As resident advisor (1992-1993), head resident (1994-1997) and director (1998-2000) of the Virginia Summer Residential Governor’s Schools for Humanities and Visual & Performing Arts, I worked with a team of student life staff to develop the community of learners among our faculty, staff, and 400 high school students. We did this in a number of successful ways, including icebreakers, name tags, hall meetings, living arrangements, and the like. We called ourselves a community of learners, and all of us — faculty, staff, and students alike — lived in dorms on campus and called each other by first name. This experience informs my idea of “community” in several different ways.
Community is never entirely “built,” despite the use of the term “community building.” In an educational setting, community must continually be “being built”; intentional activities, communications, and rhetorical choices (like the use of first names or the common language of living in the same dorm) must be made throughout the entire experience to ensure that a sense of community remains. Brent (2004) affirms this concept of community as continually built: “Here incompletion is a dynamic concept – the dynamism which community has which no definable entity could possibly possess” (p. 219).
Community focuses members and potential/incoming members in a common goal. In Governor’s School, our community of learners sought to expand knowledge and understanding of the interrelationships among disciplines through guided inquiry. Teachers facilitated inquiry and participated with students in growing their understandings of concepts like body image, politics, economics, social structures, and more. All aspects of the experience — intellectual, interdisciplinary, and social-emotional; curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular — focused on growing knowledge and identity. Common, structured, facilitated inquiry shaped our community and represented Harrison & Vaughan’s (2007) interpretation of a community of inquiry consisting of cognitive, social, and teaching presence.
Community is ideally an egalitarian function of participants working toward a common purpose. I include the modifier “ideally” because Amy (2006) recognizes the reality of power politics within rhetorical communities, and because the teaching presence in a community of inquiry necessarily invokes a hierarchical power structure between student and teacher. However, to the extent possible, community is a function of equals working together. In the classroom, a focus on students working toward a common purpose is an important aspect of community building.
Blogs and Community
Given this concept of community, blogs can be useful tools for community development, especially when implemented in combination with other distance learning tools to continually maintain the sense of community. I would hesitate to privilege blogs over other writing spaces and online interactive tools, despite their potential interactivity, because other tools may help foster a sense of community more directly.
As our own class use of the interactivity of the blogs reflects, blogs don’t necessarily encourage ongoing conversation. Few writers responded, either directly or indirectly, to comments on their blogs. We tried to post comments to several classmates’ blogs, but few posts or comments generated any kind of give-and-take among writers and/or respondents. Since Blogger does not afford any sense of threaded conversation using visual design or verbal cues, respondents had to include explicit textual clues (e.g. “In response to your idea…”) in order to “respond” to one another. A comment can’t be addressed specifically to another comment, only generally attributed to the blog. The result is a flat list of comments that offers no hierarchy, more like a chat transcript than a threaded discussion forum. In terms of community building, blogs do little to help writers and commenters work together in a community of inquiry, and this is especially true of Blogger. Blog posts “talk” at other bloggers, but offer little to afford conversation, dialogue, or rhetorical listening among participants. For this reason I consider WordPress, which provides clues that afford limited threading in comments, a more successful blogging tool for enabling conversations.
Building a Better Blogging Community?
For blogs to be successful at encouraging conversation among writers and respondents, instructors need to provide clear guidelines and structure for posts and responses. Carefully constructed, scaffolded assignments accompanied by clear expectations for interaction enable students to respond with agency within the limits of those guidelines. While instructor-provided frameworks may be seen as opposing social constructivist learning and pedagogy, OWI requires a level of structured interactivity that f2f classes can allow to occur more organically. DePew & Lettner-Rust (2009), DePew (forthcoming), Danowski (2006), and Breuch (2005), to greater or lesser extents, all encourage OWI teachers to recognize this power structure while developing scaffolded, structured activities that encourage agency and ongoing conversations. These conversations engage students in communities of inquiry, and these communities of inquiry, as conversations engaging students and teachers, help maintain ongoing community building.
As a result, this assignment might have more successfully built a sense of community as a specific framework of scaffolded assignments. While a series of initial posts could remain focused on instructional tool reviews, each student could be required to comment on a number of reviews (perhaps 2 or 3), then write a full-length post that summarizes those three reviews, links to the initial posts, and reflects on one or more aspects of the initial review. Ping backs from those links could function to notify students that others have linked to their posts; the guidelines for responding could require the writer of the original review to respond to the summary post. Guidelines and requirements would have to be carefully detailed and written, but the result would be ongoing conversations about the effectiveness of instructional tools. As Breuch (2005) notes in relation to virtual peer review, assignments should “encourage students to think of virtual peer review in terms of concrete goals” (p. 149). In this case, the concrete goal might be to draft a final blog post that requires students to select three favorite instructional tools from among those reviewed, reflect on the conversations that surrounded that tool among all the commentators, and make a recommendation, with rationale, for one tool the student might recommend to other instructors in an OWI setting.
Where Community Really Happened
My experience of this class, and the other two classes I’ve taken so far in the PhD program, is that community really forms in various informal channels of communication. While scaffolded blog postings and responses and discussion forum posts and responses contribute toward a community of inquiry, stronger bonds form around informal channels like the ODU PhD and individual course Facebook groups, email and Facebook communications outside of class with classmates, and through the Webex chat (which I’ll refer to as a “front channel” to differentiate it from a Facebook group “back channel”).
As equals (students) working toward a common goal (success in individual courses, success in individual class sessions), informal community is continually formed and reformed around various struggles, activities, and challenges. For example, our class members united around the challenge of being unable to access readings in what we considered a timely fashion. We asked one another whether anyone had emailed the instructor, discussed whether texts might be available in open-source formats online, and generally bonded over our frustration. In Amy’s (2006) terms we recognized and capitalized on power differentials in our contact zone: a reference librarian held the cultural capital of quick access to open-source texts and shared that capital in our common goal of seeking resources; other members of the class held the cultural capital of temerity, willingly emailing the instructor to achieve the common goal of requesting access to readings in Blackboard.
Throughout the semester, community was continually built, refined, and reshaped (Brent, 2004), often the result of working through tensions in different contact zones (Amy, 2006). Two specific examples occurred when shifting out of Webex, first into Google Hangouts and again into Adobe Connect. In each of these instances, the backchannel took the forefront in alleviating anxiety as we wondered how or if we’d be reconnected to our assigned groups. Those with more experience held social capital and shared assurances with those with less experience; in my group, my own familiarity with Google Hangouts helped me assure others in my group and in other groups that all would work out, while Kristina’s familiarity with Adobe Connect provided assurance and instruction to those of us who had not used the tool. In both cases, our bonds of community were strengthened through tension and power differentials among ourselves — power differentials used to achieve common goals rather than forming around us-them rhetorical violence.
Does community happen in the face-to-face video sessions via Jabber and Webex? Sure, but those experience are built around the instructor. Student community is built through informal communications that are outside the structured activities of the class. As a future OWI teacher, I need to remember my own experience with community development and understand the power of multiple communication channels.
Amy, L. E. (2006). Rhetorical violence and the problematics of power: A notion of community for the digital age classroom. In J. Alexander & M. Dickson (eds.), Role play: Distance learning and the teaching of writing (pp. 111-132). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Brent, J. (2004). The desire for community: Illusion, confusion and paradox. Community Development Journal, 39(3), 213-223. doi: 10.1093/cdj/bsh017
Breuch, L. K. (2005). Enhancing online collaboration: Virtual peer review in the writing classroom. In K. C. Cook & K. Grant-Davie (eds.), Online education: Global questions, local answers (pp. 141-156). Farmingdale, NY: Baywood.
Danowski, D. (2006). Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Leading discussions in cyberspace: e-Journals and interactivity in asynchronous environments. In J. Alexander & M. Dickson (eds.), Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing (pp. 97-108). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Depew, K. E. (Forthcoming). Preparing instructors and students for the rhetoricity of OWI Technologies. In B. L. Hewett & K. E. DePew (eds.), Foundational practices of online writing instruction. Manuscript in publication
Depew, K. E., & Lettner-Rust, H. (2009). Mediating power: Distance learning interfaces, classroom epistemology, and the gaze. Computers and Composition, 26(3), 174-189. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2009.05.002
Garrison, D. R., & Vaughan, N. D. (2007). Blended learning in higher education: Framework, principles, and guidelines. San Fransisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.