(PhD, European University, Spain) 
Title of the thesis
The structure and behavior of virtual communities engaged in informal learning about e-learning standards
Estudio de la estructura y del comportamiento de las comunidades virtuales de aprendizaje no formal sobre estandarización del e-learning
Online training, virtual learning, e-learning, are some of the concepts that were born one decade ago when communication systems, Internet and the related services increased their presence and social significance. Facilities like instant messages, email, voice chats, textual chats, image transfer or interchange of files are just a few examples of what raised in the nineties.
On the other hand, the increasing need to optimize the time and the costs related to training, came up with a logical start-up of companies and also with an adaptation of some of the existing institutions and universities to such this new panorama on new learning platforms. The first step was to translate and move actual courses to the new online systems. Two objectives were fulfilled: first, the needed adaptation to users´ demands on new platforms in order to get a better match between users´ needs and resources provided; second, the improvement of the existing learning systems with a new view and a new pool of facilities on interaction.
At the same time, personal relationships based on these systems, both in an asynchronous way (email and forum, mainly) and in a synchronous way (online text chats and, mainly, and IP voice communication, coming), were making bigger and wider to witness a global intercommunication phenomena never seen before, providing a non-ending information and relational flow.
In this context, virtual communities were born. Focused on one topic or subject and living around an Internet web address, assorted and geographically spread people are able to interchange points of view, resources, content as well as they also have access to information. This comes to actual non-directed networks, where participants mainly define the behavior, the meaning, the content, the size and the direction of them. Furthermore, with a basic original structure, the relationships, the content and the progress of a network are fully defined by users´ behavior, users´ navigation (passive participation) and users´ contributions (active participation).
Because of this set of factors (online learning birth, online communication raising and behavior of virtual communities) the appropriate initial conditions are set-up for a development of learning networks, with a non-structure and non-predictable evolution and reaction, and focused on sharing and acquiring some specific topic; with no specific method or pre-defined learning flow or table of contents. Cooking, law, medicine, photography, elder people are just a few of the focus points to attract users with similar interests. No more than a free-identification is required to become a member of every target group. Besides a basic structure and a basic set of services, these communities usually don’t count with a pre-defined way of working or any expected behavior and they usually work on associative relations between members and between content items.
After the fast increase of this kind of social associate networks focused on knowledge sharing and the relationships among members, and after a huge presence of assorted resources for almost everyone in the First World, a new user profile is coming up. This new kind of user, meaning a significant group, is concerned by training quality and specific issues on learning and teaching linked to e-platforms. This increasing group of people is claiming structured means and an institutional reaction, one step further than a few well-intentioned but not-too-much-efficient isolated actions.
Topics like content interoperability, pedagogical expressiveness or platform and learning standardization, are recent key issues to get and consolidate a high quality online learning able to provide some answers to the expectations and aims of these virtual communities on informal learning.
This is the context that came up with process standardization, learning structures, conditions and instructions, deriving e-learning specifications and standards. As it happened before in the electric, maritime or oil markets, just to mention a really dynamic few, a specification or a standard looks for developing a common understanding among the several stakeholders involved in a specific topic. In our research, this topic is e-learning and virtual communities. These stakeholders are students, teachers, managers, content providers, system developers and a large etcetera. The main objective is to create a common working ground of understanding looking for process quality and learning performance instead of exploitation rights, and communication among members and e-learning platforms instead of business proprietary development.
In addition, several virtual communities are focused specifically on e-learning, standardization and interoperability as their intrinsic topic. This means to research and support online learning on standard systems using the standardization itself as a discussion source. For instance, virtual communities based on Moodle (Dougiamas, 2002) will use Moodle to discuss about it, or virtual communities based on IMS Learning Design (IMS, 2003) will work on this specification and they use it to generate content and resources.
Universidad Europea, Spain