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Ten Strategies for Building Community with Technology

A Handbook for Instructional Designers and Program Developers

by Bernie Potvin; Nicki Rehn & David Peat

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also available: eBook
category: Education
published: 2014
publisher: Brush Education
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Educators in online and other technology-rich environments consistently ask, “How can I build community among the learners in my class?” They know learning is strengthened by community, but aren’t sure how to design a community in a learning environment where technology plays a significant role.

Ten Strategies for Building Community with Technology answers their question with proven strategies developed over the authors’ thirty years’ experience designing and teaching online classes. The ten strategies demonstrate that technology is not an impediment to community, but instead a tool for building more effective learning environments than are possible with traditional, face-to-face classrooms. Used the right way, technology can provide more instructional time, more opportunities for students to reflect, more chances to share and connect, and more access to feedback.

But these effective learning environments don’t happen by chance. This book will give you all the background, tactics, examples and advice you need to design successful learning communities with technology.

Ten Models for Building Learning Communities

  • Transmission/Direct Instruction
  • Guided Discovery
  • Nurturing
  • Apprenticeship
  • Case Study
  • Shared Praxis
  • Insight-Generating
  • Training
  • Projects
  • Inquiry
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The essential idea of this book is that learning requires community, and learners need to experience community in order to learn. Community in courses does not happen by accident, particularly in courses and programs designed with technology to either deliver or support learning. When learners feel that they are in and part of a real and transformative learning community, it is because their instructors have consciously designed the learning conditions and environment to ensure that students experience that sense of community. This “big idea” is supported by a secondary one, that thinking is socially constructed; knowledge is a social construction. To intentionally design conditions in a course so learners form a community in which to think and know is therefore important. And this is equally true in courses and programs that are supported by technology.

There are clearly new demands on today’s learners. Creativity, critical thinking, collaborative skills, and knowledge generation are showing up in the policy and program aims from ministries of education as well as the goals school divisions have identified as most important for their schools and staff to accomplish. If we are to believe the written statements in provinces and states across North America and around the world, indeed there just might be a 21st-century learner. Everywhere we have worked around the world, we have read that the policies of governments, as well as the aims of courses and programs, no longer emphasize learning as just some elaborate form of trivial pursuit for credit (Myers, 1995). Learning is making connections, the act of constructing meaning in community. Learning is active, strategic, and personal. The best educators design learning experiences accordingly.

We also believe that technology is pervasive and disruptive (Christensen, Johnson, & Horn, 2008). If courses and programs utilizing technology are to build community, they need to be designed and implemented with intentionality; otherwise, the medium will become the message, and teachers and students will come to believe that education must be all about the technology. Indeed, we have learned through our own teaching experience—over 30 years of collective online and technology- supported design and teaching—that certain conditions of learning, and not others, are required to be designed for if learning is to occur. In addition, all of us who teach know that technology can be and often is disruptive. We all know that technology is changing the landscape of teaching and learning and schools, as well as affecting program design and implementation across businesses and governmental and not-for-profit agencies. Ubiquitous, disruptive technology is here to stay.

Teachers need to become “architects of learning experiences,” designing courses and programs that build community. There are numerous ways to do this; in fact, in this text we will show that there are least 10 ways to do so, and probably many, many more. For example, there is more than one way to design courses that emphasize direct instruction through the transmission of information and yet build community, even in online courses and courses richly supported with technology. And there is more than one way to design online and technology-supported courses and programs that emphasize inquiry, projects and their development, insight-generating, case-study use, and more.

Finally, we are well aware of failed experiments in the use of technology to support learning. The April 7, 2012, issue of The Economist reported one such failure. Peru adopted a “tablet for every child” approach, but later concluded that the experiment had failed. The reasons for the failure were of no surprise to us, and they would not be to the experienced educator. There were three main reasons given for the failure. First, there was a lack of teacher training in the use of technology to support learning. Second, teachers were untrained regarding program and course design. Finally, teachers did not understand principles and practices of good pedagogy. We intend to thoroughly address each of these issues. This book is a journey into that complex yet exciting landscape of teaching and learning using technology, where readers will find ways to build community among learners and teachers.

PREFACE The purpose and content of the book

In this book we address one question asked by teachers who teach using technology (including those who teach in online learning environments): “How can I build community among my learners?” This book provides an answer; in fact, it provides 10 possible answers, in the form of 10 models for teachers to use to build community. Each model has been tried and tested over 30 years of author-collected post-secondary experience designing and teaching multiple online courses at institutions in Canada. Community can be built in courses designed to use technology. In fact, it may surprise you that community can be built best in courses and programs designed to be implemented in whole or in part in online learning environments.

Each model offers unique approaches regarding how to develop community among learners and teachers in a course. The tacit notion hidden within and throughout each model is that courses that develop community, and good pedagogic relationships among learners and teachers, are those that are intentionally designed to do so. If designed thus, courses and programs using technology will develop community in ways that face-to-face courses cannot possibly achieve. Each model described in this book includes a unique structure of ideas, a rationale for the model’s use, and some strong theoretical support. Each model is a particular expression of the general concept of constructivism, that thinking is socially constructed and knowledge a social construction. When intentionally designed to do so, an online class activity of socially constructing some project or collaborating to design a scenario can lead to the development of sound pedagogical relationships. The premise in this book is that community development in courses must be designed and intentionally built into the architecture of a course.


Community is a particular way of being in the world that comes about through right relationships. When we are in the world in particular ways, we bring about right relationships, and then community. When power is exercised so as to bring about psychological control over a learner, right relationships are not brought about. When forgiveness for a mistake is asked for by a teacher, and in turn offered by an offended student, a right relationship is brought about. As learners in a course recognize a teacher’s request for forgiveness, community develops. Particular ways of being in the world (e.g., offering and receiving forgiveness, dignifying each person’s answers, and truth-telling, to name a few) and many other right and good attributes in both teacher and learner are created in healthy community and in turn create healthy community, one that comes to be characterized by good pedagogic relationships. Community is essentially dialectical, a word whose essence is right relationships. Community is sustained by particular attributes and not others. This conceptualization of community, while subtle, is the important basis for this book and our presentation of the 10 models for online-course design and teaching.

This book draws from anthropology, psychology, and sociology—how theorists in each discipline propose that community is best developed and nurtured. It draws heavily from best practices in education in North America. The ideas within each model are also drawn from our analyses of student feedback of over 30 course evaluations. Finally, the evidence this book draws from includes learning theory and what is known today about how people learn in community and through relationships.

The instructional designer with limited teaching experience may need to suspend disbelief regarding a model, to interrogate the methodology within each model until he or she tries and tests it in the heat of instructional battle. Each model will ring true for the experienced educator. Both the experienced educator and experienced designer of instruction will be able to give that “experiential nod” to what is presented in each model, and they will know why each model as proposed can develop community among learners. Experienced teachers know not to waste time when teaching. They will recognize that each model offers much promise for building community among learners and teachers in online courses.

Why did we choose these 10 models?

We chose these particular 10 models because they are commonly used in instruction. The models are the ones that we have observed our teacher colleagues most often drawing from and using to design learning experiences. The 10 “chosen ones” are by no means the only models that instructors know about and use. For example, we have observed teachers draw from action learning models, ones designed around groups formally and systematically solving problems. We have observed teachers drawing from experiential-learning models (e.g., field trips). We have also observed them drawing from and using “brain-based” models (approaches that attend to how brain and behaviour are related). There is an impressive lineup of instructional models now beginning to emerge in the professional practice of teachers; these serve as sources for some of the best, most innovative designs of learning experiences possible and include co-operative games approaches, as well as gaming and coding models. We have observed instructors draw from informal or situational learning models with high success. (We will have to wait until our next book to describe these and other models. There is only so much that can be written about in one book!)

Finally, our choice of terms and definitions is somewhat arbitrary. For example, case study is a model described in this book. Professional educators often use case studies in different ways than we do. We have observed teachers use them as a way to motivate students, or as a strategy to present models of virtue and character for students to emulate. Case studies can also be used as assessment tools, a means by which to gather information about student learning so as to make an evaluation-based decision. We also present inquiry as a model in this book. Good teachers have always used inquiry as a tactic to motivate students, as a strategy to draw learners into meaningful and personally relevant learning experiences, and, of course, as a specific procedure in science that students should perform if they want to learn how to be systematic in doing science as opposed to just reading about science. We chose to “model-up” guided discovery as well, to be released from the confines we see when good teachers use it as good teachers have always used it—as a way, through questioning, to guide learners to understand the meaning of some phenomenon in a personally constructed way.

Each of the models, as we refer to them, could quite readily be written about as a strategy, a tactic, a perspective, a methodology, or logistics. We have chosen to craft the book and the terms we have chosen for a variety of reasons. To do so is heuristically useful; it provides a user-friendly framework and guide for teachers to use in their design of learning experiences. In addition, the term “model” seems to fi t nicely with how we present and describe each of the models: a structure of ideas that explains and encompasses some phenomenon and from which professional practice can develop.

INTRODUCTION Psychology’s contribution to the book

Each model presented in this book includes at least one core idea taken from the discipline of psychology. Each idea was chosen because it is supported in the social-psychology literature. Each idea contributes something essential to each model and effective teaching and learning in technology-supported and online learning environments generally, and to the formation and nurturance of relationships specifically in an online environment. For example, one idea developed in this book is that community is built when people gather around a great idea (Palmer, 1998). Despite claims to the contrary, genuinely positive and empowering relationships can be built in an online environment, especially when teachers and students gather around a great idea, an idea that “lives in the world” and has implications for real problems, real questions, and real issues. The psychological implication (Weiner, 1986 ) is that learners are most likely to engage in a task when there is at least a 50/50 chance of success and learners have a subjective sense of the importance of the topic and acknowledge the significance of the investigation.

Adult learners are motivated by significant inquiry into real issues, ones that live somewhere in their real world. For example, in a graduate-level learning-theory course at the University of Calgary, school leaders identify a real issue to be that of meaningful professional development. They value the opportunity to inquire into and develop relevant professional development programs for their teachers. In addition, school leaders comment regularly regarding the value of feedback from other school leaders in the course. Many school leaders claim that the course highlight was the learning activity of inquiring into and developing a meaningful and relevant teacher-development program for eventual use in a school. The course evaluation comments submitted to the instructor refer directly to the value of the intentionally designed, relationship-building, online activities (e.g., conversations, feedback given and received) of gathering around the perceived great idea of teacher development.

Learning theory’s contribution to the book

Each model includes at least one core idea taken from the field of learning theory. For example, one important idea for course designers—often neglected in face-to-face learning environments—is that the more cognitively active a learner is immediately before, during, and closely following a teaching activity, the more likely it is that the learner will gain some form of understanding from the activity, provided other conditions that support learning (e.g., time on task, feedback, and freedom from the fear of failure) are in place. Despite the common criticism of online courses that they are no more than an expensive and elaborate system of brokering in abstractions, strategic and intentional course designers can build courses in which learners are cognitively active. For example, a course can include a component or activity in which students write their first response to readings (e.g., “What idea in the reading most engaged your interest?”), to be followed by a week’s-end response regarding the same initial response, and, after reflection, on some research, best practices, or concept.

Best practices in teaching’s contribution to the book

Each model includes at least one indicator of effective teaching, taken from the research on effective teaching and learning. For example, the establishment of reciprocity and co-operation among students is one indicator of effective teaching (Chickering & Gamson, 1991). The online environment offers opportunities for reciprocity and co-operation not always afforded in face-to-face formats. Time is favoured by the online environment. Reciprocity develops in community; community develops in and over time; and time is afforded to learners—a gift, as it were, in online courses.

This book is intended for educators who see themselves as architects of learning experiences in courses that are in whole or in part intended for technology-supported and online learning environments.

OUTLINE OF THE BOOK Section I: Description of the 10 Models Proposed for Designing Courses and Programs

Section I of the book provides a detailed description of the 10 models. Each model is a structure of ideas organized around the model’s main idea. For example, the main idea of insight-generating is that insight lies compacted, amorphous within a learner, waiting to unfold in the presence of certain teaching conditions and not others. When a teacher draws a learner’s attention to both the facts and truthfulness of some phenomenon, like world population, then guides the learner to understand the difference between what is a fact (e.g., the actual number of people on the planet) and what is true about that fact (e.g., Is it true that the world is overpopulated?), the teacher has initiated the possibility of insight being generated. The generating of insight continues in the hands of a competent teacher who knows and teaches that facts and truth are distinct but not separate, that insightfulness requires critical judgment and application of ideas, in addition to attention and understanding. In our example of world population and the question of whether or not we all live in an overcrowded world, an insight-generating teacher would shuffle the data of a phenomenon into a different constellation to promote judgment and action. For example, the entire population of the world could fi t comfortably in the province of Alberta (or any other province west of Nova Scotia, for that matter). Therefore, is the world overcrowded, or is the real issue one of distribution of resources? Or is the issue deeper yet, one of justice, perhaps, or the deep human need to build community and share the world’s resources? Insight can and does emerge for learners under the guidance of a prepared teacher who understands how to promote judgment and action.

Section I encompasses the methodology, the theoretical constructs undergirding the book. A description of each model included in this book is presented and includes ideas drawn from psychology, learning theory, and best practices in teaching. Each description is, in a sense, an argument for the model and its ideas, to be drawn from by teachers when they design courses and programs supported in whole or in part by technology. When designing an online course, a teacher becomes an architect of learning experiences, a designer of conditions and environments, a guide to activities and resources that will lead students to be engaged cognitively, emotionally, and physically. We provide a variety of ideas for professional practice in the design of online learning experiences.

Section II: Case Studies and Examples of Technology-supported Courses and Programs

Section II of the book provides case studies with examples for teachers to use in their design of technology-supported learning experiences. This second section is the strategy section. Teachers will find each case to be full of tried-and-true ideas about how to design and use learning environments, scaffolding techniques, resources, and approaches to assessment and evaluation. Teachers will find use for the strategies in their design of a one-time, online, designed learning experience. Teachers will also find use for the strategies when they are designing entire courses. For example, the inquiry template in Section II could be used by the teacher to design a first-time, inquiry-based learning experience, one supported by technology. The case study and examples for inquiry provide a detailed strategy for how best to create the technological conditions that would encourage and promote the best features of inquiry in an online or blended learning environment. Think of this strategy section as the provision of patterns that both novice and experienced teachers can draw from and follow before they put a course into an architecturally sound format.

Section III: Suggestions for How to Design and Implement a Model’s Learning Experiences

Section III of this book provides a number and variety of ways (examples of activities to be used in lesson plans) to actually deploy or use the model, software, application, or program. This section is all about pedagogy and andragogy—the art and science of design and implementation of learning experiences—both online and when using technology to support learning in face-to-face settings. This is the tactics section. Section III provides the tried-and-true tactics teachers use in their design and implementation of technology-supported courses and programs, including online courses. We have connected tactics to the instructional models. For example, when illustrating project-based learning, we describe when and how Tumblr blogs can be used to organize the digital documentation of a group of students’ conversations around a great idea.

Section IV: Questions to Guide Design of Technology-enhanced Learning Environments

Section IV includes questions typically posed by people new to using technology to support learning; it also includes our answers to those questions. This fourth section is the logistics section and indicates particular programs, software, or applications that can be used—and when and how—in an online course. We have identified those programs, software, and applications that have the best fi t with our models. Each is described in detail, including information on where to download it, how to access it, and how to apply it to the design of a course.

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK If you are a teacher...

This book is the shopping mall of teaching ideas for teachers who want to use technology to support learning. A teacher need not look beyond this book to get ideas regarding designing and implementing learning experiences, particularly if he or she has just begun trying to integrate technology into learning experiences. For the advanced teacher, the expert in using technology to support learning, this book is still for you but should be read much like one would read an encyclopedia: to gather specific answers to specific questions, address specific problems, and find new ways to address specific issues that invariably arise when trying to design learning experiences supported by technology. For the sceptic, the idealist who has turned the corner and has headed back from the online environment toward the classroom as the only place to design and implement learning experiences, we invite you to take a sober second look, a careful review of the core ideas in this book, particularly the theoretical support offered in Section I, where we demonstrate that community and good relationships can be built in technology-supported learning environments.

If you are a university student studying to be a teacher...

This book is your primer, your Dick and Jane resource regarding the applications, programs, and software we propose in Section IV. You could have written this section, no doubt. However, this book is also your opportunity to engage in deep and comprehensive ways in that professional activity of considering how theory can and does inform practice. Section I, in particular, is for you because in this section you will need to make personal sense of the “why” question, the rationale for designing different types of learning experiences, from direct instruction-based to inquiry-oriented ones.

If you are a learning leader in a school division or business...

This book is a good source of ideas, practical ones, tried and true, that you can use in your design of workshops, programs, and teacher and colleague professional development. This book provides educational leaders with both theory and legitimate and best practices in the field of teaching and learning. Educational leaders are welcome to steal liberally from the stories, the examples, the definitions . . . we call this collaboration.

If you are a home schooler...

This book will be a good reference guide, a practical source of ideas for how to design lesson plans that build community and use technology to support learning. We suggest beginning with Section II; then, once you feel comfortable with the strategies proposed there (i.e., the back-room planning approaches), spend most of your time referring to Section III. In this section you will find a practical lesson-plan format and a variety of examples that show how to use your lesson plan across the 10 models, thereby guiding you to become an architect of learning experiences for those you teach.

If you are one of the tens of thousands of teachers who are getting ready to use technology to support the learning experiences of your students...

This book is for you. You will refer to this book for everything to do with designing and implementing learning experiences, both in dedicated online formats and in blended or distributed formats, in which you blend face-to-face experiences with an online component. Keep in mind the central premise of this book: community can be built for and designed to be the lived experience of students in technology-supported learning environments. At first you may be overwhelmed when you integrate your computer, iPad, or other tablet into your lesson-planning process. Trust this book and trust your good instincts as a teacher. Start at the beginning, read the sections through to the end, and then use the book as you would any teacher’s guide, any resource that you would refer to for help in designing lesson plans.

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Editorial Reviews

If you need a handbook to help enhance your students’ learning in classrooms with technology, and you need something that is clear and concise in its writing, and that offers opportunities within each option, this is the book for you.... Overall, this book is well written and well designed. I recommend that it become part of your professional bookshelf.

— <i>Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology</i>

You will want to spend time with it, you will want to provide your copy to colleagues to spend time with, and you will want to spend time in dialogue with those colleagues to work out how to apply what you have read.

— <i>Learning Solutions Magazine</i>

Each of the four sections is packed with helpful advice, structured guides and information, and diverse strategies and tactics for improving instructional designs and technology enabled learning experiences.

— Michele Jacobsen, PhD, Associate Professor, Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary

Wisely working from the core belie that learning is centered upon relationships, community, and collaboration, this book extends in practical terms what research has always told us about the power of technology—technology only works in classrooms when it enhances the learning, not when it becomes the learning.

— Jim Parsons, PhD, Professor, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta

Anchoring proven and emerging software applications within appropriate theoretical frameworks and pedagogical practices, the authors provide a thoughtful structure to the text that positions practices within theories and conceptual ideas within actual work. The structure of the text is thoughtful and iterative, providing an almost encyclopedic coverage of terms, theories, and practices, while positioning the content within proven actual practice.

— Susan Crichton, PhD, Director, Innovative Learning Centre; Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, University of British Columbia

In 1916, John Dewey stated that community is the essence of education and if we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow. This book clearly illustrates how digital technologies can be used to effectively and efficiently foster this sense of community in a 21st century educational context.

— Norman Vaughan, PhD, Associate Professor, Faculty of Teaching and Learning, Mount Royal University
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About the Authors

Bernie Potvin

Bernie Potvin, PhD, is an associate professor and chair of the Bachelor of Education program at Ambrose University College. His international experience includes implementing teacher development programs in Kenya, Guatemala, Indonesia, and, most recently, Afghanistan.
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Nicki Rehn

Nicki Rehn, MEd, is an instructor in the Bachelor of Education program at Ambrose University College. Her current work includes instructional design and education consulting in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
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David Peat

David Peat, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Ambrose University College. Active in the fields of education, rehabilitation, and health, Dr. Peat has worked all over the world in such places as Kuwait, Singapore, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Liberia, the Dominican Republic, and Afghanistan.
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