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Beyond Blackboard and Into Virtual Communities

Online learning is evolving into much more than discussions via Blackboard. Today’s online learners are spending time engaged in discussions, meeting in virtual classrooms, and combining online and on-the-ground learning, even if they live time zones away from campus. In response, universities are adjusting their curriculum, learning expectations, and changing how instructors approach topics online. One major challenge, creating and maintaining learning communities in virtual space, is testing both existing and emerging online tools.

Jeremy Kemp, assistant director of San Jose State University’s Second Life Campus, never meets his students. Instead, he gets to know them through their avatars. The first thing Kemp teaches his library science graduate students is how to do basic things, like how to share information without interrupting each other, how to outfit their avatars and how to deal with technology problems, like when one avatar is in and out of class as their computer crashes and reboots.

Building community in Second Life is “really a matter of fostering user ownership and getting users involved,” says Kemp. “That’s the strength of Second Life … it’s a world created by users.” And, in Second Life, says Kemp, where a group of students meets at the same time online, there’s a sense of embodiment, a feeling of being in the classroom and a sense of presence.

“They get the feeling of being there,” says Kemp, and “they can see me in the classroom.” The main problem with Second Life, says Kemp, is that students have to sign on at the same time to be involved in class, which means that it might not be the best option for students who are learning asynchronously, coming into online learning communities from time zones around the world.

Kemp is constantly pinging students individually to make sure they understand, and he has developed ways of keeping tabs on who’s paying attention, like walking around the Second Life classroom and asking the avatars to follow, so he can see which is with him and which is standing in one spot because their owners are away from their computers.

In traditional online discussion forums and chats, instructors are charged with developing and maintaining a learning community with students that are miles apart and will likely never meet. The University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS) collaborates with Chicago State University to increase diversity using online discussions, Web conferencing.

To address the challenge of creating community, UIS professors are encouraged to help students build knowledge, instead of lecturing. It’s a constructivist approach to learning that puts the “burden on the faculty member to be insightful in selecting discussion questions, case studies, and in probing the imagination and interest of students,” says Ray Schroeder, director of technology enhanced learning.

As online learning expands, Schroeder expects blogs, wikis, Second Life, and other virtual worlds to give way to “mode neutral” teaching that allows students to choose how they get their information — online, in class, or a combination of the two.

Dr. Meg Benke, dean of Empire State’s Center for Distance Learning, sees opportunities for blended learning that allows students to work online and on site, like short-term residencies that connect students’ online learning with on-the-ground experiences. And, there’s always the next group of kids coming through classrooms.

“There is a generation of kids that already get this immersive chat-based, synchronous pretend environment,” says Kemp, those kids “are going to be savvy to the point of expecting integration with learning management systems.”

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