Technology, Pedagogy and Education, Vol. 14, No. 3, 2005
Building Online Learning Communities
ALLEN THURSTON University of Dundee, United Kingdom
ABSTRACT A new virtual learning environment (VLE) was developed to provide structured support to distance education students undertaking postgraduate study on a core study module of the Master of Education degree at the University of Dundee. Students were offered the option of receiving support via the VLE as opposed to the existing methods, that included face-to-face meetings, letters, emails and telephone contact. Of the 47 students in the study sample, 31 opted to receive support via the VLE and 16 opted to receive support through the existing methods. These groups became self-selecting sample and control groups respectively. The article details investigations into the nature of the online learning community that developed as a result of these initiatives. It explores the patterns of use of the VLE by students in the sample group. It also explores the connectedness of the students who engaged in study via the VLE using a validated instrument. Results indicated that students who actively engaged with online learning via a VLE reported a heightened sense of feeling connected as part of a wider learning community. Results also indicated that these students had higher successful academic completion rates than students who did not receive support via the VLE.
International, national and local technology initiatives have rapidly developed the role of online learning in many areas of learning and teaching in formal settings. Teachers, schools, authorities and universities have tried to develop strategies to build online learning communities that can enhance the quality of teaching and learning. Online learning communities are those that are established and maintained via a managed electronic virtual learning environment (VLE).
The aims of this article are to report how distance education students undertaking study towards the degree of Master of Education used a VLE. The following issues are explored:
o the temporal patterns of use of the VLE exhibited by learners; o the effect that use of the VLE had on how students reported their sense
of connectedness between themselves and a wider community of learners;
o the critical design features of an online learning environment that facilitated peer interaction and student support.
Learners Using Virtual Learning Environments
Attempts to establish successful online learning opportunities have met with varying degrees of success. Access to hardware was highlighted as the crucial factor that influenced patterns of online learning in 293 students who used a VLE based on Lotus Learning Space. In the study, the majority made use of the VLE on weekdays during noon and 2 p.m. when they could get access to hardware (Richardson & Turner, 2000). Online activity amongst a group of adult Welsh language distance learners was highest on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between 10 a.m. and 9 p.m. Weekend activity was lower (34% of total use). Most of the online activity reported in this study related to accessing units of work and completing administrative tasks (99.8%), rather than communicating with other students (0.2%) (Selwyn et al, 2001). In an online FirstClass conferencing system with distance education students, each student posted an average of two messages per month over a 12-month period (Morris et al, 1999). Of a group of 17 distance learners undertaking an education doctorate, only four students were regular contributors to an online discussion group based within the Blackboard VLE (Bennet, 2003). Greig et al (2002) reported that the majority of students who did not engage with online opportunities presented to undergraduate distance education students as part of a pre-school education qualification, cited lack of confidence at using equipment as being the main reason for non-participation. In contrast, other workers have had more success in the development of online learning initiatives. Students who undertook online continuing professional development at three United Kingdom universities utilised a variety of planned and opportunistic time opportunities to contribute successfully to online discussion forums in a VLE (Allan, 2004). Students on 26 undergraduate information system programmes at the New Jersey Institute of Technology consistently expressed views that online learning was more convenient for
BUILDING ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES
them. They stated that it allowed access to learning at a time that suited them. The researchers concluded that the ability of students to plan appropriate time opportunities for learning was linked to the success of online learning opportunities (Hiltz et al, 2002).
Connectedness between Students
The essential ingredients and indicators of a community of students that exhibited connectedness have been summarised by Rovai (2002) as being:
o mutual interdependence between members; o interactivity between peers; o overlapping experiences amongst the student body; o trust between peers; o trust between students and tutors; o the existence of a community spirit or camaraderie amongst students; o common expectations amongst the students; o shared values and beliefs between peers and between the students and
Bennet (1998) concluded that students who never developed a sense of connectedness with those whom they were enrolled could feel insecure, jealous, isolated and insulated. The establishment of a feeling of connectedness between students has been stated as being essential to promote effective reflection and academic enhancement in the learning process. In addition, the establishment of a learning community of students has been reported to be central to the success of programmes of study (Light & Cox, 2001). Other workers have also concluded that the development of a sense of community and connectedness between students was vital to the successful establishment of online learning opportunities (Selwyn et al, 2001). Distance education students can suffer from lack of support, alienation and isolation due to their spatial separation from the institution of learning. Online learning per se does not necessarily address these issues. Careful design of online learning opportunities is essential to counteract these negative influences on learning (McPherson & Nunes, 2004). Online learning was found to be successful with serving mathematics and science teachers. Computer conferencing, with a framework that promoted interaction, led to collaboration between the participants. It was concluded that the ability of the teachers to critically reflect on their practice developed due to use of the computer conferencing system. In addition it was stated that a strong sense of community developed amongst the participants (Maor, 2003).
Online Learning Communities and Peer-assisted Learning
The creation of online support systems must complement and enhance existent teaching and learning in a variety of ways. It must facilitate communication between peers (student to student) and between students and staff. It should also interactively support the construction of new ideas and provide access to quality learning resources. Peer support was found to be just as important as tutor support in a sample of M.Sc. distance learning students at Brunel University (Clarke et al, 2004). Distance education students must be actively engaged with both the subject matter and a community of learners for successful collaborative learning to take place (Harasim, 1990). Active engagement in a learning community has been reported to lead to the exchange of ideas, information and feelings throughout the student population (Hiltz, 1998).
Peer-assisted learning can allow students to gain support from a wide range of practising professionals. It has been described as enabling students to gain knowledge, understanding and skills through explicit active help or support among status equals or matched companions (Topping & Ehly, 1998). Students benefited from moral support when they used a communications facility that allowed the exchange of ideas, information and experiences between peers (Pritchard, 2000). Hiltz (1994) reported that computer-mediated communication was especially well suited to collaborative or cooperative learning strategies. The provision of online peer support offers potential for learning to be supported in a way that allows two important issues to be addressed at the cognitive level. On the one hand it involves conflict and challenge (reflecting Piagetian schools of thought) (McLuckie & Topping, 2004) and on another level it involves scaffolding and working within the learners Zone of Proximal Development. This is at the centre of a social constructivist approach to learning and teaching (Vygotsky, 1978). Successful online interactions with peers have been found to result in more effective learning (Hiltz, 1998).
It was reported that interaction in a managed online environment led onto collaboration between student peers. In the collaborative community described, group members shared perspectives and also challenged/refined these perspectives. To facilitate this process, learners were given the opportunity to scaffold ideas for each other (Murphy, 2004). Results from a project that involved 25 Finnish undergraduate law students indicated that active use of online peer feedback was directly correlated to better grades amongst the students (Lindblom-Ylanne & Pihlajamaki, 2003). The potential of online learning to contribute towards the continuing professional development of teachers has also been illustrated. Research demonstrated that teachers enhanced their classroom practice as a result of online learning (Fisher, 2003). Online learning also promoted the professional development of 20 undergraduate teacher education students when peer
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support and scaffolding were provided in an appropriate manner (Brett, 2004). Similar findings were reported by Christianson et al (2002). In an undergraduate nursing education degree highly collaborative activity was recorded between 171 students. The research concluded that the nature of the programme and design of the online discussion forum encouraged students to provide peer support.
The ability to work collaboratively and to communicate effectively are both essential life skills. They are also important educational objectives (Scottish Executive Education Department, 2000). Appropriate pedagogical issues must be taken into account in the planning and design of asynchronous learning environments. In so doing, the collaborative online environments created can increase student skills, extend social learning and facilitate the co-construction of new joint understanding (Kreijns et al, 2002). Therefore, if online interactions are designed with care they have the potential to promote learning through a social constructionist model. In this model, learners co-construct new understanding by building on existing knowledge through peer interaction. This allows students to form common interpretations of meaning through social interaction (Hiltz et al, 2002).
Design of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for Distance Learning
An essential requirement of the distance learning Master of Education (M.Ed.) programme offered by the University of Dundee was that it provided support for students who could not travel regularly to a central location. The University of Dundee has a long tradition of offering distance learning to serving teachers. Content has normally been offered through the medium of paper-based materials. Support has traditionally been provided through email, letters, face-to-face meetings and telephone conversations. Recent developments in online learning have led to support becoming available through a VLE. The University of Dundee uses Blackboard as its VLE. The nature of the intervention in this study was to provide a learning opportunity via the VLE that complemented and enhanced the paper-based distance learning resources currently provided to students. To achieve this it was necessary to provide online academic and social support systems through the VLE. It was important that the VLE contained opportunities for interaction that scaffolded learning for students. In addition it helped students reconstruct understanding from learning experiences (provided by the paper-based module content) through online peer interaction (Vygotsky, 1978; Galperin, 1979). Online opportunities for interaction were designed to have interesting presentation, be easy and flexible to use and provide support through an emphasis on peer and tutor support (Murdoch, 2000). The principles of multiple relationships, developed by Barbera (2004), were
used as the basis for the design of the online learning environment. The VLE was designed to promote effective interactions between:
o learners and the materials achieved by designing online tasks that had close links to the paper-based module material;
o learners and tutor ensured by having specific online tasks designed to elicit a response from the university tutor;
o learners and other learners facilitated by planning a carefully structured set of online tasks requiring peer interaction, assessment and feedback.
Figure 1 represents the interrelationships between the three categories of web-based learning interaction (adapted from Sabry & Baldwin, 2003).The nature of the interactions between these three categories of web-based learning interaction play a central role in meeting the needs of learners (Jonassen, 1998). Tasks on the VLE extended learning beyond the core material. Flexibility of use was built into the tasks. This was facilitated by ensuring learners were given appropriate time to access and respond to the materials (approximately 10 days between tasks) (Naidu, 1997). Design of the tasks allowed learners to interact synchronously and asynchronously in collaborative and distributed based environments (Harasim et al, 1995). These factors have both been found to be vital to the successful development of interactive online learning opportunities (Friesen & Anderson, 2004).
Figure 1. Three categories of web-based learning interaction (adapted from Sabry & Baldwin, 2003).
BUILDING ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES
In order to address the aims of the study the following research questions were formulated:
1. What were the patterns of use of the VLE by students? Which specific areas of the VLE did students use most frequently?
2. Did students who engaged with the VLE report an increased sense of connectedness compared to those students who did not?
3. Were completion rates higher for students who engaged with the VLE as compared to those students...