The first challenge is defining the different layers of learners. We are all familiar with the usual groupings in schools-- elementary school, high school, college or groupings like freshman, sophomore, junior, etc. These could translate into layers of learners in online learning communities, but they are limited in part because they may confuse us into using "age" as a proxy for the level of a learner. For very young learners, "age" can be useful proxy for the level of a learner, but this breaks down dramatically as people get older. Even in elementary school teachers deal with a wide range of ability levels within a single age range. Not using age as a proxy for ability also helps to remind us that our levels of ability across a range of topics varies widely. I may learn at the expert level in developmental science, but my ability level in Spanish is at the novice level.
My suggestion is that we create a set of categories that emphasize ability levels and that we define the learner's role within the learning community as a way to begin structuring this new learning environment. When I started thinking about this model, I was thinking about levels of learners in the higher education environment and so I don't know how well this works at all levels of learning. These categories also need to be refined in particular learning communities.
In most educational settings there are two conditions for a participant--you were either enrolled or not enrolled. And if you participated in the community you had one of two roles, you were either the teacher or the student. This framework adopts Brown and Adler's ideas about social learning in which the emphasis is more on how people are learning through interactions. As people move through the levels of learning they are engaged in deeper and more extended interactions, they take on more responsibilities for leading interactions (being teachers) and they engage in more analysis and synthesis of knowledge and in more efforts to discover new knowledge.
In online learning communities, I am proposing a wider range of levels of participation. I think that most communities may work well with five general levels of participation in the learning community. The lowest levels of participation require the least involvement in both teaching and learning.
Novice. This person has access to a wide variety of information about the particular topics, however, this person would not be able to participate in discussion sections (chatrooms or blogs) or be able to interact with teachers (i.e, have their questions answered about topics). In short, this person is more or less auditing the course or in the language of the web, this person would be a "lurker." In discussions of open courseware, this person would have access to the lesson material in the course, perhaps including the exercises and test questions, but would not get feedback about any work that they might do on their own. It is also important to note that the novice would have no responsibilities for teaching.
Associate or Member. (still working on the right name for this level). At the next level of participation, an associate would be expected to register for the learning community so that they are identifiable, however, there would be no cost associated with level of participation. By registering a person would be eligible to receive updated and/or new information prior to it being available to novices and they could participate in some interactive arenas (e.g., chatrooms, blogs). By participating in some of the interactive arenas, associates would begin the process of having teaching responsibilities. This may seem like an odd statement, but the point is that the moment that an associate begins reacting to other learning communities members, either by asking questions and/or attempting to respond an other person's ideas/statements/questions, etc. that person is beginning to serve in a teaching capacity. This is very limited an very rudimentary, but this dialogue is the beginning of a teaching role.
Participant. At this level a person begins to have access to more types of learning environments and probably there would be some level of cost associated with this level. At this level there would be mini-courses or special skill/knowledge development opportunities. Partners and contributors (defined below) would be actively involved with this group of participants. In some cases the learning at this level might lead to continuing education credits for professionals and some types of credentials for others. A major difference between associates and participants is in regards to expectations for teaching. Participants would have specific teaching responsibilities within the learning community. Traditional activities such as class assignments and review of classmates paper's, class presentations, group activities would all be conducted with associates and other participants. These activities and any products associated with these activities would be expected to become part of the content and "intellectual capital" of the learning community. In contrast to most F2F classrooms, participants' products would be expected to be used by future learning community members. It is this idea that I think is particularly powerful in regards to advancing learning. By creating the expectation that "classroom" work has value beyond the student's practice or the life of a time-bounded course, students in learning communities contribute to a bigger intellectual enterprise. This raises the expectations for the quality of student work.
Partner. Partners, as the name suggests, are involved in guided independent study. In general, I am thinking of these individuals as conducting work that we would traditionally assume were being carried out by faculty. Partners would be actively involved in creating learning activities for all of the other levels of participation. it is important to note that in these online learning communities there can be more than one partner. Partners would also be expected to be involved in the discovery of new knowledge for the learning community.