The following is my review of this article:
The article Bounded Community: Designing and facilitating learning communities in formal courses, originally published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, November 2004, remains relevant a decade later. In the article, the authors (Brent G. Wilson, Stacey Ludwig-Hardman, Christine L. Thornam, and Joanna C. Dunlap) outline not only why a learning community is a vital aspect of learning in a formal course, but the importance of instructional design and facilitation in creating healthy learning communities in formal courses.
As an instructional designer, I believe this article remains relevant because of the renewed focus on social and practical learning in the workplace, as well as the focus on design in creating these communities. The authors note that “That participation, however, is mediated by the rules, incentives and structures that together form the course infrastructure” and that “the formation of a community within a course takes leadership, support and facilitation”. The focus on the importance of deliberate design to create learning communities in formal courses in order to make learning interactive and contextual reminds me that community does not just happen – it is created.
The article begins by explaining that bounded learning communities have specific borders in a formal course; learners do not pick their community, especially in distance education, and it is kept to a specific time frame. And while these borders may seem like limitations, they may also present unique opportunities to share uninhibitedly in the right environment (page 3). The article also provides an overview to why fostering a community is important in adult education as it provides a social context for the learning, allows distance students to feel more connected and provides a “practice field” (page 3) for trying out new skills.
Once these baseline assumptions are established, the article begins to discuss the design implications for creating community based on Ludwig-Hardman’s (2003) review of learning communities. They suggest that shared goals, safe and supportive conditions, collective identity, collaboration, respectful inclusion, progressive discourse toward knowledge building and mutual appropriation are features to include (page 5), as opposed to criteria to be satisfied, when designing courses that foster learning communities. The difference between criteria to be satisfied and features to include is alluded to on page 8, where the authors note that “course resources may be analyzed and determined to be strong or weak in one or more of the seven features, leading to adjustments in the environment, tasks and support structures”.
Another important aspect of the article is the idea that bounded learning communities have life cycles with three stages: initiation, participation, and closure (page 11) and that the design of the course factors heavily in creating an effective life cycle. A job aid is presented for designers and facilitators to ensure that the right rituals, stories, symbols and language are used to build community in the course (page 12, 13) and another is provided to help strengthen the community in established courses (page 13 – 16). The authors also outline which strategies to use at which stage; as an example, the initiation phase may best focus on developing safe conditions and community identity while the participation phase may best focus on identifying shared goals, collaboration and respectful conclusion (page 16).
The article concludes by providing an assessment tool for designers and facilitators (page 17) to ensure that “the participation skills gained relate very well to the lifelong learning roles expected of adults…”
What I appreciated most about this article was insistence that learning communities in formal courses need to be designed. In my experience, we often “hope” that what we build will foster community, but there is a lack of intentionality to our design. This article not only provides the theory behind the importance of design, but some practical tools for designers and facilitators to ensure community is designed and strengthened. I also appreciated the authors’ understanding that technical skill “… is doubtless of value, but even more valuable is the ability to use a skill to solve an authentic problem” (page 18). Using a bounded learning community to collaborate and practice new skills brings value not only to the learning experience, but the design of the course itself.
As a criticism, I would have preferred if less of the article made a case for bounded learning communities and more examples were given to help designers (like myself) implement these strategies. Having said this, I still believe that the job aids provided in the article will help me, as an instructional designer, be more intentional about creating learning communities in formal courses and less likely to rely on chance.
In conclusion, I would recommend this article for any instructional designer who endeavours to create community in his/her courses to ensure that the participants feel connected with each other and the content. Knowing how learning communities that are time-bound and restricted to a specific course can be designed to bring context and collaboration as participants practice new skills is a valuable resource for any instructional designer, especially those like me who are working in virtual spaces. I would even go so far as to recommend this article for managers of virtual teams – as many of the theories and job aids would help foster a sense of community for teleworking teams, although the communities would be less time-bound than the article intended.