E-Learning and e-communities –  asymmetries and dilemmas




Key words:  plagiarism, poor academic practice, ethics, higher education



Mike Hart

School of Social Sciences

University College, Winchester

email: mikehart@wincchester.ac.uk


Roz Graham

School of Social Sciences

University College, Winchester

email: roz.graham@winchester.ac.uk




E-learning is often held to be a specifically social activity in which the ready availability of internet resources allows, and indeed encourages, electronic interactions between individuals who come together in virtual communities.  In contemporary higher education, much use is made of virtual learning environments which attempts to simulate the seminar patterns of discussion in which learning takes place in small groups.  Some authorities such as Etienne Wenger argue that learning has typically been individualised and in which ‘to assess learning we use tests with which students struggle in one-on-combat, where knowledge must be demonstrated out of context, and where collaboration is considered cheating’ (Wenger, 1998) He proposes that the social nature of learning be pushed centre stage and that learning be considered in the contexts of communities of practice.


E-communities, or virtual communities, are characterised by the ability for individuals to access knowledge bases, discussions or debates in a mode of participatory modes from voyeuristic or fleeting observer to fully committed participant. Groups will initially place some minimal barriers to entry (‘register to join this discussion group’) and attempt some elementary policing in the way in which all social groups operate.  Minor transgressions of implicit rules may be tolerated initially, more major transgressions receiving more graduated sanctions and gross misbehaviour rewarded with exclusion. But such electronic communities are formed and reformed constantly in thousands of instances each day throughout the web and one can assume that many participants find information giving and receiving a source of emotional as well as intellectual pleasure.


However, there are some ambiguities built into this relationship.  Whilst learning may well be facilitated or enhanced by virtual communication, it is generally the individual who gets recruited, evaluated, rewarded and perhaps dismissed – not the groups of which they were transient or permanent members.  For members of the higher education community, this dilemma is  acute, for an asymmetry is that whilst learning is a social activity, assessment is predominantly individual.  Group work is common but it is individuals who have profiles of marks and ultimately receive classified degrees.


This paper will explore some of the tensions and ambiguities contained in the relationship between e-learning and the e-learning communities in which it is fostered.





Wenger, E. (1998)  Communities of Practice – Learning, Meaning and Identity (Cambridge, CUP)