Virginia S. Little
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International Telecommunications Union/Telecom99
October 8-16, 1999
Virginia S. Little/Doctoral Candidate/Learning and Change in Human Systems (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Title: Life at the Bottom of a Soup Bowl: The Flavor of Learning Communities in the Information Age
The word "community" in reference to education, business organizations, and certainly within online groups, has become so generic as to suggest the meaning is collectively defined and understood.
Like many similar words, the true meaning is considerably more obscure.
Within the several "virtual communities" of which I have played a part, it is always fodder for discussion. We seek to understand what it is we are feeling as we "commune" and learn in relationship with others online, and how it may or may not differ from real time environments. If we think in relation to what we have known as community throughout history, it is clear that there are certain qualities of online community which are unique.
During the agricultural era, the concept of 'community' included both survival and socializing. Hunting, gathering, planting, preparing food and shelter, or migrating to more fertile lands, all contributed to a collaborative communal effort and lifestyle. All manner of activities quilting bees, harvest festivals, dances, saloons and religious ceremonies contributed to a collective, communal culture in times when human settlements were relatively small, both in population and geographics, and continue to do so today in places where the modern system has not yet attained dominance.
As the industrial age dawned, humankind came to believe it could control the external conditions of environment. The sense of community shifted to neighborhoods and localized geography. Where you lived, worked and played largely determined participation in community. As transportation and communication increased in range and efficiency, however, communities began to expand in size and number. Some elements of the traditional community began to fall away, unable to sustain themselves in the face of a population capable of moving and communicating across large distances.
Current technology permits communication in a myriad of ways: telephone, radio, fax, satellite, personal and work computers. Geographical and political boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the way we live and work. The old ways of forming and sustaining communities are no longer entirely effective, now that humans can be ever more isolated from their physical environment, while being increasingly involved with a widely distributed network of connections. Human beings are still social creatures, however. The need for a sense of community is strong within us all.
As the new technology has outmoded older ideas of community, paradoxically, it has spawned a new paradigm which may eventually come to be as important as some of the old. The virtual community or online learning community is a phenomenon of the Internet, an increasingly commonplace product of the new age of communication and connectivity.
Some online learning communities are based on personal interests or hobbies. Other online groups may form around academic, business, or other intellectual pursuits. Within these groups there is generally a sense of purpose and connectivity. That purpose may be for fun and creativity, for accessing an immediate information source, for distraction from other daily work activities, for learning, networking or collaborating on work projects. The lines often overlap between people's interests creating a more diverse learning environment and a heightened sense of connectivity and/or learning community.
The learning community 21 BEAT St., an acronym for the intersection of Business, Education, Arts and Technology in the 21st century, was created in 1994 for high school students studying creative writing and educators interested in learning more about teaching, technology and facilitating learning online. Transcending physical-world constraints, which less than a decade ago would have kept them utterly separate, students have found a new set of values upon which to base their judgements of one another. What has become important to these students is the inner person as revealed by their personal poetry, stories, and dialogues. This is perhaps the first time in all of human history where such a development has been possible, and it has fostered friendships and community growth by erasing external pressures commonly prevalent in regular school environments. The educators, in turn, learned how to augment and/or deliver their teaching online by engaging with the younger students, much like a student-teaching experience in a traditional classroom.
Our program has attracted interest and participation from an impressive array of people visiting authors and poets, groups of students, and individuals ranging in age from adolescent to 80, signing on from around the world. One of our students accessed our online campus from Geneva, Switzerland. Another student, a Jr. Olympic Champion ice skater, connected while traveling to train and compete. Ninth grade students socialized with seniors, and students from different school districts (some rural, some urban) became friends crossing usual age, gender, class, geographic and racial boundaries. My co-teacher, Launz Burch connects from Australia and with his adept storytelling skills is able to transport students to another culture, while still revealing how no matter where you are, human beings are much the same. As he is a full time writer, he is able to complement my own teaching with a working knowledge of writing process. Our participant numbers have ranged from 20 to 120 since the program's inception. Clearly, on-line communications serve to enhance geographically proximal ones and eradicate distance barriers for learners in remote locations.
The transactional nature of learning with students and teachers, youth and adults as co-learners, replaces former transmission models with the teacher as authority and imparter of knowledge. On-line learning focuses not only on course content, but on interpersonal relationships. The social, collaborative, and communicative aspects of constructing knowledge are central to on-line learning environments. As my student, Marta, writes about a "dusty" boy without hope in a trailer park, as Mike struggles with depression and thoughts of suicide and his peers affirm his value to their community, life and learning begin to overlap. Late at night by the flickering light of a computer screen, we reach towards our common humanity, struggle with the chaos of existence, and delight in the joy of questions without answers. Sharing our stories, we seek to make sense of a rapidly changing world. Together, we re-define ourselves as individuals, as an on-line community, as a society. We are all at once teachers and learners connected by modems, wires, and our artistic natures. The complex nature of integrated learning in online communities is aptly described by Claire Bateman:
"I believe that the on-line process is mimetically related to the action of the poet's mind in which there is, practically speaking, no centre, no beginning, middle or end-or rather, perhaps, the centre is everywhere, and the process is more simultaneous, multi-phrenic, and multi-vocal than it is orderly, linear, and conclusive...as the author H.L.Goodall has said, the only answer to life's strangeness is further and deeper strangeness, not simplification and clarification. Certainly this is true of both poetry and the increasingly complex technical world" Claire Bateman (The Nearness of You, 1995, "Other Voices Other Rooms," p. 169, Teachers and Writers Collaborative: New York).
From the outset, the 21 BEAT St. creative writing program was envisioned as a learning community. In the first few months, students delineated a range of goals. One explicitly stated goal was "...to grow as a learning community."
As facilitator, I chose to ask the students: "What is a learning community? How might we improve our community?"
Their responses were varied, frank, and highly interesting, for their insight and for the underlying values which they illustrated. While they may not represent a complete, fully enclosed definition of "learning communities", nonetheless the ideas have considerable value and are worth closer examination if we seek to understand what the online learning community of the future must be, if it is to succeed. I have summarized those replies here for ease of reading, and appended quotes from the participants where appropriate.
1. Community is organic and group specific, growing and evolving as a whole while core characteristics remain constant in the flux.
It should go without saying that true communities are dynamic, not static entities. Perhaps the greatest failure of the traditional pedagogy is its inability to accommodate the vital, organic nature of a true learning community. By confining participants into pre-arranged groups and enforcing participation in a range of topics over which the students have no control, traditional schools quite literally force their students into forming their own sub-communities, unrelated to the process of learning. The existence of these sub-communities or cliques punks, Goths, jocks, nerds, etc has the potential to be highly disruptive, even dangerous, due to concomitant alienation and antagonism. In other words, the rigid structure of the traditional pedagogy undermines itself, because students are not simple, crisply defined subjects to be filed and forced into learning groups and content without any sense of ownership in the process.
In the highly communicative, wholly voluntary online learning community, able to adapt to the needs of a wide range of participants, such tensions are almost irrelevant. One participant commented:
"I don't think there is a specific definition of a learning community. I think every classroom where your purpose is to learn is going to be a community since there are other people involved. We are able to express what our values, beliefs, ideas, and viewpoints are and we all accept each other for them. We are a diverse group of people with one common interest-writing. We've created an environment where we can learn and be ourselves at the same time, and I think that is essential."
2. Trust of other members necessarily produces a sense of community.
No definition of community could be considered complete or effective without addressing the issue of trust. A degree of mutual trust may even be considered the defining characteristic of all communities, as it permits members to interact and rely upon one another, so that real avenues of communication and exploration can be opened. Without the usual adolescent hierarchies of class and appearance, an online community can offer a degree of trust which the conventional school paradigm can only look upon, and envy.
"The thing that sticks out most in my mind is the people I've met and the acceptance I've found here. I've made many wonderful friends who accept and love me as I am, and who will also gladly critique anything I write. I've found an outlet for pent up feelings and emotions, a place to discuss, debate and learn about life and myself."
"I think that the whole critical process is enhanced by trust. It's not that you expect back-patting from everyone else, but that you know they will approach anything you post with some respect, instead of just aiming to tear it to pieces. It's much easier to accept true criticism from someone you know and trust than it is from a near-stranger. The more you post, the more criticism you receive, the more trust builds, and the more comfortable you feel about expressing yourself in such a public way. I'm much more relaxed about posting very personal thoughts and ideas than I was or than I imagined I could be when I first joined."
3. There is a balance and necessary dialectic between freedom and structure.
There is no question but that the excessively rigorous rule-structure of conventional classes discourages many students, and alienates them from the learning process by destroying the simple joy of learning. Conversely, some form of structure appears to be necessary for the mental comfort of most students, by providing a motivational framework, a visible set of practices to emulate, or goals to be achieved. The difficulty lies in finding a balance between these two opposing forces, one which will at once encourage students while leaving them the greatest possible freedom to explore and express themselves. Within the virtual classrooms of the 21 BEAT St. learning community, a high degree of success was achieved in finding that particular balance.
"It is a place that is open, free, and easy to share one's thoughts and ideas. It is structured, but not too much, so that the students and teachers have space to be themselves
and not have to conform."
"A learning community is one in which everyone can freely voice their own opinions without offending others.
"We can't have complete freedom except within ourselves. Feeling a lack of freedom comes through fear of disclosure."
4. For this group, interest in creative writing offered the core for community.
Readers and writers in regular school culture are often ostracized, sitting quietly with books and paper in the back of the room. Journals are written and hidden beneath the bed. Online interactions allow students to have an authentic audience for their expression. And, as we are all co-learners, students potentially receive dozens of responses to a single piece of writing. Normally shy students, reticent about sharing their work with others, find a place to voice and to refine their art. Students commented:
"The biggest thing about this class is the writings. That is what I will remember most. I have printed out so many pieces from different folders to hang in my bedroom and on my locker. I have poems in my folders at school and on the mirror in my bathroom. I have learned through the experiences and expressions of others."
"We go about doing things in an ever constructive manner.(staying focused on the intent of your writing piece, make sure you take everyone's comments into the picture and follow through on suggestions) This way, we learn the ways of creativity and quality writing.
5. The learning community is self-determining.
Within 21 BEAT St., participants expressed a sense of being co-learners. Often when I would sign on, I would find that several students had already responded to a question posed. In developing such a community, it is apparent that at the outset, while the students are still uncertain about their new environment, facilitators guide and mentor the process of online communications. Then, as students take ownership, the line between teachers and students fades.
For example, when several students began
cluttering the forums with chattering, the group asked these students to create their own item for socializing. "Kat and Red's Playhouse" opened the next day as a space reserved for humor and frivolity. Students
demonstrated their ability to self-monitor their community, establish communication guidelines, and to share leadership as co-facilitators of the learning process.
"A learning community is where everyone learns from the collective opinions and insights of everyone else. Gifts of diversity and tolerance will make us all better people regardless of what we end up doing with our lives."
6. The online community fostered an exploration self and was highly social in nature in an environment which prompted risk taking.
Participation in an online community is dependent upon communication. If one does not write, one is invisible. There is no equivalent of the silent student at the back of the classroom, simply because such a student is completely non-existent within the framework of the online community. Where students are reluctant to participate, it is the task of the facilitator to engage with them, and draw them out until they are equal co-learners within the community. As a matter of natural progression, when the students become proficient and comfortable in the medium, they begin to take over this role of the "official" facilitator as well. The low-risk environment online makes it easier for this natural progression to occur, resulting in a very relaxed, socially comfortable community capable of asking difficult questions of its participants without fear of exposure or derision. As one student stated:
"I've been at this for about a month now. If we were sitting next to each other in an uptight classroom, our relationships would be so different. We'd say, 'Hey, what's goin' on? Nothin. Whadja do this weekend? Not much.' Here in divine aloneness and privacy we write our thoughts on God, soul-searching poetry, politics, and all else in the universe. We seriously write. The awkwardness of rejection -fear is all but eliminated, at least for me."
"A learning community is like a social community; everyone has to be comfortable. In order to achieve togetherness in a community, a common bond must be achieved."
"A learning community is one in which everyone uses the ideas and thoughts of others to grow as a person themselves.
"The thing I love most about this class is the family, the community. I have found through this class to be open and to trust myself. Before this class, I had never written of my own accord. This class inspired me, these people were inspiration, and these wires provided the security I needed to branch out and begin writing. I have since discovered more of myself, my courage and individuality."
"The kind of community I want? Basically, one like where I live which epitomizes the small-town ideal. Everyone is on a first-name basis, and though we have that, the basis MEANS something. We are on a first-name basis because we know and trust one another. I want a community of trust and friendship, with no tension or conflict (except of interest)."
The very act of bringing students to participate in discovering a viable definition of "community" stimulated the development of that community amongst them, as an emergent property of shared, voluntary activity. The open-ended questions without clear-cut, didactic answers served to create a curriculum and a community based on authentic inquiry. The collective defining of terms and ideologies served to enhance the feeling of online community, of a shared knowledge base. It allowed us to move forward more intentionally as a learning community
Through this online process of questioning, dialoguing, responding and refining, the students collectively defined a 'learning community' over a period of several months:
"Communities bond through common interests and shared levels of participation. A learning community builds trust through respect for multiple perspectives in exploring diverse ideas, opinions and insights, which creates a sense of belonging. Dialogues are fueled by passionate inquiry and in-depth searching. This provides a comfort level where people feel encouraged to take risks as learners."
After the online discussion naturally slowed in participation, students stated they felt they had explored them to their full extent. By questioning their ideas further, we were able to develop a deeper understanding of our community and its possibilities. Besides deciding on goals for the year, the students also reflected on ways to challenge those goals. They went on to explore not just what made our class a "community," but how we were affected by one another through interrelationship online. I summarized the key elements of the discussion, refining and distilling the data as we progressed. Now having a workable definition of "learning community" which satisfied all participants, I asked those questions which naturally followed:
1) "What kind of community do we want to create?"
2) "How do we get there?"
What follows is a verbatim transcript from the online archives to give the reader a sense of online dialogue, and at least a limited insight into the nature of the interactive online process.
Suggestions were made to meet more often face to face(ftf). I think this could be done in small groups, as happens often now, but that it should be largely student organized and facilitated, though I might be enticed to join you. Students have discussed possible meetings for collaborative writing and sharing. This also could happen with groups who decide to read a novel together, a combination discussion both online and ftf perhaps? Any comments on these possibilities, or other suggestions for meeting? Those who aren't a regular part of our community, what do you think contributes to this uneven participation level? How do we address this issue?
02-MAR-97 23:41 Katie Givens
An issue is being addressed here that has seemed most relevant to me this entire class, and even a source of guilt and shame. Participation of those who are sporadically involved and not "hard-core."
This class has offered me so much in the areas of technology, community, creative growth, and writing forum/showcase. I feel like I've gobbled up about 80% of these opportunities, and the juice is still dripping off my chin. Several times over the course of this class, I've struggled with feeling like I could never put enough time into this class; certainly not as much as is deserved. Sometimes my priorities were screwed up, most times I was truly overloaded. But who isn't?
Sometimes I think more effort should be made (by other students) to contact others for face-to-face (ftf) gatherings and social events. But then, isn't it my own stupid fault if I'm not online when things are announced? When I found out about a group of you touring Washington Post, I nearly turned green with envy. But again this is about MY choices, isn't it?
I sincerely hope that I will be considered one of the students who loves participating in and supporting this program, if not being a "hard-core" participant.
04-MAR-97 13:59 Ginny Little Facilitator:
One of the plusses of a program like this is that it allows for ebb and flow. You are one of the core participants in my view, but unlike having to be in "class" everyday, this medium allows us to attend to shifting priorities, and attend to life events when needed, or to be away for a period of time and then reconnect. It is those who have never really entered our community and the loss for us and them that I lament and wonder how to eradicate.
I thought of you and your apology for being non-present for a time, and then Tony's questioning about the "core gatherers," and how I viewed that, although I do want to clarify it was a student who coined that phrase, not myself. I was reading last night in a book called Necessary Wisdom about systems theory. There is a quote by Georgia O'Keefe: "Still-in a way-nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small-and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time. In our fast food rush up the ladder of achievement, we forget the importance of taking time." The renewal available to us requires remembering the transformative power of pauses and latencies. The author suggests we take a moment to reflect on the role such things as listening and silences play in our lives and on the place of mystery and the timeless for us. The author continues: "Learning to stay more in touch with rightness of time-when to sleep, when to awaken, when to be alone, when to be with others-offers one of the most reliable antidotes to the ravages of "stress" that so mark our time." (Johnston, Charles 1991, Necessary Wisdom, Meeting the Challenge of a New Cultural Maturity. Seattle, ICD Press).
I thought of all of you when I read this again last night and how you are all on such treadmills in your life. It is important to pause, to reflect, to move between cycles of action and reflection, to engage and disengage when necessary. I hope you all know that the space is here for accommodating the natural ebbs and flows of creativity and of our lives.
As a result of this, and many similar exchanges between students and facilitators, we eventually outlined practices which we felt would enhance the quality of the 21 BEAT St. learning community overall. The suggestions agreed on by participants included:
1. More face to face meetings.
To improve and deepen their sense of community, students agreed that more face-to-face gatherings would promote a greater sense of connectivity. As their on-line teachers lived in San Diego, Washington, D.C. and even in Australia, and some students had other commitments to jobs or sports activities, they decided that these "meetings" should be self-organized and non-mandatory. Students created an item for planning meetings to write poetry at local coffeehouses, to celebrate birthdays and holidays at students' homes, to share sports events schedules, to announce author readings, and more.
It is interesting to consider this response in contrast to statements made by practically all participants regarding the degree of freedom, trust, and comfort offered by an online forum. There is still a felt need for genuine face-to-face human interaction-hugs, eye contact, brainstorming sessions, audible laughter, physical presence. It seems extremely unlikely that a purely virtual community will ever fulfill the need for simple social contact and shared experience which is so strong in all human beings. We have found that the best learning community is one which combines real and virtual exchange.
2. Alternating responses and establishing rotating peer partners seemed to be a key to strengthening community.
As in live-world communities, participants often fall into habitual patterns of behavior. Certain students interact more easily than others. Friendships and alliances form, which can lead to a degree of polarization within the online community. Recognizing this, the facilitators and students agreed to a few simple practices which extended the range of each participant's regular contacts within the 21 BEAT St. community.
One student reported:
"Having the class evaluate a new person's writing each week is really good to build the feeling of community. In the beginning, there were only certain people's writings that I would read, and I didn't get to meet and somewhat understand the other writers that I didn't bother to read. When I was forced to read the writings of others, I felt like I became more of the community."
3. Humor adds levity and fun to the process and also provides insight.
By virtue of encouraging interaction as equals, and by promoting clear, 'natural' communication on topics of direct interest and importance to the students, interactive online learning becomes naturally infused with play. Unlike the traditional classroom, this degree of play poses no threat whatsoever to the "authority" of facilitators, nor to the implementation of the curriculum.
The lack of space for "play" in the traditional pedagogy is deeply disturbing. All mammal species engage in some form of "play" during their development, and this "play" represents the major learning mode which permits the development of adult behaviors. Young wolves play at hunting and fighting. Young antelope play at running and evasion. Young children role play adult occupations. By strictly differentiating "play" from "study", the conventional classroom creates an environment which is actively and overtly hostile to the true, natural learning processes of children, which are genetically linked to concepts of play, inquiry and exploration.
For me, one of the joys of teaching online is that I am guaranteed to laugh out loud each day in response to postings of participants-their satire, parody, irony, simple sarcasm, outright joking, and even bizarre discussion items such as "Life at the Bottom of a Soup Bowl" or "How to Eat Bugs and Like It" celebrate the social and more light-hearted connection of community.
4. Trust deepens with time and through voluntary personal disclosure.
We had several critical incidents in our community which helped to strengthen our bonds through conflict resolution and creative problem solving. More important than the source of these struggles is the way in which a community learns to navigate the challenges. We had one student who was suicidal. Another fabricated a newborn child, later posting the child had died of SIDS. Yet another student seemed bent on continually disrupting the forum with aggressive or rude comments.
As an experienced educator, I knew these adolescents were seeking attention, help, or a way to become something they did not believe themselves to be, to essentially draw some kind of personal power. I asked students online: "Have any of you ever pretended to be something you're not? Have you ever wanted to be the center of attention?" This led the discussions from a place of anger to a place of compassion. Instead of throwing a student out of the program for breach of trust, we provided a place of safety for all to come to new understandings of human dynamics and acceptance of human fallibility.
In cyberspace, there are few, if any, sanctions which can be imposed, short of wholly exiling persons from further participation. One cannot issue fines, jail terms, take away privileges, or enforce after-class detention. Gentle chastising, designed to alert an errant participant to the nature of their undesirable behavior is possible but if the goodwill of the participant is lost, the value of their participation is also lost.
The job of the facilitator in any classroom is to model appropriate response. In our forum, this was achieved by openly addressing issues and individuals in respectful discussions. Rather than holding tightly to ideas and beliefs, confronting others and engaging in debates that inevitably resemble a ping-pong game with no winner, participants learned to place thoughtful comments into the forums as if placing a bowl in the center of the table to be filled with various fruits of different color, taste, texture.
5. We connect through our common interests and simultaneously learn to accept differences.
The student-organized Cafe of the Arts, resembling a village square where people gather to laugh, talk and debate, became the center for community formation. "Those who focus on the benefits to be gained from a networked writing classroom generally stress the interactive learning this arrangement can provide. A networked writing classroom enhances the social, collaborative atmosphere (Gerrard,1989; Sudo,1985; Weiss, 1989). Students created items on religion, writing in foreign languages, physics and music theory, sharing of favorite quotations and books, worldviews and philosophy, literature circles, and more.
In one particular online Café item, "Is there a God?" started early in the program and continuing to the end of the year, students explored their beliefs on the divine mystery of the unknown with perspectives ranging from Christian Fundamentalism to resolute atheism. The disparity of viewpoints caused some initial discomfort, but eventually students relinquished ownership of these ideas as they learned to honor diversity. By the end of the year, it was commonplace to see comments such as: "Gee, I never thought about it like that." Or, "I may not agree with you, but.." Students later discussed how this first item allowed them to become closer as a community by accepting each other's differences.
These wide-ranging dialogues, for which there is little time in the regular fifty minute classroom focused solely on mandated curricula, allowed students to discover, articulate and question their beliefs and values. Students uncovered their underlying assumptions, and as writers, began composing reality. Furthermore, without the ever-present threat of retaliation either from peers, or formal authority, students felt much more confident about expressing genuine personal opinions, and giving equal consideration to opinions offered by others.
Students viewed the writing community as a window to see within themselves and as a bridge to the human spirit of others. Within creative expression lies the infinite possibility of transformation. At the end of each year, the students compiled a book of their favorite works. Chapter themes included worldviews, family, love and relationships, responses to writing invitations, works on being a writer, and looking inside-out. As writers they had ventured into composing and re-creating their visions of reality and their sense of Self; writing became a process of discovery and the core of our community. Students characterized their art in the following ways:
"Creative writing is the easy and natural expression, and the most difficult chore. It can flow from us like water, or bead in small droplets from hours of labor. It is about abstract ideas or unreal people, and it is the mirror of our Selves. Creative writing is recording the colors, faces, events and feelings inside of me. It is converting ideas into words, taming the flames, and molding the clay into forms palpable on paper."
"Creative writing not only creates a great work but it creates the person who wrote it."
"If everyone had their own language of being and their own inner world, creative writing would be the great translator; a bridge that links us to each other. Creative writing is freedom made literal."
"To create literally means to cause to exist or bring into being. You are bringing an idea or image into being where there was emptiness before. You are causing a thought to exist for others, where it lived in your mind alone."
Through responses from an authentic audience, we came to know the value of many-to-many communications and the importance of collaborative and cooperative learning fostered by the online environment.
6. We provide a caring support system for community members during difficult times, creating a bond between us.
As grandparents died, couples broke up, kids got in first car accidents, students expressed their fears, hopes and dreams. The online community provided a place to voice and cry out for help in difficult times. All members felt they belonged and were valued. It is possible to disclose online without the fear-provoking real-world process of standing up in front of a group, of having to watch the instantaneous reactions of others. In the relatively slow, thoroughly considered world of the online forum, participants learned to apply genuine skills of tact and empathy, which created a very powerful community-wide bond.
7. There is a sense of honesty and openness about our community.
We have weathered some difficult times and as a result have moved past being "polite," and a pseudo sense of community, to a true sense of community where each feels free to express their beliefs and feelings in respectful but honest ways. Having the time to pause and reflect about a post, students looked past their instantaneous "gut responses" and their posts became either warmly supportive, or non-threateningly inquiring.
Knowing that the audience to whom one intends to communicate consists of supportive equals, of people who are prepared to ask for clarification and consider what they don't understand instead of reflexively condemning, it becomes far easier to achieve honest, open communication.
9. We have begun to move outside our own community towards interacting with and impacting the lives of others with our writing and sharing about our program.
During the second year of the 21 BEAT St program, students wrote a poetic drama based on the lives of people in the margins of the world called "We are the Poets" which they presented at the Pedagogy of the Oppressed conference, as well as for local venues. This drama is currently in publication in a book titled Language, Literacy and Social Justice. All students published in either online or through more conventional literary outlets. Several did internships in Washington D.C. at our server company, Caucus Systems, who host our online campus. Several more are now webmasters for universities or work for local and national technology companies. A significant number won cash awards for their writing through our local arts council. Students learned that their voices and talents had the power to impact others and to enact change in the world. Connections between businesses, arts, education and community continue to expand.
So, how will learning communities be characterized in the Information Age? They will combine current learning environments, schools, organizations, real time communities with virtual extensions. Information is literally at the learner's fingertips. What is needed are new ways of thinking about teaching learners what to do with all this overload of information, how to be discerning readers, critical thinkers, and how to create knowledge rather than just absorb it. And a new global worldview is emerging as a result of the Internet collapsing former boundaries. This sets the stage for future collaborative learning communities which will encourage learners to relinquish tightly held cultural perspectives and learning approaches. Learning communities of the future necessitate new ways of thinking about how we learn, live, work and play, and with whom.
For the moment, anyway, there are still some powerful limiting factors in the development of virtual communities, which must be overcome before we can begin to reap the true benefits of a possible transformation in educational paradigm. Of paramount concern are issues of equity of access. In the virtual world, affluence and computer literacy are the first and most important elements of community building. It is nearly impossible for a person who does not have access to and an understanding of a reliable computer service of their own to join such a community. Unless this matter is quickly addressed, we run the risk of creating a new underclass of information-poor citizens, unable to take effective part in the direction of society.
As virtual communities are currently largely text-based, which is the ideal for literacy education, those who possess superior skills in written English find themselves in very real position of advantage and influence in the text based online medium. Good writers naturally attain a position of status through their ability to effectively communicate. In addition, as participants engage from varying cultures and countries, we are able to practice secondary languages in authentic communications with native speakers. Those with limited English proficiency however are currently at a severe disadvantage in the structures of online communications. This may be somewhat ameliorated in the future with the advance of multi-media technologies.
Then again, there is matter of facilitation. The step from traditional, transmission-model classroom pedagogy to the transformational model required for effective online learning, where the curriculum and even the very knowledge is a communally-owned emergent property of the many-to-many process of inquiry, is a step which, sadly, threatens rather than excites most teachers. One of the biggest fears expressed by pre-service teachers in our program in relation to teaching and technology was: "What should I do? The kids know more than I do!" The answer of course is to learn with and from the students and to become more rigorous as educators about our own professional development. Teachers will otherwise try to translate currently outmoded classroom practice and pedagogical beliefs to the online medium. Tech companies, in turn, seem focused on producing software which supports the traditional educational models for synchronous environments, virtual student hand-raising, skill drill teaching techniques(virtual worksheets) and pre-programmed courses delivered via CD Rom with overt promises of increased test scores. This unfortunately seriously undermines the distinct and promising possibilities of reform this new medium could potentially support via interactive online learning communities.
The online learning community has tremendous value to offer the process of education. Online facilitators must learn to organize, encourage, critique, respond to teachable moments, mentor and guide, attending closely to how and when to ask the right question to move the learning forward. When students are intrinsically motivated, the investigative process becomes infused with passion and learning is authentic. In 21 BEAT St, students developed yearlong writing projects as works-in-progress. Early on a student commented:
"I'm really excited about my project. This is a new one, being excited to do my homework."
I responded, "Think of it as lifework rather than as homework".
Examples of projects included a website for our program with samples of student writings, links to resources for writers, articles published about our work, and a photo gallery. Others wrote and revised novels. Another developed an inquiry project by interviewing classmates and others from around the world. On the Internet, she posed the question, "What experiences are necessary to live a full life?"
Lines between life, learning and school faded.
In other words, the students had made the transition between the traditionally narrow focus of school studies to the broader world. They were able to see the connection between the values and the techniques they were learning in their virtual classroom, and the requirements of a full, informed, and effective life in the 21st century. They had begun to apprehend the relationships between education, business, arts and technologies, while mastering skills of communication and technology which will be essential in the near future.
If we, the teachers and facilitators can learn to make the same
cognitive leap made so easily by these perfectly ordinary high school students, there may yet be some hope for the educational system. If we can learn to let go of our "ownership" of some kind of "canon" of "truth", and
become instead co-learners with those we once labeled "students" there is a chance that the process of learning in the 21st century may begin to return to our society some of that sense of community and connection which has been
gradually destroyed by the very way of life we have sought to preserve.
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