What is an Online Learning Community?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen
Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

An online learning community is a website or series of websites used to create a community on the Internet in which people can learn and develop in a structured or semi-structured way. This type of community can be established in conjunction with a classroom or e-learning class, as is often found with forums or bulletin boards set up for an online class, or independent of any structured learning environment. The community can encourage the active participation of all members on an equal level, or may elevate certain members to teacher status while others act more as students. An online learning community can center on just about any sort of topic or type of learning, depending on the needs and interests of its members.

The nature of an online learning community is such that it has many similarities and differences when compared to a traditional environment of learning. One of the major differences is, of course, that an online learning community exists primarily in virtual space and need not necessarily have any correlation to real communities or groups. People from all over the world can get together in a virtual setting to discuss a subject and learn together without ever meeting.

On the other hand, an online learning community can just as easily serve as an extension of a reality based learning environment. A classroom the meets every week could also use a forum website to allow students to discuss subject matters from the class while not together. This fosters a sense of learning that extends beyond the standard physical limitations of the classroom. Such learning could be orchestrated by the teacher of the class or left to the students to arrange and monitor.

An online learning community can also develop organically, without any influence from educators or structured learning institutions. This sort of community may arise from a group of people with a mutual interest in a particular subject or hobby. The interactions and conversations of these people could then lead to further development of interests and encourage learning among the members of the community. This type of online learning community may lack a sense of leadership or the learned experience of a knowledgeable teacher, but could also have a greater sense of community involvement and ownership.

One of the drawbacks of this type of online learning community, however, is that it exists only in a virtual space. While some people may feel comfortable learning and sharing in this type of environment, others prefer the physical world and meeting face-to-face to learn and discuss ideas. There are also limitations of digital environments, especially in relationship to learning about or discussing physical sciences and similar subjects. While just about anything can be learned at a theoretical level or merely through conversation, some things are simply easier to understand with physical demonstrations and experimentation.

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