In today’s scholastic landscape,
educators recognize the value of technology and online collaboration for educational
enhancement and have all the means and tools to make optimal use of this technology.
The emergence of modern communications and the advent of the internet are changing
the way education is conceived of, managed, and conducted (Shrivastava, 1999).
These new learning technologies create opportunities for new educational experiences,
including distance learning and online synchronous and asynchronous
communication and networking. The potential of these technologies for education
is immense. Therefore, integrating these new advancements into our educational
institutions is important to enhance the educational process.

Advancements in technology and with
the internet have brought to the surface social networking and virtual
communities (Chen, 2004; Ke & Hoadley, 2009). As a result, online learning
has achieved prominence in higher educational institutions and is currently
gaining popularity in K-12 education as well due to the availability afforded
by technological advances (Palloff & Pratt, 2007). Online environments add
more value to the process of learning by offering students an ongoing learning
platform. They also provide other means for students to easily access
information and increase their knowledge base. In addition, such environments
are “space and time independent” as they are free from the constraints of the
traditional classroom (Shrivastava, 1999, p. 699). This is, obviously, positive
for educational institutions and teachers alike because it allows learning to
take place anywhere and at any time (Shrivastava, 1999).

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Much research has been conducted recently
with regards to the importance and significance of the sense of community in
online learning (Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 4). Outcomes of these studies,
as explained by Palloff and Pratt (2007), give further support to previously
held notions that “the key to successful online learning is the formation of an
effective learning community as the vehicle through which learning occurs
online” (p. 4). Creating an online learning community “allows for mutual
exploration of ideas, a safe place to reflect on and develop those ideas, and a
collaborative, supportive approach to academic work” (Palloff & Pratt, 2007,
p. 26).

Building a community of learners in
an online course transforms key features inherent in traditional learning
environments. Some of the radical changes brought to traditional educational
settings by online learning include “greater availability and accessibility of
information, engagement of different learning styles, and promotion of
increased responsibility for teaching and learning” (Adams & Sperling, 2003,
as cited in Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 4). Such changes make it imperative
for educational institutions and teaching staff to address the need to “encompass
the development of new skill sets for teaching and the need to rethink
pedagogy, redefine learning objectives, re-evaluate assessment, and redefine staff
work roles and culture” (Palloff & Pratt, 2007, p. 4).

Learning communities and
collaborative activities have long been acknowledged for their advantages and
opportunities, including the value they provide in enhancing the learning
process (Oliver, Herrington, Herrington, & Reeves, 2007). Dialogue and
discussion stemming from such contexts are important for the learning process,
and the inherent collaboration in such communities provides tangible and
continuous support to students (Oliver et al., 2007). Certain features of
online learning help some students become more successful learners (Palloff
& Pratt, 2007, p. 4). For example, introverted students find ample space in
virtual classrooms to express themselves and participate constructively in
online discussions where they will not experience the social pressure
associated with face-to-face interaction in actual classrooms.

Often, teachers can create and
sustain collaboration in their classrooms through group-based activities (Oliver
et al., 2007). However, this process might not be straightforward in a virtual
learning environment. Therefore, it is crucial to design a learning environment
and activities that can help students flourish in a virtual learning
environment. However, the design of such an environment requires careful
planning and understanding of how this environment is created and sustained as
an ongoing learning platform.

This article aims to look carefully
at online learning communities; how they are conceived and defined, the theoretical
assumptions implicit in this learning environment, how they can be created and
sustained, the changed role of the teacher, and the emerging issues that might
affect students’ engagement in online learning communities.


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