Response to a change in technology by a community of practice within an online learning environment

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  • In online learning environments, constructivist learning is supported through the development of a cohort model that facilitates the possible evolution of communities of practice. In this case study a number of students from such a cohort evolved into a community of practice over two years of shared experiences in a distance education program that included face-to-face exchanges and social functions. A sub-group of this cohort was part of a larger class that embarked on a new elective course. The sub-group made up just over half of the total students enrolled in this elective. When they began the course, they discovered that the interface they were accustomed to using in order to access and manage their online learning over the previous two years had changed, creating a second layer of learning in addition to the course itself. The interaction of individuals within this community of practice was examined using the framework constructs of communities of practice and an objectivist-constructivist learning continuum. The study’s context of online learning was also discussed as part of this study’s framework. The study attempted to answer the question: how did a community of practice that was engaged in an online learning experience respond to a technological change? The first two sub-questions centered on the functioning of a community of practice regarding this change: • What aspects of the functioning of a community of practice were demonstrated in this situation? • Which of the difficulties encountered influenced members of the community of practice to look to their group for help, and what types of difficulties did individuals deal with on their own? The second set of questions related to the choices of constructivist/objectivist learning strategies that were demonstrated in this situation: • What preferences for constructivist or objectivist learning strategies did individuals in the community of practice demonstrate? • What was the nature of difficulties that were solved, and what types of difficulties were not solved during the time of this study? This case study consisted of qualitative research as three participants were interviewed using open-ended questions by a participant observer assuming a constructivist orientation. Although participants were randomly chosen, they loosely reflected the female to male ratio and age range in the course and cohort. The interviews were transcribed and then analyzed for recurring themes. Charts were developed that included the participants’ descriptions of each difficulty, emotive words used by the participants in describing the difficulty, impact of the difficulty, as well as method of resolution and degree of resolution for the difficulty. Additionally, themes that related to community of practice and constructivist and objectivist strategies used by participants, were identified, and their views on these were recorded. The participants verified that the transcripts and charts were accurate when they were given the opportunity to read these documents. Results established that this sub-group of the larger cohort demonstrated knowledge support, moral support, comfort and ease in participants’ exchanges, as well as ‘them’ and ‘us’ perspectives. These results confirmed that community of practice indicators of shared repertoire, mutual engagement and joint enterprise existed for this group. The difficulties that were identified by participants were dealing with change, searching for signals or elements that they knew to expect in the interface, being confused by new navigation frameworks, disappointment in features that did not work or worked inefficiently, and managing the extra time required to learn the new interface. In all cases, participants attempted to solve these difficulties through independent exploration, a strategy that is constructivist in nature; however, they built in a system for using objectivist strategies through their functioning as a community of practice. It was also noted that this subgroup’s use of private email, a practice established at the beginning of the course in reaction to the new interface, excluded the other students in the course who were not members of this community. The insights from this case study underscore the importance of understanding and supporting learner-interface interactions in constructivist contexts. They also reinforce the notion that there is power in a community of practice in solving problems. The insights from this study may be useful in informing designers of online learning courses that feature a cohort model which encourages such communities. It could also inform designers regarding the evaluation of technological interfaces that are intended to promote community construction of knowledge.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International