Community development seems a common concern for instructors in online writing courses, so one might assume that those of use concerned with community share the same goals; however, when embarking on an exploration of whether an assignment sequence or pedagogical tool has been successful in develop community in an online course, it’s prudent to explore what we mean when we reference “community.” What do we hope to achieve when we aim for community development? How do we best accomplish it? According to Jeremy Brent, community is actually an undefinable term because it is “moving, divided and incomplete” (219). What we long for when we talk about community is “the continually reproduced desire to overcome the adversity of social life” (Brent 221). Indeed, desire to overcome or achieve a purpose is a central component of other attempts to articulate community. Garrison and Vaughan describe community, or the “community of inquiry” “as the ideal and heart of a higher education experience” (14). They claim that the driving force behind community development is “purposeful, open, and disciplined critical discourse and reflection” (Garrison and Vaughan 14). While Garrison and Vaughan suggest that community is disciplined and purposefully created, Trena M. Paulus suggests that off-topic discussions have a hand in the development of an academic community “in the absence of a physical co-location” (228). For Paulus, community building requires the development of connections and the establishment of common ground. Off-topic discussions help students engage in “grounding,” the establishment of common ground or the “‘mutual understanding, knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, pre-suppositions, and so on’ (Baker et al. 1999, p. 3) that exist among people communicating together” (Paulus 228). Grounding goes hand-in-hand with connecting, which involves “affinity (small talk and humor), commitment (a sense of presence) and attention (negotiating availability for conversation)” (Paulus 229). Paulus explains that “connection is about interpersonal relationships, whereas common ground is about information exchange” (230). We can conclude then, that the development of an academic community in an online writing class requires both informal socializing with those whom we have established common ground as well as purposeful discussion and collaborative action to achieve academic goals.
Old Dominion University’s English 724/824, entitled “Online Writing Instruction,” has given us an opportunity to examine the way in which community is created, or not, via the use of blogs. Students were required to post five successive blog entries reviewing scholarly articles on some aspect of online writing pedagogy. No two students were allowed to review the same article. My analysis of the community of learners in this course as well as the blog entries leads me to conclude that blogs are not the most effective tool for the development of community in an online course, though I do conceded that they may have some role to play. A review of blog entries for the course reveals that only about half of the students in the course engaged in commenting in any significant way. In fact, it seems that five of eleven students did not comment on others’ blog entries. Comments seemed to be based around several themes: seeking clarification about the article, expressing interest, agreeing with the article, or expressing disagreement with some aspect of the article. Of the approximately 57 comments posted in response to blogs, around 42% of those comments were posted by two very active commentators. Another student who posted nearly 16% of the comments on the blogs did so two days before the blog analysis was due. Some students responded to the blogs posted on their webpages, while others did not. One interesting thing to note is that there seemed to be a correlation between length of time in the Ph.D. program and lack of engagement with the blogs. Only about 22% of the blog comments were posted by Ph.D. students who entered the program during or before the fall of 2012 despite the fact that they make up 45% of the course enrollment.
Students were not required to comment on each other’s blogs, but even if they had been required to do so, engagement with each other’s blogs would not be the most effective community building activity this course has afforded. Garrison and Vaughan say that communities of inquiry are open, and Paulus suggests that negotiation and the personal are important aspects of community building. Lori E. Amy claims that “the discussion lists and bulletin boards we ask students to use mimic virtual social spaces, such as the internet chatrooms in which many students ‘hang out’” (115). She claims that “Dissensus and healthy conflict are crucial arts of the contact zone, and we do need to structure spaces in which we engage one another in open, honest exchanges that engender ‘active, engaged discussion’ capable of sustaining passionate disagreement through which we can educate one another” (Amy 119). I agree with Amy on this point; however, I disagree with the notion that discussions and blogs that are posted for a grade mimic informal, online social hangouts. In discussing Blackboard, Gillam and Wooden develop a critique that is relevant to blogs. They say that Blackboard “positions the writer primarily as the isolated recipient of information, who contributes his or her thinking in discrete little bullets to the discussion forum or via various assessment instruments” (27). Blogs, like Blackboard discussion forums, encourage students to write in solitude, particularly when, as in the case with English 724/824, students are not allowed to write over the same subject.
Interestingly, accidental violations of the assignment rules had the potential to engage students more deeply, since the shared knowledge of the articles gave them a common ground, an element vital to community, according to Paulus. Gillam and Wooden state that “we must encourage them [students] to see their complex ecological makeup and that of their collaborators, to mindfully participate in the formation of a new ecological community with their peer group, and to become cognizant of the ways in which those complex ecologies influence knowledge formation and communication” (28). The few occasions in which students accidentally reviewed the same article provide strong evidence that we are the product of our ecological makeup. For instance, Kelly Cutchin and I both reviewed Gillam and Wooden yet our summaries and reviews highlighted different aspects of the article and different applications of the theories discussed. Despite the fact that I had unintentionally violated the assignment guidelines, I found it exciting that someone else had read the same article I had and I purposefully sought out that review. This was the one instance in which I found myself hoping that my fellow student would respond to my comment and checking to see whether she had done so.
To increase the chances of establishing common ground, blogs from the assigned readings could be required, but this changes the purpose and intended outcome of the assignment from resource compiling, writing in the disciplines, and reflection to simply an assignment focused in writing in the disciplines and reflection. Even if that were the case, there still might be potential issues with the community building, as blogs assigned for a grade are reflections of power differentials in the course and may not allow for truly open and honest exchanges. Try as we may, we students are keenly aware that the blogs will be graded. It’s possible that students may take that into consideration when responding to each others’ blogs. DePew and Lettner-Rust explain that “the power to survey and assess gives instructors sole authority in the class” (178). We students are aware of that authority when we engage with others’ work. True community development through the forging of connections must be facilitated in other ways that allow for collaboration, negotiation, and shared experience.
One of the most interesting aspects of the blog engagement or lack thereof in ENGL 724/824 was that most of the Ph.D. students who engaged with blogs were newer students, while students who have been in the program for several semesters did not engage to a significant extent. There may be numerous reasons for this, but I feel that this resulted in part from a pre-existing idea that we are already members of a strong academic community. Even though the stated goal of the blog assignment was not to build community, the community analysis assignment suggests that it is an intrinsic goal. I would argue that the Facebook backchannel and group assignments have built community more effectively. Both have been places to discuss assignment expectations, to negotiate, to support, and to collaborate. Both have allowed for the forming of informal connections in an open manner while sharing information and working toward a goal with a purpose. Smaller group projects have required negotiation, information sharing, and connections, while the backchannel has served to make navigating the course akin to a larger group project. While students need to develop the backchannel themselves, they can be encouraged to do so. Kelly shared a 34 page document of our June 17 WebEx chat with the backchannel to support discussions of community. Daniel shared a Wordle that he created from the text. A backchannel chat from before, during, and after the course meeting in June 17 was 112 pages in length. Navigating the course itself seems to create more community than the blogs have done because rather than solely replacing the instructor as the knowledgeable informer, we have created knowledge socially and equally via the backchannel and group projects.
Amy, Lori. “Rhetorical Violence and the Problematics of Power.” Role Play: Distance Learning and the Teaching of Writing (2006): 111.
DePew, Kevin Eric, and Heather Lettner-Rust. “Mediating power: Distance Learning Interfaces, Classroom Epistemology, and the Gaze.” Computers and Composition 26.3 (2009): 174-189.
Garrison, D. R., and Norman D. Vaughan. Blended Learning in Higher Education: Framework, Principles, and Guidelines. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.
Gillam, Ken, and Shannon R. Wooden. “Re-Embodying Online Composition: Ecologies of Writing in Unreal Time and Space.” Computers and Composition 30. Writing on the Frontlines (2013): 24-36. ScienceDirect. Web. 28 May 2014.