AN ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITY

the students' perspective


You (teachers) have encouraged us to become this virtual community, but it's not that virtual since Webheads has become a real part of our lives.

Gloria (Webheads student from Paraguay)



It has become clear that the success of online learning programs hinges in large part on how well they cater for the affective needs of students. The Affective Filter Hypothesis - that people acquire language better when they are motivated and have a good self-image and low anxiety.(Krashen,1987) - can be applied equally well to all learning in the online environment, and being part of an online community can satisfy many of these affective needs. Teachers too have turned to online learning communities to self develop themselves in a collegial atmosphere of camaraderie and sharing of knowledge and practice. The very notion of community in an online environment may well be scoffed at by some. We are after all referring to people who may never meet calling themselves a community. What are these communities? What do they look like? Who joins them? What is their role? Do they work? This paper will examine an online learning community of EFL learners, and will attempt to answer these questions and examine the community from the students' perspective.

Webheads

Webheads is an online community of about 30 people. Three of these members are teachers. The others are EFL students from around the world. It grew out of the Internet based volunteer English teaching Program, English for the Internet (EFI), founded by David Winet. Each teacher in EFI is free to develop their individual courses as they see fit. Vance Stevens, a long time CALL expert in the ESL/EFL field, initiated the original concept of the Webhead online learning community in 1998.

Webheads was initially a class of online learners that in time has evolved into a community. Current research bears out the fact that for an online class to be successful then it needs to foster some element of community or it may well flounder. When does a class become a community? Think of any traditional class that you've been part of. Did it feel like a community? What characteristics stamped that class as a community? Was it more successful for that? You may find that successful traditional classes you have been involved with did resemble communities, and that was precisely what made them successful.

What makes a community?

Several of the following aspects need to be present for a class to be thought of as a community: students care about each other

  • people make friends in the class
  • students and teachers are friends
  • students are in contact with each other independent of class times or class activities
  • border between 'instruction time' and social time becomes blurred
  • ex-students maintain links with the class

Again you may look at this list and think "well this is what happens in any good class'. And you'd be right of course. The point though is that in an online environment these aspects of community HAVE TO EXIST or the class will not succeed. It may well be in a face to face environment too that if these affective conditions are not met then the class may be less than successful. But the lack of face to face contact that characterises an online class, coupled with no sense of community, will guarantee its demise. Few but the very independent and highly motivated will do well in an online environment that does not seek to replace the lack of face to face contact with some sense of interaction and community.

How is the sense of community generated in the Wehheads group?

The technological lynch pins of the community are the electronic mailing list and a website. The emotional lynch pin of the community is the commitment and warmth of its participants. Other online tools of communication (voice email, chat - text and voice based, and 3D virtual) are also utilised to foster regular communication between class members. Clearly too the whole process of community building in this context relies on the motivation of teachers and some core active members. Technology however, gives people scattered around the world the tools to talk to each other.

What happens on the mailing list?

Like many electronic mailing lists this is the vehicle for daily contact. It is a rare day that sees no postings to the webheads group, and though it is often the same few people who are the regular posters, we know from informal feedback from others that they read everything. It should be said here that the express purpose of this community is of course to learn English. Many Webheads are also enrolled in a more formal learning environment with one of the webheads teachers in a configuration separate from the webheads general community. In that sense the webheads community is like an extension project. In this case though the extension project, or extra-curricular activity, has superseded the original class in importance.

What do people write about?

Messages to the mailing list result from specific prompts from the webhead teachers, or consist of impromptu postings from students on a range of topics.

Teacher Postings:

  • Weekly Writing Topics: each week a writing topic is posted. These are optional extra assignments for students. Students who write on these weekly topics have their work corrected and posted on their personal pages of the community website. Topics for these weekly writings are such that they are of interest to the wider webheads community.
  • Welcome messages to new members: new members are announced and other community members post welcome messages to the new members. These can consist of a string of 'welcome to webheads' messages but they often quickly become more personalised as information and interests of the new member are posted, and may become new discussion threads.
  • Announcements re new website materials: these may be personal websites for members, new chat logs, new pages based on themes or topics that have evolved from the electronic discussion list
  • Announcements re useful new ESL/EFL websites
  • Answers to specific questions from webheads on grammar, language learning strategies, information about studying in other countries, etc

Student Postings:

  • Weekly writing topics
  • Items of general use for studying/learning English - especially websites
  • Announcements about software members have found useful for learning English
  • Introductions of new members
  • Discussion about cultural or political issues
  • Specific questions about grammar, vocabulary, language learning strategies

Choi (from Korea) to Deden (from Indonesia)

Deden, This is my way of learning English. I have been subscribing to a local English newspaper for 6 years. I try to read at least one article a day. I also try to look up the dictionary for meaning as much as possible. But I do not make it as rule. It may decrease my interest in the newspaper. I try to enjoy the newspaper. You will learn many useful words and expressions I bet.

Second, I read only English novels. Find some best-selling novels. Mainly love stories or gang stories.

Third, enjoy English movies and drama. We have AFKN (America forces Korean Network) which airs all in conversational English and other satellite overseas broadcasters. Except for Korean news and my favorite 30 minutes comedy-drama, I watch these overseas programs.

If you think they are too difficult to listen to, then try tapes with transcript that you easily get at the bookstore. When I started to learn English first, I studied tapes with transcript. It helped me a lot.

  • Sharing of song lyrics

Language Learning or Friendship?

Just as interesting as the content of these postings is their raison d'etre. As stated above, the most obvious reason for the existence of the webheads group is the shared goal of learning (and teaching) of English, but there is plenty of contact via the mailing list that does not have English language learning as its focus. It becomes in fact a by-product of the interaction between the members of the webheads community. When asked the main reason why they joined and stayed in the Webheads class the majority said it was because they get their writing corrected. Yet the majority of the traffic to the email list is not a direct result of teacher prompts to write. General contact or friendship building is the purpose of most messages. The melding together of the various members of the community happens because messages are posted REGULARLY, and members remain part of the community because of a sense of friendship and belonging to a group who have never met. The irony of it, and many similar Internet communities, is quite delicious!

Many Webhead students' assessments of the webheads community testify that this is a major incentive for them staying with the community. They enjoy the international friendship and intercultural exchange as much as the explicit language learning. When asked why they joined Webheads the majority said it was to improve their English writing. When asked what they enjoy most about the class, most cited 'making international friendships'! Longer term members especially have become aware that this 'backdoor approach' of learning English is in fact just as effective as direct formal teaching, and this method in fact hands responsibility for learning back to the students themselves. In that sense they have become more mature language learners.

Gloria from Paraguay:

I understand that English is just the beginning of our common interests and also it is the medium (bridge) to initiate a more important learning and to achieve the major goal: to become a real human being integrated with the whole world.

It should be said that some do grumble at the lack of formal instruction, but in reality webheads who need this do it in the real world.

Denilson from Brazil:

I think the our class is good, but the student need to have interest and search for the knowledge and practice what he learns... but some negative things are:

  • We don't have a method, something to follow
  • We don't know what will be the next step
  • We don't have exercises

Many students who are also in face to face classes outside of Webheads comment that the Webheads class actually functions as a reality check, for in the webheads class they can check the use of real English via the three native speaking teachers.They can for example check the meaning of slang or idiom - questions they can not get answered in the more formalised instruction of their real world classes.

Valentin from Spain:

The Webheads class provides practical English. In the usual methods you can learn a lot of Grammar and other things. But, when you travel you find expressions that nobody taught you before. For example, expressions like to get to second base.

Flexibility

Being part of an online community such as webeads means you get something every day. You know when you go to your email in box there'll be something there for you. Now that may not sound significant but the fact that there is contact that invariably offers you a chance to participate, without any obligation to do so, is a regular reminder that you are part of a community; and it gives pleasure to see and read what others are saying - others that you have come to know as online friends and colleagues. Unlike a normal class there is no expectation that you will interact with community members. There is certainly a wish that you do so - from others - but you don't have to respond and there is no pressure to do so. The students themselves have highlighted this as one of the attractions of the Webheads community. They can drop in and out as active members when it suits, and return to passive citizenship for lengthy periods just as easily. The attrition rate of this community since its inception is negligible so this fluidity and flexibility seems to contribute to its durability.

This lack of pressure or expectation prompted some members to say that they prefer the kind of interaction that occurs in the webheads class because no one is there because they have to pass an exam. They are there because they want to be and they communicate with others because they want to.

Valentin from Spain:

You don't have to pass an exam. So, if the pupils are in the e- class it is just because they want to learn or enjoy practicing English. It is nicer than when people are just trying to pass exams.

Voice Mail, Audio Conferencing

From the beginning there has been a hardcore few who were motivated by the chance to tinker with communication technologies in a collaborative environment. Part of the initial webheads charter was in fact to encourage 'webheads' - web heads in the sense of Internet buffs who were already reasonably au fait with web based technology, and wanted to explore further. Interest in the class was to "be maintained through a mutual fascination with web based tools conducive to communication." (Stevens, 1999)

This aspect of the webheads class wanes and waxes. As a webhead discovers a new technology and asks for partners to help test it out a flurry of email activity can ensue as the people involved form a mini self-help set within the wider community and discuss the new software. This can take the form of helping out with its technological idiosyncrasies, making appointments for the actual sharing of the new technology, and discussions of its effectiveness. Typically these bursts of activity around new software go through these three phases. Though all this communication goes to the group mail list it is usual that only about 3-6 of the community are actively engaged in these explorations. They do however provide some brilliant examples of how the Webheads class has become much more than a teacher driven initiative and more a community of dialogue. In these exchanges a great deal of complex English language is exchanged as participants suss out the technology - often independent of the teachers - and instruct each other in its use. Even when the teachers are involved the teachers are in the role of equal as they may be instructed on how to use the new software by a technologically more able student. This egalitarian spirit among teachers and students also contributes to the general feeling of community.

The types of software under discussion are usually to do with voice and sound production and transmission across the Internet - Pure Voice, Netmeeting, Real Audio, Media Ring, Hearme etc; text based chat programs (ICQ, Homestead), creating web pages with Geocities, and 3D visual chat worlds (The Palace).

The Palace (3D Visual Chat)

EFI classes have been meeting at the Palace for about three years. By special arrangement with the Palace management EFI (and the Webheads group) has its own learning and discussion rooms. Palace chat is text-based chat with a significant visual dimension. Participants in Palace chat are represented by an avatar of their own choice, and can move around the space, and make use of a range of props available to facilitate play or serious discussion. Chats can be logged by any participant.

A number of EFI classes meet at the Palace in given time slots throughout the week, and a small number of Webheads meet there each week. These sessions can take the form of a formalised period of instruction, but more often are chats about general issues that may or may not have learning English as their focus. Like many aspects of the Webheads project, learning English is the by-product of interaction that participants choose to initiate. While the number of participants present at the Palace sessions is small (a usual session will have 3-5 people present), the total number of people who may turn up on any given week is about 10. It is fair to say that those who attend the Palace sessions are among the more committed community members, but there are many webheads who have never attended the weekly chat sessions but who are clearly integral to the community through their participation in the email list.

While the weekly Palace sessions are frequently the highlight of the webheads week for those who attend, the strength of the webheads model is that it allows for many different types of learner to participate. Some prefer fixed time meetings, some are more active in the more flexible time frame of the email list, and others are more intent on doing more formal assignments and having work corrected and discussed off list. Again, flexibility in 'mode of membership', or the willingness to accommodate a range of learning styles, has enabled the webheads community to remain vibrant.

Most recently, with the advent of more effective talk/chat technology some webheads have begun to meet for weekly talks. It is early days but this is clearly having a significant impact on the quality of relations between members, and the degree of effectiveness of the teaching. For example, suddenly real time correction of pronunciation is possible. Already there is greater interest from webheads in attending the weekly meetings, and those who have attended feel a greater sense of community. As effective as the medium of written text based communication has been in forging this community, the sound of the human voice has brought some of us much closer very quickly.

Ming from Oregon:

"It's great to hear you guys!"

Ying Lan from Taiwan:

"This is my dream to be able to speak to you like this."

The Community Website

Whether at the Palace, or via a talk room set up by the webhead teachers, logs of all weekly chats are posted on the community website for all to read. This means that non-attenders can also be privy to the content of the weekly meetings. Thus, no one is excluded. Often teachers will often try to entice non- attending participants to view the chat logs by posting intriguing or provocative questions about the chat logs to the mail list.

The website is quite frankly a showpiece of good web based pedagogy. It is not in the category of websites that is going to blow your brains out with superb design, nor will it feature its own bank of ESL/EFL materials. There are certainly links to such materials, but the Webheads' website functions more as a repository of webheads work. Vance Stevens, as Webheads webmaster and founder, does an amazing job of posting all webheads writing in various categories.

All members have their own homepage on the site. These contain welcome messages, and introduction or short bio notes about that person, a photo if they are willing, and links to their writing. Webhead members writing is cross-referenced and can be found via their homepage, topic, or via weekly writing topics.

It is a remarkable fact of the community that the great majority of the writing done by Webheads is submitted to the public scrutiny of its 30 or so members.

Choi from Korea:

This web class teaches me English without boredom. I can trust what others say.

Felix from Brazil:

I can write and not be fearful of making mistakes.

Much of what is written and submitted to the list is corrected by one of the three teachers, and posted to the relevant section of the community website. This aspect of the class, having writing corrected, despite the somewhat loftier aims of the project shared by Gloria from Paraguay (quoted above), was cited as the most significant by a majority of members.

As with all web based communities, the website functions as a home on the Internet. It provides a sense of place and the fact that the bulk of the material on the site consists of the work of the students, promotes group ownership and a feeling of responsibility towards it. Needless to say, it is a constantly growing body of material that requires constant maintenance. Some students choose to be responsible for the upkeep and content of their own individual part of the site, while others are content to let the webmaster do the job.

Other Homes on the Net

As well as the obvious community homepage there are two other sites on the Net that are part of the 'home' structure. All messages to the webheads email list are archived by eGroups.com. This allows easy reference to past discussions, and means that members do not have to keep copies of emails on their own system. The home room at the Palace mentioned above is another web based home.

Conclusion

There are three 'physical locations' then where the Webheads community is visible on the Net, and can satisfy those whose sense of place requires an identifiable home in the virtual world. In addition there is the lifeblood of it all, the group email list. All of these spaces require input from the Webheads community. Content of these spaces is ever changing as members contribute to a growing body of shared knowledge about themselves, the world, and language learning. These spaces exist because of people's contributions. It is our work, our reflections, our dreams, our revelations, and there is clearly a trust in the community, and a desire for it to continue. And as long as we have the tools (software) to provide the infrastructure, the model that provides the flexibility, and the people with the motivation, it will.


Ying Lan from Taiwan:

We could find a lot of English grammar books in bookstores, libraries and other websites. But only the Webheads teachers give us a response fast. That's our Webheads' wonderful treasure. I can not find such a good precious pearl in the world as Webheads.


Footnotes:

References:

  1. Berge, Zane L; The Role of the Online Instructor/Facilitator in (1995) in Facilitating Computer Conferencing: Recommendations From the Field. Educational Technology. 35(1) 22-30. (http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~mpc3/moderate/teach_online.html)
  2. Coghlan, M; Facilitating Online Learning; 1999 http://www.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/olfac.html
  3. Krashen, Stephen D. Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall International, 1987.
  4. Stevens, Vance; Writing for Webheads: An online writing course utilizing synchronous chat and student web pages - http://members.tripod.com/vstevens/efi/hawaii99.html

Michael Coghlan (michaelc@chariot.net.au)
Vance Stevens (vstevens@emirates.net.ae)
March, 2000


This paper can be referenced as follows:

Coghlan, M. and Stevens, V. 2000. An Online Learning Community -- The Students' Perspective. Paper presented at the Fifth Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, April 12-14, 2000. Retrieved July 9, 2003 from both http://leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/org/tcon2k/paper/paper_coghlanm.html (conference archives) and http://www.chariot.net.au/~michaelc/TCC2000.htm (presenter website).