Book by Rena M
Review by Douglas Munski
Professor of Geography  
University of North Dakota

Online instructors waiting for the new edition of Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace should be aware that Palloff and Pratt have sufficiently reworked their 1999 publication to justify a title change for this second edition. While such an announcement may seem trivial, it is given to encourage readers of the book’s first edition to join the first-time readers in taking advantage of the improvements made based upon Palloff and Pratt’s seven years of classroom-based research. By doing so, online educators will be able to implement better what is given as the subtitle of the new edition: effective strategies for the virtual classroom. As importantly, readers who either are instructors or students themselves in online courses will be better able to participate in virtual classrooms from having a “behind the scenes” look at how online learning communities are built.  

Palloff and Pratt understand well the importance of helping adult learners make connections in the educational environment of online learning. They are focused upon how transformative learning -- the multi-layered process of self-reflection regarding participation in discussion-based educational settings -- can effectively engage students in critical thinking and creative thinking.  Achieving transformative learning is not easy which is why online instructors will benefit from the guidance provided by Palloff and Pratt. They first help the reader recognize how recontextualizing community outside the traditional classroom must include a human side of online learning as well as a technological dimension when teaching and learning are moved online. Then, Palloff and Pratt provide insights into how to build the foundation of an online course that incorporates collaborative learning that in turn can become transformative learning. Importantly, these authors emphasize the critical role of student assessment and course evaluation for “closing the loop” when determining if instructors’ goals and objectives have been met regarding student learning.

Academic advising, particularly when conducted in conjunction with introduction to university life courses, increasingly includes a cyberspace component. Therefore it is not unthinkable that on-campus staff and faculty members might want to look more carefully at the lessons learned by Palloff & Pratt. More so, the academic advisor teaching a traditional classroom section of a first-year experience course must recognize that today’s entering freshmen are more interested in hybrid courses that incorporate the communication technology that is ideal for building learning communities in cyberspace. The instructor of such traditional introduction to university life courses who is willing to be a neophyte online instructor should be less frustrated and more successful building online learning communities if familiar with the concepts, principles, models, and examples presented and explained by Palloff & Pratt. Academic advisors who already have discussion boards or engage in threaded discussions with their first-year students using a learning management system such as Angel Learning, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, or eCollege will find that these authors have provided insights through sharing of their own experiences since the first edition of this book appeared. Thus, there will be a range of “ah, hah!” moments for the reader working with students in building online learning communities.

Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom. (2007) Book by Rena M. Palloff & Keith Pratt. Review by Douglas Munski. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 320 pp., $40.00, (paperback), ISBN # 978-0-7879-8825-8
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