It's All About Your Course GoalsI guess then it's a matter of your course goals and objectives, and what you want the students to walk away with. Is the goal of the course to prepare the students for what to expect in a professional environment? Then, I suppose yes, you want to give them an accurate experience. But if the goal is more so for them to learn certain content and to critically think about and apply that content, then community building does become important.
Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development"It all goes back to Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development," which he defines as "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers." (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86) Collaborating with more knowledgeable individuals raises a student's learning potential far higher than she ever reach in isolation.
Employers Want Employees with Group SkillsFurthermore, one of the chief complaints employers have with young professionals is that they do not know how to work effectively in groups. Any guidance we can give them as instructors will better prepare them for the working world and will give them a leg up during the hiring process. Creating a safe and comfortable learning environment is the first step to successful group learning.
The Importance of Social Engagement in Online LearningIn terms of learning online, the social engagement is often what makes or breaks the class. Anyone can read resources or watch videos online. It is nice that an instructor curates those resources because then the student can trust that the resources are high quality and accurate. However, one of the core strengths of learning online is having the opportunity to interact with other students and with the instructor. A shy or quiet student has as much of a voice as the students who dominate in-person class discussions. Students have the chance to think critically and for as much time as they need before responding to a question or comment. Furthermore, groups of students tend to mix and interact, who otherwise may never speak to one another.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 86