Online Communities as a New Learning Paradigm: An Interview with Paul Shrivastava

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Paul Shrivastava is professor of management at Bucknell University and president of, a Web site that engages  professors from throughout the world in collaborative teaching of business management. The work that he and his staff at eSocrates perform could well serve as a model for academic leaders of the future. Shrivistava's approach, based on the "online learning community" concept, re-conceptualizes the technological and pedagogical aspects of successful online learning.

James Morrison [JM]: Paul, describe the eSocrates program, including how it began.

Paul Shrivastava [PS]: In 1994, as editor of Industrial and Environmental Crisis Quarterly, I discovered the power of the Internet to connect geographically disparate people in meaningful ways. I was based in Kyoto on a Fulbright Scholarship, with my editorial offices at Bucknell University, reviewers and authors around the world, and a printer in Pennsylvania. The Internet made it all possible: we did all of our work on the Web and by e-mail. When I returned to Bucknell to teach in early 1995, I started exploring the use of the Internet for teaching. My early experiences with building course Web sites were not pleasant. I used raw HTML and the course management tools then available, such as WebCT, Web Course in a Box, and other software packages. The technology was daunting and never worked smoothly.

After a year of crashes and disasters, it occurred to me that, if Internet education were to be mainstreamed, there needed to be  a seamless Web-based learning environment that was technologically sophisticated but also user-friendly. It would need to provide instructors with everything necessary to create online courses and materials, use course development tools, and maintain their courses in a rapidly growing Internet environment. I realized that the need was not just for technology but also for faculty training, permanent institutional support, and learner preparation. That led to the creation of, an Internet startup with the following vision: to restructure both technology and pedagogy to create online education and training systems that foster learning communities in business management.

JM: How do you accomplish this vision? What is different about your approach to online learning?

PS: Our approach begins by asking fundamental questions. What do you want to accomplish in an online learning environment? What special learning moments are you trying to create? We have come to the conclusion that most software packages perform the same basic functions, and that their differences—mostly technical ones—are marginal from a pedagogical viewpoint. What is crucial for us is helping instructors master online learning environments and use them effectively in their own disciplines. Software alone cannot achieve that. Instructors can.

In other words, buying a piece of software does not ensure successful online learning. And getting a Web site for each course is useless if you cannot use it as a tool for sound education. Too many schools are rushing to buy software tools with the expectation that this is all it takes to get faculty online. But faculty have other concerns besides finding a software tool. In our experience, most faculty first need a clear vision of an online pedagogy that is different from the one in practice at most institutions. Elsewhere I have defined one such alternative, which I call the "online learning community" (Shrivastava, 1999).Online learning communities are groups of learners and instructors, supported by instructional and learning resources, pursuing common knowledge-interests in an online environment. Such communities extend beyond the traditional classroom and may include corporate managers, community leaders, and members of grassroots groups, who can join in online communication with learners. This network of people and resources voluntarily accepts mutual responsibilities for participation and sharing in the learning process. There are many examples of learning communities, such as the one that produced Linux and the company-wide knowledge networks now prevalent in many corporations.

Online learning is a bit like long distance telephone service. There are many vendors, many variations in packages, and many prices, but the quality of communication depends more on what you say into the phone than on your long distance carrier. Quality online learning requires an understanding of how to exploit new types of virtual learning moments. Creative and innovative faculty can create many new learning opportunities for their students with simple and functional Web sites.

JM: What features does eSocrates provide to make this vision reality?

PS: The first products we created included a Web learning environment that instructors could use to create an online course in one day, regardless of their technological talent. The course Web sites contain templates with online teaching tools—bulletin boards, chat rooms, quiz makers, document sharing, grade books, and class e-mail, as well as links to over 1,000 Web-based learning resources (such as newspapers, digital libraries, databases, research information, and training resources). Instructors can simply cut and paste their syllabi and projects into our templates and then launch their courses online. We provide Web hosting, information services, and technical support to the sites. We also provide training and support in online teaching, student preparation, Web-cast events, and a host of other services that help build learning communities. Institutions do not have to invest in building or maintaining a technology infrastructure or an instructional support infrastructure for online courses.

JM: Please talk more about the community aspect of eSocrates.

PS: Creating quality content for an online learning community is a real challenge. Our solution is to have a network of faculty members who provide content (including periodic upgrades) and strategic advice. Multiple faculty members contribute to content creation on any topic. The collective "content modules, " each of which is like an online chapter, are available commercially for every person to use, and faculty who teach within our system can pick and choose any module to add to their course site. What this means is that they are not limited by a particular textbook and its framework. Nor are they limited to choosing content from one discipline alone—in fact, they can easily integrate content from many disciplines and perspectives to create rich learning environments. Essentially, faculty can custom-publish their own "textbook" and corresponding assignments (included in the modules) online. We offer the technology and marketing needed to support this.

Currently, we are beginning to collaborate with professional organizations to build networks of learning resources. The Community for Agile Partners in Education (CAPE), a consortium of 110 small colleges and schools to whom we supply online learning services, is an example. We feel community is critical to online teaching. The Internet is doubling in size every three months, and new content goes online every day. Individual faculty simply cannot stay abreast of all online developments, even those that concern their own narrow topics. But as a community, we can share our learning and pool our resources to the benefit of all.

JM: Can you provide an example of one of your courses?

PS: One of our programs involves teaching online courses to distance learners. We look for hot new topics and quickly build online courses on them, using our platform to teach the courses online to global audiences. One of our more successful courses is "Internet-Based Teaching." (Although access to this course is limited to subscribers, non-subscribers can see a description of the course and its instructor on the opening page. -Ed.) Recently, we have launched a course on "eCommerce in the Digital Economy." This course introduces students to basic concepts of e-commerce, examining the restructuring of the global economy by computer and telecom network technologies and the transformation of business organizations and functions. It introduces the forces and challenges shaping the emergence of the global digital economy, and it discusses key trends and concepts needed for understanding e-commerce as the engine that powers the digital economy. It also offers a strategic and organizational perspective on e-commerce instead of focusing on narrow technological and design issues.

JM: What does your service cost institutions?

PS: We offer several services and flexible pricing to accommodate the needs of smaller institutions.  Some services are free and others work on a revenue sharing basis. For example, faculty members who wish to share teaching/learning resources can use our community resource sharing database, and search for resources that others have inputted.  We offer free periodic online learning bulletins to update faculty about developments in eLearning. Faculty can also get a free site for their courses for a trial period. Institutions can use our services to support entire online degree programs with a minimal upfront investment and revenue sharing.  To service smaller institutions and programs we have a pricing plan that provides complete hosted solutions with tech support of all users, for up to 500 enrollments in unlimited number of online courses, for $5,000.

JM: How does this service work?

PS: eSocrates provides users with a framework for designing their online educational programs. It offers faculty training in Internet-based teaching and pedagogy. It also offers services to teach learners Internet-based learning skills.

We offer the ability to integrate content into subscriber sites. We have our own copyrighted content, as well as licensed content from publishers in business studies. Instructors can custom custom-publish their complete courses simply by dragging and dropping content modules into their course sites. We also offer 500 online courses (both instructor-supported and self-paced tutorials). Topic areas cover business functions, e-commerce, Internet, environment and safety, IT skills, management, and softskills.

JM: This sounds like you are combining an e-company like Blackboard with a publishing company like International Thompson. Is this correct?

PS: This is only partly correct. We are neither a software company nor a publisher. Instead, we are a "value-added education company" with its own evolving software platform and Web-centric online content. Our central focus is on developing online education and online pedagogies by using the best software and content possibilities that the Internet has to offer. Our goal is to build online learning communities in all fields and not to sell software tools or content by themselves.

JM: How have your colleagues around the world responded to your initiative?

PS: My colleagues have supported this effort with great enthusiasm. At the beginning of the project, I spoke with several of my colleagues about the potential that lies in the Internet's ability to connect people. Each of them agreed with this idea and offered to help with the development of online materials. One provided contacts in other countries.

JM: Are professors in other disciplines following your example?

PS: I am keeping in contact with a number of professors who are building interesting and successful pedagogical experiments on the Web. They are not doing what we at are doing, but they have highly innovative programs of their own. The Internet has given rise to a new kind of academic entrepreneurship. There are many experiments going on. For example, Robert Beard's Web of Online Dictionaries provides links to all known dictionaries, and the World Lecture Hall developed at the University of Texas provides links to online course syllabi in different disciplines.

JM: How successful is the eSocrates program?

PS: We measure success not just by how many people are using eSocrates but also by what our customers are doing in their online courses—our goal is to build online learning communities. We want our users to treat the Web not just as a delivery mechanism but also to exploit its connectivity to facilitate education. Learning can be made more interesting and enriching if new people and  new resources are brought into the classroom. Today has users in 20 countries representing 200 institutions, and we expect to double in size each year for the next five years.

JM: Besides growth, how else do you see your program evolving in the future?

PS: We want to build a global online learning community. To that end, we are expanding in several directions : (1) We are adding content in business and technology (where we started) and in the social sciences. (2) We are building partnerships with content providers and traditional publishers who make content available on the Web. (3) We are expanding our instructional support services to help foster learning communities. (4) We are actively seeking partnerships with learning groups and institutions in India, China, South America, and Africa. (5) Finally, we are exploring the use of rich media, particularly desktop video conferencing, as a learning delivery system. This will culminate in a hybrid system that allows instructors to choose any type of knowledge-object to custom-publish their online courses.

JM: In closing, can you summarize why the concept of "online learning communities" offers a better framework for organizing online learning?

PS: First, by sharing online resources in a community, we can collectively understand and organize the Internet for teaching. Individual instructors cannot hope to stay on top of all online developments. Second, the community concept allows us to bring non-traditional resources to our learners. We encourage faculty to extend their learning community by bringing corporate managers, community leaders, and grassroots activists on virtual visits to their classes via bulletin boards, chatrooms, and e-mail communications. Finally, there is something communal about all learning, not just online learning. A classroom or a college campus is a community, one that provides the context for learning. We are now trying to understand the characteristics of the online context to discover what learning moments and opportunities exist or can be created there. Ultimately, I feel that the concept of online learning communities has much to offer.


Shrivastava, P. (1999, December) Management classes as online learning communities. Journal of Management Education, pp. ??. Retrieved November 20, 2000 from the World Wide Web: