Face-to-Face with Virtual Communities

The technologies that support the growth of virtual communities have long since infiltrated formal classes and are now entering the social interactions of students and faculty—for good reason. Freedom from constraints in space and time and the ability to link to Web resources have made listservs, message boards, and other online media ideal for distance learning. Online discussions are forums by which alumni remain in touch with each other and with their alma mater long after graduation. But on a geographic campus devoted to undergraduate education, d'es it make sense to have people in separate rooms, offices, and computer centers interacting electronically instead of conversing in the same room? Is the potential for diminishing the campus community's social capital a danger worth worrying about? What value d'es an online exchange add to the traditional mix of text, lecture, assignment, and classroom discussion?

Whether online interaction is used as a supplement to, or becomes an electronic substitute for, texts, classrooms, and lecture halls, virtual communities can cause fundamental changes in the nature of social and educational relationships. Such a community is only made possible by technology, not animated by it. The life of a virtual community can only emerge from human communication, and while the quality of that communication can be enhanced and evolved through technology, it is fundamentally governed by human, not technical, factors.

This is not to say that the technology of online interaction is neutral. Structural differences in the way people communicate face-to-face and online can trigger significant and sometimes disruptive shifts in power and attention. Because many of the markers of status aren't visible in cyberspace, message boards and e-mail can enable people to communicate with each other non-hierarchically—in other words, "peer-to-peer." The physical structure of classrooms, and particularly lecture halls, tends to enforce the hierarchy of the "sage on the stage" broadcasting to the passive audience. An instructor who knows how to use online discourse skillfully can become the "guide on the side" who encourages students to learn together, through ongoing written discourse about texts. This shift is not a panacea, but it can be powerful and useful under the right circumstances.

Cool Context

In virtual communities of any kind, context is all-important. In the McLuhan sense, online communication is a "cool" medium that requires people to actively use their imaginations to fill in what the communication medium d'esn't provide. Tell people in a MOO (an implementation of a cyberspace where users can take on an identity in the form of an avatar and interact with one another) that they are characters in an Arthurian drama, and they will set out to slay dragons. Calling a message board "intellectual debate" will elicit a totally different kind of discourse from one named "the flame pit."

The most important context in an academic setting must be an explicit and well-communicated attitude of exploration and experimentation, with the focus more on learning than on the success or failure of the effort. When framing the context of a new course online, therefore, try something tentative before planning anything ambitious. A campus community should not be trapped in a system that may be technically, socially, or pedagogically unsuited to the spirit, principles, and mission of the institution.

One way to achieve this is to establish simple and fair rules, and give the professors full authority to enforce them—just like in the classroom. Campuses that rely on less crisply defined honor principles would require a different strategy. A social contract based on an honor principle may be perfectly appropriate for the right context, but presupposes a system for adjudicating conflicts over interpretation of behavior. If you create a non-authoritarian social contract, you must also provide a governance mechanism. Who makes the final decisions and how are those people elected? What guidelines are followed in making judgments? If detailed mechanisms for adjudication are not provided, the community's energy might be diverted from learning into the prolonged debates necessary for democratic decision making.

It is difficult to sequester online communications within authoritarian boundaries: "Here, you will discuss Aristotle, and refrain from other conversation." The enthusiasm of participants in virtual communities comes precisely from their power to create their own world with their words. People get excited about communicating with each other. They want to talk about that concert last week, the ongoing controversy about dogs running free on campus, the nuances and events of campus life—as well as discussing Aristotle. Customs emerge. Relationships develop. If you suddenly cut off access to that community, once it has found its voice, you will not be happy with students' reactions. Think carefully about the kind of forums you want to create for non-academic and classroom-related purposes. How will you counsel students about the danger of substituting online conversation for the face-to-face socializing so important to the campus community, and to their own growth? Anticipate the problems associated with online interaction, and head them off by the way you frame the first discussions.

Beginning the Conversation

A frank and critical discussion about the place of online communication in campus life is a healthy discussion at the beginning. The question, "What is the place of virtual community in our institution?" forces students and faculty to argue about and agree upon its shared values, and to use the fruit of that discourse to measure the benefits or pitfalls of new technology. Some communities might decide to limit message boards or chats to coursework discussions. Others might plan a pervasive community, to include student, faculty, and alumni sub-communities, with specific boundaries and interfaces. The questions to ask are the ones people have tended not to ask when adopting new technologies—and often end up wishing they had: What effect will this new, time-consuming form of communication have on student life, faculty life, campus life? Can it bring people together, or might it separate them? What kind of people do we become when we incorporate the new technology into our daily lives?

Trained facilitators are crucial to the success of the community. It is not advisable to throw good but inexperienced classroom teachers into a virtual community, assuming that they know the best practices of online pedagogy simply because they are good teachers. Online interaction has complex nuances of its own. Good online discussions have a natural tendency to drift off-topic, and guiding the participants back to the subject of the curriculum without dampening their enthusiasm is an art. Interpersonal dynamics can, in fact, be trickier online than in a physical classroom. The ideal leader for online pedagogical discourse would be well qualified in the subject matter and in undergraduate pedagogy and also experienced in—perhaps even trained in—the basics of effective online facilitation.

Making the Invitation

Marketing is a word often regarded with suspicion in educational institutions, but efforts to form virtual communities will fail if you cannot identify your constituents, know what value you can offer in exchange for their attention, attract participants, and keep them coming back. This internal marketing is just as important as the technology and the social infrastructure. People often resist learning how to use new communication media because message boards and chat rooms can be daunting at first. Creators of the virtual community need to make sure that the early discussions look inviting enough to encourage non-participating "lurkers" to join in. If you build a home for a virtual community, you may not have occupants without sufficient notice, explanation, and promotion.

If you are planning to start a virtual community on your campus, take your time and investigate how they have worked elsewhere, what needs your particular stakeholders have, what resources you can commit to the effort, and—most importantly—what effect virtual socializing will have on the face-to-face community.

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