April 3, 2007 (Refreshed September 28, 2012)
eCoaching Tip 41: Stage Three of a Learning Community — Stimulating and Comfortable Camaraderie
This tip returns to the themes of community and collaboration. In particular, I think it is timely, in the late middle of a course term, to focus on the characteristics of a course community that has reached stage three. What is stage three of community? As described by researcher Ruth Brown, stage three is characterized by a “stimulating and comfortable camaraderie.” Learners who have reached this state of camaraderie often hate to see a course come to an end, experiencing a sense of loss and sadness similar to reaching the last few pages of a great book.
Let’s explore stage three and see what we might do to achieve even a touch of this level of community.
Three Stages of Building Community
In one of the earlier tips I described the three stages of building a course community as derived from Brown (2001) Here they are again in brief.
- Stage One is making friends with those other learners who feel comfortable communicating with you. This usually happens in the early weeks of a course — Weeks 1 to 3 of a 12-week course.
- Stage Two is called acceptance or “community conferment.” In this stage, learners engage with other learners in the larger community group as they examine or struggle with information, an issue, or an idea of importance. This usually occurs within the context of a long, thoughtful, threaded discussion on a subject of importance. Such long and thoughtful discussions often have the feeling of a shared experience and generate feelings of satisfaction and kinship with the other participants. This stage usually evolves during the early middle to the late middle of a course. This participation solidifies membership in the community.
- Stage Three is the stage characterized by camaraderie generally achieved after a “long-term or intense association with others involving personal communication.” This stage is not reached with every course and it takes time and interaction often beyond what can be achieved in a single term. If it happens, it usually happens in the concluding weeks of a course. In stage three, learner engagement is even more intense as students are focusing, sharing and working on projects, presentations and course capstone experiences.
Creating and building community is not easy or straightforward. In many ways, it is foreign to how we usually teach and learn, often more in isolation requiring serious individual work.
The next part of this tip describes some of the behaviors on the part of faculty and learners that can support the building of community. All stages of community-building enhance learning and reduce the isolation often felt by online learners.
Strategies for Shaping and Supporting Community
Faculty behaviors for supporting stage three of community are very similar to the behaviors for building community during the middle phases of a course. Here is a list of these behaviors. Which of these behaviors do you use and find effective? Which of these behaviors are you ready to try using in your next course?
- Taking time to be very clear about course expectations and processes
- Posing open-ended questions about what learners think and think they know
- Making positive and substantive observations about learners’ participation in community
- Encouraging the open identifying of relationships and linking of ideas
- Encouraging the linking of course content to current events, problems
- Challenging students to share questions and strategies and insights about the course content
- Facilitating learner to learner discussion
Some of the behaviors that move a class beyond stage two of mutual acceptance and effective communication to the deeper commitment and support of stage three include variations of the following. Notice that this means grappling with issues of importance, and probably issues without answers. Would one of these approaches work particularly well with your course content?
- Grappling with issues and problems together, including problems for which the answers are unknown, multiple, or provide ethical challenges
- Brainstorming and challenging each other about innovative strategies and solutions
- Communicating with learners on the intersection of interests and content areas
- Sharing experiences that support future networking and professional collaboration
If you watch your learners’ postings you can probably see evidence of learners developing personal and professional relationships. Obviously one of the most lasting outcomes of sharing discoveries together is the development of these longer-term relationships. When we ask our students what their “takeaways” for a course might be, one of those might be professional friendships for the future.
“Intervening Conditions” That Can Hinder Community Development
Are we aiming so high that we set ourselves up for disappointment? Here is a reality check.
In her study on building community, Brown identified 15 life style conditions that might hinder a group of learners from developing into a vibrant learning community. She called these “intervening conditions” and they include many of the familiar life-style and commitment issues, such as health, work, family, and logistical and technological issues. Some of the conditions that she included that might not readily come to mind include:
- Personalities and how they manifest themselves online
- Interaction of learner and faculty teaching and learning styles
- Varying expectations and needs from a course (Some students really just want the credits and the grades, with no interest in networking, etc. For working professionals this needs to be an acceptable option. J
What does this reality check suggest? Be patient and understanding with yourself and with your learners. Check the list of faculty behaviors for growing and building community and if you are doing many of them, what community is evolving is what makes sense for a particular group. Be sure that you are enjoying the interaction, discussions and learning that are happening and then relax. Each group of learners is unique.
Social Networking Uses for Community
Newer and more spontaneous social networking apps, such as instant messaging, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter enable more “natural” collaboration than the asynchronous discussion forums. We have a lot to discover about the impact on learning and building community that will be enabled by these apps.
What is certain is that the culture of collaboration and sharing will continue to rapidly grow. For a look at the benefits for the learning paradigm by integrating social networking tools and features into our courses, an articleby Malcolm Brown, a former director of Academic Computing at Dartmouth College, is a good starting point, even if it from 2007.
Brown, M. (2007) Mashing up the once and future CMS. EDUCAUSE Review. March/April 2007,42 (2) 8-9. Retrieved September 27, 2012 from http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/mashing-once-and-future-cms
Brown, R. E. (2001). The Process of community-building in distance learning classes. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks 5(2): 18 – 35. Retrieved September 27, 2012 from http://sloanconsortium.org/jaln/v5n2/process-community-building-distance-learning-classes
Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016 in the second edition of the book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by designingforlearning.org.