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Creating Community in an Online Learning Environment

By Steve Quis on Mar 11, 2014

Dr-Sheila-L-Steinberg

For 33 years, Lilly Conferences on College and University Teaching and Learning have provided opportunities for the presentation of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. This interdisciplinary conference includes faculty, administrators, and graduate students from across the United States and abroad. Dr. Sheila Lakshmi Steinberg proudly represented Brandman University at this year's gathering and shared her expertise on creating community in an online learning environment.

We all originated from somewhere that our general culture patterns of interaction are impacted by. These physical and social geographies contain nuances of communication that often go unnoticed. We may not even realize this until we have an interaction with someone from a different place. For instance, consider the styles of interaction in New Mexico. It is often common for a person to wave to another as he or she drives down a rural road, even if they have never met before. However, in many parts of the urban Eastern United States this would be considered completely forward and inappropriate.

This misunderstanding of gestures shows the importance of considering location and culture when communicating with others. As it relates to education, Dr. Steinberg calls teachers to take a place-based approach, which we explore in this article. It presents policies developed based on the theoretical model to better consider the role of place, its impact on culture and interaction as part of the community creation process.

The Landscape of Online Education

In the world of education, moving to virtual platforms changes the nature of interactions and communication at all levels. As a result of these technological advancements, it becomes more challenging to create a sense of community and camaraderie that was once established through consistent, face-to-face communication.

As a society, we are transitioning quickly from working and learning in-person to functioning completely online. This major technological shift has produced significant alterations to the ways that people interact and create relationships with one another. Challenges arise because as human beings we are extremely social and rely on a number of verbal and non-verbal cues to facilitate daily interactions. People gather their cues for communication from watching facial expressions, tone of voice, physical distance and overall body language. When the places of interaction shift from face-to-face to virtual, many of these established patterns and norms are lost.

The socio-technological shift has also resulted in the mono-typing of place. The online culture assumes everyone shares a similar background, experience and/or context. Everyone is rooted in some particular geographic place and culture, which have nuances that impact how we interact, communicate and work together to achieve goals. The place-based approach to online learning takes these factors into consideration.

We have lost sight of how to create a sense of community in the virtual world. The break room has now become the chat page or online staff salon but it has often forced us to formalize our communication, which alters the nature of interaction.

How to Implement a Place-Based Approach

Teachers first need to establish that good foundation of knowledge about the place that the people came from before trying to work with them. It is a very American to say, "let's get to work" in the beginning of a meeting. However, in different places it is considered extremely rude to try to get to work before first getting to know the group or individuals first.

When Dr. Steinberg first served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Guatemala, she spent her first year of her three year term visiting all of the villagers in their homes to establish relationships with them before getting to work in year two. This experience enhanced her understanding of the culture and customs that were particular to that local. She used what she learned in order to deliver her service to the unique needs of the villagers. 

This is just one example of how to take a place-based approach to learning. To help guide educators through implementing the concept in the classroom Dr. Steinberg outlines six steps for utilizing the model.

  1. Identify Place and Factors - Discover and define physical factors of the context (rural/urban, desert/woods/seaside etc.)
  2. Understand Culture - Identify socio-cultural and socio-economic factors (ethnicity, social class, first generation student, immigrant etc.)
  3. Establish Varied Interaction - Create and vary opportunities for interaction that will resonate with your people (allow for communication via phone, email and through video conferencing, set up chat times and other interactive activities with culture and place in mind).
  4. Foster Consistent and Ongoing Interaction - Establish a regularity of patterned interaction (at a minimum on a weekly basis, but this time line can easily vary based on the nature of settings).
  5. Incorporate Bottom-Up Interaction - Instead of creating top-down opportunities for relations, create opportunities that emanates back up to leaders of an institution or professors of a class. Create bottom-up flow of information to teachers and administrators. Allow for these groups to set the stage for questions and communication avenues to enhance overall communications and morale.
  6. Document the Success - Be sure to note and highlight the actions taken for the organization or institution. Tell the stories of instances where community is created to foster further success.

A place-based approach to creating community means that before beginning work on a project, you first seek to establish an understanding of the physical and social context of the individuals or group members on a team. By taking the time to identify a few basic place-based norms or features of communication, one will be better able to create a sense of community within a group.

Topics: Happenings, Front Page


Author Steve Quis of Brandman University

Steve Quis

As the Director of Public Relations at Brandman University, Steve Quis serves as the spokesperson and brand advocate for the school. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Media Arts and Broadcast Journalism and has received numerous industry recognitions including a top honor from the Associated Press.