Hi Sylvia, you said:
I think that we may be focusing too much on community building if that's the focus of engaging students. As long as they learn what they need and what is most meaningful to them (and achieves the stated outcomes for success in the course) then, isn't that more important?
Such a good point! In most online courses, community building is not the ultimate goal -- although it can play a part towards that overriding goal of learning what they need.
The title of my Master's thesis was: Strangers in a strange land: Rural learners in distance education. I did the study in the pre-Facebook era when students were generally less techno-literate so some of my conclusions may no longer be valid. But what I learned was that most of the rural learners in my study were strongly attached to their own (geographical) community & really not that interested in becoming a part of an academic community (online or otherwise), which often felt very foreign to them. Using a Community of Practice (CoP) model, I suggested that most of the learners in my study were looking to advance within their given CoP, or to enter another one. So I recommended designing learning activities that would facilitate this goal: getting them to introduce themselves to local potential mentors or colleagues within the new CoP, doing activities within their community that helped others see them as seeking a new role, that kind of thing.
I am not a huge Facebook fan but I do think it has helped people feel more comfortable connecting with others, virtually, so I doubt that kind of connection feels very foreign anymore. And I certainly see the value in creating & maintaining community among a cohort of learners who are going to be together for a while (e.g. in an online program). But, as you suggest, we have to hold in mind the ultimate goal: that students learn what they need, what is most meaningful to them, to achieve the outcomes for success.