruments for assessing the quality of online discussion. Chunngam et al. (2013) concluded that while the social aspect may be important for vitality of a virtual community, it is not enough. Informal learning must go beyond social sharing and provide tools for knowledge sharing about a particular domain or subject (Chunngam et al., 2013).

Sivan (2000) posited that leaders lack basic skills of organization and management difficulties are experienced within virtual communities. Leadership within virtual communities takes time and since teachers chronically lack time they are often prevented from becoming leaders (Sivan, 2000). Chunngam et al. (2013) also identified a further challenge relating to the lack of a central presence or coordinator in a virtual community for informal learning. Garber (2004) found that many learners lack a basic concept of community; they may not want to be part of a community, or it may not be required of them. Barriers may create a disjoint community experience and weak ties do not permit the creation of new knowledge through shared experiences and social interaction (Lewis et al., 2010). Tomai et al. (2010) interviewed young heavy users of Internet and revealed that the users felt more isolated from society and had reduced their interactions with family and friends compared to when they did not use Internet for uses such as virtual communities.

Constraints on virtual communities were recognized as: fear of criticism (Hung & Cheng, 2013), diversified foci of members (Lin et al., 2008), lack of trust (Matzat, 2013) and experience (Hough et al., 2004). Difficulties in crossing linguistic barriers as well as cultural differences are also constraints on virtual communities (Lajoie et al., 2006). Garber (2004) also identified several constraints on virtual communities such as timeliness, supportiveness, virtual personality, perceived intelligence, commitment, and writing ability.

Garber (2004) established that virtual learning communities face the additional challenge of connecting people over time and space. Garber (2004) also concluded that if the instructor/ facilitator does not play an adaptive role in the community process, developing active and engaged learners becomes problematic. Lewis et al. (2010) posited that because staff charged with maintaining a social networking site, such as a virtual community, need to be responsive to the changing needs and interests of members as such, virtual communities require frequent monitoring. Lewis et al. (2010) also noted that the constant changes in technology itself affect virtual communities.

5 Links

A New Model of Education: Designing Virtual Communities for Creativity and Learning

Global Classrooms, Learning Networks and Virtual Communities

Virtual communities of practice: Towards new modes of learning and knowledge creation

Using Twitter to Build Virtual Professional Learning Communities

Cyberhives. Virtual Communities of learning

6 Works Cited

Chunngam, B., Chanchalor, S. and Murphy, E. (2014). Membership, participation and knowledge building in virtual communities for informal learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45: 863–879. doi: 10.1111/bjet.12114

Garber, D. (2004). Growing virtual communities. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5(2).

Hedberg, J., & Corrent-Agostinho, S. (2000). Creating a postgraduate virtual community: Assessment drives learning. Educational Media International, 37(2), 83-90. doi: 10.1080/095239800410360 Hough, B. W., Smithey, M. W., & Evertson, C. M. (2004). Using computer-mediated communication to create virtual communities of practice for intern teachers. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 12(3), 361-386.

Hung, S. W., & Cheng, M. J. (2013). Are you ready for knowledge sharing? An empirical study of virtual communities. Computers & Education, 62, 8-17. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.09.017

King, K. (2011). Professional learning in unlikely spaces: Social media and virtual communities as professional development. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET), 6(4), 40-46.

Kretovics, M. (2003). The role of student affairs in distance education: Cyber-services or virtual communities. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 6(3).

Lajoie, S. P., Garcia, B., Berdugo, G., Márquez, L., Espíndola, S., & Nakamura, C. (2006). The creation of virtual and face-to-face learning communities: An international collaboration experience. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 35(2), 163-180. doi: 10.2190/1G77-3371-K225-7840

Lewis, L. A., Koston, Z., Quartley, M., & Adsit, J. (2010). Virtual communities of practice: Bridging research and practice using Web 2.0. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 39(2), 155-161. doi: 10.2190/ET.39.2.e

Ligorio, M. B., & Van der Meijden, H. (2008). Teacher guidelines for cross-national virtual communities in primary education: Teacher guidelines for virtual community. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(1), 11-25. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2007.00240.x

Lin, F. R., Lin, S. C., & Huang, T. P. (2008). Knowledge sharing and creation in a teachers’ professional virtual community. Computers & Education, 50(3), 742-756. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2006.07.009

Matzat, U. (2013). Do blended virtual learning communities enhance teachers' professional development more than purely virtual ones? A large scale empirical comparison. Computers & Education, 60(1), 40-51. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2012.08.006

Pasfield-Neofitou, S. (2011). Online domains of language use: Second language learners’ experiences of virtual community and foreignness. Language Learning & Technology, 15(2), 92-108.

Santos, A. (2012). Designing and Researching Virtual Learning Communities. International Journal of Emerging Technologies in Learning (iJET), 7(4), 52-57.

Sivan, Y. Y. (2000). Patterns of leadership in virtual professional communities. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 8(1), 53-67.

Tomai, M., Rosa, V., Mebane, M. E., D’Acunti, A., Benedetti, M., & Francescato, D. (2010). Virtual communities in schools as tools to promote social capital with high schools students. Computers & Education, 54(1), 265-274. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2009.08.009