Good neighbor policy: Promoting social constructivism in virtual communities of practice

By Morgan Appel, director of the Education Department, UC San Diego Extension

In my capacity as a program director offering online coursework for educators, I am frequently compelled to respond to questions related to impacts on synergies between students and instructors found in more traditional brick and mortar environments. The perceived dearth of opportunities for meaningful interaction is part of the popular folklore associated with online learning. In point of fact, an emerging research literature and empirical experience suggest otherwise, if planned and executed smartly. It offers that virtual communities of practice provide unique occasion for social constructivism for both participating practitioners and pupils in their charge, mirroring and modeling what should be taking place in the classroom in real time.

The significance of virtual spaces in education designed to facilitate the delivery of professional development; community building; and enhance peer-to-peer learning are well documented in the professional literature (Akyol and Garrison, 2013; Ravaglia, 2007).  For example, a recent study by the US Department of Education (2013) identifying 21st-century trends in education offers that when used appropriately, these technologies can guide P-12 practitioners in a number of ways, including: (1) personalizing the learning experience based on need and interest; (2) fostering creativity, innovation and connection to the curriculum; (3) meaningfully engaging in cooperative and collaborative activities around teaching and learning; (4) further cultivating critical thinking and problem-solving skills; (5) establishing digital citizenship; (6) becoming more sophisticated consumers and producers of information; and (7) strengthening metacognitive abilities among peers and pupils. Research also portends a sea change in use of online resources among gifted pupils and P-20 students more broadly (for example, see Code, 2007; Shea, 2010), effectively shifting the balance in the use of formal resources (such as textbooks) and informal resources (online portals and various media) for educational purposes.

computer-(1).jpgFurthermore, social media and community building platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have both offered occasion for creating bonding and bridging social capital within and across communities and featured prominently in the election of President Barrack Obama and 2008 and in critical global events such as the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 and the Occupy movements that began the same year. Research also suggests that the advent of dedicated virtual communities of practice among educators create unique opportunities to synergistically focus stakeholders within the school community on issues related teaching and learning and the differentiation of curriculum and instruction to meet the needs of diverse pupils (Bahar and Kursat, 2006; Bell-Robertson, 2014; Belair, 2012; Byington, 2011; Raths, 2013; Vavasseur and MacGregor, 2008).  Studies show similar results among virtual communities populated solely by students (Tomai, et. al., 2010).

Finally, the academic and professional literature underscores the benefits of online coursework and virtual professional learning communities specifically for practitioners working with pupils with distinct cognitive and affective needs (Brulles and Brown, 2013; Ericksson, Weber and Kirsch, 2012; Little and Housand, 2011; Periathiruvadi and Rinn, 2012; Rubenstein, 2013) as well as for the pupils themselves (Besnoy, 2006; Ravaglia, 2007; Thomson, 2010). Virtual learning spaces provide immediate supervised access to differentiated and flexible sources for enrichment (Blair, 2011; Freiman, Manuel and Lirette-Pitre, 2007); venues for real-time conversations, professional development and troubleshooting; mentors to suit a number of purposes (Siegle, 2003); resources for parents (K, 2005) and school community stakeholders; among others.

Anecdotal experience as an online instructor seems to confirm findings from the body of work examined above. Candidates across programs tend to rely heavily on peers during their tenure in coursework, working collaboratively on troubleshooting and resolving issues in the field; seeking advisement and counsel outside traditional hours; and maintaining contact with one another within and outside the parameters of the course and/or program.

Understanding the benefits to be had in this context, the Education Department continues to work with its faculty and advisors to provide interactive opportunities in its online courses, both asynchronously and in real time. The world is becoming much smaller thanks to the forward march of technology, and those who are savvy can facilitate the process by showing us all how to be good neighbors as well as good students in complex virtual communities.

For more information on this post or the Education Department, please contact Morgan Appel, director, at

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