Hero photograph
Photo by Darren Sudlow

Classroom or Community?

Darren Sudlow —

What are we aiming for in online learning? Do we want to replicate a classroom online? Or do we want to develop a community?

NetNZ has used Google+ Communities as our preferred online hub for courses for sometime now. This does fly in the face of the overwhelming use of Google Classroom by both 'Google' teachers. However, we do so for very good reasons.

I get the lure of Google Classroom. It is intuitive and integrates with other Google Apps well. As a result, it provides a very tidy environment. A light LMS in a way. If I had to choose that type of environment, I would far rather use Google Classroom than LMS’s around the place. You can see some thoughts I have on those many years ago. Somehow they still linger, but just different companies.

However, our preference for Google+ Communities reflects a fundamental philosophy we have around connectedness, community and agency. The very labels for both platforms indicates a key point of difference. Google Classroom is just that. Its design reflects a teacher centric view of learning that reflects conventional classroom dynamics. It is a ‘classroom’ online. Within that ‘classroom’ the teacher holds the power. They structure it, they provide the learning, they drive it all. There are discussion features built in that enable student voice, but they are linear and available only through the teacher.

By their very design, Google+ Communities promote community. Google+ itself was Google’s answer to Facebook. It was a social network. Within that, it provided the very useful function to create and run a community. The dynamic within a Google+ Community is one where all participants are equal. Where everyone has the same functionality (well, almost). The design is open-ended, centred on the participants and the community itself. This allows us to turn our view of (online) learning on its head. It provides a platform to develop a community rather than a course. A place where everyone has a say, everyone contributes and the community drives learning forward. That doesn’t mean you have taken all power away from the teacher, but it encourages a different dynamic.

We lose this if all the community encompasses is the teacher posting what to do. That misses the point and the opportunity. You may as well use a Google Classroom. Taking the other view, could you turn a Google Classroom into a community? Possibly. 

However, just like our physical spaces, the design of our online space encourages certain behaviours. If as a school we are breaking down physical walls and enabling a degree of openness, why would we then use an online platform that is siloed? And if we want to encourage agency, community, connectedness, why use online platforms that encourage traditional dynamics between teacher and student?