One area of research that I have been interested in the past few years have been computer-supported models of collaborative learning, particularly virtual communities of practice. I am excited to be able to take a course in CoPs this coming semester, although I need to start doing some brain exercises to get ready to read Lave and Wenger’s famous book (1991) all the way through. That’s some tough, but brilliant, material.
It seems to me, however, that there is an interesting divide in the literature about online communities of learning. From some researchers, the message seems to be that online communities of learning do not work very often (Hewitt, 2005; Schwen & Hara, 2003; Van der Meijden & Veenman, 2005). However, online communities can, and do succeed in some situations. For example, sites such as Myspace.com, Friendster.com, Xanga.com, and Flickr.com rival or surpass Google in visitors. Reportedly, 54 million people use myspace.com to interact together, and similar sites are not too far behind.
I think an interesting research idea would be to study why social networking, interaction, and collaboration is so successful, particularly among young adults, with websites such as myspace.com, and yet not so popular in educational settings. The goal would be to better understand the aspects of these social sites that encourage so much participation, and define guidelines for developing educational social communities that employ the same principles, as much as possible.
Robert Alford in The Craft of Inquiry suggests that researchers should write down theoretical questions, and then empirical questions that derive from the theoretical questions. So here’s a stab at what some research questions might be related to this topic:
1. Can learning communities employ principles from popular social networking sites to improve educational collaboration and interaction?
2. Do the effectiveness of online learning communities aid in the development of expertise?
1. How do relationships form in these online sites?
2. What draws people to associate and interact together through these online sites?
3. What are the affordances of these social environments that are lacking in educational communities?
4. What kinds of support or interaction do learning communities fail to provide to students?
What do you think? Are these questions valuable at all to research? Am I right in that there seems to be an interesting divide between those who think VCoPs work and those who think they don’t? Has anyone studied the application of popular social networks to online learning networks as I propose? I assume somebody has, so if you can drop names and references that would be great. I don’t anticipate studying this in the near future as my graduate research is going in a slightly different direction, but I’d like to study this more someday.
Alford, R. R. (1998). The craft of inquiry: Theories, methods, evidence. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hewitt, J. (2005). Toward an Understanding of How Threads Die in Asynchronous Computer Conferences. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 14(4), 567-589.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schwen, T. M., & Hara, N. (2003). Community of Practice: A Metaphor for Online Design? Information Society, 19(3), 257.
van der Meijden, H., & Veenman, S. (2005). Face-to-face versus computer-mediated communication in a primary school setting. Computers in Human Behavior, 21(5), 831-859.
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