What is a community? Is it people coming together “to escape uncertainty” or is it a confusing and potentially conflicted place (Brent 215)?  I live in a community with a homeowner’s association and all the signs, marketing and newsletters stress the community that we live in.  But it is a forced community, a mere by-product of buying a house on a certain street.  With very little in common with our neighbors, we rarely participate in any structured community events.

Brent points to Bell and Newby, who see community as a paradox, in which “as soon as one tries to define it, it ceases to have a verifiable existence” and questions if, as some posit, that community is just an illusion (219). While Brent is not responding to community in an online classroom environment, there are parallels, as community is discussed in teaching pedagogy time and again (Warnock, Neff, Cook, Garrison and Vaughan). Is it an illusion in an online classroom? Can it be developed and replicated from one class to another, much like course content? I would argue that the answer is no, that community is not a product that an instructor can create within an online or face-to-face class, but rather it is a mix of time, space and participants–coaxed and encouraged–but with an existence uniquely its own depending on the motivation and engagement of the class.

In our blogs, as individual articles were shared and analyzed, we had the opportunity to read exponentially more material and be exposed to many more authors than we would have been if we would not have posted our information communally. I analyzed the topics and sources used [Appendix], identifying 44 unique sources.  Of these, only four sources were used more than once, with only one source used more than twice (nine times).  Of 55 total references, there was only one duplicate reference posted [figure 1].

Source Title
# articles
Computers and Composition
British Journal of Educational Technology
Computers & Education
Journal of Library Administration
Adult Learning
College Composition and Communication
College English
Educational Technology Research and Development
English Education
IALLT Journal
Innovative Higher Education
Instructional Science: an International Journal of the Learning Sciences
International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning
International Journal or E-Learning & Distance Education
Journal of Agricultural Education
Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks
Journal of Basic Writing
Journal of Educational Technology
Journal of Educational Technology & Society
Journal of Global Intelligence & Policy
Journal of Information Technology Education
Journal of Interactive Online Learning
Journal of Public Affairs Education
Journal of Technical Writing & Communication
Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning
Journal of Writing Research
New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education
Nurse Educator
Procedia: Social and Behavioral Sciences
Research and Teaching in Developmental Education
Rocky Mountain Review
Teaching English in the Two-Year College
TESL Canada Journal
The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning
The Internet and Higher Education
The Journal of Higher Education
The Journal of Midwest Modern Language Association
The Journal of Nursing Education
Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology
  Figure 1: Journal Usage. Student Blogs, ENG 824 (Summer 2014)
Individual students’ research interests were pursued, with very little overlap on the surface, but when keyword tags were applied to the articles, there were similarities in the overall themes.
The purposes for our blogs were outlined in the syllabus: 1) Supplement the assigned readings and have the opportunity to research on the topic(s) that we will focus on for course projects. 2) Writing experience and practicing the production of scholarship within the discourse community of writing studies and distance education. 3) Writing to learn exercisein which the process of writing up the blog entry helps you understand the content and how to articulate this understanding to the discourse community. These all encourage research and individual exploration as part of the “discourse community of writing studies and distance education.” An academic community, focusing on scholars interested in a specific area of scholarship, further establishes my claim that communities may be self-selected or offered, but that participation best comes from internal motivation.

How do communities develop within a class? Community building techniques need to be “explicitly explained” in a distance class as to their purpose (Neff 85). While explanations of purpose at an undergraduate level may be needed for “modeling an intellectual community,” this should not have to be explained at the graduate level, as I posit that the purpose of blogging or other asynchronous discussion forums are more than a tool to create class community [1], as students may use these spaces for different purposes and community-building may only be a peripheral benefit. Garrison and Vaughan point constructivist learning theory, in which individuals are “making sense of their experiences” with “inquiry at its core” (13-14). We each had autonomy in our blog subject matter, with broad latitude applied to the interest areas we chose to explore. Pointing to the necessity of students being “actively engaged in the process of inquiry,” with a community of inquiry (CoI) as a method to achieve this, our class blogs could be viewed as both CoI and applied constructivism.

Neff looks to asynchronous communication as created spaces “where students can control the direction of the conversation in ways that they cannot in traditional educational classrooms” (93). She stresses that “learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort than a solo race.  Good learning like good work is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others increases involvement in learning.  Sharing one’s ideas and responding to others improves thinking and deepens understanding” (Gamson as cited in Neff 100). Encouragement can also be given for students to use online posting avenues outside single assignments by drawing the content in to other discussions, encouraging students to continue participation, noting that instructors should not be “the bottleneck” and that low-stakes writing often encourages better participation if students aren’t always just writing with assessment in mind or for a particular assignment (Warnock 83).

While graduate students may use blogging for their own research purposes without external motivation, I have used both ungraded and graded blog posts/comments in numerous undergraduate online classes, without clear guidelines as to when, what and how much to post and undergraduate students, in my experience, will usually only post to the requirements. Warnock points to the benefit of assigning primary and secondary posts, with a discussion around the necessity of outlining the expectations and timing for when students should post to encourage active participation, but recognizing that a reward/punishment system will change how posts are perceived within a class.  In our class, by having blog posts due at certain times, but with no expectation of what follow-up comments or conversations might ensue from the posts, it was left open to interpretation and posts only appeared sporadically, but never became a major place of conversation within the class.

Requiring comments on a blog will elicit increased response, as students are often grade motivated, but is commenting on a blog building community or just increasing forced participation – a form of the medicine that is good for you? Warnock focuses on conversation and asynchronous message boards as being a “cornerstone” of his own online pedagogy with a goal of wanting students to “talk with one another” (68). Focusing conversations on students and their responses, Bakhtin points to the response as being the foundation of understanding, rather than teachers talking “to” students (as cited in Warnock 68) it pushed us to think in new ways about active learning and student agency in their own learning.

By having students create their own space and not using a centralized or CMS space to post, students are offered more personal agency in their work.  I spent time deciding how I wanted my blog to appear, knowing it would reflect on me, as it was not the result of content created by a course designer or instructor.  Was this an articulated purpose of our blog?  No, but as Garrison and Vaughan point out, it may be the “unintended learning outcomes [that] can be most educational” (21). Most of the members of our class use their blogs for other classes and see them as continuing spaces, part of their doctoral studies and a repository of their work.  Both as archival information and a channel to share readings and responses with classmates, this is a different type of community than what undergraduates would experience with a one class requirement, unless there were collaborative efforts to use blogs as a cross-curricular portfolio to document writing development.
On our blogs, only one student received a public comment, but in other classes I have taught, I have had students surprised when their blog receives comments from the blogosphere.  Using a blog as a rhetorical space helps to teach how a digital environment has an audience that must be considered and acknowledged in a public writing forum. Depew et al. express that “communities are not an outcome that instructors simply can create by using a specific digital technology” as “creating community is a rhetorical act deliberately attempted.” In questioning the efficacy of a blog to create community within an online class, I would posit that while the instructor can offer ways for interactions to occur within as classroom and encourage participation, short of requiring postings, it is also the students’ responsibility and/or motivation to want the community of their peers.
As in a face-to-face classroom, some students may just want to attend class and complete the assignments.  In a 1997-2002 review of the Temple University Online Learning Program, findings showed that professor interaction was significantly more important to students than was classmates’ interaction (Schifter 174). One student noted that while acknowledging a “high level of interactivity among the student and other classmates” that it was “difficult for me, however, to get any kind of personal feeling for any of the students” (Schifter 177).  Is this by choice or a construct of the online environment, as those survey questions were not part of the Temple review?
In the case of our class blog, my motivation for reading and posting to others’ blogs was intellectually, rather than grade motivated. I wanted to learn more about the subjects studied in the class and my classmates’ research interests.  As a new doctoral student, inquiry and research are stressed within our curriculum and expected. That is not the same level of expectation placed on undergraduates who may not have this internal motivation.  Warnock’s Guidelines 21-25 for Teaching Writing Online focus on conversations and use of asynchronous message boards, pointing out how they provide “powerful and effective writing and learning environments” noting that the instructors have a chance to not be the focus of the conversation or be directly involved, letting students direct what happens (75).
Figure 3: Total Comments to Student Blogs

Participation, conversation or interaction do not necessarily equate to community. On our blogs, there were a total of 49 comments averaging 4.5 posts per blog, but only 6 out of 11 students participated by providing comments. 5 students did not participate beyond their own blog posts (Figures 3-5).

Figure 4: Response Comments to Student Blogs

Did the lack of participation on our class blogs diminish the establishment of community within the class?  Not at all, because beyond the instructor-required blogs, the class had a private Facebook page in which all of the students were enrolled, but not the instructor. On that page, there were posts almost daily, ranging from shared resources, to assignment questions, to support and encouragement.  Social community was established outside the confines of the classroom, but with greater and fuller interactions in the Facebook group, than on any individual blog.  As a private, closed space, students may feel freer to express their thoughts, opinions and share on their own terms than on a public blog space, or one required as part of a class.

While echoing the concerns of CCCC OWI Position Statement’s second principle, “an online writing course should focus on writing and not on technology orientation or teaching students how to use learning and other technologies,” the benefit of a blog and having students actively participate in their own learning is valuable. I have had students express the benefits of posting in my classes, but also wish they had their own space to post to where they could create their own online presence. Recognizing that a blog has rhetorical elements and using that discussion as part of a class is also beneficial, as DePew notes, it isn’t about “using” a technology, but recognizing “what does this technology want me to do?” and how can its affordance be of benefit to student learning within an online classroom? Each technology “demands” something from a user, and it is important that this is recognized as part of assigning a technology, such as a blog.

I return to Brent’s original questions asking what is community and if it is an illusion?  In an online classroom, instructors can optimize learning opportunities and establish a framework by which students may elect to or not to participate, but those attempts do not necessarily translate to community building.  That is up to individuals in a class and each student’s motivation, as “participants must have the discipline to engage in critical reflection and discourse” (Garrison and Vaughan 17).  Ultimately community is possible, it is not an illusion, but neither is it a contrived space or place. Rather, it is one that develops organically as students strive to make connections and  desire to move beyond just participation for a grade.
Figure 5: Comments to Own Blog



[1] I refer to blogs, discussion posts, and bulletin boards as all asynchronous methods of communication within an online classroom and associate them as a single construct for building community or fostering class interaction for the purpose of my analysis, while recognizing that each is its own individual technology, having its own affordances and limitations.

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