Virtual Communities in Education:
Taking the Learning Out of the Classroom

Prepared by
Jaye A. H. Lapachet
Spring 1994

NOTICE

While people talk about maximalizing resources using distance education to teach German to kids in Ukiah employing a teacher in San Francisco, a quieter revolution in education is taking place in university classrooms. This revolution uses existing technology to create virtual communities which facilitate conversations about class material outside of the classroom.

"Through the 1980s, significant computing power became available on college campuses, and everybody, not just the programming, science and engineering students, began using networked personal computers as part of their intellectual work, along with textbooks and lectures."[1]

Now professors are setting up local USENET newsgroups, electronic mail aliases and reflectors to assist them in teaching their classes to a new generation. Students are culling material from LISTSERVs and newsgroups to use in papers, class and group discussions.

What advantages do virtual communities provide for classes and teaching? How do virtual communities affect the educational experience and what sort of long term effects might they have? Is it an effective way to teach? Is the use of virtual communities an attempt by professors to use a gimmicky toy to reach a youth that is increasingly disinterested with education?

This paper will give a broad overview of the issues surrounding the use of virtual communities in conjunction with the classroom to facilitate learning, and will explore the problems that can occur. The discussion will assume a certain level of knowledge of the terminology specific to the Internet and computer networking.

What are virtual communities? Virtual communities are groups that form using computers and networking technology to discuss topics of mutual interest at the convenience of each participant. Howard Rheingold, in his book The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, defines virtual communities as:

"the social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace."[2]

It seems that the key to a virtual community is the human interaction that computers, and the computer space allotted to the group, foster. Without the interaction between people that grows between participants, virtual communities would be just another a deluge of information to digest.

Virtual communities exist right now covering a multitude of topics from Lyme Disease[3] to Barbershop harmony and singing[4], Marital/Family and relational communication[5] and general library discussion[6]. Traffic on virtual communities range from 1 to 100 messages per day. While none of the virtual communities mentioned above are specifically class related, many of the participants are students, using university computers to discuss their interests in such topics as music, food and sex, but also to discuss their triumphs and troubles.

Virtual communities on the 'Net create an "invisible college, that has tremendous reach in the scholarly and scientific world across national as well as disciplinary boundaries."[7] These invisible colleges allow students to meet up with others researching similar subjects. On a traditional college campus, or in physical communities, using traditional research methods, this connection would be much more limited.

One of the problems of a classroom is that even in a small seminar type class setting, the professor will do much of the talking. An average student could, possibly, make two to five comments during a class session. If not actively engaged in the conversation, or if the discussion goes over the head of some of the students, they might periodically disconnect from the discussion. "Disconnection" might be more likely for a generation who grew up on MTV, video games and computers, now trying to learn in a linear, non-image-oriented environment. Virtual communities, to a certain extent, change the class parameters to reflect new technology and new expectations from students. Students have different expectations from previous generations, and what make virtual communities attractive is that they are different from everyday life.[8]

UC Berkeley is an example of a university where virtual communities, like USENET newsgroups, are used to extend the boundaries of the classroom. There are about 120 newsgroups in use at Berkeley, whose main topic is to disseminate information relating to a class or foster additional class discussion outside of the classroom. Additionally, there are approximately 51 other newsgroups related to campus activities and services available for students. These topics range from financial aid information to graduate student life discussions.

In UC Berkeley's Library and Information Studies 296 (LIS296), a graduate seminar, dealing with the Impact of New Information Resources on Society, the class is split into focus groups that are required to meet each week to discuss topics such as Creative Arts, Public Policy, Information Retrieval, Critical Theory and Virtual Communities. In addition, each group has their own newsgroup, in which they must continue to discuss their topic in between class and group meetings.

Using a virtual community, whether a LISTSERV, newsgroup or other type to extend the classroom is a concept that allows a student to take more control of their learning process. It was only a matter of time before the graduate students who participated in virtual communities themselves became professors and began using them to extend the boundaries of the classroom.

There are some basic criteria that seem to help a classroom virtual community to succeed. First, there needs to be a minimum number of participants to start the discussion and for the discussion to move along. 4-8 participants seems to work well; enough to have varying points of view, but not too many to deluge the group with more articles than a single participant could comfortably read. Second, the participants need to be able to respond critically and thoughtfully to articles. To help this along, the professor needs to provide a supportive environment where the students feel comfortable expressing their ideas, which extends beyond the physical classroom to the virtual community. Third, some groups that have some type of a leader, formal or informal, who can prod and poke the group, and redirect the discussion when necessary. These groups seem to accomplish more and have livelier discussions. The leader may have more experience using computer mediated communication and virtual communities, or just be someone with a strong personality. Fourth, opinions should vary and participants need to be comfortable bringing up unpopular or controversial points of view. The discussion can become easily inbred if participants do not inject points of view from outside the class discussions.

There are numerous advantages to using virtual communities to augment classroom work. The biggest advantage is that a virtual community is truly interactive. When a student posts a message there is no way of knowing what type of answers the message will receive, or even if an answer will be received. There is also no telling how others will react to the posting or who will respond to the message. An expert in the field, monitoring the discussion, who suddenly chimes in with his/her words of wisdom can change the whole tone and direction of the conversation, as can any response. These responses from outsiders also expose the students to a much broader view. Another advantage is that students must defend their ideas. When a student posts an article detailing their ideas, the student will be forced to think, defend the article and answer questions. Virtual communities also force recipients of the message to think and react to what was written. Virtual communities allow the students to lead the discussion and express ideas.

Another huge advantage is that students can participate at their own convenience. Virtual communities do require many things such as access to a computer and modem, but what they do not require is the student, or professor, to be in a certain place, at a certain time. With a virtual community a student can read e-mail at 2:00 a.m. If a student has a brainstorm at an irregular time, s/he can post a message while it is still fresh in his/her mind. Time appears to have a different meaning in computer mediated communications. A conversation thread can take place as quickly as if in person, or a participant who reads email or news infrequently can revive a topic that was first initiated several weeks prior.

The idea of "place" also changes. If the interesting and exciting discussions are taking place in virtual communities, then what place is that? Are the virtual communities less important, because they are not part of a classroom? The sense of where the information resides and where students can get it from changes.[9] Virtual communities can create a vast laboratory for students to experiemnt in, making resources and people available that otherwise would not be. This "lack of place" in turn gives students a broader view of the topic, and perhaps the world.

Motivated students will experience independence from the professor, because the professor is listening less obtrusively. Out of the formal classroom environment, students may feel more relaxed and less inhibited about voicing their opinions. This feeling might encourage some reticent students to contribute more than they would in a regular classroom setting. It also may encourage boisterous students to be more boisterous, especially since the professor cannot control the postings, as s/he can control comments in a classroom situation. As students become more comfortable with the online environment, they might also find it easier to talk to the professor via email. Some professors can be intimidating, but via email, words on the screen may not quite as frightening as they would be if they were bestowed upon the student in a face to face office hour.

By participating in a virtual community, especially one that has outsiders, a student can become curious enough to explore further on the 'Net. The ease of uploading information from ftp sites, other newsgroups or LISTSERVs can encourage students to explore further on their own. Thus many-to-many characteristic of virtual communities can both accelerate and democratize access to cutting-edge knowledge.[10] This seems like it would happen more in virtual communities than in a classroom setting. It is only a little more complex to forward a message than it is to delete one, on most systems, while going to another location or building to look up an article or further information is less convenient.

There are advantages for the professor, too. The professor can monitor the discussions and be in close contact with the students more frequently and more easily. Professors may find that it is a useful way to teach, not only because of the relative ease of communication but because of the ability to share information with students.

Virtual communities will not single-handedly revolutionize education, nor do they necessarily make learning easier. Problems exist in their use. While many of the arguments that are used against virtual communities apply here,[11] some are particularly troublesome.

First, using a virtual community requires students to be self motivated. If the students are not motivated to use the virtual community, the discussion will never take off. If a virtual community is not used, then it cannot extend the boundaries of the classroom. It is up to the professor to show students the benefits of participating in virtual communities in order to help motivate students. In the end, students have to want to participate. Even motivated students may have a hard time, though, because of the computer requirements.

Second, using virtual communities means that students must possess a certain level of computer literacy/sophistication. Neil Postman, in a transcript of his speech to the Gesellschaft für Informatik, "Informing Ourselves to Death," said "technology tends to favor some groups of people and harms other groups."[12] Students may have never logged onto the Internet, or used LISTSERVs and newsgroups. Familiarizing students with virtual communities and, then, getting students into the habit of using this non-traditional forum for discussion can be a difficult, and time consuming process. The process is new and different, and the learning curve can initially be quite steep, which means that students have to work hard and spend a significant amount of time practicing these new skills. Additionally, a student cannot easily be in bed or on the beach and participate in a virtual community as they could using more traditional materials, such as books or readers. To make matters worse, UNIX is a difficult operating system to master. Many interfaces for mail such as pine, Eudora and elm assist with reading, and replying to electronic mail. They do not, however, absolve the student of learning some UNIX commands.

Despite the difficulties of UNIX and the complexities of the Internet, a far greater problem are students who have infrequently or never used a computer. While this situation grows less common all the time, it is an issue that needs to be considered. For these students virtual communities may seem to be an exotic and elitist form of expression. The use of virtual communities in the classroom may be more difficult for a student from a poor socio-economic area. This is a new twist on the discussion about information-haves and information-have-nots.

Third, students also have to devote time to adding thoughtful comments to the discussion. Students probably will not be used to this type of requirement, because they may have never been required to analyze other comments and respond to them coherently. The author also suspects students are not regularly taught to think critically, and challenge written works or to challenge those in positions of authority.

Fourth, another dilemma, especially in the case of newsgroups, is that they may be readily available to people not enrolled in the class. Students may have to accept, or at least tolerate, outsiders participating in the discussions. Often that pool is drawn from people on campus who can access the campus network. While this pool of users can range in size from a few to the thousands of outsiders, it is really quite a small number when compared with all those who use the 'Net regularly. The potential for outside users to join in on discussion can be exciting or frustrating, but it is, nevertheless, intimidating. In many cases, class newsgroups are limited to the university or the university system and are not generally available over the Internet. While this does limit the pool of potential contributors somewhat, it is still possible that 30-40 thousand people have the opportunity to read and comment on the newsgroup discussion. While these comments can provide valuable insight into the topic, the outside contributors do not have the same stake in the discussion that the class members do and can be disruptive if they do not stick to the topic, or if they post marginally relevant articles.

Posting messages to a virtual community can be intimidating, especially if the forum has some experienced users participating. This appears to be especially problematic for people who are self-conscious and afraid to voice their opinions for fear of being ridiculed by fellow students.

Another problem comes when students upload messages from other LISTSERVs and newsgroups to the class virtual community. 'Net surfers may be unhappy to find that their messages are being dissected and discussed at length. While this phenonmenon is similar to that of studying and discussing archival letters or diaries of individuals from fifty, a hundred or more years ago in an attempt to understand their life and times. The problem is that the people who wrote the archival materials are probably long dead, while the author of the LISTSERV message is alive, well and may be living in Milwaukee or Copenhagen. While the chances are slim that the writer would find out, it is possible.

Finally, some would argue that a virtual community created for classroom use, like the newsgroups created for LIS296, are not true virtual communities. This is partially true, because the main participants interact with each other on a regular basis apart from the newsgroup. The main participants also have other characteristics in common such as living in California and attending UC Berkeley. On the other hand, the participants may have not known each other prior to using a virtual community. Since each person can develop a distinct "voice" or online persona, the participants can get to know each other better through the use of the virtual community. Part of this comes from the fact that people often use their experiences to make a point. This allows participants to gain valuable insight into each other's lives, insight that probably would not have been shared if the virtual community had not been a factor. Also, participants have to work together to achieve the goals set forth by the professor.

Problems plague every type of new educational innovation or improvement, but there are other things, besides problems and advantages, to think about when considering the use of virtual communities to extend the classroom.

Neil Postman reminds us that "technology giveth and technology taketh away"[13] In the use of virtual communities to extend the classroom, what are professors giving up? What are students giving up? Professors may be giving up the opportunity to hear what students have to say verbally and to check that they actually thought up the ideas they post in an article. Students may be giving up the opportunity to practice speaking in front of other people. It is fairly easy to write whatever you want into the computer and send it off, because there is a sort of unreality to it. Live, however, students must be able to think fast and defend their views in an environment that is possibly supportive, potentially hostile, but definitely unknown. The pros and cons of using a virtual community to extend the classroom have to be carefully evaluated before virtual communities are hailed as the next best frontier in education that will solve all the problems.

Technology, like many things, also, usually has unforeseen consequences. Postman tells how the clock was invented in order to allow men to devote themselves more vigorously to God, but it ended up "of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money."[14] Perhaps students will be given more power through virtual communities, allowing them to further disassociate themselves with professors and the professors knowledge. Because virtual communities allow people to connect with others that they never would have met in physical life, it is, therefore, possible that those on the 'Net could act as professors. If face to face contact is diminished the learning experience of students is reduced and professors could become less important.

Though not usually considered, some thought should be given to the physical well being of the students in areas such as ergonomics. While ergonomics affect all aspects of computer use, not just virtual community participants, a professor should consider whether students must sit in front of a computer for long periods of time just to fulfill the minimum requirements of the class.

Finally, if students use virtual communities as a regular part of every class given, it means that thousands of students will be broadcasting via computer mediated communication. While this scenario has many desirable aspects, it also means that the amount of information being broadcast will increase exponentially. Perhaps students, and their professors, as a result, will drown in a sea of information,[15] that they have created.

During the Fall semester of 1993, LIS296 also used a system called Community Memory.[16] Community Memory was available, for a short time, to users with telnet capabilities. On a regular basis it is available, for a small fee, at dedicated machines in libraries, laundry mats and cafes in Berkeley. Once connected, Community Memory offered a system that linked related messages in a windowing type format. This type of message organization enabled a participant to follow an entire line of conversation fairly easily and uninterrupted. The beauty of the system was that it was much easier to use than newsgroups, even though there were not as many rich features available. Since anyone could telnet to Community Memory and add comments to the discussion, the points of view were diverse.

Community Memory had its problems, too. Advanced users were frustrated by Community Memory's windowing system, the speed, the intermittent connection problems and the unsophisticated method available for navigating the system. The worst problem for a class environment was the absence of a built in tool which would allow participants to include imported text. Downloading to the participant's local system was also not available through Community Memory.

The use of two different systems indicates, at least at UC Berkeley, that the professor is trying to find a viable solution to the use of virtual communities to extend the classroom discussions. If using virtual communities were a gimmick, or a toy, the experiment probably would not have lasted, or the professor would not have sought a solution after the class commented about the drawbacks of Community Memory.

Another consideration that should be made is that while the long term effects of using virtual communities to extend the classroom are not yet known, the experience can devastate or significantly enhance the educational experience. One aspect, the technology itself, can have a huge effect on the use and the results of class virtual communities. With technologically unsophisticated users, the technology can prevent, or impair, the student from participating in a significant portion of the class. Even the medium, LISTSERV versus newsgroup, etc., can have a large effect on the discussions.

Education and citizen uses of the Internet are relatively recent issues.[17] Information has to have a relation to the solution of problems[18] and if using virtual communities helps students to solve problems and be more creative in the classroom, then virtual communities should be used. If using virtual communities results in a deluge of chaos[19], then professors should think twice before adding a virtual communities requirement to their syllabus.

Bibliography

Rheingold, Howard.The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993.

Smith, Richard J., and Mark Gibbs. Navigating the Internet. Carmel, IN : SAMS, 1993.

Neil Postman."Informing Ourselves to Death." Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, (copy obtained from USENET newsgroup: ucb.class.mc190.)

Endnotes

[1] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 69.

[2]Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 5.

[3] lymenet-l@lehigh.edu.

[4] barbershop@bigd.cray.com.

[5] fammcomm@rpitsvm.bitnet.

[6] soc.talk.libraries (USENET newsgroup).

[7] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 264.

[8] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 216.

[9] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 79.

[10] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 82.

[11] See paper entitled "Virtual Communities: the Mind Altering Drug of the '90s or Facilitator of Human Interaction", conference proceedings for American Society for Information Science, May 1994.

[12] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.

[13] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.

[14] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.

[15] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.

[16] telnet path.net; this system is no longer available via telnet as of January 31, 1994.

[17] Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), 84.

[18] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.

[19] Neil Postman, "Informing Ourselves to Death," Speech given at a meeting of the Gesellschaft für Informatik, Stuttgart, Germany, 11 October 1990, ucb.class.mc190 USENET newsgroup.


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