Online Communities and the Classroom - Home

Students enrolled in distance courses often struggle to feel part of the university community. After six years of teaching distance courses, I am seeking out new methods for bringing those students into the academic community by helping them construct a virtual version of what on-site students already experience. Online communities have pioneered positive changes in the way students engage in knowledge-making discourse. With an increased proficiency in digital communication, students can now be expected to make greater strides in virtual classroom discussions and use the class time more productively. Such competency in virtual collaboration may also hasten students' immersion into the classroom discourse community, thereby improving the outcomes of discussion and collaboration in the classroom. From forum groups to massively multiplayer online games, students actively construct and maintain virtual communities every day. However, in a virtual classroom setting, the majority of students still rely on the teacher for rule-making and enforcement. So, for example, students are less likely to criticize a peer's grammar because they expect the teacher will do it (or, in my experience, students will email the teacher to complain that someone has criticized their grammar). In other words, the teacher constructs the community and its rules rather than the students. I hope that my close examination of an online community engaging in social knowledge-making practices can begin to locate methods for encouraging similar practices among my distance students.

There are many other similarities between a distance class and a game forum, including shared goals, shared virtual space for asynchronous communication, and the desire to give and receive knowledge. There are numerous examples of grammar arguments taking place in online forums, but I've narrowed my focus here to one that I feel provides substantial material for an in-depth rhetorical analysis. I located this thread by entering writing response terms (e.g. spelling, punctuation) and forum terms (e.g. thread, discussion) into Google's search engine. In August 2009, an innocuous discussion in the Computer and Video Games forum concerning disappointing games rapidly descended into a grammar and spelling argument. Interrupting the discussion, veteran member mens_rea appears to attack the original poster (OP), traversman, claiming the latter exhibits a lack of courtesy and respect for other members in a blatant disregard for English language standards. Examined from a dramatistic perspective where the communicators attempt to frame the scene, mens_rea's intent may be to cast the OP out of the social order as a pariah of improper English. To other forum members, this act of scapegoating could be seen as an attempt among many to socially codify language use in the community; however, when another long-time member, Drusus, imposes a metaphorical classroom on the group in an apparent attempt to divide them, much of the community chooses to defend its purpose in criticizing grammar while engaging in a revealing discussion about why proper grammar is so important to them. In this way, the forum embodies the kind of teacherless classroom Peter Elbow describes in his work Writing without Teachers, wherein members truly value the writing process and are adept at responding to writing problems. This is ironic considering that the Computer and Video Games forum community rejects the classroom metaphor while remaining unified in their acceptance of following a "normative order." While mens_rea may have succeeded in establishing a language rule and ejecting the abjection, Drusus suffers from imposing the wrong metaphor on this group: 'professor' is not the adequate term to use on these 'students.'

A first-time poster, traversman poses a new discussion topic in the question "wat game did u look forward 2 and u were den dissapointed wit mine was resi 5 coz i thought it wod b alot better [sic]." Drusus, a member with 132 posts, answers the OP's question and follows-up by asking if the OP can explain his reasoning. Though traversman never responds, mens_rea, a member with nearly 600 community posts, sweeps in with a profanity-laced proclamation about his hatred of text-speak. mens_rea wraps up his rant by inviting others to contribute. So begins an argument about the merits of proper English within this community. Of the members who respond to the thread, 62.5% share mens_rea's opinion. They call the OP illiterate and uneducated until Drusus questions the necessity of sparking a grammar debate. Drusus then introduces a subtle, critical metaphor: "Its a tough one ain't it, whoops I said ain't, I do beg your pardon professors [sic]." What follows is a community-created debate on the importance of using proper English grammar and spelling on their forum. Two sides emerge: those who support the use of proper English as a form of respect to the topic and other members, and those who feel members should be free to express themselves without reprimand. I will show that mens_rea's rhetoric is more successful because he plays upon gamers' instinctual need to preserve and enforce rules, while Drusus chooses to use a metaphor that fails to produce the emotional response he anticipated. After I've analyzed how the community engages in their grammar argument, I hope to demonstrate the value of such examples of teacherless writing discourse in understanding how to approach similar online communities associated with distance learning classrooms.

The study that follows will analyze the error response techniques of the Computer and Video Games forum community in the "wat game did u look forward 2" thread using a dramatistic method that examines how agents, scene, and agency are designated by the opposing sides. To do this, I will also need to analyze a metaphor being used to reframe the scene. Sixteen members participate in this thread, and two prominent sides of the grammar-rule argument are made clear. It is apparent as the members compare their conversation to classroom experiences that several of them are concurrently, or have been, students. As members explain and fervently defend their positions, they demonstrate the kind of higher order learning we look for in online learning communities. While one side exploits the tribal nature of the community itself in order to enforce the rule and punish the crime, the other side questions the intention and purposes for language rule enforcement, which is why this artifact is so interesting and unique for the purpose of this analysis.

Understanding how this virtual community responds to writing errors and enforces writing rules could help distance educators identify ways to facilitate the construction of virtual communities in their own courses. Examining this community's knowledge-making discourse could reveal ways in which our own students, who may well be members of virtual communities very much like this one, are engaging in knowledge-sharing online as well as the current trends in such discourse. For this particular community, writing plays a very important part of how they communicate--so important that their conversation takes a dramatistic turn as they argue about the agent and act that disrupts the community's discourse. If our own distance education students were encouraged to practice such methods of writing rule enforcement and virtual community maintenance, we may find that they would report a better overall distance learning experience.