Building Learning Communities beyond the Online Classroom

Written by: Rob Kelly
Published On: August 3, 2012

Many online instructors strive to create a community of learners within their courses. But once the course is over, this community typically disbands. Robert Zotti is working on projects to sustain these communities.The Flipped Classroom: Rethinking the Way You Teach

Zotti, assistant dean of Stevens Institute of Technology's WebCampus, is charged with designing a video teleconferencing/webcasting and podcasting facility specifically for producing content for a variety of the institution's constituents, with the goal of promoting learning communities that go beyond the online classroom. In Zotti's view, the goals of these online learning communities are to:

  • promote interaction between current students and instructors,
  • provide networking opportunities,
  • facilitate connections with alumni,
  • attract new students, and
  • promote the mission of the institution.

The key to creating and sustaining online learning communities is to encourage group learning inside and outside the online classroom, Zotti says. "Sometimes you have these people on the same team doing some kind of assignment...It works out really well, and sometimes these students exchange their contact information and stay in touch. If they don't after the class is over, that community goes away. Sometimes these people will reconnect in a subsequent class. Sometimes they won't...But if there's an online learning community, someplace you're connected to besides your class, then that might make things a little bit easier to touch base with the folks in your class and people throughout the institution," Zotti says.

Zotti is addressing this by creating a newsroom/content library that provides content that can bring learning communities together. For example, guest lectures provide a wealth of interesting and informative content, but unless they are captured (and properly edited and archived), they serve a relatively small audience.

WebCampus currently captures guest lectures and delivers them online using desktop Web conferencing tools. One of the goals of the new facility is to have a space designed specifically for video teleconferencing, which will improve production value of these lectures. "You can't use a Web conferencing tool meant for the desktop and open it up for a big stage in a theater and hope to get high quality out of it," Zotti says.Blended Learning Course Design: A Boot Camp for Instructors

A variety of uses

Guest lectures can serve a variety of uses. They can be streamed live, posted online in their entirety, and archived and tagged for use in online courses and on the institution's website.

"The problem with posting a 45-minute webinar in its raw form is that there can be awkward moments, dead space at the beginning and end, stuff that's time specific, and the occasional question that's off the wall and really doesn't apply to the topic at hand," Zotti says.

When edited, an hour-long guest lecture typically yields 30 minutes of "useful chunks." An important part of making that content useful is storing it in a content library that identifies this content by keywords and metatags, "so if you're an instructor looking to beef up your course with some recent topics beyond the textbook, now you have an extra source," Zotti says.

Another potential user of this content is the institution's public relations staff. "They're always looking for content. If you have this library, you're much better at feeding people this kind of content," Zotti says.

Tapping into this content library can also be an effective way to highlight key underenrolled or underrecognized courses or programs.

The next step for this concept is to promote the content using social media. "You have all this stuff, and then you start talking about it. You can have a moderator lead discussions and send the word out that we have this stuff. Take a look at it. See if you like it. Join the group. Join the discussion. It's free. It's a great place to go if you're looking to network for your next job or if you want to see what's happening on campus.Online Classroom Newsletter

"We have a survey that goes out every semester, and one of the hardest nuts to crack is people who take courses online and feel disconnected from campus. For some people, that's fine. That's all they want. They're just in it for the degree. Other people remember their undergraduate days and feel like they might be missing something. They go to grad school and do it online and there's just nothing there for them. That's a gap that we'd like to fill," Zotti says.

Producing content to facilitate learning communities is a collaborative process, and Zotti hopes to get faculty to embrace the use of the new classroom and its tools. One goal is to create at least one podcast for each course - an introduction by the instructor. It's an easy first step that will likely spur new ideas from faculty. Zotti is also talking with development and alumni relations staff about other uses. "I'm sure there are going to be other uses for this classroom beside what I have in mind," Zotti says.

This article originally appeared in the newsletter Online Classroom (August 2011): 5. The Online Classroom newsletter helps you stay current with the latest trends in online learning by offering ideas and advice for the new trailblazers in higher education.