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Building Better Online Communities in the Post Pandemic World

Authors:

Abstract

Recent world events have shifted our educational focus to a greater emphasis on online learning and working environments. Given the immediate and emergency moves to online learning, the effectiveness of these shifts has come into question in many institutions of higher education. What has become clear is that the longer the pandemic lasts, the more ingrained and assimilated virtual learning will become in our educational institutions. We argue that this crisis, while tragic, has also simultaneously created opportunities that would not have presented themselves in a slower, more controlled transition. The rapid changes caused by the pandemic continue to be a catalyst for the evolution of online education, in positive ways; through an unanticipated world event, acting as an essential precursor to disruptive, progressive innovation. This paper examines the critical elements of effective, online learning communities. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2017) calls for immediate paradigmatic shifts in the way employment skills are addressed in educational institutions and society in general. These urgent demands derive from a wide variety of local, regional, national, and international sources, including the Conference Board of Canada (2016), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (2017). These sources recommend increased emphasis on skills development in complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, negotiation, people management and collaboration. Our health as individuals and communities exists within a future that continues to be fraught with complexities related to pandemics, racial inequalities and unrest, climate change, and a digital news media laden with artificial information, misappropriation of facts and manipulation of knowledge to benefit those in power. We are at a critical juncture, and this paper describes key features of effective online learning communities to ensure better, stronger digital learning and working spaces.
Building Better Online Communities in the Post Pandemic World
Wendy Barber, Robert Harrison, Roland VanOostveen, Elizabeth Childs
Ontario Tech University, Oshawa, Canada, Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC.
Abstract: Recent world events have shifted our educational focus to a greater emphasis on
online learning and working environments. Given the immediate and emergency moves to
online learning, the effectiveness of these shifts has come into question in many institutions
of higher education. What has become clear is that the longer the pandemic lasts, the more
ingrained and assimilated virtual learning will become in our educational institutions. We
argue that this crisis, while tragic, has also simultaneously created opportunities that would
not have presented themselves in a slower, more controlled transition. The rapid changes
caused by the pandemic continue to be a catalyst for the evolution of online education, in
positive ways; through an unanticipated world event, acting as an essential precursor to
disruptive, progressive innovation. This paper examines the critical elements of effective,
online learning communities.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2017) calls for
immediate paradigmatic shifts in the way employment skills are addressed in educational
institutions and society in general. These urgent demands derive from a wide variety of local,
regional, national, and international sources, including the Conference Board of Canada
(2016), and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
(2017). These sources recommend increased emphasis on skills development in complex
problem solving, critical thinking, creativity, negotiation, people management and
collaboration.
Our health as individuals and communities exists within a future that continues to be fraught
with complexities related to pandemics, racial inequalities and unrest, climate change, and a
digital news media laden with artificial information, misappropriation of facts and
manipulation of knowledge to benefit those in power. We are at a critical juncture, and this
paper describes key features of effective online learning communities to ensure better,
stronger digital learning and working spaces.
Keywords: Online Learning Communities, Post-Pandemic, Digital Learning
1. Introduction and Context of the Problem
It is clear that online learning is an educational concept that has become embedded in 21C
learning environments. Frameworks for learning in the fourth industrial revolution must be
redesigned, and dramatically changed, in order to meet the needs of a rapidly changing
workforce. We need to develop digital competencies and skills, and to model learning
environments capable of connecting individuals and teams across time zones, nations and
cultures (Kaufman, 2013; Olson, 2015; World Economic Forum, 2016; Bates, 2019a; Bates,
2019b; OECD, 2019). The need for a requisite paradigmatic shift has never been more
apparent than during our immediate global situation, where nations and individuals are
working to provide collaborative solutions to complex global problems. These issues, while
exacerbated by pandemic conditions, have revealed cracks in the scaffolding of social
systems. Solutions can arise with the advent and evolution of effective, collaborative online
learning environments that are based in a model of Fully Online Learning Communities
(FOLC). These communities embrace social constructivist, interdependent learning spaces
that focus on problem-based learning, and student-driven pedagogy.
During this evolving 4th Industrial Revolution, we are surrounded by a wide variety of
definitions of what the term “online learning” can mean, and concomitantly, the quality of
these learning environments varies greatly. Definitions of online learning vary from
asynchronous, synchronous, hybrid, blended, distance, remote and hyperflex. While these
terms may describe vastly different pedagogical models, they also do not take into account
such critical factors in online learning success; factors such as student engagement, attrition,
pedagogical approach and sense of community. The remote nature of online learning has
resulted in isolation and discouragement, (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004; Kizilcec & Halawa,
2015; Lehman & Conceicao, 2014) and often higher levels of attrition for online learners, and
greater discouragement for online educators. Historically, there is evidence that students
learning online often feel isolated, leading to attrition rates up to 20% higher than face-to-
face learning (Angelino & Natvig, 2009). As a society, we need to find more accessible,
economical, environmentally conscious and sustainable means to make learning available to
everyone, while simultaneously providing facilitated learning environments for those
educators new to digital realms of learning.
The increasing need for online learning is readily apparent. In 2013, 33,5% of American
higher education students were taking online course(s) (Allen & Seaman, 2014). By 2015,
more than 360,000 Canadian students were enrolled in at least one online course (Bates,
2017), accounting for approximately 29% of all Canadian university students. At that time,
estimates indicate that 35% of post-secondary American students were taking a minimum of
one online course (Hill, 2019a; Hill, 2019b). Fast forward to 2020, and we recognize that the
COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives and services in irrevocable ways. Through
massive school closures and restrictions, higher education institutions moved rapidly to what
was termed “remote emergency teaching”. Under dire circumstances, face-to-face classes
were abruptly transitioned to online learning management systems, in an effort to meet
students’ needs amidst the closure of their colleges or universities. In an extremely short time,
this immediate and dramatic transition to online learning resulted in increased stress,
pedagogical compromises and greater gaps in accessibility for disadvantaged or remote
populations. It also led to an unfortunate interpretation, or misinterpretation, of the value of
online learning, as many of the rapid shifts did not result in quality learning environments.
Online learning spaces can, and must, be socially constructivist, engaging, and grounded, in a
community framework where members are interdependent, accountable and productive. This
paper discusses elements of the FOLC model for online learning that meet learners’ needs,
providing a timely and effective solution to post pandemic online learning situations.
While many still refer to the shift to online learning as “emergency remote teaching”, we
argue that the transition to online learning spaces has been inevitable, and necessary.
Although we acknowledge that the pandemic created inexorable tragedy and loss, the authors
argue that the change to online learning was already happening, quite successfully, in some
institutions. While institutional changes often take considerable time, and effort, passing
political and policy hurdles, the rapidity of the recent moves provided an opportunity to
embrace a change that might not have happened under other circumstances. We believe that
the pandemic has created conditions of “disruptive innovation” (Flavin, 2012); a chance to
unpack and dismantle traditional models of education and rebuild in a way that meets the
needs of 21C students. As the world recovers and moves forward post pandemic, we argue
that several features of online learning can provide new ways to improve education, to make
it more readily available in an ‘anytime anywhere’ model, and to shift the focus from an
institution-centred or instructor-centred model to a student-centred, personalized approach to
learning.
This paper examines the literature on online communities, and gathers together elements that
appear to be essential for successful learning online, by discussing a validated theoretical
model that meets these needs. This report will focus on an overview and discussion of the
four areas we deem are essential to the redesign of online learning spaces. First, we examine
the Fully Online Learning Community Model (VanOostveen et al, 2016), describing the
intersection of social presence, cognitive presence, and collaboration in digital spaces. This
will be followed by a brief examination of Problem-Based Learning (Savin-Baden, 2007) as a
foundational pedagogical strategy that supports the model. Third, we survey how Authentic
Assessment (AA) is a key element of a successful online learning community.
2. Literature Review
There is a plethora of research in the area of online communities and online pedagogies.
Clearly, the pandemic has offered us an opportunity to redefine the learning outcomes and
competencies we need for 21C learners, and what is necessary to facilitate the growth of
responsible digital citizens (Bates, 2019a; Bates, 2019b). This is what Littlejohn, Beetham
and McGill (2011) refer to as “the capabilities required to thrive in and beyond education, in
an age when digital forms of information and communication predominate” (p. 547).
Kaufman concurs that “school is not simply about tests and ‘checking boxes’ of topics and
assignments. Rather, schools today should have a mission of developing students as
individuals and igniting their creativity” (2013, p. 79). Voogt et al (2013) also attest that it is
generally agreed upon that “collaboration, communication, digital literacy, citizenship,
problem-solving, critical thinking, creativity and productivity are essential for living in and
contributing to our present societies” (p. 404). If students are to succeed beyond formal
education, they need to learn competencies required in the world beyond higher education; in
sum, they need to learn how to learn, adapt to change, and become competent in the effective
use of online learning modalities. LittleJohn, Beetham and McGill (2012) indicate that the
nature of the workplace has changed, and digital forms of information are changing the
meaning of what it means to work. They state that these changes are being exacerbated by
three factors
First, workplaces are being transformed such that production and practice are
increasingly knowledge driven. Second, work problems are becoming more
complex and third, people are regularly and repeatedly transitioning into new
roles and careers, necessitating life-long learning. (2012, p.547)
If education is to evolve, it must undergo a dramatic paradigm shift; the recent shift to online
learning demands that educators look at models of online learning that facilitate engagement,
as well as the development of the competencies required in the real world. (World Economic
Forum, 2016; Conference Board of Canada, 2000; E-Week 2015; OECD, 2019). Wenger and
Synder (2000) believe that “online communities facilitate virtual collaboration among
community members with the potential of transforming the activities of off-line into an
online context” (in Lin & Lee, 2000, p. 480). Lin and Lee (2006) state that “the online
community can be defined as a social relationship aggregation, facilitated by internet-based
technology, in which users communicate and build personal relationships” (p. 480). Kearney
et al (2012) attest that learning “is a situated social endeavor” (p. 1). LittleJohn, Beetham and
McGill (2012) agree that the social elements of learning are being embraced by students, and
that “learners are responding to the new technical and social opportunities with little help
from the formal education system” (p. 551).
In response to this, Canadian researchers present in this paper an online learning model that is
ahead of its time, has been proven and validated over many years, and has been successfully
implemented in an online undergraduate program. The Fully Online Learning Community
(FOLC) model (VanOostveen et al, 2016). In general, the FOLC Model integrates elements of
more foundational theories guiding practice in distance and online education, including the
Theory of Transactional Distance (TTD) (Moore, 1993), and the Community of Inquiry (CoI)
framework (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). The CoI framework, in particular,
recognizes three presences essential to supporting distance education: Social Presence,
Teaching Presence, and Cognitive Presence.
Figure 1. Fully Online Learning Community Model (VanOostveen et al, 2016)
3. Discussion of Critical Elements
3.1 Social and Cognitive Presence
Several strategies are used to develop community, including the Knowledge Forum (WebKF)
indicated in Figure 2. This software was designed by a Canadian university and has an
international following and conference where users share professional practices. Using this
weekly social commentary web-based software, students and the instructor can visually
comment on course topics, respond to others in a non-linear fashion, and include links,
photos, and reflections. This tool can also be used to measure social presence, as its
functionality allows us to see how often users interact, comment, and with whom they
regularly connect. As such, it is one way to measure community engagement in an online
class. Students are equal contributors to the instructor, and this changes the power dynamic in
the groups, as all participants can post at any time. In this way, the social presence and
cognitive presence interweave. Practical examples of this include students regularly taking
leadership roles, asking and responding to other students’ questions, offering technical or
other assistance with course material, and working closely together to solve problems, think
critically and interact socially.
Figure 2. Web Knowledge Forum Discussion Page.
3.2 Collaborative Learning Process
The FOLC model focuses on a collaborative learning process, and roles in the community are
shared amongst all members of the learning community. This means that the instructor acts as
facilitator, lurker, learner, organizer, and instructional partner. As such, leadership of class
discussions, selection of problems, means of representation of data and visual presentations
are negotiated. Figure 3 is a learner generated visual graphic of how collaborative learning is
imagined by participants in the process. This work was created by a teacher involved in a
FOLC process, and it is an example of the varied modalities whereby participants shared their
learning and experiences.
Figure 3. Learning Process Model
3.3 FOLC model in Practice
Our model has been successfully implemented in a fully online undergraduate B.A. in
Educational Studies degree program that places students squarely at the centre of the process.
A recent self-study of the overall program provided overwhelming positive feedback from
students, who felt that their growth as adult learners had benefitted from the FOLC model and
the PBL structure of the program. Most students maintained full time jobs while studying part
time in a flipped classroom model, where video podcasts were available to them prior to a
once per week tutorial session with the instructor. Students can learn anywhere, anytime, and
this makes learning accessible to those who are adult learners, working full time, with
families and other social responsibilities. Given the shifts to work at home due to the
pandemic, we believe that many organizations may continue to have employees working
from home, thus a fully online adult learning model such as the FOLC is both timely and
efficient for adult learning, employee training and professional development
3.4 PBL in Practice
The pedagogical foundation upon which the FOLC model rest is that of Problem Based
Learning. We believe that this orientation, towards a learner-centred and problem-centred
approach, allows for a social constructivist approach to learning, and provides a model of best
practice for organizations to develop and cultivate digital competencies in employees. PBL as
situated in the FOLC model has several key features including 1. A focus on complex real-
world situations that have no one ‘right’ answer; 2. Students work in teams to confront the
problem, to identify learning gaps, and to develop viable solutions; 3. Students gain new
information through self-directed learning; 4. Instructors act as facilitators; 5. Problems lead
to the development of problem-solving capabilities (Savin -Baden (2007). While there is
often discomfort early on for many learners, we attribute this to their history of K-12 teacher-
centred models of learning. Students enter their undergraduate degree from programs that are
largely teacher-centred, focussed on curriculum designed by those in power and assessed in
examinations and formal testing situations. It is a paradigmatic shift for them to take greater
responsibility for their learning, to be part of the problem solving team, and to accept diverse
solutions. Rather than having the instructor provide lectures, students use flipped classes and
video podcasts, attending tutorial meetings weekly to share how the material provided has
scaffolded their learning. Students are encouraged to share their own experiential knowledge,
work or life context, and professional experience to shape and direct their own learning. By
the end of our undergraduate program using the FOLC, students begin to thrive in the PBL
framework, and they attain a level of growth that most had not anticipated, preparing them
for further graduate studies or additional professional development.
3.5 AA in Practice
Approaches to providing valid and reliable assessment and evaluation are an essential part of
the fully online learning communities model (FOLC). Authentic assessment has been
discussed in digital contexts by numerous authors. (McNeill, Gosper & Xu, 2012; Herrington
& Parker, 2013, Herrington, Parker & Boase-Jelinek, 2012). Literature reveals a general
consensus about some of the key elements of an authentic learning environment. These
include
authentic context, authentic tasks, access to expert thinking and modelling of
process, provision of multiple roles and perspectives, collaborative
construction of knowledge, reflection, articulation to enable tacit knowledge
to be made explicit, coaching and scaffolding, and authentic assessment of
learning within the tasks.
(Boza
lek, et al, 2013, p. 631)
This may be due to the fact that learners in the 21C exist in a world that continually redefines
itself. The roles of teacher and learner are no longer defined in traditional ways, nor are they
couched in traditional power structures. Thus, assessment can no longer reside solely in the
hands of the instructor. In a co-designed and co-created environment, assessment must be an
ongoing process that involves critical reflection and ubiquitous assessment that is seamlessly
woven into the learning process. Because the development of new knowledge outpaces our
ability to keep up with content, many authors have re-defined the essential skills required of
the 21C learner (Bates, 2019a; Bates, 2019b; Kaufmann, 2013; Voogt et al, 2013). In our
model, students are invited to dialogue with the instructor, to negotiate with their learning
team, to construct the parameters of assignments and to evaluate what a quality product looks
like. They also discuss and assess the learning process as their courses unfold. Students
experience more than self or peer assessment, they become partners in the assessment
process, taking a greater share of responsibility for self-directed learning, and, as a result,
they more often than not produce original work of higher calibre. Authentic Assessment is a
tool that invites students to be a partner in the process of assessment, allows them to
articulate their learning goals, and to have a voice in how they are assessed. Again, this is
usually an uncomfortable position for students at the outset, having graduated from
traditional teacher-centred courses where grades, examinations and evaluations do not include
an opportunity for dialogue, negotiation or student empowerment in the assessment process.
We have found that by the end of their program of study, students have developed critical
thinking skills, and the ability to articulate how, and why, they chose a particular technology
to effectively solve academic problems. Also integral to the process, they express that they
have learned skills in conflict resolution, collaboration and negotiation, that enable them to
advance in a direction of their choice. Interestingly, we also find that some students maintain
the relationships that they forged during the program long after they have completed their
degrees. As such, they create their own networks outside the formal educational institution,
and become collaborative learners for life.
5. Conclusion
The circumstances that emerged in the COVIC-19 pandemic created a unique opportunity for
change. In essence, the disruption across education, the global economy, health care,
environmental and political arenas combined to cause the conditions necessary to facilitate
positive disruption. We need to adapt to, and use this moment in time by accepting that digital
technologies can, and should, disrupt archaic and traditional models of education. Flavin
(2012) refers to as “disruptive technologies” (p. 103). He states that “when digital
technologies are brought into the classroom setting, the lecturer may have to relinquish some
of their authority, thus impacting on the ‘rules’ and ‘division of labour’ nodes in order to
enable enhanced learning” (Flavin, 2012, p. 104). Cochrane (2012) identifies this unique
sharing of the digital learning environment as one of the critical success factors in digital
learning. He states that features of a successful virtual learning environment include
Pedagogical integration of technology into the course and assessment, lecturer
modelling of the pedagogical use of the tools, creating a supportive learning
community, and creating sustained interaction that explicitly scaffolds the
development of ontological shifts that is the reconceptualization of what it
means to teach and learn within social constructivist paradigms, both for the
lecturers and the students. (Cochrane, 2012, p. 125)
McNeill, Gosper and Xu (2012) state, “universities increasingly acknowledge the value of
skills such as problem solving, critical thinking and creativity, yet the curriculum needs to be
designed to support and scaffold development of these skills. 92012, p. 283). They go on to
state that “academics who were likely to introduce the development of student creativity in
their curriculum found that confidence emerged as a key characteristic” (2012, p. 284). Not
only are old educational models no longer a fit, they are incapable of providing learners with
the exact types of problem-based scenarios that require collaboration, innovation and real
change. The problems we face are not isolated, discreet or stuck in any one area of life, in
fact, we face complex and multi-dimensional issues that affect all areas of life, even the life
of our planet. Ultimately, 21C learners must develop the competencies to be problem-solvers,
to think in socially constructivist ways. In this paper we posit the FOLC model as a potential
solution. Our current global conditions require a necessary and immediate shift in
pedagogical focus, towards a new model of collaborative learning; one that facilitates the
creativity and critical thinking that emerges from fully online learning communities, and
provides a foundation for sustainable solutions.
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... Some authors make the case for the need to redefine teaching, particularly in online spaces, to consider the importance of the design and decision-making processes used to create the environment within which learners interact with content and other learners [4] [5]. A major problem with the quality of learning opportunities arising from the shift to ERT arose from a lack of time, preparation, and experience for educators to design effective online learning environments [6] [7] [8]. Due to the extenuating circumstances surrounding the covid-19 pandemic, educators and learners were required to adjust to the extraordinary circumstances. ...
... From the beginning of its mandate, the university also focused on Technology Enhanced Learning. [6] In the years up to the current, the university still provides program-specific software for installation on the suggested laptops. ...
... The Fully Online Learning Community (FOLC) model [14] provides direction and suggestions for the design of fully online environments (spaces that support virtual learning contexts using synchronous and asynchronous technologies) that emphasize generative types of practices [12]. These constructivist practices focus on social interactions as the source of learning, i.e., people learn by talking to each other [6] [16] Interactions, particularly those that are generative in nature, must be planned intentionally. Learners need to be able to construct their own meaning and understanding of the topics that they are discussing. ...
Conference Paper
The increased drive towards digital economies, coupled with the transition to online modes of educational access and work during the COVID-19 global pandemic, necessitated a heightened focus on being able to assess digital competencies. Organizations such as the World Economic Forum and Conference Board of Canada state that developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills are vital for individuals to adapt to increasingly digitized and digitalized spaces in a rapidly changing world. The Global Readiness Explorer Project (GREx), a customizable, comprehensive digital toolkit for individuals, institutions, and organizations, offers potential users sets of assessment tools that can provide feedback and insights while using specific indicators regarding digital competency and readiness to engage in fully online learning environments. GREx can also be utilized to develop additional tools to meet the needs of potential users. Utilizing the GREx toolkit, The COVID-19 Teaching and Learning Transition Project (CTLTP) was intended to examine the potential effects of a rapid shift to online teaching and learning at a medium-sized technical university in Ontario. The university espouses a technology-enhanced learning environment using various digital tools. While there were several fully online social and health sciences programs, even before the pandemic, most students learned in physical classrooms and laboratories. This project invited these students, new to fully online learning environments, to participate in responding to three surveys that probed their digital and fully online learning skills and asked about the transition that they experienced during the pandemic. Participants recorded significant negative effects regarding the move to the fully online environment; however, additional research needs to be conducted to determine what lies behind the negative participant perceptions.
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