To those unfamiliar with the social dynamics of virtual learning environments (vle), the online classroom may seem like a neutral environment devoid of human interaction, structure, or emotion.
Despite these assumptions, online instructors and course designers should be aware that students will develop an identity within an online learning community that is both individual and collective.
As students collaborate they form social ties, which in turn, motivates them to establish an identity within the group via active participation and contributions to the collective knowledge pool.
While it may run counter to traditional learning environments, teachers in the online space must learn to "step back" and provide students with the "breathing room" required for them to create and form bonds within the online learning community.
In doing so, it allows students to learn in social setting with peers, remain engaged in the topic, receive interaction feedback from peers, and also meets their need for feedback.
In addition, collaborative and interactive projects undertaken in a community structure allow students to interact with other members of the class, identify who has a particular skill or expertise they want to acquire, and provides opportunities for them to model and scaffold this knowledge with their peers.
According to Papert, these types of virtual learning environments allow students to explore and negotiate their understanding of the course content and find ways for the learning to develop a sense of intellectual identity. Through this process learners become motivated on an individual level, as well as fostering a sense of accountability to the group to continue to participate.
The learner in an online community is constructing a base of knowledge on both and individual and group level. As their personal understanding of the subject deepens learners are motivated to contribute to the collective understanding and receive positive feedback from the group.
Anthropologist Lori Kendall, who spent almost two years researching the dynamics of online social identity and community, concluded that members of virtual environments have "intact social systems, and highly charged social relations."
However, unlike the electronic window of television, Kendall found that members of an online community feel that when they connect to an online forum, they enter a social, if not physical space (Kendall, 1999).
In this new digital age, we need to redefine our concept of what constitutes a legitimate “social system” or “social interaction.” In many ways, the effective use of social media to support instruction provides the same or better quality of socialization than a traditional classroom.
If we are truly to expand educational opportunities via online or distance learning programs, we will need to recognize and validate the existence of online communities, relationships, and interaction.