Virtual Communities: A Way to Connect Students in an Internship Program
Although groups with similar interests have been interacting online since the 1970s with the birth of the Arpanet/Internet, when computers first came to be used for communication as well as number crunching and data processing, the notion of a virtual community as such constitutes a relatively recent phenomenon. The history of virtual communities may be said to begin with the WELL in 1985, but the emergence of the World Wide Web and the graphical-interface browser were the key factors in creating an environment conducive to the organization of persons enjoying a community of interest into electronically-connected "virtual communities" having a specialized focus for information exchange, which also permit "cyber-café" discussions as well as general socialization. In organizations, or among professionals with similar interests or communities of practice, the members of which are isolated or at least not typically in close geographical proximity to one another, a virtual community can be the answer to an otherwise "lonely" professional existence, facilitating information exchange and the wide dispersal of knowledge with a built-in human perspective and relevance assessment. Students, who have had little or no experience in a library or who want to change library types, are encouraged to enrol in their last or penultimate semester for a fieldwork practicum. These students work 120 hours at a site where there is a degreed librarian from whom they can learn what it is really like to be a librarian. The fieldwork experience can lead to students having a feeling of isolation from the University. A virtual community, running on the Blackboard platform, has been established to ensure that the students feel part of a group of students doing fieldwork, rather than seeing themselves as being in a class of one. A threaded discussion board and synchronous chat are available to assist students in interacting with each to share their experiences as well as facilitating increased interaction with the University faculty member, who is overseeing their experience. Student perceptions as to the value of the virtual community have been gathered via an assessment survey through the Blackboard site. The paper will discuss the process followed in the community as well as the results from the assessment survey.
Keywords: Student Internships, Virtual Communities, Professional Education
Dr. Vicki L. Gregory
Director and Professor, School of Library and Information Science, University of South Florida