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Editor’s Note
: This paper embodies many theories and best practices related to learning in physical and virtual communities that are invaluable for instructional design and implementation.

Metamorphosis of the Mind of Online Communities
via E-Learning

Ayse Kok


Different elements have been attributed to the concept of ‘community’ throughout the history some of which still apply to the notion of virtual communities. This paper provides an overview of the essential features of both physical and virtual communities and focuses on how intelligent learning may occur in online communities. Based on the Wheelan instrument (1999), the intelligence of an online community can be evaluated from the perspective of problem-solving, goal definition, and feedback. This paper concludes that in order to enhance the spirit, trust, interaction and commonality of learning experiences, instructors can attend to transactional distance (psychological space between teachers and learners), social presence, equality, small group activities, group facilitation, learning stage and community size.

Defining the Concept of “Community”

Different elements have been attributed to the concept of ‘community’ throughout history. To name a few: environment, social form and patterned behaviour (Arensberg, 1965) or a place to live, a spatial unit, a way of life and a social system (Sanders, 1966). Being a social system, social interaction, common ties and physical co-location are the essential elements of a community (Jones, 1995). So, territorial, social and psycho-cultural bonds exist in communities.

According to the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, there are two main types of social groups (Truzzi, 1971):

  • Community (Gemeinschaft): Groups that are formed around essential will - the underlying, organic or instinctive driving force - in which membership is self-fulfilling such as the family or neighborhood. This social order is based upon consensus of wills, rests on harmony and is developed by folkways and religion. There are enforceable norms regulating the interrelation of wills and that are rooted in family life. Morality is intertwined with the realities of the family spirit and is an expression of religious beliefs.

  • Society (Gesellschaft): Groups in which membership was sustained by some instrumental goal or definite end such as the city or the state. This social order rests on convention and agreement and is safeguarded by political legislation. This is based on the conventional order of trade and similar relations, yet attains its validity via policy instruments. Morality is a product entailing all relations involved in political contrasts.

Physical community is based on people’s natural association through sameness and by exclusion of others like a “Gemeinschaft”. On the other hand, virtual community is represented by intimate secondary relationships, weaker ties and homogeneity by interest. The society is viewed as an enhancement of social ties as the virtual community preserves ties among those who are physically separate.

Throughout the literature, idealized visions of community such as a physical community based on dynamic reciprocity and responsibility – as Kant stated – a group of people coming together to recognize their common will via a social contract – as Locke argued – and imposing great concern and altruism for the individual – as Rousseau noted. The basic cell from which a society evolves and develop its own internal logic – as mentioned by Hegel – or a public sphere in which solidarity is created for the general well-being of the society (Katz, Rice, Acord, Dasgupta & David, 2004).

A Look at Virtual Communities

Community networks can either be viewed as whole networks or as personal communities. Whole networks are similar to aliens viewing the earth’s people. Relationships linking all members of the population can be observed by an outside observer (Wellman, 1993). This alien’s eye or Copernican view of an entire social system is the study of whole networks (Wellman, 1993). On the other hand, the Ptolemaic views of networks put the individual at the center of their world revolving around them (Wellman, 1993). This study of smaller personal (ego-centered) networks defined from the standpoint of focal persons conceptualizes a person’s community life as the central node linking together complex interpersonal relationships. The shift in perspective from neighbourhood community to community network allows analysts to examine the extent to which large-scale social changes create new forms of associations (Wellman, 1993). Yet, the definition of ties, boundaries, and the importance of internal links within clusters, are left open (Wellman, 1993).

Social roles and identities within communities can be viewed in terms of information systems that entail patterns of access to social information, determined by a mix of physical setting, media and mental constructs. Within the context of physical and virtual communities, people develop a sense of who they are by imagining how distant others view them. Mediated technologies are likely to affect our notions of community. It should also be taken into consideration that mediated personal communication technology refers to the mobile phone, the Internet and PDAs. As opposed to mass media, these technologies are individual to individual or individual or to group.

Driven from his work on social dilemmas and cooperation, Kollock (1998) suggested that the principles be taken into consideration when building online communities:

  • In order for an online cooperation to occur it must be likely that two individuals meet again in the near future. So, ongoing interaction must be promoted.

  • Individuals must be able to identify each other as well as be informed about the other person’s behavior. The provision of durable records of events and history of the online group, not imposing a length constraint on postings and front-loading the system with talkative people, might increase the extent to which information is distributed.

  • Group boundaries must be clearly defined to prevent making use of resources without contributing to the group.

  • Rules governing the use of collective resources should be matched to the local needs and conditions. The group participants mostly affected by these should also be able to modify them.

  • The rights of the community members to devise their own rules must be respected to some degree by external authorities.

  • A system of monitoring the members’ behavior and sanctions should be carried out by the community members themselves.

  • Low cost conflict resolution mechanisms should be in place so that members can resolve their own disputes without outside interference.

Burt (2003) also argues that, as the ways of thinking are more homogenous within than between groups, people connected to otherwise segregated groups are likely to be familiar with alternative ways of thinking and hence better at selecting and synthesizing alternatives and producing good ideas. 

In terms of the lifecycle of an online learning community, Preece (1998) makes the following analysis:

  • Pre-birth: Development, software and policies of the community are established. The basic structure and operation of the community affect its later stages.

  • Formative: As new members are brought into the community, the community’s identity develops. Threaded discussions may be helpful for nurturing the community.

  • Maturity: As the community functions independently of guidance, the central role of the facilitator may decrease.

  • Metamorphosis: The community becomes something that it originally was not.

  • Death: When members leave or discussion slows to the point that there is not enough participation, the death of the community occurs.

According to Lazar and Preece (1998), in order for an online community to be successful the following factors should be taken into consideration:

  • Good usability: Not being able to figure out how to join the community or to post a message may make users frustrated. Interactions can also be encouraged through a good design.

  • Appropriate and responsible moderation: A good moderator should encourage free discussions and know how to step in when inappropriate or harmful behaviour is displayed by members.

  • A reason to communicate: A shared purpose, experience or interest makes people interact online regardless of whether they would like to communicate face-to-face or not.

  • Distributed nature of resources: Good conversations and useful resources that are mostly shared and available due to computer-mediated-communication are essential for an online community to be sustained. File backups of community resources should also be made to prevent the members from leaving the community in case of a technological failure.

  • The right level of registration: A registration process which includes sending a subscription message to a listserver or whereas users have to provide their e-mail address or personal information might be useful when establishing an online community.

Learning in Online Communities

Wilson, Ludwig- Hardman, Thornam, Dunlap (2004) distinguish bounded learning communities from the spontaneous communities by the following characteristics:

  • Participation is required in order to obtain a desired end, so learning is intentional.

  • Classmates or instructors are not chosen.

  • Learners must commit to a fixed length of time, so a course enrolment is required.

  • Learners must make an explicit effort to connect with others by coming to courses or connecting online and sharing the resources under the guidance of an instructor.

Learning communities in general allow the students to solve authentic problems collaboratively, to develop an appreciation for multiple perspectives and refine their knowledge through argumentation whereas a sense of community is fostered (Figure 1). By facilitating a joint enterprise, shared repertoire ad mutual engagement (Wenger, 1998), an online community can be sustained. So, teachers must model effective knowledge construction and collaboration by establishing trusting relationships with students and providing feedback, supervising, troubleshooting as well as providing the infrastructure for interaction.

Figure 1 Key components of communities of practice (Wenger, 1998a, p.73)

Moreover, Wilson, Ludwig- Hardman, Thornam, Dunlap (2004) point to shared goals, supportive conditions, a collective identity, collaboration, respectful inclusion, progressive discourse toward knowledge building and mutual appropriation between teachers and students in order to create a sense of a community. The following strategies are suggested for facilitating effective learning communities (Wilson, Ludwig- Hardman, Thornam, Dunlap, 2004):

  • Shared goals: Authentic and meaningful projects in which learners determine the major goals and create action plans and assessment rubrics for their fulfilment can be built.

  • Safe and supporting conditions: Once the members post their personal information community discussions should be monitored to ensure that the netiquettes are followed. Learners can also be taught in how to monitor discussions and resolve any conflicts.

  • Collaboration: Open-ended topics can be utilized whereas learners can be assigned to subgroups and provided with adequate communication tools.

  • Respectful inclusion: Making learners share stories on a particular theme or interview each other and give feedback about each other in return may be useful. Learners should also be trained in how to negotiate their differences when collaborating on projects that may require multiple perspectives.

  • Progressive discourse toward knowledge building: Role-plays, debates, progressive writing projects where each learner adds to a story and reflects on it later on might support knowledge construction.

  • Mutual appropriation: Assigning learners to different expertise groups where they can act both as a mentor and a mentee can help increase the level of mutual appropriation.

The Main Cognitive Activities during Learning

Knowledge resides in human-beings in the form of operators to achieve goals whereas operators are procedures for changing the current state into another that brings human closer to their goals (Kayashima et al, 2005). As multiple operators can be applied to a state selecting which one to apply is a critical task. Cognitive activities can be classified as follows (Kayashima et al, 2005):

  • Rehearsal: This is a critical task for maintaining contents.

  • Observation: This refers to the process of watching something carefully and creating products in working memory.

  • Evaluation: This refers to the assessment of the state of working memory. 

  • Virtual application: This refers to the virtual application of retrieved operators.

  • Selection: Selection is choosing appropriate operators and generating an action list in working memory.

Cognitive operations are operations to generate a new (cognitive) product by applying operators to the content. Due to the fact that a cognitive operation may become the target of a cognitive activity cognitive operations should be distinguished from cognitive activities.  

Within the light of this information, a multi-layer model of cognitive activity can be applied for problem-solving based learning. Accordingly, an individual observes a condition and creates elements in working memory as its model when the learner solves a problem. After evaluating the problem and investigating whether there is some domain knowledge useful to accomplish the task suitable operators are retrieved from the learner’s knowledge base and applied to the working memory elements (Kayashima et al, 2005). Based upon the evaluation of the application results an action-list is made by selecting the appropriate operators (Kayashima et al, 2005). This is repeated until the goal is achieved and finally, the learner performs some observable actions in the real world. Based on this multi-layer model, a two-layer model has been suggested by Kayashima et al (2005) where observation of elements in working memory creates elements in another layer of working memory. Such observation is also called as reflection.

Being an active and conscious process reflection can be divided into two kinds (Kayashima et al, 2005):

  • Reflection in action: This refers to thinking on one’s feet. This is also called as conscious observation and entails observing elements in working memory and creating elements at the upper layer.

  • Reflection on action: This refers to retrospective action. It entails retrospective creation of elements at the upper layer. To exemplify, we sometimes review retrospectively our problem-solving processes to identify the reason for failure.

Cognitive Presence in Online Communities

Based on the community of inquiry model which is based on constructivism and which is developed by Garrison, Anderson, Arcer (2000), community-based learning consists of the social, cognitive and teacher presence (Garrison, Anderson, Archer, 2000). In this model, cognitive presence is defined as the extent to which learners are able to confirm meaning through sustained collaboration and reflection. 

Similar to the cognitive activities as described by Kayashima et al (2005), the elements of cognitive presence are exploration, construction, resolution and confirmation. The factors concerning cognitive presence can be summarized as follows:

  • Cognitive presence
  • Synthesize ideas
  • Apply ideas or concepts
  • Confirm concept understanding
  • Know how to participate
  • Identify relevant new information
  • Understand the issues being presented
  • Understand expectations
  • Take responsibility
  • Adjust to the context/climate
  • Accepting teacher assessment
  • Generate tentative solutions
  • Stimulate your curiosity

Adapted from the Wheelan instrument (1999), the intelligence of an online community can be evaluated from the following three perspectives:

  • Problem-solving and relationships: The problem-solving ability of an online community depends on the following factors:

    • Time it takes to define the problem

    • Availability of a plan

    • Availability of effective decision-making strategies

    • Whether solutions are implemented and evaluated

    • Whether there are group norms to encourage performance

    • The degree of cohesiveness and cooperation

    • The time for accomplishing goals

    • Whether conflicts are dealt effectively

  • Goals and roles: When deciding about the roles and goals within a community the following factors should be taken into consideration:

    • Whether the goals of the community have clearly been identified

    • Whether all the community members agree on group goals

    • Whether there is a requirement for working together

    • Whether the roles have clearly been identified

    • Whether the roles have been accepted by the community members

    • The extent to which the assignments match the abilities

    • The extent of openness of communication

  • Feedback and structure: This aspect entails the following items:

    • Whether members receive or give regular feedback

    • The degree to which feedback is used for improvement

    • Availability of norms that encourage innovation

    • Whether sub-groups are integrated to small teams

  • Taking into account these three perspectives, intelligent learning in online communities may occur by focusing on the following aspects:

    • Creating opportunities to enhance spontaneity: By enabling learners to build the course content via use of collaborative tools such as wikis, learners can construct their ideas through spontaneous conversations with others. 

    • Coaching learners how to learn online: Reminding learners of their important role they have in their discussions, offering them constructive feedback and providing examples of strong community building behaviors are crucial for effective communication.

    • Exploring the use of diverse technologies for enhancing communication and social presence: Apart from text-based technologies, web-based audio and video-conferencing and application sharing technologies could be utilized for ongoing communication.

    • Managing expectations of the online community: The focus should be on how to achieve the learning objectives and how to foster critical thinking.

    • Understanding all learners in online learning environments: Since online learning is not a preferred learning medium the focus must be on helping learners feel confident in the online environment.


Recognizing the learners’ input, providing opportunities to develop a sense of group cohesiveness, maintaining the group as a unit and helping learners to work collaboratively may increase the effectiveness of online communities. In order to enhance the spirit, trust, interaction and commonality of learning experiences, instructors can attend to transactional distance (psychological space between teachers and learners), social presence, equality, small group activities, group facilitation, learning stage and community size.


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Truzzi, M. (1971). The Classic Statements. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971, pp.145-154.

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Wilson, B., Ludwig- Hardman, S., Thornam, C.L., Dunlap, J.C. (2004). “Bounded Community: Designing and facilitating learning communities in formal courses” The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 5:3. Retrieved on September, 1, 2008 from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/204/286 .

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About the Author:

Ayse Kok is an E-learning Consultant and Researcher in the United Kingdom.

Blog: http://aysekok.blog.co.uk

Email: ayshe.kok@gmail.com

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