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Online learning : social interaction and the creation of a sense of community
This paper centres on the sense of isolation that online study may engender among learners, a factor often ignored by many educators, but one that may make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful online learning environment for many students. The importance of a proper appreciation of the learners’ social context is stressed, as is the concept of the 'virtual self' that individual learners may choose to portray during online communication. The authors suggest three protocols that can be built into the fabric of online courses in order that a sense of community may be enabled to exist, and productive social interaction can occur. These are (1) the greater use of synchronous communication facilities (in addition to, rather than instead of, asynchronous ones), (2) the deliberate design and inclusion of a ‘forming’ stage, or ‘warm-up’ period, incorporated as an essential component into the course structure, and (3) a much greater emphasis on the provision of (and adherence to) guidelines for successful online communication. The paper concludes by suggesting that by creating an online sense of ‘self’, the participants of an online course can alleviate feelings of isolation, and create an online community that assists the learning process.