Synergeo: Unbounded Communities

Keyboard warriors, silently shouting toxic platitudes across the internet. Bullies, not only infiltrating playgrounds and offices, but beamed straight into our safe spaces around the clock.

Run. Hide. Don’t engage. Technology, people seem to either love it or hate it, usually with good reason. Like many things, however, there is no need for a contested debate here, but a critical look at how we can harness a tool to benefit our community.

Technology has been infiltrating our lives from the beginning of time. Humans are inherently creative. From the discovery and manipulation of metals to the development of artificial intelligence (AI), we as a species are constantly pushing technological advances forward. The area of communication has been no exception. We are now connected to the world through technology. In an instant we can make our lives known and we can influence the lives of others by what we choose to comment on, like, share, or retweet. It is no secret that as a teacher I am an advocate of communication technology use within our learning environments to enhance the learning experience. This should not be at the expense of authentic relationships, but rather as another way of mediating relationships. In fact, communication technology can create space for students who may be more reluctant to engage in face to face interactions. As a trial this semester, I have used the Teams app, which is part of Microsoft 365, to give students another tool to engage in conversation, create community, and seek the help that they might need for their studies.

The questions that come up a lot when people see how much I use digital communication in my teaching practice is, “Is this really authentic communication? Are you really developing a good relationship?” Aspects of face to face community interactions that help to build authentic relationships such as openness, honesty, responsiveness, and encouraging a supportive environment where everyone is invited to participate as they feel comfortable are just as important, some would say even more so, in the online space. All of these aspects need to be intentionally cultivated in online communities just as we do in face to face community development. There is no expectation to use this online social space, it is simply another mode of interaction that is provided for students to participate in should they want to.

There has been shift in education in recent decades from a banking model of education to a constructivist approach.[1] The banking model viewed the student as a receptacle in which education could be deposited. Constructivism, however, takes a more holistic approach and sees education as a process whereby knowledge is constructed and built upon by the learners. Further to constructivism is the theory of social constructivism where the social context of education is an import element in authentic learning.[2] Educational theorists Bruner, Vygotsky, and Piaget all espoused constructivist learning theory where learning is built on experience and not in an isolated vacuum.[3] The use of communication technologies is an effective mediator of social interactions, especially in situations when we only see students once a week. You don’t have to look far to see extensive use of online communication tools to organise social gatherings, mobilise communities after a disaster, and create events that can be shared to a global audience almost instantly. Through the use of online tools, students can move from passively receiving knowledge to actively generating knowledge for themselves and others.[4] I think that social constructivism is very positive and empowering as a theory. It recognizes and values the diversity that each member of the community brings to the learning experience.

Social constructivist theory used in conjunction with online community spaces does not come without its risks. There is a lack of visual cues and an absence of the nuance of body language to mediate interactions and discussions.[5] Frisoli frames the online arena as a culturally negotiated space where time needs to be given for well-designed student orientation which often lacks the visual cues afforded in face to face environments.[6] So rather than opening a space and offering a carte blanche approach to student interactions, we need to be intentional in how we use the space and how we orient students to this aspect of our socialization. As Catarina Mota says in her TEDGlobal talk, “We can’t shape what we don’t understand, and what we don’t understand and use, ends up shaping us.”[7]

The shaping of a person, or formation as we refer to it in theological education, is an important part of education at Laidlaw College. It places importance not only on learning information, theory, and facts, but also developing as a Christian disciple while engaged in that learning. New Zealand online educational specialist Mark Nichols asked the question whether online distance students had the same formational experience as students who were studying on campus.[8] The results of his study indicated that there is no disadvantage to online distance students in their formation. What he found to be important in student formation was student participation in the community where they are located. His research suggests that we should encourage multiple ways of community engagement, both face to face and online interactions, in order to encourage student formational development as a Christian disciple. Research indicates that the emerging generation does not see their online selves as distinct from their real-world personas; their online selves are simply an extension of who they are.[9] It would follow that theological formation of the person would acknowledge and explore online community experiences and authentic representation of who we are in Christ in this space.

The development of online communities leading to formation is certainly not limited to the education context. This can be implemented in any group to help form community interactions that lead to significant formation in the participants. There are some practical steps to take in setting up a functioning online community. The first is to play and learn the affordances of the technology. With any platform you may choose to use, there are a multitude of online articles, YouTube videos, and blogs that can teach you about using it. You can set up a community space with a friend and use it as a virtual “playground.” You could try out the tips and suggestions on each other and see what feels comfortable. Next, think about your goals, what do you want the technology to do? You need to ask yourself “to which problem is this the solution?” For me, it was about giving the student community a space to ask questions and clarify assignment information. It was the solution to my email problem. You might see the very same thing happening in your communities. When it gets close to a deadline or event, you get a flurry of emails, often asking the same questions. By having an online community, there is a forum through which all members can read and participate, whether that participation is asking the question or simply reading the answers while being thankful that someone else has asked. Just like in face to face communities, you get the active and passive participators. Finally, you need to orient members to the space. Share with them your goals and even more importantly, ask the members what they would like to use the space for. Have a play together to ensure everyone can access the space and you have agreed how it will be used.

Garrison, Anderson, and Archer developed a model of thinking around what they have called Communities of Inquiry (CoI).[10] They describe CoI as having three types of presence essential to developing and maintaining good online communities: cognitive presence – being able to think critically; teacher/leader presence – the design and facilitation of the space; and social presence – showing up as a real person. Dunlap and Lowenthal and Poquet et al., drawing on the concept of CoI, emphasize establishing trust in all areas of presence in order to anchor the relationships.[11]  Additionally, they assert that there is no recipe for success in online community building, but success starts with building a relationship with participants and choosing designs to suit them. CoI encourages open, critical disagreement built on a foundation of trust. Hew, Qiao, and Tang have also found that enthusiasm and humour increases the social presence of online leaders.[12] An amount of quirkiness and leader immediacy is also needed to maintain presence in an online community.[13] Leader immediacy means that members know the leader, although physically distant, is still available to them. Lohr and Haley also determine that increased social presence leads to increased engagement in the community.[14]

So, where to from here? It’s easy really. Embrace your humorous quirky side, decide on a problem you would like an online community to solve and set up a space for one of your groups to experiment with. I have had mixed success with online communities, with one group of active users and another somewhat more reluctant. It would appear that I have solved my email problem though, with conversation in the online community benefiting all members. Initial failure is an option and highly likely, but it is the way we learn how best not to do something and brings us a step closer to mastery.

Philippa Isom is a Lecturer and Co-ordinator for the Bachelor of Teaching programme at Laidlaw College. She is currently completing her Masters of Educational Leadership at AUT with a focus on creating effective online learning communities to enhance student experience and engagement. 

[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1971).

[2] Antonella Brighi, Manuela Fabbri, Luigi Guerra, and Elena Pacetti, “ICT and Relationships: Promoting Positive Peer Interactions,” in The Impact of Technology on Relationships in Educational Settings, eds. Angela Costabile & Barbara Speers (Abington, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 45–54

[3] Ana Donaldson, and Rita-Marie Conrad, Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011); Terry Mayes and Sara de Freitas, “Technology-enhanced Learning: The Role of Theory,” in Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, eds. Helen Beethan and Rhona Sharpe (Oxon, England: Routledge, 2007), 17–30.

[4] Mark Frydenburg and Diana Andone, “Enhancing and transforming global learning communities with augmented reality,” Journal of Information Systems Education 29 (2018): 37–44,; Kathy Lohr and Karen Haley, “Using biographical prompts to build community in an online graduate course,” Adult Learning 29 (2018): 11–19,; Jenny McDougall, “The Quest for Authenticity: A Study of an Online Discussion Forum and the Needs of Adult Learners,” Australian Journal of Adult Learning 55 (2015): 94–113,;dn=069244251611202;res=IELHSS.

[5] Joanna Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal “The Power of Presence: Our Quest for the Right Mix of Social Presence in Online Courses,” in RealLife Distance Education: Case Studies in Practice, eds. Anthony Pina and Al Mizell (Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing Inc, 2014), 41–66; Mike Robertshaw, “Flamewar,” in Online Learning and Teaching with Technology: Case Studies, Experience and Practice, eds. David Murphy and Graham Webb (London, UK: Kogan Page Limited, 2001), 13–20.

[6] Paul Frisoli, “Assumptions, Emotions, and Interpretations as Ethical Moments: Navigating a Small‐Scale Cross‐Cultural Online Interviewing Study,” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 23 (2010): 393–405. DOI: 10.1080/09518398.2010.492810

[7] Catarina Mota. “Play with smart materials”. Filmed [July 2012],

[8] Mark Nichols “A Comparison of the Spiritual Participation of On-Campus and Theological Distance Education Students,” Journal of Adult Theological Education 12 (2015): 121–36.

[9] Antonella Brighi, Manuela Fabbri, Luigi Guerra, and Elena Pacetti, “ICT and Relationships: Promoting Positive Peer Interactions,” in The Impact of Technology on Relationships in Educational Settings, eds. Angela Costabile & Barbara Speers (Abington, Oxon: Routledge, 2012), 45–54

[10] Randy Garrison, Terry Anderson, and Walter Archer “Critical Inquiry in a Text-Based Environment: Computer Conferencing in Higher Education,” The Internet and Higher Education 2 (1999): 87–105,

[11] Joanna Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal “The Power of Presence;” Oleksandra Poquet, Vitomir Kovanović, Pieter de Vries, Thieme Hennis, Srećko Joksimović, Dragan Gašević, and Shane Dawson, “Social Presence in Massive Open Online Courses,” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 19 (2018): 43–68,

[12] Khe Foon Hew, Chen Qiao, and Ying Tang, “Understanding Student Engagement in Large-Scale Open Online Courses: A Machine Learning Facilitated Analysis of Student’s Reflections in 18 Highly Rated MOOCs,” International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning 19 (2018): 70–93.

[13] Peggy Holzweiss, Sheila Joyner, Matthew Fuller, Susan Henderson, and Robert Young, “Online graduate students’ perceptions of best learning experiences,” Distance Education 35 (2014): 311–23, DOI: 10.1080/01587919.2015.955262.

[14] Kathy Lohr and Karen Haley, “Using Biographical Prompts to Build Community in an Online Graduate Course.”