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Online Activities and Communities 
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Definition of Training Piece

A.  Purpose for Instructor

If you want to extent student resources by adding online activities and communities, how do you know where to start? Where are the helpful resources? How do you create online activities?

By the end of this module, you will be able to identify categories of online resources to use as starting points. You will be introduced to the variety of activities already available online and learn how to create online activities to meet your students' needs. Finally, you will learn the essentials of creating online communities.

B.  Material Covered

This content module will introduce you to the resources for developing online activities and the basics for developing online communities. The theory and research for developing online communities has been synthesized both from practice and theory by Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt in their book, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. You will review the learning web as the basis for developing online activities and the educational framework for community in cyberspace.

II.  Foundation

A.  Definition of Concept & Theory

Parloof and Pratt describe the change in the learning process with the integration of online learning as a Learning Web (131). Their vision of the learning web includes communication from many to many, not just a one way process of communication from teacher to student. Communication takes place among all the students in a give and take with the instructor. The web includes content materials, both in print and online.

This learning web now includes online resources and provides the basis for developing a community of learners. For in the center of this web is a new community built from the interactions of all participants in a non-linear way. Because the communication is non-linear and can be initiated from any place, the community can truly be called a learning web. The addition of online resources gives double meaning to the term Learning Web.

B.  Summary of Relevant Research

Online learning environments are new spaces different from learning spaces that we have previously known. (Karaliotas) So both in building online activities and creating online communities (Parkoff) it is important to have the activities"carefully crafted" (MacDonald). The activities best suited to the online environment are based upon contructivist theories (Brooks and Brooks) where learners actively create meaning through exploration and experimentation. By extending classroom discussion online, every student can have a chance to explore concepts and try out their own ideas. The web provides students the opportunity to explore concepts and to build their own meaning.

The community of learners builds on the collaborative theory for distance learning (Christiansen and Dirckinck-Homanfeld) whereby students take shared goals and engage in conversation as a way to gain meaning. For example, students at Nova University in Florida and students at SouthWest Texas University collaborated in an email project on discussions of one text. Comprehension and understanding of the text came about through the correspondence between students. Finally, just as the web is an integrated mixture of threads, so online learning is moving to a new form, which Jack Mezirow called "transformative learning." According to Parkoff and Pratt "The transforming learning process is one that moves a participant from student to reflective practitioner." In face to face classes, limited time emphasizes the quick answer, the immediate response. Online communication not only allows for reflection, but actually provides some benefit for those who want to take time to think through responses. Furthermore, the online environment gives everyone an equal chance to participate in the discussion. Instructors with large classes can assign students to participate in online discussions, thus giving everyone a chance to participate actively and engage in ideas and theories.

III.  Benefits

A.  Instructor

Knowing both online activity categories and how to develop some of your own will give you a foundation from which to proceed. This will save you both the time and the energy of aimlessly wandering around the net trying to get started. Understanding the basis for building online communities will help you create successful experiences as you explore new environments with your students and lessen the false starts and the frustration that this sometimes entails. Also, just knowing that you are not alone in this new online learning space is helpful, so that you know there are resources for help and training as you engage the online environment.

B.  Student

Students may be more comfortable in online learning spaces than instructors. They may become guides to new resources and creative ways of looking at learning in these new environments. Students who are comfortable collaborating online across time and space have the advantage of extending the classroom to a global environment. They are no longer confined to a location for knowledge nor are they limited in their resources. On the other hand, these learning environments may be new to some students and they will need extra coaching through the online learning process to help them achieve their goals. As they join the new learning environment, they are learning a valuable skill for the workplace, a workplace that is now employing the paradigm of work teams that are composed of members across departments within the company and across company locations. In the workplace, they will be expected to not only be comfortable in this new environment but also to perform, create and develop. Students who have had the experience of working in collaborative online environments have the advantage when entering the workforce, which simply expects this kind of communication and collaboration.

IV.  Implementation

A.  Exploration Exercises for Instructor

One of the difficulties with online resources is that there is no table of contents. However, there are now emerging categories of online resources, from textbook companion websites to online writing labs, from content simulation sites to content specific sites. Here are some examples:

Companion Textbook Websites: Research what online activities the textbook publishers provide for your textbook. Here are some examples:

  • The Western Heritage, a textbook by Kagan, Ozement and Turner, not only has online quizzes that score instantly and provide coaching for the students, but also has for the instructor PowerPoint slides and presentation graphics including color maps to print or project and lecture activities for each chapter.
  • Essential Study Skills by Wong provides online pre-tests for students to assess their prior knowledge. This helps them build on what they already know and focus on pertinent parts of the chapter that has new information for them.
  • Angel's Elementary Algebra not only has warm up exercises, it also provides tutorials on a wide variety of graphing calculators from the TI 85 to HP48g.
  • Eggen and Kauchak's Educational Psychology: Windows on Classrooms has case studies for students to analyze and respond to.

So companion websites provide a myriad of resources. Here is a list of categories to look for:

  • online quizzes and surveys
  • writing activities
  • web links to provide supplemental information
  • chat rooms and message boards
  • search engines
  • built in routing to send essay responses and grades directly to the instructor
  • powerpoint slides and other media resources for the instructor
  • list of supplemental materials from videos to CDROMs

Activity: Investigate the online resources available for your textbook. Begin by looking up the publishers website for college textbooks in your discipline.

Other categories of online resources:

Not all textbooks have companion sites. But still there are other online resources available for your discipline. These resources may be content specific, like Reading and Writing for History or process oriented like Online Writing labs or simulations like National Geographic's Salem Witchcraft Hysteria. Here are some sample sites and ideas for activities for each site.

Discipline Specific websites: Bowdoin

College's History department hosts a site called Reading, Writing and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students.

Activity: Try a search engine like Google ( to find a website in your discipline.

Online Writing Labs - Writing resources online began at Purdue University. Now there are many resources available from handouts to tutoring. Start at Purdue to see their list of handouts and find out where other OWLS are.

Activity: Visit Purdue's Owl and explore the handouts to see which ones you might recommend to your students. No need to build any more worksheets yourself. You may find just what you need here.

Activity: Find out if your college has an online writing center.

Guided Questions Site to help new writers: Sometimes students don't know what questions to ask to get the help that they need. This site is organized for these students, because it asks the student to click on the phrase that most describes what is bothering them.

Activity: Review this site to see what resources it provides. You may want to refer students here before they turn in their research papers.

Interactive Grammar Practice: Professor Charles Darling and Capital Community College maintain a web site with extensive information on grammar, including interactive quizzes.

Activity: Visit this site and try out the interactive quiz on subject / verb agreement. Review this site with the English as a Second Language student in mind to see what resources might be available to them.

Study Skills Resource site: This site compiles study skills handouts from around the world in categories from concentration to time management. This is a centralized place for study skills assistance.

Activity: Visit this site to see what recommendations you might have for your students. This centralized place has handouts on everything from time management to taking tests. Select back up materials for at risk students in your classes.

Simulations: National Geographic Interactive has put together a web site on the Salem Witch Trials, called Salem Witchcraft Hysteria. You are welcome to experience the trials and asked "Will you survive?" History and literature instructors have assigned this simulation to help the students understand the milieu and the undercurrents of the time.

Activity: Explore this simulation to see if this category would be one that you would use with your classes.

Creating Your Own Online Communities
Activity: Consider creating online communities

For those of you ready to move to online discussions, here are some suggestions to initiate and continue online discussions. First of all, just as in the face to face classroom, discussions do not just happen. They have to be carefully crafted, coached and valued (MacDonald).

First students need to know how to discuss online. Just because you put out discussion questions, does not mean that a discussion will ensue. What may happen is that all your students will answer all the discussion questions, which online looks like a class full of papers to grade! They need to know that all they need to do is to put their two cents in, either by initiating a response to a question or by replying to other students. It is the give and take that makes a discussion, even online. To encourage students to initiate the discussion early, I give bonus points to the person who starts. Secondly, although you do not need to be intimately involved in the discussion, you may be required to steer it, so that students don't get off the track or give misinformation as fact. Online discussion has been going on even before the Web. It is called "computer mediated communication." Berge and Collins in their book Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom pull together a series of essays from a variety of colleges to address how to develop and manage online discussions. One essay "An Overview of CMC and the Online Classroom in Distance Education" by Morten Paulsen in Oslo, Norway includes Eisley's 13 discussion formats.

  1. The critique
  2. The group report
  3. Twenty questions
  4. The poll
  5. Timed disclosure, where students do a review of an article by a certain time and the teacher shares everyone's comments after the deadline.
  6. The assigned debate
  7. Free Association
  8. The hot seat, where students take turns sitting in the hot seat and answering questions from other students on a particular subject.
  9. The Socratic dialogue
  10. The shot gun, where the teacher posts a number of questions and students answer whichever ones appeals.
  11. Go around the circle - once every student has had input the topic is closed.
  12. Guided discovery - Class could pose questions on a research report and the teacher could get them the results, when their questions hit on the questions in the report.
  13. Blind Man's bluff - the moderator provides "misinformation" and students have to discover the errors and produce the valid info. (Berge 46)

Finally, online discussion needs to be valued. Students must see this as a pertinent part of the course. Currently, value for students still equates with grades, hence the bonus points for those who begin the discussion first. You may just want to have points assigned to the discussion as done or not done or you may want to grade on the quality of the input. Just remember that in the face to face classroom, we tend not to grade on the individual comments in the class. So before you assigned yourself more assessment, think through the goal of the online discussions.

B.  Student Exercises

  1. Online Bookstore exploration:
    Create a scavenger hunt for the virtual bookstore. Students can read reviews at Or ask students to find their favorite books: one in the subject matter of the class and one fun book and report back to the class on their findings.
  2. Online Resources:
    Have the students visit one of the study skills online resources and bring back a favorite learning tip. Or have the students develop scavenger hunts in the discipline area for each other to learn material or skills necessary for the course. You may want to start them at a discipline area web site first to focus them on college level content in depth instead of randomly searching the web in vain.

Creating Your Own Online Activities:

Besides looking at the internet as a research tool or a tutoring tool, you can use it as a resource to create active learning projects. Below is a sample activity developed using internet resources to help solve a writing dilemma for students in an English course. In Freshman English classes students are frequently asked to write description papers or descriptions. Often this is a beginning or early assignment. Beginning students frequently struggle on what to say and thinking that they have said it all, turn in a paper with minimum details. Part of the difficulty is the Keats' dilemma of beauty being partly in the eyes of the beholder; the description is still partly in the mind of the writer and not on the paper. In the past, I put the students in teams, where one was the writer and one was the questioner, whose job it was to try to elicit more details to create a clearer picture of what was being described. The problem was that frequently the questioner didn't have full knowledge of what the actual item, scene or object was. So I searched for a common topic or theme that we all could use. Also in the search criteria I was looking for a way to expand the student's experience, to take them places that they might not ordinarily go, and to put this in a humanities setting. Here is the resulting activity with the assistance of the internet:

Internet Descriptive Writing Project:

Go to the Louevre. Find a painting or sculpture. Write a description of the painting or sculpture. Make notes for yourself on the artist, the name of the piece and the URL where you found this, but do not include this information in your description. Your goal is to write a fully developed description, so that your editing team can find the item at the Louevre in a short amount of time just from your description.

Editing teams job: Read through the description and go to the Louevre with the author of the description. If you can't find the object, keep asking the author questions to help you find what the author thought they described. The editing team is to write up the questions for the author to include in the final description.

The author is to take the list of questions and include these details in the final description.

The test of the description paper is to give the paper to another editing team for them to find the painting or sculpture in a short amount of time. The faster they can find the correct artifact, the higher the grade on the paper will be.

Turn in the final paper with the citation of author, artwork and URL in APA format.

C.  Skill Connections

  1. Study Skills Coaching: For more ideas on assisting students to develop study skills, see the Study Skills Coaching module.
  2. New Technologies: To view a variety of technology resources, which are being applied to instructional purposes, visit the New Technologies module.

V.  Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Where will I find the time to do the research on the web to discover appropriate sites?

A: It is not necessary for the instructor to do all the research on the web to find appropriate sites. This can be handled several different ways. First, start with the publisher of your textbook to see if there is a companion site. Keep this in mind when choosing a new textbook. Given equal value of textbooks, the text with the companion web site may be the one to choose.

Second, if you have work-study help, enlist their aid. You can set the parameters of what you are looking for and set them to searching. Have them print off possible web sites for you, with the URL. (Hint: you may need to set your web browser in the page setup to print date and location of site). Third, enlist the help of your class. Give them a starting place either in the discipline area or by saying you only want .edu (education) sites. On the other hand, if you are teaching earth sciences, you may ask them to search NASA to find appropriate sites. Or if you are teaching Allied Health, you may want the students to search the Mayo Clinic.

Q: Why should I bother with the Web. I have all my lecture notes already.

A: There are two main reasons to move to online resources. First, it gives the students access to primary sources. In Art History, suddenly the Louvre, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC and the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston are all available to the student at their desktop. The Parthenon and the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum can finally be reunited.

Second, you are not alone anymore. If you are tired of making up just one more worksheet, there are worksheets already available to you on the web. There are practice quizzes available to the students for review of material, which you do not have to create.

VI.  Helpful Resources

Berge, Zane L and Mauri Collins Computer Mediated Communication and the Online Classroom. Vol III: Distance Learning. Creskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc. 1995.

Brooks, J., and M Brooks. In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classroom. Alexandria, Va: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1993.

Christiansen, E., and L Dirckinck-Homfeld. "Making distance Learning Cooperative," 1995. [].

Karaliotas Yannis. "Tutoring online requires very different skills from tutoring face-to-face." Online. Oct. 1, 2000. []

Merizow, J. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1991.

Parkoff, Rena and Keith Pratt. Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom. San Franciso: Jossey Bass, 1999.

Workshop Information to attend a workshop on this topic or bring one to your campus, visit this site or call Faculty Training at (800) 856-5727.

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