The best collaborative learning takes place when people are physically together. There are no richer experiences than the discussions that can happen face-to-face.
It’s not just in what we say. We can see each other’s facial expressions and hear the tone of someone’s voice, which aids our understanding and helps us empathize with someone else’s perspective. When it is impossible to get together in-person, facilitating online learning communities can be the next best thing.
Online learning communities provide the structure of a professional learning community, such as a focus, an agenda, and group norms, but within a Web-based forum.
Google offers three applications that can be used for online learning communities.
1. Google Groups
This basic application is good for learners who are fairly new to digital tools. A facilitator can create a group by selecting the app in the “waffle board” on the top right of a Gmail account.
From there, create a new Google Group, give the group a title, and invite members to the community. They must accept an invitation before they can become a part of the group.
Google Groups is great for beginners, because its format closely resembles how e-mail works. New discussions posted in your group show up as a message in everyone’s inbox. Responses can be composed within any message, or by going to the group and posting a reply. Media, such as images and documents, can be attached to the discussion posts.
2. Google Communities
While Google+ as a social media tool has had its ups and downs, Communities is a highly functional service that allows for a range of online conversations and knowledge-sharing. Creating a Google+ profile process is similar to setting up a Twitter or Facebook account. From there, Google+ makes recommendations for different Communities to explore and join. These can be either public or private. Anyone can join a public community. Private groups will ask that you request to join, which is approved by a moderator. These are a good starting point for those not familiar with Google+.
Once you feel comfortable with the format of Google+ and are a member of a few relevant Communities, it’s time to create your own. Go to “Yours” on the main Google+ page and select “Create a Community”. Then create a title and description, add a profile picture, and invite people to join. All members of your Google+ Community can then start posting text, photos, YouTube videos, and links to articles and other online resources. These posts serve as the discussion starters. Members can add comments to your initial share, or simply “+1” your post to recognize your efforts (think “Liking” something on Facebook).
The biggest advantage of Google+ Communities over Google Groups is the variety of tools and flexibility offered for users. For example, the moderator can add permanent links to the community, such as websites and online resources related to your topic or focus.
3. Google Sites
Your online learning community has facilitated robust conversations. Colleagues have curated a number of resources. Now you want to share everyone’s learning beyond your group with the educational world.
Google Sites offers a more permanent presence for learning communities. Sites can accommodate a variety of resources and creations developed by you and your online colleagues. It is used best as a website. Owners and those with editing rights can add pages to this forum.
Within each page, users can edit the content by adding documents from Google Drive, including Docs, Sheets, and Slides.
The best part: When you update one of these files, it also updates on your Site because these dynamic files are embedded. Share settings work the same for Sites as other Google Drive files.
Challenges and Suggestions for Implementing Online Learning
With all of these robust tools literally at our fingertips, one would think that online learning communities is simple to facilitate. The reality is something quite different.
First, these communities need to have a focus. The novelty of communicating online quickly dissipates without a real purpose and a collective need to meet in a digital space. Second, as an online learning community grows in numbers and interests, the ability to meet everyone’s needs can become harder to address. Third, there is an assumption that online learning communities should be a permanent entity. Too often, online learning communities outlive their initial purpose and end up losing their focus, or, worse yet, become a soapbox for disenfranchised educators.
With these challenges in mind, consider the following suggestions:
- When creating an online learning community, first ask yourself two questions: “Is it impossible to meet in person for this collaboration”, and “Does our collaborative work have a focus, in which everyone involved has a stake in the outcomes?” If your answer is “Yes” to both questions, then get your community started!
- As your online learning community grows, start identifying the more specific interests that germinate from your initial conversations. Identify leaders within these interests and help them form new online learning communities within the larger community. This may allow your group to continue to grow while still allowing everyone a forum to post their thinking and engage in conversations.
- Be open-minded about the lifespan of your online learning community. If the focus is short-lived, such as a book club for a specific resource, develop a calendar for conversations. If the online learning community is showing malaise or misdirection about purpose, survey your community members about the necessary changes that need to happen in order for it to thrive in the future. It could be as simple as changing the title and shifting the focus of the community that makes the difference.
Most importantly, recognize that the most important connections we can have as educators is with the people right next to us. Online learning communities can augment our professional conversations, but they should never replace them.