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An Online Composition Course
Pre-Ops/Unit Cohesion

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In their second edition of Building Online Learning Communities, Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt (2007) referred to Etienne Wenger’s (n.d.) concept of communities of practice (COP) as they built their own argument for the importance of developing online learning communities. Palloff and Pratt described learning communities as being more than just social connections; they suggested that learning communities are positive environments in which participants are comfortable discussing content, exchanging thoughts, sharing related life experiences, and collaboratively constructing new knowledge.

Palloff and Pratt (2007) discussed the importance of participants expressing some of their feelings as well as their thinking in order to develop a sense of connectedness to other participants in the course. Expression of personal characteristics and traits, and thus developing a sense of social presence among participants, may contribute to feelings of safety and trust within the environment of an online course. This sense of trust can provide an atmosphere in which participants may freely express their thinking, and Palloff and Pratt suggested that when this sense of trust grows among participants, students often go to classmates for feedback and advice rather than the instructor. This newly developed, student-centered atmosphere enhances the online learning community as a community of practice. Like Wenger, Palloff and Pratt (2007) emphasized the development of a community that is comfortable as well as informative, and the authors state that the efforts to create this environment are critical to the success of an online learning environment.

Suggested actions for building a community of practice during an online course

Ruth Brown’s (2001) qualitative research on communities found that as the participants of her study described their concepts of community, many of them described a community in terms of action because they referred to being responsible for promoting their own learning and that of their classmates. Brown’s qualitative analysis listed 15 characteristics necessary for building a community among adult learners. These characteristics may be consolidated into three aspects of an online course that may enhance the formation and maintenance of a community of practice: course and student orientation, student accommodation, and student association. Course and student orientation includes students becoming comfortable with technical aspects of the course, determining what they know about the course subject, and finding similarities with their classmates through online interactions and discussions. Student accommodation provides for students’ needs (1) by offering opportunities for constructive interaction and, therefore, social presence; (2) by finding ways to validate each student’s importance in the course; and (3) by helping students to determine the time requirements and commitment that participation in the online community will require (Brown, 2001, p. 24).

Ruth Brown's (2001) third aspect of building an online community is student association, which includes developing course-long and long-term friendships, experiencing trust and respect among the students enrolled in the course, participating in online discussions as a member of a community of practice, and encouraging others to participate also. These aspects of building an online community of practice contribute to both earlier and present research that argues that participant interaction, discussion, and social presence are important elements of an online learning community (Rovai, 2007).