I am most impressed by this week’s reading Children Online: Learning in a virtual community of practice, which looks deep into a virtual community called “Gathering of the Elves” and analyzes how children’s role-play as Tolkien’s characters relates to learning and community theories.
One reason I found the article impressive is that I didn’t realize before a hobby BBS created by children can have so many learning merits and actually absorbs children into learning spontaneously, without even realizing it. The author highly praises their main activity: role-playing and story-telling as “shaping a community”:
But it is the act of the storytelling ritual that is revealing. Elianna is creating and shaping a history of the community by retelling the events of the role-playing. She is also encouraging and directing other community members to read certain parts of it, as she celebrates the achievements of the role-players, showing pride in their collaborative narrative, and forging her identity in the community as a leader.
The other reason, perhaps a more important one, is that I found myself engaging in several similar virtual communities when I was in secondary school! One BBS was focused on Zhuge Liang, China’s greatest and most accomplished strategist in the Three Kingdoms Period, where we worshiped and wrote memoirs and novels about him, trying to retell the history, and all of the members were closely bonded “sisters”. In fact, that was the one and only virtual community I felt truly belonged to. Similar to “Gathering of the Elves”, writing was also the main form of communication and we would give huge respect and support to each other. I was always impressed and moved by other’s writing and they in turn inspired me to write better. This is exactly like what the author describes, a learning process. It’s also such a coincidence that we didn’t quite regard it as “learning” either.
Another BBS I always engaged in was about Harry Potter, where we shared news, discussed and guessed the plot, wrote our own novels, and translated foreign novels from a site called FanFiction.net. Since the translation was sometimes lagged behind, I soon went to the site to read the novels myself. It soon became a big hobby for me, and I believe it was during these “English-novel-reading” nights that I accidentally practiced my English. I would look up new words and wrote them down on a notebook. Finally I started to translate a short novel on my own.
In one word, my own experience in virtual communities resonates with the author’s point. But it’s curious that none of the kids nor me regard the learning as serious, or even notice that we are learning. This raises an interesting question: if we want our kids to learn spontaneously from virtual communities like these, how can we guide them? After all, there are all kinds of virtual communities and not all of them are constructive. Should we use incorporate them into classroom? Would it be different once children know the communities are designed for them to “learn something”?