March/April 2001 // Vision
Online Communities as a New Learning Paradigm:
An Interview with Paul Shrivastava
by James L. Morrison and Paul Shrivastava
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Paul Shrivastava "Online Communities as a New Learning Paradigm:
An Interview with Paul Shrivastava" The Technology Source, March/April 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Paul Shrivastava is a professor of management at Bucknell University and president of, a Web site that engages professors from throughout the world in collaborative teaching of business management. The work that he and his staff at eSocrates perform could well serve as a model for academic leaders of the future. Shrivastava's approach, based on the concept of "online learning communities," re-conceptualizes the technological and pedagogical aspects of online learning.

James Morrison [JM]: Paul, describe the eSocrates program, including how it began.

Paul Shrivastava [PS]: In 1994, as editor of Industrial and Environmental Crisis Quarterly, I discovered the power of the Internet to connect geographically disparate people in meaningful ways. I was based in Kyoto on a Fulbright Scholarship, with my editorial offices at Bucknell University, reviewers and authors around the world, and a printer in Pennsylvania. The Internet made it possible: we did all our work on the Web and by e-mail.

When I returned to Bucknell in 1995, I started exploring the use of the Internet for teaching. My early experiences with building course Web sites were not pleasant. I used raw HTML and the course management tools then available, such as WebCT, Web Course in a Box, and other software packages. The technology was daunting and never worked smoothly. After a year of crashes and disasters, it occurred to me that, if Internet education were to be mainstreamed, there needed to be a seamless Web-based learning environment that was technologically sophisticated but also user-friendly. It would need to provide instructors with everything necessary to create online courses and materials, use course development tools, and maintain their courses in a rapidly changing online environment.

I realized that the need was not just for good technology, but also for faculty training, permanent institutional support, and learner preparation. That led to the creation of, an Internet startup with the following vision: to restructure both technology and pedagogy to create online business management education systems that foster learning communities.

JM: How do you accomplish this vision? What is different about your approach to online learning?

PS: Our approach begins by asking fundamental questions. What do you want to accomplish in an online learning environment? What special learning situations are you trying to create? We have come to the conclusion that most software packages perform the same basic functions, and that their differences—mostly technical ones—are marginal from a pedagogical viewpoint. Quality online learning requires an understanding of how to exploit new types of virtual learning moments. What is crucial for us is helping instructors master online learning environments and use them effectively in their own disciplines. Software alone cannot achieve that. Instructors can.

In other words, buying a piece of software does not ensure successful online learning. And getting a Web site for each course is useless if you cannot use it as a tool for sound education. Too many schools rush to buy software, assuming that this is all it takes to get courses online. But faculty members have other concerns besides software. In my experience, most faculty members first need a clear vision of a pedagogy different from the one they are accustomed to. Online education can provide this.

Elsewhere I have defined one such alternative, which I call the "online learning community" (Shrivastava, 1999). Online learning communities are groups of learners and instructors, supported by instructional and learning resources, pursuing common knowledge-interests in an online environment. Such communities extend beyond the traditional classroom and may include corporate managers, community leaders, and members of grassroots groups. This network of people and resources voluntarily accepts mutual responsibility for participating and sharing in the learning process. There are many examples of this kind of community, such as the one that produced Linux and the company-wide knowledge networks now prevalent in many corporations.

JM: Please talk more about the community aspect of eSocrates.

PS: Creating quality content for an online learning community is a challenge. Our solution is to have networks of faculty members who contribute to content development, provide periodic upgrades, and give strategic advice. The collective "content modules," each of which is like an online chapter, are available commercially for everyone. Faculty members who teach using eSocrates can choose any module to add to their course site. What this means is that instructors are not limited by a particular textbook and its framework. Nor are they limited to choosing content from one discipline alone—in fact, they can easily integrate content from many disciplines and perspectives to create rich learning environments. Essentially, instructors can custom-publish online their own "textbook" and corresponding assignments (included in the modules). We offer the technology and marketing to support this.

Currently, we are beginning to collaborate with professional organizations to build networks of learning resources. The Community for Agile Partners in Education (CAPE), a consortium of 110 small colleges and schools to whom we supply online learning services, is an example. We believe community is critical to online teaching. The fantastic growth of the Internet and the rapid addition of new online content means that individual faculty members simply cannot stay abreast of all online developments, even those in a narrowly-defined subject area. But as a community, we can share learning and pool resources to the benefit of all.

JM: How does eSocrates tie these shared resources together?

PS: eSocrates provides a framework for online educational programs. It offers faculty training in Internet-based teaching and pedagogy. It also offers services that teach learners Internet-based learning skills.

We offer the ability to integrate content into subscriber sites. We have our own copyrighted content, as well as licensed content from publishers in business studies. Instructors can custom publish their complete courses simply by dragging and dropping content modules into their course sites. We also offer 500 online courses (both instructor-supported and self-paced tutorials). Topic areas cover business functions, e-commerce, Internet, environment and safety, IT skills, management, and softskills.

JM: What other features does eSocrates provide?

PS: The initial products included a Web learning environment that instructors could use to create an online course in one day, regardless of their technological talent. The course Web sites contain templates with online teaching tools: bulletin boards, chat rooms, quiz makers, document sharing, grade books, and class e-mail, as well as links to over 2,000 Web-based learning resources (such as newspapers, digital libraries, databases, research information, and training resources). Instructors can simply cut and paste their syllabi and projects into our templates and then launch their courses online. We provide Web hosting, information services, and technical support to the sites. We also provide training and support in online teaching, student preparation, Web-cast events, and a host of other services that help build learning communities. Institutions do not have to invest in building or maintaining a technology infrastructure or an instructional support infrastructure for online courses.

JM: This sounds like you are combining an e-company like Blackboard with a publishing company like International Thompson. Is this correct?

PS: This is only partly correct. We are neither a software company nor a publisher. Instead, we are a value-added education company with its own evolving software platform and Web-centric online content. Our central focus is developing online education and online pedagogies by using the best software and content that the Internet has to offer. Our goal is to build online learning communities in all fields, and not to sell software tools or content by themselves.

JM: What does your service cost institutions?

PS: Some services are free, and others work on a revenue sharing basis. For example, faculty members who want to share teaching and learning resources can use our community database to search for resources that others have made available. We offer free periodic bulletins to update instructors about developments in e-learning. Faculty members can also get a free course Web site for a trial period. Institutions, meanwhile, can use our services to support entire online degree programs with a minimal upfront investment and revenue sharing. To serve smaller institutions and programs, we provide complete hosted solutions with technical support for up to 500 enrollments, in an unlimited number of online courses, for $5,000.

JM: Can you provide an example of one of your courses?

PS: One of our programs involves distance learners. We look for hot new topics and quickly build online courses on them, using our platform to teach global audiences. One of our more successful courses is Internet-Based Teaching, which introduces Web-based teaching to people who are interested in incorporating the Internet into their courses but who do not have much experience with the Web. Students learn Internet-based teaching strategies, easy ways of creating effective teaching-oriented course Web sites, and opportunities for collaborative learning and teaching on the Internet. (Although access to this course is limited to subscribers, non-subscribers can see a description of the course and its instructor on the opening page.—Ed.)

Recently, we launched a course called "eCommerce in the Digital Economy." This course introduces students to basic concepts of e-commerce examining how computer and telecom network technologies are restructuring the global economy and transforming business organizations and functions. It introduces the forces shaping the emergence of the global digital economy, and it discusses key trends and concepts needed to understand e-commerce as the engine powering that economy. It also offers a strategic and organizational perspective on e-commerce instead of focusing on narrow technological and design issues.

JM: How have your colleagues around the world responded to your initiative?

PS: With great enthusiasm. At the beginning of the project, I spoke to several of my colleagues about the potential that lies in the Internet's ability to connect people. Each of them agreed with the idea to create eSocrates and offered to help with the development of online materials. One provided contacts in other countries.

JM: Are professors in other disciplines following your example?

PS: The Internet has given rise to a new kind of academic entrepreneurship. There are many interesting and promising pedagogical experiments going on. I keep in contact with a number of professors who are building successful online products. They are not doing what we at eSocrates are doing, but their programs are highly innovative. For example, the World Lecture Hall developed at the University of Texas provides links to online course syllabi in different disciplines.

JM: How successful is the eSocrates program?

PS: We measure success not just by how many people use eSocrates, but also by what customers do in online courses. We want our users not just to treat the Internet as a delivery mechanism, but also to exploit its connectivity to facilitate education. Learning is made more interesting and enriching when new voices and resources are included. Today eSocrates has users in 20 countries, representing 200 institutions, and we expect to double in size each year for the next five years.

JM: Besides growth, how else do you see your program evolving in the future?

PS: We want to build a global online learning community. To that end, we are expanding in several directions:

  • We are continuing to add content in business and technology (where we started) and expanding into the social sciences.
  • We are building partnerships with content providers and traditional publishers who make content available on the Web.
  • We are expanding our instructional support services.
  • We are actively seeking partnerships with learning institutions in India, China, South America, and Africa.
  • We are exploring the use of rich media, particularly desktop video conferencing, as a learning delivery system. This will culminate in a hybrid system that allows instructors to choose any type of knowledge-object to custom-publish their online courses.

JM: In closing, can you summarize why the concept of "online learning communities" offers a better framework for organizing online learning?

PS: First, by sharing online resources in a community, we can collectively understand and organize the Internet for teaching. Individual instructors cannot hope to stay on top of all online developments. Online learning communities pool resources, time, and energy to help instructors stay abreast. Second, the community concept allows us to bring non-traditional resources to our learners. We encourage faculty members to extend their learning communities by arranging virtual visits to the classroom from corporate managers, community leaders, and grassroots activists. This can be done using bulletin boards, chatrooms, and e-mail communications; in the future, video conferencing will make this even better. Finally, there is something communal about all learning, not just online learning. A classroom or a college campus is a community, one that provides the context for learning. In that light, we are now trying to understand the characteristics of the online context to discover what learning opportunities can be created.


Shrivastava, P. (1999, December). Management classes as online learning communities. Journal of Management Education, 691-702. Retrieved November 20, 2000 from the World Wide Web: LearningResources/ClassroomOLCJME.html

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