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Seeing Online Community From a Distance Education Perspective

Nancy White

It is easy to get wrapped up in our own little worlds, intent but oblivious. As online community builders we might look up for a moment and meet the gaze of our compatriots in the distance education world. We might learn a lot from each other.

Distance educators and online community builders are looking to build online interaction spaces to meet members' and students' needs, create and nurture engagement between participants, manage dissent and diversity, and foster clear communication.

But these two sectors aren't mentioned in the same breath very often. Both have industry-specific communication loops, conferences, and publications. This is a shame, because people in these two areas could accomplish a lot together.

Gilly Salmon, a long time instructor from United Kingdom's Open University has written a book that small business online community builders might find very useful: E-Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online.

Learners and Lurkers

Although this book is aimed at those teaching or facilitating in a distance learning setting, Salmon's advice is sound and on target. The last third of the book, which focuses on resources for e-moderators, applies to many online facilitation settings beyond distance education, especially client support, distance teams/workgroups, and communities of practice. Some might find the approach a bit conservative for more freewheeling virtual communities and social spaces, but her advice rings very true to me.

Salmon's guidance covers choosing software, dealing with moderation costs, understanding lurkers (those who read but don't post in a discussion space), knowledge sharing, valuing diversity online, and training moderators. It is a veritable candy shop for online community builders.

Want to know more? Not only has Salmon written a great book, she has put many of her resources on the UK's Open University Web site. Yet another thing for us small-business folks to learn: Provide information in more than one format.

Access Architects

Here is a sample overview of Salmon's five-stage model of moderation for e-learning. See what you can find in common for your online community:

Individual access and the ability of participants to use CMC [computer mediated conferencing] are essential prerequisites for conference participation (stage one, at the base of the flights of steps). Stage two involves individual participants establishing their online identities and then finding others with whom to interact. At stage three, participants give information relevant to the course to each other. Up to and including stage three, a form of cooperation occurs, i.e. support for each person's goals. At stage four, course-related group discussions occur and the interaction becomes more collaborative. The communication depends on the establishment of common understandings. At stage five, participants look for more benefits from the system to help them achieve personal goals, explore how to integrate CMC into other forms of learning and reflect on the learning processes.

Salmon's steps resonate with some of the leading lights of online community such as Amy Jo Kim, Cynthia Typaldos, and others. They advocate similar architectural principles that acknowledge access, identity, content, norms, and interaction structures.

I particularly enjoyed the case studies and examples sprinkled throughout the book. I found myself nodding, taking notes, and putting the ubiquitous yellow "stickies" in the book -- a sign that this is a book I'll use again and again. The resource section is already dog-eared. I plan to reference it in my next online facilitation course.

So let's wake up and talk to our distance education compatriots.

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