Fostering community building in communities of learning through assignment design

Picture of several meerkats
Meerkat (suricata suricatta), courtesy of Josh Guard

I have an increasingly strong opinion on what constitutes learning, in general, and what will constitute learning form a lifelong learning perspective.

In my opinion, it is communities. Or, put on dynamic terms, community building.

I would like to avoid the debate whether Connectivism is a learning theory, or whether we should be talking about learning networks.

The important thing here, to me, is if we can detach learning from learning institutions by subverting the dynamics of the classroom to become networked learners and networked educators.

I am totally convinced that it is building communities that open up the traditional institutions — the handbook, the classroom, the teacher, the library, the… — what enables lifelong learning on a sustainable basis.

Community building through assignment design

The problem is that we are often headed to designing assignments. We have to make them up and students (not learners yet) have to do and submit then.

I would like to here share four steps that I personally use so that my mandatory assignments (mandatory to my students, mandatory to my as a teacher) as artefacts for community building.

  1. Try and make all or part of my assignments happen in the open. That is, that anyone can have access to them and, even better, interact with them. An essay is less open that a debate around a shared set of slides on the virtual classroom of your LMS; and a set of slides can be opened up if uploaded on a document sharing social networking site (e.g. as Slideshare), disseminated through another social networking site (e.g. Twitter) or embedded on a blog, and debate fostered on the same social networking site (and monitored with a tag/hashtag) or on the comments of the blog post.
  2. Isolated assignments usually work worse than “connected” assignments. Splitting an assignment in parts corresponding to stages or, even better, building a story around a set of assignments works best to raise interest on the topic, to have the sense of creating something, to be expectant to what is to come — yourself as a student and in relationship to your peers or mates. A case analysis, split in different deliveries, contributes more to community building rather a bunch of quizzes corresponding to each of the chapters or the handbook.
  3. Responding to assignments is rather passive, even for the most creative assignments. Fostering content sharing is by fare more proactive. Contributing to the collection of resources to be used in a specific task not only adds to the actual collection of resources, but signals the contributor as a legitimate, reputed, active member of the learning community. And contributes to create (even if) weak ties among the members of that community, thus actually building the community of learning.
  4. To avoid this exchange being but a bunch of many monologues, marking contributions to others’ content is usually a good strategy to foster real dialogue between contributors who, later on, will much probably engage in conversations and exchanges spontaneously, deeply and, luckily, strengthen what before were only weak ties. But, of course, things do not just happen, so they have to be encouraged. And there is nothing wrong with it. On the contrary: one should not expect the unexpected, not without some external stimuli.

In my opinion, beyond complex designs, some simple but strongly driven actions can potentially and much likely lead to setting up the basis of strong communities. Or, at least, to pave the path towards community building.

And an accurate and focused assignment design can certainly be an important part of it.