This course will examine what we do and do not know about the processes and practices of designing communities to support learning.
Currently, numerous educators and policy makers are advocating for a move away from teacher-centered models and towards more learner-centered and community-based models. However, at present the word community is at risk of losing its meaning. We have little appreciation and criteria for distinguishing between a community of learners and a group of students learning collaboratively (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2000; Wineburg & Grossman, 1998). Given the proliferation of terms such as communities of learners, discourse communities, learning communities,knowledge-building communities, school communities, and communities of practice, it is clear that,
…community has become an obligatory appendage to every educational innovation. Yet aside from linguistic kinship, it is not clear what features, if any, are shared across terms. This confusion is most pronounced in the ubiquitous virtual community, where, by paying a fee or typing a password, anyone who visits a web site automatically becomes a member of the community. Groups of people become community, or so it would seem, by the flourish of a researcher’s pen. (Grossman, Wineburg, & Woolworth, 2000, p. 2, italics in original
In addition to not having clear criteria in terms of what does and does not constitute community, we also know little about the educational value of employing a community model for supporting learning.
While many of us are concerned with the loss of communal spaces and ties that broaden one’s sense of self beyond the me or I and into the we and us (Putnam, 1995), less clear are the educational advantages of a community approach in terms of learning curricular content. We know even less about whether something resembling community can be designed, and how to measure whether it has emerged. This is glaringly apparent in terms of virtual communities where designers are employing usability strategies to develop innovative designs that are usable, but have not adequately taken into account issues of sociability that is, how does the design make links to and support people’s social interactions, focusing on issues of trust, time, value, collaboration, and gatekeeping (Preece, 2000). Regardless, there is a virtual explosion of efforts to create online learning environments to supplement or replace traditional modes and even institutions of learning of which this book proposal is but one example.
Developing an online forum is not very difficult. Almost any off the shelf LISTERV or web-based conferencing system can provide an adequate underlying technology. However, attracting a group of people to the forum who will form a community is a considerable accomplishment. It is common for many people to visit and leave without posting messages, for many others to stay and only read public messages (lurking). Further, when on-line discussions are unmoderated, some debates can be transformed into hostile flame wars that all too easily spiral out of control. Nonetheless, there are many examples of sustained civil on-line groups. Some of them have important communal dimensions.
As more and more of these on-line communities are being designed we must ask in increasingly sophisticated form whether they are succeeding and what exactly they are accomplishing. This course will examine what we do and do not know about the processes and practices of designing communities to support learning. Some of the central questions to be addressed through this course include: What constitutes community? How do these electronic environments relate to more familiar place-based pedagogical ones? How well do the techniques and constructs that are used to understand the processes of learning and enculturation in traditional face-to-face community settings suffice for these new settings? What is the educational value of a community approach to learning? How do we capture and what are the relations among individual, group, and community trajectories?
About Sasha A. Barab PhD
Sasha Barab is a Professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, where he co-founded and serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Games and Impact.
Dr. Barab is an internationally recognized Learning Scientist who holds the Pinnacle West Chair of Education, and who has researched, designed, and published extensively on the challenges and opportunities of using games for impact.