by Darren Sudlow

Community and Communities

NetNZ teachers are free to use whatever platform they choose to develop an online hub for their course, but we do aim to develop a certain ‘flavour’ of online learning that emphasizes community and connectedness. 

 Google+ communities is an ideal tool for developing this, which is why we have encouraged teachers to give it a try. Its use does need to reflect this intent from the teacher, otherwise it is at risk of doing nothing more than centralising teacher notifications. If what we are after as teachers is a structured, linear environment where the teacher has most of the control, then other platforms would be far more suitable - Google Classrooms is one example. That is not to say that you can’t achieve community in these environments, it is just that Google+ Communities is the best fit.

Communities places sharing, discussion, and interaction front and centre. Google designed Google+ as a social media platform, with communities as the focal point for people to connect on interest areas.Educators are gradually adopting them as a way of developing a common online space for their class, but in a way that is familiar to the students (rather than a Moodle type LMS) It is a space where everyone is equal and can have strong ownership of what happens in that space.

But, it is not a place to structure lots of content. You do this outside of the environment using google docs, sites or something similar. You then bring that content / structure into the environment. However, to avoid an overwhelming and rather chaotic experience it is important to organise the community in some way. You can achieve this by using the categories function. This allows the teacher (and possibly students) to create categories that label posts. Every time someone makes a post they choose a category to label it. The categories then appear as a menu down the left hand side of the page and when clicked, will only display posts in that particular category.

The “About” section also allows the teacher to create an area for displaying static links - great for linking to those google folders or resources.

In the end Google+ communities support what they suggest - communities. If all we do is post the work, and link resources then we are missing the point. Community needs nurturing, a lot of hard work, and a determination to make it happen - it doesn’t happen by itself. There needs to be a compelling reason for students to use the space on an ongoing basis. This means designing tasks and activities where students need to use the space - even if it is just sharing a piece of art, a website, contributing to a poll - these small beginnings set an expectation and allow for the community to grow. If the community is not used it will remain peripheral (unless you get completely lucky with your group of students).

One focus of our Christchurch Hui last year was to ask all teachers and eDeans to brainstorm what the values of our organisation are. Collaboration, community and connectedness were all prominent. So if we say these are integral to what we do, then we need to explore ways to make them happen. If used in the right way, the video conference will help this, but this only occurs once a week. The asynchronous environment is where the students spend most of their learning time and this is where we need to place a strong emphasis as teachers. Technology is often mooted as a reason for disconnection in our youngsters, but if used in the right way, it has the potential to connect people at a level never before imagined. Then it is a matter of managing the connectedness, rather than the disconnectedness. Another matter that.