1.9 Nurture Online Community of Inquiry


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Based on the Ultraversity Project, this collection of patterns identifies the key innovations developed to teach an undergraduate programme of some 300 student researchers, supported entirely online and having collaboration between learners as a central component.

The Essence of the Problem

Learning can be ineffective and marginal when it is individual, competitive and isolated. The challenge is to create a co-ordinated, social and interpersonal activity of regular dialogue, reflective practice and moral support.

The Problem in Detail

Learning organisation is traditionally designed to highlight individual endeavour, define a common curriculum and ensure achievement is assessed reliably through controlled conditions. Schools, colleges and universities achieve this in face-to-face contexts by timetabling, identifying class sets of similar capability and examinations. The problem is that this does not suit all learners’ learning style, contextual needs or personal circumstances. This is evidenced in the difficulties faced by learners who are not taking opportunities in statutory or further and higher education. In particular, this pattern address the needs and opportunities of higher education which can address social challenge in a context-based, action-research and online environment.

The Solution

This pattern defines a view that learning should be idiosyncratic, tuned to practitioners in context, placing responsibility on learners to negotiate process, content and award to fit their needs.  Online technology is used to permit rich dialogue and many-to-many discussion and also to free individuals from travel and timetables.  Modeling of desired behaviour is at the heart of nurturing reflective practice, critical thinking and inquiry for improvement.  Develop the online community to make effective use of peers, both for moral support, cooperation and as sources of experience and expertise.  The role of the learning facilitator is a proactive one, they should contact community members who are absent and take responsibility for leading and seeding discussons.

A code of practice
Rights and responsibilities within the community must be made clear and as far as possible there should be symmetry between the different member groups.  The vibrancy of the community is the responsibility of everyone, everyone has a facilitation role.

To be actively facilitated a community should:

  1. agree a starting point of respect and mutual support for all members valuing the knowledge and experience they bring t the community
  2. identify who will take on the co-ordination role for particular activities.  At time this will be course staff, at other times it will be students
    clearly identify the level of commitment for activities, treat this as a contractual agreement
  3. make clear your own understanding and say what it is you plan to do
  4. seek to be critically supportive in responding to others requests
  5. show presence in the community, this is achieved through making overt contributions
  6. summarise complex or long exchanges to help clarify the dialogue that has taken place
  7. seed conversations through introducing ideas/concepts/resources that cold form an interesting discussion or debate.  Don’t simply share the resource, make an initial comment as to why you think it is worth others angaging with
  8. be prepared to intervene to defuse situations that are potentially inflamatory and likely to cause offense and upset in the community

A few points about being a member of the Ultraversity online communities:

  1. the community provides an opportunity for students, learning facilitators, and ‘expert guests’ to engage in open dialogue and discussion in a climate that supports learning and collaboration
  2. the community operates on trust, so we ask that members apply the courtesies they would normally observe in any spoken conversation
  3. be polite and respectful – address your comments to the idea rather than the person
  4. avoid dominating discussions
  5. challenge each other in a constructive way
  6. value others contributions and uphold a culture of mutual respect
  7. follow ethical research processes – seek permission before using others words; acknowledge the use of others ideas
  8. seek to support other researchers and encourage a social aspect to the communities
  9. take responsibility for your own learning – ask for help!
  10. log on and contribute regularly and timely
  11. respect the non-contact time of course staff
  12. use community forums wherever possible and expect responses from course staff and fellow learners within 48 hours on working days (Monday – Friday excluding bank holidays)
  13. use private email sparingly only when a community communications isn’t appropriate, expect response from course staff and fellow learners within 48 hours on working days (Monday – Friday excluding bank holidays) with allowance made for holidays and part time workers

Reflections on use

This approach works well, although as reported often with online conversations not all will participate in part as the environment is very ‘exposing’.  The kind of participation required needs to be clearly explained to potential student researchers during the admissions process.  Learning facilitators must take the lead, acting as a guide, monitoring and identifying when to make interventions.

Related patterns

1.1 Organise learning places
1.2 Team Teaching
1.3 Exhibition for Dissertation
1.4 Workplace advocate
1.5 Action Learning Set
1.6 Patchwork ‘Media’
1.7 Personalised Learning Contract
1.8 The ‘Hotseat’ expert guest
1.9 Nurture Online Community of Inquiry


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