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Virtual Classrooms, Real Communities

Trying to create the "community" in community college can be a Herculean task.

According to the 2008 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE): 82 percent of community college students surveyed have part-time jobs (and over half of this group works more than 20 hours a week); almost all (93 percent) reported commuting to campus and 21 percent said they spend between six and 20 hours a week in the commute; another 33 percent reported caring for children or other dependents at least 11 hours a week. With those kinds of competing interests, it's a wonder community college students feel any sense of belonging or engagement. The CCSSE found that the single best way to engage community college students in their lives as students is through the classroom, since that is where they spend most of their time. Make that classroom virtual, and a school has its community-building work cut out for it. Here are two colleges' innovative approaches to using Web 2.0 tools to foster a strong sense of engagement among diverse and dispersed learners.

Virtual Classrooms, Real Communities

Students at Finger Lakes Community College are making connections in Second Life and on Facebook.

WITH A STUDENT BODY of over 60,000 students throughout its network of six campuses, Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, is the second-largest community college in the US. More than 8,000 of those students-- a population larger than many brick-and-mortar campuses can claim-- are taking classes at the college's Extended Learning Institute (ELI), a separate distance learning unit that provides online courses, telecourses, and virtual hybrid courses. With so many students attending class in a virtual environment, it can be a challenge to create a sense of community and collaboration, says Jennifer Lerner, director of the ELI.

Bringing Together a Diverse Student Body

Like at many community colleges, the student body at NOVA is both demographically and geographically diverse-- and this reality is heightened within the ELI. "Although we have older students who are working and taking care of families, and fit the mold of the distance learning student, we also have a lot of students who are just out of high school-- traditional, college-aged students who've chosen distance learning," says Lerner. She attributes the high number of traditional college-aged students who opt for distance learning to the fact that many of the high schools in NOVA's region offer distance learning courses to their students, using Blackboard. "Many of our recent high school grads took full online courses as part of their curriculum, so they're familiar with online learning; they're comfortable with the technology. And they enjoy having that flexibility with their schedules, since a lot of these students are holding down jobs as well."

It's Lerner's goal to create the same sense of community among ELI's students that you might find on a brick-and- mortar campus, starting in the classroom. "We'd like it to be just like on campus, where you work together on a project in class, and after class you go get coffee," she says. "Ideally, our students will get used to working together in their online classes and then will go meet up at, say, the virtual student union to chat-- in a way that's not staff-directed."

Rather than building that virtual student union and just hoping students arrive, Lerner and her team recognized that the first and most important step was creating a sense of collaboration in the online classroom. "Right now our focus is to create online courses that are really interactive for students, that engage them," she explains. "When students are in an online class that's not interactive, it's easy to let the class fall by the wayside-- not feel engaged, not feel interested, and therefore not do very well. We try to use Web 2.0 tools to keep students interacting not only with their instructor, but more importantly with each other."

Virtual Classrooms, Real Communities

CCSSE data consistently show that community college students are more engaged in the classroom than anywhere else on campus. Classroom (whether physical or virtual) engagement can make an important difference in terms of students’ sense of belonging and educational purpose.

Online courses at NOVA now are able to incorporate an array of free applications available through Google, as well as web-conferencing and audio tools from Saba and Wimba. "Since our student e-mail is administered through Google, students all have access to these applications and are required to use them in class," says Lerner. "We'll have classes where students are discussing topics over Google Chat, and then using Google Docs to collaborate on papers, or using Google Sites to create group websites. Often students will share these materials in Blackboard, and engage in a discussion about what they've presented." In some classes, instructors even base portions of their exams on what was presented on Blackboard, she notes, adding, "Students are really encouraged to participate when that interactive experience is a key part of what they're learning in the class."

Student response to the increased collaboration in online courses has been positive, and student polling has shown an increased interest in online student activities. Lerner has experimented with a staff-led blog aimed at distance learning students, and is looking at other ways in which the sense of community formed in the virtual classroom can transition into a more social, schoolwide setting. The key, she has found, is recognizing that not every student prefers the same online experience. "Some students are very interested in forming a club with a Blackboard site where students with similar interests can have discussions, or even schedule a webinar with a guest speaker. Other students respond well to blogs and post frequently in the comments," she points out. "We're working on connecting students from across classes to make them feel an allegiance to their fellow distance learning students, just as traditional brick-and-mortar students feel an allegiance to their campus. And, just like at a traditional campus, different groups of students are into different things."

Connecting in Virtual Worlds

Larry Dugan, director of online learning for Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, NY, has come to a similar understanding from his experiments with creating virtual learning communities among his online students. Instructors at FLCC have been utilizing the Second Life virtual world not only for online classes, but also for hybrid classes that have an online component: Students who otherwise can't physically attend a class can attend class virtually as their Second Life avatars, allowing them to interact with their instructors and fellow classmates in the classroom in real time. Dugan describes this as "hybrid by location, rather than hybrid by time."

FLCC was one of the first community colleges to incorporate Second Life into its curriculum. When the college first created its island in Second Life, administrators hoped that students would populate and utilize the online campus as they would a traditional campus-- and were surprised by how few students visited outside scheduled class times. As Dugan explains, "For online communities to really work, it has to be something that catches on and becomes viral. Many people misunderstand and try to apply 20th century thinking to 21st century tools, and if they do that, it's not going to be successful," he insists. "The widespread utilization of Second Life as a landing tool for the college, as far as using it as a social-networking tool in and of itself, was not very successful. We've discovered that Second Life is more successful when it has a very specific purpose. When we tried to globalize it-- when we tried to encourage people to come there for marketing, or any of those types of things-- we basically had a big empty campus."

Since then, Dugan and his team have realized that the most effective way of getting students to visit the Second Life island is to allow their experiences to happen organically. They accomplished this by morphing the island from a virtual extension of the FLCC campus into a hybrid space akin to the main drag that exists in most college towns. The school has created a cooperative on the island that incorporates the local radio station and local businesses, some of which play a role in FLCC classes. This mixture of social and academic space allows students to mingle outside the radio station, for instance, while a handful of classmates in an information-security course interview security experts for a live radio broadcast. The virtual setting gives the students an opportunity to network with their peers, local talk radio personalities, and experts in their field-- plus it allows students to share their knowledge and make a connection with the community. Adds Dugan, "It's become a great way for us to reach out to our local community with our students."

Dugan is quick to commend another Web 2.0 tool that has caught on among his students: Facebook. But he warns that administrators must recognize the levels on which Facebook works. "Facebook doesn't seem to work on a macro level," he asserts. "In other words, if you're depending on it to reach the whole campus, it's not going to be very effective. Still, right now it's the hottest thing for building communities on a smaller scale."

Dugan cites a Facebook group created by the FLCC honors program as an example of one of the small learning communities on Facebook that have become popular among his students. Another FLCC student-created Facebook group focused on campus life has over 800 members. Dugan suspects that part of the popularity of these Facebook groups comes from the fact that they are created independent of FLCC's administrators and spread virally; they are truly created by and for the students. It's a situation that has its plusses and minuses, however, in that administrators do not have direct control over the content. Still, he notes, institutions should be careful about how much they try to control social-networking content. "It seems that many schools want to use Web 2.0 tools as marketing tools, but the minute [social networking] gets used as a marketing tool is when it stops being effective," he insists. "It's a collaboration tool, and as soon as students start getting event invitations and other types of outreach from the college, the tool takes on a ‘selling out to the man' type of mentality. So, we try to be very careful about not structuring our online communities as direct-marketing tools."

Dugan recognizes that allowing learning communities to take root organically can be unnerving for administrators used to 20th century methods of reaching students, but in his experience with today's tools, it's a must for success. "It's a change of mindset. Seeing it and allowing it to grow virally is what has to happen. It can't be forced."

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