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Introducing Entry Level Students to the Online Community Learning Experience


There are many issues surrounding introducing entry level students to the online communal learning experience and I will try to outline some of them here, and propose possible solutions to the many problems that a lecturer/facilitator will encounter. The online experience would need to encompass learning, as well as a sense of shared experiences in order that the student would want to willingly return for more. How one would accomplish this is a question that has no real definitive answer – there could be and will be many alternatives. This Wiki will evaluate a few of the alternatives, as well as be a discussion of the subject.



The first potential obstacle is a probable lack of computing experience. Students at Level 2 and 3 (the target groups) often have little or no previous computing experience or little in the way of computing skills. Strategies need to be developed to bring these students up to a level that is sufficient to enable them to use a computer to get online and take an active part in the course.

Social Isolation

Further potential problems arise from the lack of social contact for online class participants compared to a normal f2f class. Much learning is obtained from our peers in a f2f environment, and sharing of problems/situations often results in solutions being found. This bonding and sharing does not occur to anywhere near the same extent in an online environment, but can be a real issue for lower level learners and even higher level ones too. Not everyone has the self discipline required for learning in a ‘solitary’ environment, the loss of normal f2f social interaction and ready access to expert advice are issues that some can find very difficult to mitigate.

Expert Assistance

In a f2f class environment students have an ‘expert’ available immediately for assistance. This is not the case with the online environment where students often complain that they have to wait some considerable time before receiving answers, and that they then have to re-familiarise themselves with why they asked the query in the first place, wasting time and sometimes causing a certain amount of frustration. And early withdrawals from programs.

The three potential obstacles to a good online learning experience outlined above are the main ones.


So, how do we get around these issues?


Before embarking in an online program, students could be required to attend one or more f2f sessions where they could receive training to bring them up to a level that is sufficient for them to partake successfully in online classes. The skills taught in these preliminary classes would be basic computing, accessing online content, linking to eLluminate or Blackboard if they are to be used during the course, and the use of any other required software package.

Social Events

Social events could be arranged so that students experience a certain amount of bonding with each other, thus making the transition to the online environment potentially easier because they would then ‘know’ other students and perhaps not be as reticent as some are in sharing the online experience and taking a more active role.

Whether these social events involved learning or were along the lines of the traditional bbq or other types of informal social gatherings would be up to the course organisers but either type could potentially do the job. The important facet would be the shared experiences with other group members, thus building connections that can help the student(s) to feel that they are a part of the community. Once shared experiences are happening in the ‘real’ informal social gatherings world it is much easier to make the transition to online shared experiences and learning.

Software Tutorials

If it is not possible for students to attend a f2f training session prior to undertaking an online course (they could for example live too far away and not be able to make the journey to attend) then perhaps the creation of a self-loading DVD accompanied by written material would be enough to get them started. The DVD could contain step-through tutorials on using software, online tools etc, links to these tools/tutorials, and the written material would elaborate on this and contain any other necessary instructions for the students.

Expert Assistance Readily Available

Not all students would rise to the level required in such a short time frame. One of the major hurdles in online learning is that there wouldn’t be anyone available for ‘over the shoulder’ instruction in an immediate sense. Getting around this issue is the crux of the matter for many learners and it often boils down to the determination to succeed of the individual student. Facilitators can play their part by being available for immediate response as much as possible.

There is no real alternative to meeting people f2f! All online variants of this are mere shadows of the f2f experience and fail abysmally in their efforts of duplication.

Pastoral Care

I’m sure we have all heard the stories of people pretending to be what they are not online so that they can entice others into situations that could be dangerous to them. The people that practice these scenarios do so by deceit, an easy thing to do online but not so simple f2f.

So how do you get around this? None of the online social networking tools currently (Bebo, FaceBook, Second Life etc) favoured give enough of a ‘presence”. It’s too easy to pretend to be what you’d like to be with these tools, rather than display the real you. And the same applies in an online learning environment.

Students can hide away unless care is taken to make certain that pastoral issues are maintained (contact, queries on how students are coping etc) as it is far too easy for these to slip. In a f2f class we have systems whereby we will contact non-attendees in case there are issues that might need addressed that are preventing students attending. This is easy to miss in the online class and measures would need to be in place to prevent the oversight of procedures like student absenteeism checks, whether or not the student is coping etc.


Where possible facilitators should run introductory meetings where class attendees can get to know each other. These meetings should be informal but should incorporate as much interaction between group members as possible so that a sense of community can start to develop. The meetings shouldn’t be limited to learning or coursework because of the structured nature these gatherings tend to have. Community is built much more easily in non-formal gatherings and we should encourage/facilitate this type of getting together if at all possible.

If its not possible for class participants to attend initial social occasions or learning experiences (perhaps distance or family issues get in the way) then we would need to create a DVD that is a visual and audio alternative to the f2f gatherings.

The first actual class should be on using online tools that would be used during the course. Students should be lead through all the scenarios they will encounter during the course including logging in and finding information. A hard copy of basic instructions would need to be created and handed out/emailed to students. It would contain all information needed to access online tools, materials, course instructors, and how to obtain help when it is needed.