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).
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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 who did not?
Our hypothesis was that a connected community of students could be developed and maintained through the establishment of an integrated VLE on Blackboard. Students supported by this learning community and their tutor would show higher academic completion rates that those working individually with tutor support alone.
Context and Study Sample
The study sample was drawn from 61 students who undertook core module 1 (Professional Development, Review and Planning) on the University of Dundee M.Ed. programme from September 2003 to January 2004. These students were all serving teachers with a full-time (22.5 hours per week) classroom teaching commitment in Scottish primary and secondary schools. From 61 students, a sample of 47 agreed to take part in this study. The module represented one-twelfth of study towards the M.Ed. degree. It entailed 150 hours of notional student effort. All students undertaking modules on the University of Dundee M.Ed. Programme are distance education students. The students normally work from paper-based module materials. Existing support mechanisms involved contact with the tutor via face-to-face meetings, letters, emails and telephone calls. The study sample was offered the option of having contact with the tutor via the university VLE. Thirty-one students opted to receive support via the VLE. Sixteen students opted to receive support via the existing methods. The learning resource was the same for each sample. This consisted of paper-based module material. Instruments were completed by the study sample at the end of core module 1. Instruments were issued via the postal service and were self-administered by students. They were provided with instructions on how to complete the instruments. They returned the instruments prior to submitting the module assessment. Students were given assurances as to the confidentiality of their responses. Completed instruments were returned directly to the researcher, rather than to the module tutor. In summary, a
post-only research design was therefore adopted in this study. The VLE was presented to the students as a self-selective additional learning opportunity. Their use of the VLE was on a voluntary basis. The control and sample groups had the following nature and composition:
o Sample Group students who chose to receive support via the VLE (n = 31, 29 female and 2 male).
o Control Group students who chose to receive support via the existing methods that included face-to-face meetings, letters, emails and telephone contact (n = 16, 14 female and 2 male).
Blackboard v5.0 was utilised as the VLE for this intervention. Students in the sample group had accounts created in the VLE. An instruction booklet on how to use and access Blackboard was provided to them. Training events were provided on two separate evenings for the sample group. These events provided professional development in how to access and use the VLE. A structured discussion area was established within the VLE. The discussion area was designed to promote peer interaction, feedback and support. Discussion areas were structured with eight online tasks. Each task had peer-to-peer, or student-to-tutor, communications built into its design. Peer partners and tutors were assigned for each task. Peer partners were assigned randomly from the group of participating students. Tutors were assigned the students that they were supervising on the M.Ed. programme. Online tasks complemented and extended learning from the paper-based M.Ed. learning resources. The tasks required students to interact and discuss module-related issues with a peer. In the control group similar tasks were undertaken through self-reflection. Deadlines were provided for the completion of tasks. The communication and discussion areas on the VLE were open to all students and tutors. Anonymous postings were not allowed for either peer or tutor feedback. Each member of the learning community had full access rights to the discussion and communication areas of the VLE. The tasks had the following structure in terms of the interactions between peers/tutors:
o peer to peer five peer feedback tasks (where the assigned student peer partners responded to each others messages), and one group peer task (where it was open for any student peer to give feedback to a message of their choice);
o students to tutor two tasks where the assigned university tutor responded to their students message.
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Instrumentation and Measures
Student Patterns of Use of the VLE
Patterns of use of the VLE were recorded using the in-program data collection instruments of Blackboard. After setting the time period of analysis it was possible to obtain statistical data on when individual students used the VLE. The data provided time descriptors of exactly when individual students used the VLE. It also recorded the specific areas of the VLE that individual students accessed.
Measurement of the Students Sense of Community
The views of the study sample in respect of how they felt connected to a learning community and their perception of the quality of the learning experience were measured using the Rovai index. This was self-administered as a paper document. Rovai (2000) reported the development of an instrument that provided a method of measuring the attitudes of a learning community of students in respect of how connected they felt with the rest of the students on their programme. The instrument also measured how the students viewed the quality of their programme of study. The instrument was enhanced and its reliability and validity improved during additional research (Rovai, 2002). The instrument was validated in paper form in a study involving 375 adult subjects. This sample was drawn from distance education students on 28 Masters-level degree programmes for education and leadership at Regent University, USA. The online learning components of these Masters-level programmes were delivered through a Blackboard VLE. Good reliability was recorded for the instrument. This index gives a score (out of 80) as a measure of a students feelings about their learning community and the quality of their learning experience. This total score has two components. These components give a measure of connectedness (out of 40) and learning quality (also out of 40). The instrument scores attitudes on a five-point Likert scale. Statistical analyses between groups took place using a t-test as described by Rovai (2000).
Module Completion Rates
Module completion rates were defined by those who had submitted a successful academic assessment to the module of study at the end of a 20-week period (20 weeks is the period of time allocated to M.Ed. students to complete a module at the University of Dundee).
Patterns of Use of the VLE by the Sample Group
The VLE was used on a total of 15,597 individual occasions (hits) by the sample group. This figure included a collated value for reading messages written by other people and posting messages to the VLE. Table I shows the breakdown of which aspects of the VLE were most frequently utilised by the sample group.
Area ID Hits Percentage of total hits
Discussion Board 11153 71.50
Content Area 1937 12.41
Announcements 1575 10.09
Communications Area (*1) 359 2.30
Staff Information 153 0.98
Tools Area 129 0.82
Email 85 0.54
Other uses 206 1.32
Total 15597 100
Table I. Breakdown of most frequently used areas of the VLE by the sample group. (*1) Note that the figure of 359 visits to the Communications Area is accounted for by those students who logged into Blackboard and checked for new mail, but found that they had no unread messages.
The sample group made extensive use of the VLE for communication of varying types. Communication was used for the following purposes: undertaking structured learning tasks, posting and receiving social messages, and reading news announcements from the programme team. Of the 15,597 hits made by the sample on the VLE, 81.59% (12,728) were for communication purposes. The sample also made substantial use of the content area to download additional copies of programme documentation. This was despite being provided with paper copies of these materials. However, there were areas that students made little, if any, use of. Examples of these included development of a personal homepage, consulting the manual to explore the functionality of the VLE or making use of the dictionary/thesaurus or calendar. Results presented in Table II show the breakdown between reading and posting messages in the discussion board. Students made more extensive use of the VLE for reading, rather than posting, messages.
BUILDING ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES
Use Total number of times used Reading messages 10,858 Posting messages 295 Total 11,153
Table II. Breakdown of how the discussion board was used by the sample group.
Results presented in Figures 2 and 3 indicate that patterns of use were broadly spread evenly between Monday, Tuesday and Friday. The most popular days for participants to interact with the VLE were Sunday and Thursday. Lowest days of use were Wednesday and Saturday. Use was roughly evenly distributed between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. However, there were apparent rises of use between 4-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. Closer analysis of more specific data on use indicated that the vast majority of 11 a.m. users were doing so on Sunday. The majority of use between 4-5 p.m. took place on weekdays (roughly evenly distributed between Monday, Tuesday and Friday), whilst most of the use between 6-8 p.m. was occurring on a Thursday evening.
0 0 0 20 1053
Time of Day (hour)
Figure 2. Use of the VLE by sample group described by hour of the day.
Sun Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat
Access/Day of the Week
Figure 3: Use of the VLE by sample group described by day of the week.
Students Sense of the Connectedness of their Learning Community
Average scores using the Rovai index for the sample and control groups are presented in Table III. Average scores in respect of the students sense of the connectedness of their learning community were higher for the sample group (i.e. those who engaged with each other in the VLE) than the control group. This indicated the sample group had a heightened sense of belonging to a learning community. A t-test demonstrated that there was a statistically significant difference in the Rovai index scores of classroom community between the sample and control groups (p < 0.001). Data presented also reported the Rovai index scores for connectedness and learning quality. Data indicated that students from the sample group had a greater sense of connectedness compared to students from the control group. A t-test demonstrated that there was a statistically significant difference in the Rovai index score of connectedness between the sample and control groups (p < 0.001). However, t-test results on the Rovai index score of learning quality in the sample and control groups indicated that there was a not a statistically significant difference between the groups (p = 0.46).
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Group Overall Rovai Index Score
Rovai Index Score Connectedness (SD)
Rovai Index Score Learning Quality
(SD) Sample group (n = 31) 55.32 (4.13) 27.52 (3.54) 27.80 (6.22) Control group (n = 16) 41.25 (5.01) 14.56 (2.72) 26.19 (7.15)
Table III. Differences in the overall Rovai index score and in respect of the individual Rovai index scores for connectedness and learning quality for the sample and control groups.
Module Completion Rates for Sample Groups
Module completion rates (defined by those who actually submitted a successful academic assessment 20 weeks from starting the module) varied between the sample and control groups. Data presented in Table IV indicate that completion rates were higher in the sample group than the control group.
Group Number of students who completed the module
Percentage completion rate
Sample group (n = 31) 29 93.54 Control group (n = 16) 11 73.3
Table IV. Module completion rates for sample and control groups.
Discussion of Results
A number of issues emerged from the data gathered during the research. These included:
1. the ability of students to plan time to access the VLE; 2. student access to computers to facilitate use of the VLE; 3. the nature and flexibility of the online tasks; 4. the design and functionality of the VLE. The discussion will focus on how these issues influenced the interactions between learners and the development of a connected learning community.
The majority of use made of the VLE occurred outwith traditional working hours. Students tended to make use of the VLE once their teaching commitments had finished for the day. Patterns of use indicated that most use of the VLE occurred on Sunday mornings (11 a.m.-noon), Monday, Tuesday and Friday afternoons (3-4 p.m.) and on Thursday evenings (6-8 p.m.). This indicated that student use of the VLE was not being restricted by the working hours of their university tutor. During these time periods students tended to remain logged on to the VLE until they had completed the current tasks. This pattern of use indicated that the majority of interactions were taking place as a result of planned time allocation.
Students exhibited similar patterns of planned time allocation across the sample group. This finding indicated that students were using planned time allocation as an access strategy in a similar way as previously reported by Allan (2004). It also indicated that use of the VLE occurred at home as well as in work. The majority of the sample group were mid-career female teachers with a full-time teaching workload. Flexible access to the VLE and asynchronous discussion with peers and tutors could have had a facilitating effect on how the group were able to access support. VLEs have been stated to have the potential to widen access and ensure distance education programmes become more inclusive (Wade & Fauske, 2004). It could be argued that the asynchronous nature of the communications tasks in this intervention may have promoted inclusiveness. The sample used the VLE extensively for communication and receiving content materials, but did not explore the additional functionality of the VLE. This could be as a result of lack of confidence or competence in using information and communications technology (Greig et al, 2002). Alternatively it is likely that these additional functionalities may not have added anything to the learning experience of the sample. Data indicated that students did not restrict themselves to reading messages from their peer partner. Indeed all students read messages from peers other than their assigned partner. Results indicated that carefully structured online interaction could promote opportunities for collaboration and scaffolded peer learning. Similar conclusions have been reported by Maor (2003). Findings from this study emphasised the requirement that the design of online learning should ensure interaction between students and materials, students and tutors, and students with their peers (Sabry & Baldwin, 2003; Barbera, 2004).
Statistically significant differences in the Rovai index score with respect to connectedness were reported in the sample group of students (those who chose to make use of the VLE). This sense of increased connectedness could have had the potential to enhance and support their academic progress. These findings were similar to Bennet (1998), who found that students who felt more connected also felt less insecure, jealous, isolated and insulated. Considering how to develop a sense of community and connectedness between students could therefore be a critical design feature that is vital to the success of online learning opportunities. Selwyn et al (2001) drew similar conclusions from their study. Successful academic completion rates were higher in the sample than the control group. This indicated that developing a sense of connectedness may have helped overcome some of the barriers that distance learning students have been reported to experience (Bennet, 1998; Selwyn et al, 2001). Developing a sense of learning community through a VLE can decrease the sense of separation that a distance learner may feel (McPherson & Nunes, 2004). However, these issues will require further exploration as other variables
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such as motivational factors could account for the observations. There was no statistically significant difference reported between the sense of learning quality reported by the sample and control groups. This is not altogether surprising. Staff at the University of Dundee have had many years experience of supporting learners studying at a distance. Their expertise has grown over the years in this area. It is perhaps more surprising (given the developmental nature of the support mechanisms provided via the VLE) that satisfaction with the quality of the programme was comparable between the samples. This may be an indication of the potential that support via a VLE could have. Further evaluative studies will be conducted to investigate these aspects.
Findings from the research indicated that carefully structured VLEs can provide the potential for students, educators and communities to be fully connected without the limitations imposed by spatial and temporal barriers. The high volume use of the VLE by students indicated that if students were provided with a VLE that offered contextualised support to promote their development, then they would make prolific use of it. The challenge for educators is to develop real tasks that are closely linked to planned learning and require communication that facilitates co-learning.
Allen Thurston, Faculty of Education & Social Work, Gardyne Road, University of Dundee, Dundee DD5 1NY, United Kingdom (firstname.lastname@example.org).
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