CASE STUDY: INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN STRATEGIES
THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF
ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITY
B.A., University of Colorado, 1994
M.S., University of Colorado, 1996
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Educational Leadership and Innovation
2003 by Stacey Ludwig-Hardman
All rights reserved.
This thesis for the Doctor of Philosophy
has been approved
Joanna C. Dunlap
Ludwig-Hardman, Stacey (Ph.D., Educational Leadership and Innovation)
Case Study: Instructional Design Strategies That Contribute to the Development of
Online Learning Community
Thesis directed by Professor Brent G. Wilson
Online universities are beginning to realize the importance of teaming communities
as they relate to student satisfaction, motivation, and retention in the increasingly
competitive distance learning market. An online learning community is a group of
people, connected via technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one
another in collaborative learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation
of knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices, including diversity,
mutual appropriation, and progressive discourse. This research reports on a case
study of a four-week new student orientation and the design strategies implemented
to support the development of community and community participation skills. The
research includes data collection over a six-month period that allows comparison
with five additional orientation courses. Survey data, interviews, and observation
methods were used to identify instructional design strategies that contribute to the
development of online learning community. Because of a number of design
constraints, a fully functioning online learning community was not established in this
section of the course. Over time, however, the online university has succeeded in
helping students feel a part of continuing communities. The study provides a detailed
accounting of design challenges, strategies, and outcomes relating to this effort.
Significant research findings include the following:
1. Communication tools must support learning community initiatives by
providing for (a) document sharing, (b) visual cues to allow students to track
the posts they have read, (c) page foimatting that eliminates the need to drill
down multiple levels to see threaded discussion posts, (d) the ability to edit
and delete posts, (e) chat, (f) development of subgroups, (g) sharing personal
contact information, and (h) email updates that serve as reminders to
encourage students to visit the community often.
2. Learning communities should be guided, at least initially, by a facilitator who
models community participation skills and monitors discussions to guide
discussions and resolve conflicts.
3. Learning community efforts need organizational support.
4. Learning communities should be organized around shared goals.
5. Diversity, while sometimes constituting a challenge for participants, should
be encouraged and valued within the community.
6. Instructional design strategies should be aligned with the three-phase
development process that characterizes many time-bound learning
communities: (a) orientation, (b) skill development, and (c) closure and
7. Students must come to recognize value in supporting and participating in a
This abstract accurately represents the content of^the candidates thesis. I
recommend its publication.
Brent G. Wilson
To my perfect parents, Doug and Marian Ludwig, thank you.
You have given me so much. You have given me the self-confidence to know
that I can be exactly what I want to be and the strength necessary to attain
those goals. You have given me principles and guidelines by which to live,
and discipline necessary to keep me on the right path. You have given me
support during the hardest times of my life and the courage to pick myself up.
I have always known that no matter who I become you would always love
To my daughter, Heather Ludwig Hardman, I love you. I ask myself why I have
been blessed with such a precious gift. Perhaps its because God knew I
needed you so much. I hope that I can be a role model for you and I look
forward to sharing life with you. This is for you with hugs and kisses from
To my husband, Brian Hardman, thank you for reminding me what is important in
life. You have taught me that I should not try to understand everything -
some things will just never make sense. You remind me that there is no
difficulty that enough love will not conquer; it makes no difference how
deeply seated may be the trouble or how hopeless the outlook or how great
the mistake. Together we have learned the importance of practicing patience,
living Gods message, and taking time for the people we love.
To Holley, my faithful companion, for faithfulness during many sleepless nights.
I want to thank my dissertation chair, Brent Wilson, and my committee members:
Barbara McCombs, Joni Dunlap, and Rod Muth who have challenged my thinking,
guided my research, and taught me to reason like a scholar. Brent, thank you for
seeing the spark of potential in me and the many hours you have spent mentoring me
throughout this dissertation process.
1. INTRODUCTION................................ 1
Research Context: Western Governors University.. 3
Purpose of the Study..................... 5
Description of the Case Study............ 6
Design Constraints....................... 7
Research Questions....................... 9
Study Overview............................... 10
2. REVIEW OF THE SUPPORTING LITERATURE......... 11
Learning Community........................... 11
Four Categories of Community................. 12
Knowledge Building Communities......... 12
Curricular Communities................. 14
Communities of Practice................ 15
Communities of Purpose................. 17
Eight Elements of Learning Community......... 20
Safe and Supportive Conditions........... 21
Community Identity....................... 21
Progressive Discourse.................... 23
Intentional Focus on Knowledge-Building.. 24
Mutual Appropriation..................... 24
Working Definition of Online Learning Community 25
Conceptual Model of Online Learning Community... 26
Online Learning Community: A Context for
Learner-Centered Practices...................... 28
Online Learning Communities are Complex,
Emergent Systems................................ 30
3. DESIGN OF THE STUDY................................ 36
Research Design................................. 36
Case Study Participants.................. 38
Data Collection and Analysis Strategies.. 38
Grounded Theory............................. 49
Validity Issues................................... 50
Data Disposition.................................. 51
4. STUDY FINDINGS....................................... 53
The Context of the Case Study and Constraints.. 53
Development of the Education Without 53
Limitations of the Course Platform.......... 55
Limitations Due to the Length of the Course.. 57
Limitations Due to the Emergent Nature of
Learning Community.......................... 57
Research Questions as a Guide for Case Study
Primary Research Question: What
Instructional Design Strategies
Contribute to the Development of Online
Learning Community?......................... 59
Survey Data................................. 60
Sub-Question: To What Extent is the Group
Successful in Establishing Community?.... 75
Sub-Question: How Do Learners Describe,
Explain, or Value Community?................ 76
Sub-Question: What is the Process of
Forming Community in a Technology-
Mediated Environment?.................. 79
Sub-Question: What Emergent Actions or
Events Lead to Community?.............. 82
5. DISCUSSION OF THE FINDINGS....................... 89
Research Sub-questions........................ 90
To What Extent is the Group Successful in
Establishing Community?................ 91
How Do Learners Describe, Explain, or
Value Community?....................... 92
What is the Process of Forming a
Community in a Technology-Mediated
What Emergent Actions or Events Lead to
What Instructional Design Strategies
Contribute to the Development of Online
Learning Community?........................... 99
Evolving Framework for Understanding Online
Learning Community.............................. 107
Where Do We Go From Here?....................... 109
Retention in Distance-Learning Programs......... 112
Suggestions for Future Research................. 113
A. Interview Protocol........................... 115
B. Follow-Up Interview Protocol................. 117
C. Education Without Boundaries and New Student
Experience Survey............................ 119
1. Dimensions of practice as the property of community...... 16
2. Overview of the dynamics of increasing returns........... 18
3. Model of online learning community development.......... 27
4. Dimensions of research................................... 37
3. Comparison of frequency of student and facilitator posts. 81
1. End of Course Interview Questions Used to Gather Data for
Research Questions....................................... 41
2. Follow-up Interview Questions Used to Gather Data for
Research Questions....................................... 42
3. Survey Questions Used to Gather Data for Research
4. Final Coding Scheme for Discourse Analysis that Emerged
During the Case Study.................................... 48
5. Final Coding Scheme for Directional Discourse Analysis
that Emerged During the Case Study....................... 49
6. Survey Questions Used to Gather Data Regarding the
Effectiveness of the Instructional Design Strategies.. 62
7. Characteristics Contained in Students Definitions of
Learning Community....................................... 78
Institutions of higher education are experiencing an increase in their non-
traditional student population as full-time working adults find themselves in need of
additional education or certification. Non-traditional students are often juggling
work, family, and community responsibilities which make it difficult for them to
attend traditional campuses due to scheduling and location. Institutions of higher
education are rushing to meet the needs of this student market by providing flexible
and convenient online programs.
One impact of the competitive distance learning market is that institutions
develop and implement programs more quickly than they would in the traditional
academic environment. The speed of development will generate change more quickly
and with more innovation than otherwise would occur. On the other hand, the haste
means some of the experiments will go awry and some education will be ill conceived
or badly delivered. Often times, the learner-centered focus is abandoned to maintain
the content and faculty-centered approaches often seen in face-to-face classrooms.
A second impact of the competitive distance-learning market is that learners
often choose online programs because of the convenience and flexibility online
education affords, but they are ill-prepared for the level of self-direction,
participation, and technology literacy needed to be successful in this environment.
Students find themselves isolated and disconnected from the social context of
learning and often drop from programs at alarming rates. Institutions often respond
by focusing on learner-centered support services, such as online learning
communities, to meet the needs of this unique audience.
A learning community can be defined as a group of people, connected via
technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one another in
collaborative learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation of
knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices, including diversity,
mutual appropriation, and progressive discourse. Simply requiring learner interaction
in asynchronous environments does not promote a sense of community (Lowell &
Persichitte, 2000). So, if we cannot force the sense of community through the
quantity of interaction, we must foster community through the nature and quality of
the interaction. Given that a sense of learning community has been demonstrated to
contribute positively to student academic performance (Lave & Wenger, 1991),
discovering the best strategies and techniques for community building may lead to
increased retention and satisfaction of learners in distance-delivered programs.
Research Context: Western Governors University
Western Governors University (WGU), a competency-based online university,
opened in August 1998 with two degree programs and an underwhelming 35 students.
WGU had been touted as the 9,000-pound gorilla that would take over higher
education and it promised to have thousands and thousands of students by June 2000.
For the past five years, WGU has focused on building its infrastructure,
regional accreditation, and educating customers (students, employers, and other
institutions). Now, WGU is focusing on marketing in order to boost its enrollment.
The largest obstacles that WGU faces are enrolling and retaining students. In my role
as Director of Academic Services, I am personally responsible for student satisfactory
academic progress, retention, and completion. Over the past eighteen months, I have
watched WGLPs attrition rate grow to 30 percent. Like most other institutions WGU
has gathered student demographic data but since WGU is small and targets specific
niche markets, we are finding that our student population contains more similarities
than differences. We do not have enough data to predict student persistence based on
demographics alone. Instead we are focusing on environmental factors leading to
student attrition to develop interventions.
During June 2001,1 performed a simple needs analysis by calling the majority
of students that had dropped from WGU and I found that they cited lack of time,
family or health issues, financial strain, and feelings that they had to go it alone as
causes for withdrawal. When I questioned the students about the feeling that they
were trying to accomplish the program alone, they all said that they enrolled at WGU
because of the individualized program design, but as they progressed in the program
they missed the structure and the kind of feedback that they had received from other
students in their prior learning experiences. Since they did not meet regularly with
other students, they didnt have a sense of how they measured up to other students,
and they missed study companions. This sense of isolation is a common explanation
for high attrition rates in distance-delivered courses (Carr, 2000; Cothrel, Funk &
Schaffer, 2001; DeVries & Wheeler, 1996; Moore & Kearsley, 1996).
While reviewing the interview data, I recognized that the family issues and
health issues facing many of the students were out of our control. However, I felt we
could impact student retention by identifying interventions to aid students with their
issues of time management, financial constraints, and isolation. For the financially
strained students we need to better communicate our federal financial aid offerings
and scholarship opportunities, and work more directly with students employers to
facilitate employee reimbursement. I found that a review of the research indicates that
the most widely used and successful attrition interventions include academic advising
(Baily, Bauman & Latta, 1998; Brawer, 1996; Chaney & Farris, 1991; Iaccino, 1998;
Thayer, 2000; Tinto, 1999), completion of a new student orientation or freshman
seminar (Craig, 1995; Sidle & McReynolds, 1999; Upcrafi, Gardner & Associates,
1989; Williford, Chapman & Kahrig, 2000), and development of student networks or
communities (Astin, 1993; Baker & Pomerantz, 2000; Johnson, 2000; McCarthy,
Pretty, & Catano, 1990; Moore & Kearsley, 1996; Tinto, 1997). Since WGUs model
focuses on mentoring relationships and students did not express dissatisfaction with
the mentoring, I have decided to focus on learning communities and new student
orientation as interventions to address WGIFs student attrition. Further, research
indicates that social interaction or communities should be developed early in the
students programs (Kember, 1995; Tinto, 1993) so I decided to utilize the new
student orientation to support community building and the development of students
skills to participate in communities beyond the orientation course.
Purpose of the Study
My goal is to identify instructional design strategies that support community
development to help students gain community participation skills and make
connections with peers which should support ongoing community involvement while
they continue their academic programs beyond the orientation course. Initially, eight
elements of online learning communities were identified through an in-depth
literature review then, based on the elements, I derived and implemented instructional
design strategies in a four-week student orientation course to support online learning
communities. After implementation, the strategies were analyzed and additional
strategies were reviewed which emerged during the research to develop a list of
instructional design strategies to support the development of online learning
Description of the Case Study
The case study focuses on a four-week section of the new student orientation
course that occurred during 2002. The course is primarily a text-based discussion
forum that parallels the orientation textbook. The orientation is designed to (a) give
students a sense of what it is like to be an online student, (b) offer tips for being
successful in a competency-based environment, (c) define technical requirements and
prerequisite skills, (d) provide suggestions on how students can create a learning
space, develop a study routine, and manage their time assuming a minimum of 10-15
hours per week for their studies, (e) provide an introduction to research at a distance
and how to access the institutions learning resources and e-library, and (f) offer an
introduction to communication tools and skills that will be necessary for students to
actively participate in learning communities beyond the orientation course. The case
study focuses specifically on instructional design strategies that are used to support
the development of community and students community participation skills.
Twenty-four students participated in the orientation course. The students
agreed to allow me to lurk on the course so 1 read the threaded discussions,
administered a post-course survey, and individually interviewed sue students twice
following the course. I also gathered survey data from 104 students that were enrolled
in the five other orientation courses during the six-month comparison period.
The constraints facing the instructional designer and instructor are powerful,
perhaps too powerful at times. The orientation course was offered three times prior to
the case study. The design team made steady progress in design and structural issues
of the course each time the course was offered. However, as luck would have it, the
case study course was a relatively poor group of students in terms of their interest in
and effort to participate in community initiatives. The group did not coalesce like
groups in other months, which points to the major constraint of any community
initiative-people. The instructional design strategies employed in the orientation
course are meant to support the emergence of community through careful facilitation
and modeling, but the strategies can support community only if the people are willing
to engage in community. Even though the instructional design strategies did not
change or vary drastically from month-to-month, it is evident that some months
experienced greater success than others depending largely, I believe, on the
composition of the group of students.
A second constraint we faced during the design of the course was the short
timeframe. The management team wanted the course to be four weeks long to give
students an intensive introduction to distance learning and to facilitate twelve start
dates per year for killing purposes (prior to the orientation students could start 36S
days a year). Although some sections of the orientation course developed a sense of
community, other sections seemed to have laid the foundation but a sense of
community did not develop prior to the conclusion of the course. It is important to
note that even though the course was short, students still had an opportunity to gain
technical, communication, and participation skills necessary to contribute to
community development beyond the orientation course.
Third, we were constrained by the limited number of students enrolling at
WGU. For the first several months we had fewer than 25 new students enrolling each
month, so we put all new students into one orientation course regardless of degree
program. I think this may have limited the students abilities to develop a sense of
community because they had less in common with their peers and there seemed to be
less effort placed on connecting with peers since they knew they would not continue
their relationships beyond the course.
Fourth, we were constrained by the limited capabilities of the Campus
Pipeline communication and course platform used to deliver instruction. WGUs
management team decided to adopt the Campus Pipeline platform because it was free
since WGU purchased the SCT Banner student information system. Campus Pipeline
integrates seamlessly with the student information system and allows students and
faculty to access student records and information easily. Campus Pipeline has
embedded communication tools such as chat, threaded discussions, and message
boards and a very limited course platform which supports threaded discussions only.
Unfortunately, the Campus Pipeline platform is primarily a data storage and retrieval
tool rather than a student-communication tool.
Finally, this study may be constrained by the feet that I am both the researcher
and participator in the design and development of the course. As the study unfolded,
I was in a unique position to suggest and implement changes within the University.
Based on my review of the literature, I was confident that learning communities could
be beneficial to the students by providing a greater sense of connectedness to the
institution that would positively affect student retention in the long-term. Throughout
the study I kept detailed field notes about my observations, interviewed six students,
administered a survey, and conducted a detailed analysis of the electronic discourse
of the case study course to triangulate my data. I tried to approach the case study
objectively as possible using multiple sources of data collection and reporting results
in an open and honest fashion.
The overarching research question of this study is the following: What
instructional design strategies contribute to the development of online learning
communities? The central research question is supported by the following sub-
To what extent is the group successful in establishing community?
How do learners describe, explain, or value community?
What is the process of forming a community in a technology-mediated
What emergent actions or events lead to community?
My research is a case study of the instructional design strategies implemented to
support the development of community skills in a student orientation course.
The remaining chapters comprise the bulk of the study. Chapter two reviews literature
related to the philosophical and theoretical foundation of learning communities and
existing research in order to establish the need for this study. Chapter three more
carefully specifies the research question and outlines the research methods utilized in
conducting the study. Chapter four presents the results associated with each of the
studys data sources. Chapter five identifies the studys findings and the implications
that can be drawn from those findings. It also suggests future research that can be
conducted on learning communities.
REVIEW OF SUPPORTING LITERATURE
This chapter presents a selective, critical literature review in support of this
case study. I begin by focusing on the foundations, models, and elements of online
learning communities. I then discuss the need for learning communities to be learner-
centered. Finally, I examine the complexity of learning communities as emergent,
highly dynamic systems.
I approached my literature review with an interest in identifying models of
community. While searching for community I quickly realized that the notion is used
and defined in a variety of ways. I struggled with various concepts, definitions, and
uses of community in both the education and business literature. In order to organize
the massive amounts of literature I built a table with the names of authors or
researchers across the top. I then placed their defining characteristics or elements of
community across the left side. By the time I had completed a majority of the
literature review I noticed that many of the authors and researchers were defining
similar characteristics of communities in various contexts. Based on this information,
I started grouping the community models together until I had narrowed the groupings
into four general categories of community models. I was also able to group the
common elements or features of communities into categories, and based on the
frequency that the elements appeared in the table, I narrowed the list to eight
elements that appeared to support the development of community. The four
categories of community models and the eight community elements have provided a
framework for the development of a working definition and model of online learning
community, and helped me identify possible instructional design strategies to support
the development of online learning community.
Four Categories of Community
Based on my literature review (Ludwig-Hardman, 2000), I have separated
communities into four categories which include (a) knowledge-building communities,
(b) curricular communities, (c) communities of practice, and (d) communities of
purpose. In the next section I will briefly present examples of the four categories of
communities that played the biggest role in the development of my conceptual
framework of online learning communities
Communities designed specifically for intellectual development, often called
knowledge-building communities, develop around a group of individuals dedicated
to sharing and advancing the knowledge of the collective with a commitment among
its members to invest its resources in the collective pursuit of understanding (Hewitt,
Brett, Scardamalia, Frecker, & Webb, 1995). For example, Scardamalia and Bereiter
developed a knowledge-building community called CSILE (Computer Supported
Intentional Learning Environments) as a networked, collaborative learning
environment designed to support a classroom-based knowledge-building community.
One of the most important features of CSILE is its focus on intentional learning
where learning is a goal rather than an incidental outcome (Scardamalia & Bereiter,
1989, p. 363; see also Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Lamon, 1994, p. 201). Technology in
the CSILE environment supports the development of community by placing all
student files in a common, viewable, archived area so that students can share
information and answer each other's questions simultaneously.
A second example of a knowledge-building community is Brown and
Campiones (1994) community of learners model which features students as
designers of their own learning incorporating both reciprocal teaching and a modified
version of the jigsaw method to deliberately distribute expertise so that students and
teachers each have ownership of certain forms of expertise, but no one has it all (p.
233-234). In their most basic forms, reciprocal teaching allows each student to take a
turn leading a discussion and the jigsaw method requires that each student take a
theme of a project, research the theme, and apply reciprocal teaching to teach the
other members of the group about the theme. In the end, the themes are pulled
together to make a whole unit, hence the jigsaw metaphor. Reciprocal teaching and
the jigsaw method are used with small (typically groups of five students),
collaborative teams allowing each member of the community to be a teacher as well
as a learner.
Curricular learning communities are a kind of co-registration or block
scheduling that enables students to take courses together (Tinto & Riemer, 1998, p.
2). The primary focus of such learning communities is to support collaborative
learning among entering undergraduate students to facilitate adjustment to college
and encourage academic success. An important aspect of developing such
communities is to purposely restructure the curriculum to link together courses or
course work so that students find greater coherence in what they are learning as well
as increased intellectual interaction with faculty and fellow students (Gabelnick,
MacGregor, Matthews, & Smith, 1990, p. 5). There are many variations of curricular
learning communities such as (a) linked courses in which students enroll in two or
more courses that have content overlap, (b) interest groups in which students are
assigned to a discussion group in addition to common classes, (c) duster-learning in
which a group of students take all of the same classes, one of which is a seminar that
helps make connections explidt, and (d) coordinated study which has longer courses,
co-taught by two or more instructors (Butler, 1998; Tinto & Riemer, 1998).
Communities of Practice
A community of practice is a group of people who are informally bound by a
common interest in a topic or area, a particular way of talking about their phenomena,
tools, and sense-making approaches for building their collaborative knowledge with a
sense of common collective tasks (Reil, 1996; Wenger, 1998a). Margaret Wheatley
(2002) further explains that
Communities of practice demonstrate that it is natural for people to
seek out those who have knowledge and experience that they need. As
people find each other and exchange ideas, good relationships develop
and a community forms. This community becomes a rich marketplace
where knowledge and experience are shared. It also becomes an
incubator where new knowledge, skills, and competencies develop.
As illustrated in Figure 1, Wenger (1998b) identifies three primary dimensions of
practice that are sources of coherence of a community. The first dimension is the
mutual engagement of participants. Practice does not exist in the abstract. It exists
because people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one
another (Wenger, 1998b, p. 73). The second dimension is joint enterprise. Joint
enterprise is not a stated goal, but creates among participants relations of mutual
accountability that become an integral part of the practice (Wenger, 1998b, p. 78).
The third dimension is shared repertoire which reflects the history of mutual
engagement and includes discourse by which members create meaningful
statements about the world, as well as the styles by which they express their forms of
membership and their identities as members (Wenger, 1998b, p. 83).
Figure 1. Dimensions of practice as the property of community (Wenger, 1998b, p.
Wenger also places emphasis on the fact that there are boundaries around
communities of practice. Lave and Wengers (1991) concept of legitimate peripheral
participation provides a framework to explain how learners begin to engage in the
community of practice. Peripherality suggests that there are multiple, varied,
more- or less-engaged and -inclusive ways of being located in the fields of
participation defined by a community (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 36). As learners
observe old-timers, participate under their guidance, and develop knowledge/skills,
they gradually move toward full participation in the social community. As learners
become more involved in the community they gain legitimacy.
Communities of Purpose
Communities of purpose typically start as communities of practice, then e-
commerce entrepreneurs or community hosts purposefully build communities around
transactional sites to provide added value for members (Marathe, 1999). Hagel and
Armstrong (1997) explain that virtual communities are more than just a social
phenomena: what starts off being a group drawn together by common interests ends
up being a group with a critical mass of purchasing power-based in part on the fact
that in communities, members can exchange information with each other on such
things as a product's price and quality (p. 19; see also Figallo, 1998; Kim, 2000).
Smith (1992) further explains that every cooperative group of people exists in the
face of a competitive world because that group of people recognizes there is
something valuable that they can gain only by banding together. Looking for a
group's collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated
individuals into a community (Chapter 4). In that respect, the collective good makes
the community compelling. Figure 2 provides an overview of Hagel and
Armstrongs (1997) model of dynamics of increasing returns (p. 49).
returns in virtual
Build member loyalty
Figure 2. Overview of the dynamics of increasing returns (Hagel & Armstrong, 1997,
1 have included Hagel and Armstrongs model because although it is an e-
commerce model, it illustrates important factors to consider in the development of
online learning communities in that it is member-centered, it encourages members to
generate content and interact with other members, and it focuses on driving new
members to the community while retaining the established members. For example,
the first loop in Hagel & Armstrongs model is content attractiveness which reflects
one of the key assumptions underlying the community of purposethat member-
generated content is a key source of content attractiveness and that content
attractiveness in turn drives members to join and stay in a virtual community (Hagel
& Armstrong, 1997, p. 49). As the population of a community grows, community
members take control of the content relieving the community host of the
responsibility for creating all of the content on the site. Likewise, we can apply this
framework to learning communities by encouraging student-generated content that
will attract more members to the community while maintaining a core of old-timers.
The second loop in Hagel and Armstrongs model reflects the dynamic of member
loyalty. The more a community can promote personal relationships between its
members, the more loyal the community members are likely to become, the more
likely they are to participate in community forums, and the less likely they are to
leave the community (p. 50). Again, we can apply this concept to learning
communities that persist only through the relationships and bonds that students
establish with their peers, instructors, etc. The third loop in Hagel and Armstrongs
model focuses on the members profile. In e-commerce, this is particularly important
because community hosts rely on detailed member profiles to enhance their ability to
target advertising to members and to draw more appropriate vendors. This would be
more limited in the educational environment, but might be helpful to deliberately tie
certain groups of students together and to aid learner support services staff with
alumni relations and enrollment management. The fourth loop in Hagel and
Armstrongs model is the transaction offerings loop. Community hosts use the
information generated in this loop to expand the range of products and services
offered to the community members. We may look at this loop from an instructional
design perspective in that we want to start small and focused while developing
learning communities, and begin to add additional topics or features as students
become comfortable with the environment.
Eight Elements of Teaming Community
I carefully reviewed each of the preceding four community models as part of a
review of literature and summarized the common elements in a tabularized table
(Ludwig-Hardman, 2000). I then looked at the frequency with which elements
appeared and I found nine elements that seemed to be most prevalent in the
development or existence of learning communities. I have refined further the nine
elements to eight elements by combining the elements of boundaries and community
history or memory into one dement that I have titled community identity. The eight
elements of learning community include (a) shared goals, (b) safe and supportive
conditions, (c) collective identity, (d) collaboration, (e) progressive discourse, (f)
focus on knowledge-building, (e) diversity, and (f) mutual appropriation. These
elements are not strict criteria to be satisfied to develop a learning community, but
they are features or elements associated with learning communities.
A learning community is formed, in part, when individuals from multiple
perspectives willingly collaborate as a larger collective whole toward a shared goal or
vision (Barab & Duffy, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 1998; Senge, 1995). The sense of
shared community requires that the participants be sympathetic to the ideas around
which the group is based; even if they disagree, there needs to be some fundamental
common ground (Donath, 1999, p. 31). When members of a community share goals
there is a greater desire to participate in activities and to contribute to the groups
goals (Wilson, 2001).
Safe and Supportive Conditions
A learning community provides caring and nurturing conditions (Coombe,
1999; Retallick, 1999) that foster the development of trust and respect among the
learners, which in turn encourages risk-taking, the exchange of ideas and feedback,
shared responsibility and support for learning and outcomes, and distributed or
negotiated control (Barab & Duffy, 1998; Downes, 1998; Etzioni & Etzioni, 1997;
Grabinger & Dunlap, 1996; Hiltz, 1998; Jonaseen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Lawrence,
1997; Scime, 1994; Wells, 1999).
The symbolic construction of a community is accomplished by ensuring that
the group is apart from and different from other social groups through the
establishment of a group identity recognizable from within and outside of the group.
The boundaries of community comprise the free presented to outsiders, its
collective public identity (Calderwood, 2000, p. 12-13). Clearly defined boundaries
provide for inclusion and exclusion of members which may encourage ongoing
interaction and greater intimacy, and the learners efforts will not be reaped by others
who have not contributed to those efforts (Kollock, 1996). Boundaries also delineate
between the old-timers who have been stable members of the community and the
newcomers thus allowing for the process of legitimate peripheral participation as
newcomers move toward full participation in the community (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
A learning communitys identity is also formed by the communitys history or
heritage including the shared goals and belief systems, rules and norms of the
community that is reproduced as new generations of members enter the community to
assure that it continues to function (Barab & Duffy, 1998; Scardemalia & Bereiter,
1996). If members of a group will not meet each other in the future, if there is no
stability in the names and identities that people adopt, and if there is no memory or
community record of previous interaction, it will be very difficult to create and
maintain a cooperative online community (Kollock, 1996, p. 235). A shared history
also encourages the development of group identity which enhances reproducibility as
new members contribute, support, and eventually lead the community into the future
(Barab, Barnett & Squire, 2000; Barab & Duffy, 2000; Lawrence, 1997).
Involvement in a learning community requires social interaction. Salomon and
Perkins (1998) state that learning to leam... fundamentally involves learning to
leam from others, learning to learn with others (p. 17). Collaborative online learning
communities provide community members the chance to learn from and with others
and to contribute to others3 learning.
A learning community encourages diversity of opinions, membership, and
multiple perspectives (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Brown & Campione, 1994; Jonassen,
Peck & Wilson, 1999; Reil, 1996; Sergiovanni, 1999; Wellman & Gulia, 1999;
Wells, 1999; Wenger, 1998). Dewey (1916) asserted that "A society which makes
provisions for participation...of all its members...is democratic. Such a society must
have a type of education which gives individuals a personal interest in social
relationships and controls, and the habits of mind which secure social changes
without introducing disorder." By providing a context that gives individuals personal
interest in social relationships, learning communities help us forge community out of
difference. They allow us to acknowledge diversity while seeking commonalties. A
learning community can provide enormous diversity in a safe and supportive
environment that invites risk-taking, learner control, and agency.
Bereiter (1994) proposed the term "progressive discourse" to describe the
process by which the sharing, questioning, and revising of opinions leads to "a new
understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous
understanding" (p. 6). Such discourse is based on four commitments that all
participants make: (a) to work toward common understanding; (b) to frame questions
and propositions in ways that allow evidence to be brought to bear on them; (c) to
expand the body of collectively valid propositions; and (d) to allow any belief to be
subjected to criticism if it will advance the discourse (Bereiter, 1994, p. 6).
Intentional Focus on Knowledge-Building
Scardamalia and Bereiter (1994) indicate that intentional learning is
fundamentally a matter of goals rather than strategies. It is a matter of having
knowledge as a goal (p. 201). It is the active and intentional pursuit of knowledge
that distinguishes learning communities from other happen-chance encounters or
purely social networks (Palmer, 1999).
Brown and Campione (1994) define mutual appropriation as the process by
which learners of all ages and levels of expertise and interests seed the environment
with ideas and knowledge that are appropriated by different learners at different rates,
according to their needs and to the current state of the zones of proximal development
in which they are engaged (p. 237; see also Vygotsky, 1978). Mutual appropriation
refers to the bi-directional and reciprocal nature of learning in which members of the
community are both learners and teachers (Butt, 1999; Sergiovanni, 1999). Since
active participation in a learning community takes time and effort, distance learners
must perceive that there is some benefit to be gained from participation in a learning
community and that they are getting a personal return on their investment in the
group (Wilson & Ryder, 1998; see also Levin, 1995). Rogers (1995) calls this
relative advantage, a sense that there will be some pay off or benefit to adoption of
the new practice. Further, learners that perceive there is a mutual benefit will more
likely feel a sense of obligation to participate in activities and contribute to group
goals (Wilson, 2001). Mutual appropriation can provide intrinsic rewards and
incentives to members to continue to contribute to the community because they
continue to be both learners and teachers within the community.
These eight elements (shared goals, safe and supportive conditions, collective
identity, collaboration, progressive discourse, focus on knowledge-building, diversity,
and mutual appropriation) will serve as the foundation for a working definition of
online learning community, a model of online learning community, and the
instructional design strategies that 1 will use to encourage and support the
development of online learning communities.
Working Definition of Online Learning Community
I incorporated the preceding eight elements of learning communities into a
working definition of online learning community to guide my research. For the
purposes of this research I used the following definition of online learning
community: An online learning community is a group of people, connected via
technology-mediated communication, who actively engage one another in
collaborative learner-centered activities to intentionally foster the creation of
knowledge, while sharing a number of values and practices, including diversity,
mutual appropriation, and progressive discourse.
Conceptual Model of Online Learning Community
Based on the eight elements of learning communities as well as my working
definition of online learning community, I have created a model of online learning
community (see Figure 3) to clarify the process of online learning community
development. This model will help me identify instructional design strategies that
contribute to the development of online learning communities because particular parts
of the model suggest different strategies.
At the center of the model is knowledge-building which is the focus of online
learning communities. The creation of knowledge or knowledge-building is
supported by mutual appropriation, diversity, progressive discourse, and
collaboration which in turn are supported by safe and supportive conditions and
shared goals. The communitys collective identity in part defines the boundaries for
inclusion and exclusion.
Online Learning Community:
A Context for Learner-Centered Practices
I am interested in identifying instructional design strategies that contribute to
the development of online community so I have focused my literature review to
identify the elements that seem to be present in online communities to guide the
development of design strategies. After having reviewed and revised the eight
elements of learning community, it strikes me that the elements I have identified
focus more on the process of community development rather than the characteristics
of the learners engaged in the learning community. Since online learning community
cannot be void of learners, I feel like 1 must explain that I am assuming that
successful learning communities would be learner-centered. The act of moving to
online learning community supports the transition from a teacher-centered to a
learner-centered environment. McCombs and Whisler (1997) define learner
centered as a
perspective that couples a focus on individual learners their heredity,
experiences, perspectives, backgrounds, talents, interests, capacities,
and needs with a focus on learning the best available knowledge
about learning and how it occurs and about teaching practices that are
most effective in promoting the highest levels of motivation, learning,
and achievement for all learners. This dual focus then informs and
drives educational decision making. Learner-centered is a reflection in
practice of the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles in the
programs, practices, policies, and people that support learning for all.
Deci and Ryan (1991) explain that from a learners perspective there are three needs
to be met: (a) to belong and feel supported (relatedness), (b) to have personal control
and responsibility (autonomy), and (c) to demonstrate personal competence through
challenging educational experiences (competence) (see also McCombs, 1995;
McCombs & Whisler, 1997). 1 believe that online learning communities can meet
the needs of students in the following ways:
Online learning community can meet a students need to belong to or identify
with a group (Belenardo, 2001; Cristol, Lucking & Rovai, 2001; Wilson, 2001), also
called relatedness, by creating a climate or culture of trust, respect, caring, concern,
and a sense of community with others (McCombs, 1995, p. 8). The students need
to belong and relate to other students will be supported by instructional design
strategies that flow from the learning community elements I identified such as
supporting shared goals, safe and supportive conditions, community identity, and
Online learning community can support a students autonomy by providing
opportunities for individual choice, expression of self-determination and agency, and
freedom to fail or take risks (McCombs, 1995, p. 8). Learning communities can
support learner autonomy by providing a safe environment that encourages learners
to make choices and accept responsibility for their learning. The students need to
have control and responsibility will be supported by instructional design strategies
that flow from the learning community elements of diversity and progressive
Online learning community can affect a students competence, by providing
feedback, challenge to elicit creative and critical thinking, and opportunities to grow
and to see growth in one's capacities and skills (McCombs, 1995, p. 8). We will
support the students need for competence by focusing on instructional design
strategies that encourage knowledge-building and mutual appropriation.
Online Learning Communities are
Complex. Emergent Systems
By developing and presenting a model of online learning community I fear
that I may be suggesting that online learning communities can in some way be
manufactured. There is nothing farther from the truth. The cliche, if you build it
they will come, certainly does not pertain to online learning communities because a
sense of community is really developed as a process-you can support the process
through the use of tools that are easy to use and an environment that is easy to
navigate, but that is just the beginning.
My research points to the idea that learning communities are complex systems
that emerge over time. Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler (2000) define complex
systems in the following way:
[Complex systems] exceed their components. They are more
spontaneous, unpredictable, and volatile-that is, a//ve-than
complicated systems. Unlike complicated (mechanical) systems,
which are constructed with particular purposes in mind, complex
systems are self-organizing, self-maintaining, dynamic, and adaptive.
In brief whereas complicated systems tend to be framed in the
language of classical physics, complex systems draw more on biology.
As such, terms like organic, ecological, and evolutionary have come
to figure much more prominently in discussions of such social
phenomena as learning, teaching, and schooling, (p. 55)
Wheatley (1999) would further argue:
In life, systems are a naturally occurring phenomenon. All life
organizes into networks, not neat boxes or hierarchies. These
networks are always incredibly messy, dense, tangled, and
extraordinarily effective at creating greater sustainability for all who
participate in them. All living systems are webs of relations spun into
existence as individuals realize that there is more benefit available to
them if they create relationships than if they stay locked in narrow
boundaries of self-interest. Unending processes of collaboration and
symbiosis characterize life. These relationships of mutual benefit lead
to the creation of systems that are more supportive and protective of
individuals than if they had tried to live alone. It's important to
remember that nothing living lives alone. Life always and only
organizes as systems of interdependency. (If 8)
Complex systems have a number of properties, some of which are listed below:
1. Emergence. Behaviors and patterns emerge in complex systems as a result
of the patterns of relationship between the agents. In an organisation the agents are
peoplethemselves complex systems. Complexity theory suggests that when there is
enough connectivity between the agents emergence is likely to occur spontaneously
(Seel, 2000, f7). Emergence happens through connections.
Emergence is life's process for taking local actions to achieve global
impact. In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-
conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual
or boss. Change begins as local actions spring to life simultaneously
around the system. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing
happens beyond their own locale. However, if connected, then local
actions can emerge as a powerful influence at a more global or
comprehensive level. (Wheatley, 2002, ^ 52)
2. Relationships are short-range and non-linear. Typically, the relationships
between agents in a complex system are short-range, that is information is normally
received from near neighbors. There are rarely simple cause and effect relationships
between agents and the richness of the connections means that communications will
pass across the system but will probably be modified on the way (Seel, 2000, p. 3).
3. Relationships contain feedback loops. Both negative (damping) and
positive (amplifying) feedback are key ingredients of complex systems. The effects of
an agents actions are fed back to the agent and this, in turn, affects the way the agent
behaves in the future (Seel, 2000, p. 4).
4. Complex systems are open and boundaries are difficult to determine.
Complex systems are open systemsthat is, energy and information are constantly
being imported and exported across system boundaries. Because of this, complex
systems are usually far from equilibrium: even though there is constant change there
is also the appearance of stability (Seel, 2000, p. 5).
5. Complex systems have a history. The history of a complex system is
important and cannot be ignored. Even a small change in circumstances can lead to
large deviations in the future (Seel, 2000, p. 5).
6. Complex systems are nested (Seel, 2000, p. 6). Another key aspect of
complex adaptive systems is that the agents are themselves complex adaptive
systems. So a community is made up of people which are made up of brains, which
are made up of cellsall of which are complex adaptive systems.
This literature review has examined four models of community to develop a
definition and conceptual model of online learning community. Further, the literature
review allowed me to develop a list of community elements that are most often cited
as essential components of learning community to inform my instructional design
strategies to support the development of online learning community for this case
study. The learning community elements are primarily derived from processes of
community development. A learning community cannot be void of learners so I
included information to support my assumption that learning communities are
learner-centered. I also included a brief review of the literature in support of my
assumption that learning communities are complex, emergent systems or networks of
For my research, I will assume that learning communities are complex,
largely emergent systems that are amenable to leadership and guidance. I believe
learning communities lie somewhere on a continuum between purely emergent
systems (e.g., an email interest group) and hybrid systems (e.g., promoted within a
class or program, or semi-structured at work). I don not think communities can be
strictly mandated or controlled by outsiders, but communities can be influenced or
shaped by outside control. Instructional designers can support the development of
online learning community by providing communication tools and setting some basic
ground rules and then encouraging interactions or relationships among the students so
that community relationships emerge from the bottom up. Instructional designers
cannot build, create, or manufacture communities, but it is likely that the energy and
enthusiasm that are unleashed when learners are working together will yield
Based on my literature review, I have learned that (a) communities are
complex, largely emergent systems or networks that cannot be manufactured, (b)
communities must focus on the learners needs, and (c) there are certain elements that
are typically present in online communities. The goal of my research is to mesh the
characteristics and processes of community into instructional design strategies that
support the development of online learning community. My primary research
question is: What instructional design strategies contribute to the development of
online learning community? I pursue this question further in the following chapters
of this dissertation.
DESIGN OF THE STUDY
The overarching research question for this study is: What instructional
design strategies contribute to the development of online learning communities?
The central research question is supported by the following sub-questions:
To what extent is the group successful in establishing community?
How do learners describe, explain, or value community?
What is the process of forming a community in a technology-mediated
What emergent actions or events lead to community?
I selected the case study methodology to explore my topic because I needed to
gather quotations and vignettes to analyze the development of online learning
community. Yin (1994) argues that the case study methodology is most
advantageous when the researcher is trying to illuminate a decision or set of
decisions; why they were taken, how they were implemented, and with what result
(p. 3). I followed the emergent research design by engaging in data collection and
data analysis simultaneously which allowed for important understandings to be
discovered along the way and then pursued in additional data collection efforts
(Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 227).
In Figure 41 have outlined the dimensions of this study. 1 began by using my
eight elements of learning community gained through my literature review to define
instructional design strategies that I believe will support the development of online
learning community. 1 used the instructional design strategies to support learning
community in the Education Without Boundaries student orientation course. Based
on the analysis of the data of the impact of the strategies I then reviewed and revised
my eight learning community elements and the instructional design strategies.
Development of Online Learning Communities
Eight Elements of
1. Shared goals
2. Community Identity
3. Safe & supportive conditions
5. Progressive discourse
6. Knowledge- building
7. Mutual appropriation
^_____Review and revise (if needed) eight
elements of online learning
Review and revise
strategies for online learning
Impact of Strategies
Figure 4. Dimensions of research regarding the development of online learning
Case Study Participants
There are two types of participants in this case study. One group consists of
104 students that were enrolled in five other sections of the orientation course during
the six-month comparison period. Group one received the Education Without
Boundaries and New Student Experience survey. The second group of students are
those that participated in the one four-week orientation course which serves as the
primary case study for this research. Group two consisted of twenty-four students
with thirteen females and eleven males and six of the students were enrolled in the
undergraduate programs while eighteen were enrolled in the graduate program.
Data Collection and Analysis Strategies
Data sources, as defined by Yin (1994), are sources of evidence (p. 80) such
as documentation, interviews, physical artifacts, and direct observations. In this
study, data were collected from multiple data sources. Yin (1994) recommends using
multiple data sources to triangulate the data and increase both the validity and
reliability of the results. I gathered data using interviews, surveys, analysis of
electronic discourse, and field notes and observation.
Interviews. I interviewed six students at the end of the Education Without
Boundaries (EWB) course. I conducted phone interviews with four students and I
recorded the conversations using a speakerphone and a tape recorder. I then
transcribed the conversations for review. I had to resort to electronic interviews for
two additional students because they were unable to speak with me by phone. I
chose the students based on the facilitators recommendation that the students would
likely provide detailed feedback about their experience in the course. I used a semi-
structured interview protocol so that the questions were the same for all respondents
and I built in prompts, alternate questions, and optional follow-up questions. I
interviewed each student twice; first at the end of the course (see Appendix A for
interview protocol) and then again at the end of the six-week period following the
course (see Appendix B for interview protocol). Prior to the interviews I emailed the
interview questions to the students.
During the interviews 1 asked open-ended questions related to the research
questions which allowed individual interview questions to gather data on multiple
research questions. Table 1 illustrates how the interview questions immediately
following the course relate to the research questions and Table 2 illustrates how the
interview questions asked during the follow-up interview six weeks after the course
relate to the research questions.
End of Course Interview Questions Used to Gather Data for Research Questions
Interview Questions ID Strategies Research Questions Success Description Process Emergent
When you hear the term online learning community what does it mean to you? And, why might it be important for a good learning experience? X
Can you point to examples in the orientation where you felt a sense of community? X X XX
What aspects of the orientation do you think helped in the formation of community? X X X
How has this sense of community contributed to your learning in the orientation? X X
We're interested in supporting connections between students throughout their program of study. What can we (WGU) do to support your participation in an ongoing community of learners? X X
Follow-up Interview Questions Used to Gather Data for Research Questions
Interview Questions ID Strategies Success Research Ouestions Description Process Emergent
Compare your experience in the orientation with your more recent experience over the last six weeks. How has your sense of community changed over time? X X
Have you continued connections with any students? Describe these to me X X X X
How frequently have you connected with other students? X
Connecting with other people can give ns a sense of support in solving problems. Let's say you hart a technical problem you couldn't solve by yourself. Do you have someone to turn to help you? Who would that person be? X
Okay, let's say you have a problem with content that you're not able to handle by yourself. Describe how you might use other people to help you solve that kind of problem.
We're interested in supporting connections between students throughout their program of study. What can we (WGU) do to support your participation in an ongoing community of learners? X
Survey Data. I developed and administered a Web-enabled survey regarding
the orientation course and community development. The Education Without
Boundaries and New Student Experience survey (see Appendix C) was administered
to all students that completed the orientation courses during the six-month
comparison period. I was unable to administer the survey items as a separate survey
because WGU was preparing for its final accreditation visit in November 2002 and
the management team had decided to administer a battery of surveys to students
about student services, programs, education providers, etc., and the management
team was worried about over-surveying the students if an additional learning
communities survey was added. Therefore, a total of thirteen learning community
survey items were added to a nineteen-item Education Without Boundaries and New
Student Experience survey that was administered to all new students completing the
orientation course. Once finalized, the survey contained thirty-two hems.
The survey yielded two kinds of data: (a) ordinal data that is gained from the
students answering hems on a scale of potential state responses including not at all,
somewhat, moderately so, and very much so, and (b) students follow-up comments
to questions. The surveys were submitted anonymously and the data were collected
by the Director of Assessment and Institutional Research who provided the results to
me in a Word document each month. I took the data and separated student responses
to the open ended questions including the optional additional comments from the data
collected using the self-report scale.
The survey questions were used primarily to gather data regarding the eight
learning community elements. Table 3 aligns the survey questions to the research
questions. Since the eight elements are used to define the instructional design
strategies I have listed the elements in the ID Strategies column that relate to each
Survey Questions Used to Gather Data for Research Questions
Survey Questions ID Strategies Success Description Process Emerg ent
Did you feel comfortable sharing information and communicating with otiiers in the course? Safe and Supportive Conditions X
Did you feel encouraged to express your own ideas in the course? Progressive Discourse X
Did you feel like the course created a safe environment; that is, a positive and affirming arvironment where learners are encouraged to respond fully? Safe and Supportive Conditions X
Did you feel that there was a ftee flow of diverse information in the course? Diversity X
Did you feel that the students in the course established a group identity? Community Identity X
Did having an opportunity in the course to share personal information about yourself and learn things about other learners help you feel like part of a learning community? Mutual Appropriation X
Did being able to share areas of mutual interest in this course help you find other learners to interact with? Shared Goals X
Did you like having an opportunity to work with other learners to define group norms and rules far interaction with each other? Collaboration X
Did you learn a lot about how to interact with others in this course and share ideas about what you were learning? Progressive Discourse X
How do yon define community? X
Do you feel the group was successful at creating community during the course? Community Identity X
Please list cate thing the mentor or learners did (or did not do) that facilitated (or did not facilitate) a sense of community among the group. X X
Electronic Discourse Analysis I requested and received student and mentor
consent to access discourse contained in threaded discussions, bulletin boards, and
real-time chats. I analyzed the students electronic discourse in an attempt to see a
complete conversation focusing on the structural organization of the discourse which
Thomsen, Straubhaar, and Bolyard (1998) describe as an attempt to recognize
patterns, rules, or procedures that occur among participants and the way in which
these structures or conventions influence meaning and effect (Discourse section,
P). Winograd (1988) suggests viewing online interaction using the language/action
approach which views language as a means by which people act (see also Preece,
1994). To analyze the electronic discourse from the threaded discussions, I cut and
pasted each thread into a word document. I separated the Word document into tables,
one table for each thread, and then into separate cells within the table that indicated
the level of the communication within a thread. I then carefully reviewed each
electronic communication and coded it manually capturing the code in a spreadsheet.
I used two different coding schemes to guide the development of my own
coding scheme. Curtis and Lawsons (2001) scheme for coding utterances in online
collaboration focuses on the components of collaborative learning that can be
identified in online interactions. Curtis and Lawson identified fifteen specific coded
behaviors that are grouped within higher-level categories of planning, contributing,
seeking input, reflection and monitoring, and social interaction. Another coding
scheme developed by Haythomthwahe (1998) is based on interaction between pairs
of students in an online course, and it identifies elements of collaborative work,
receiving advice, giving advice, socializing, and emotional support (Study section,
1J2). For this study I am interested in discovering the instructional design strategies
that contribute to the development of online learning community and since the
strategies are based on my eight elements of community, I used my eight elements to
anchor my coding scheme. My coding scheme is shown in Table 4. I started with a
preliminary coding scheme and added additional codes as different themes emerged.
Final Coding Scheme for Discourse Analysis that F.mereed During the Case Study
Timing Community Element Code Examples of the learning community element that might be displayed in online discourse.
Shared Goals SG Students share common visions or goals Students demonstrate an interest in contributing to the groups goals
Safe and Supportive Conditions SS Students express feelings of trust, care, and respect Students do not flame other students Students indicate an interest in others welfare
Collective Identity Cl # Students express a sense of belonging to the group There are boundaries marlring the inclusion and exclusion of members There is a community history or memory There are rituals There are cyclic events The community might name itself The members might use symbolic language or emoticons The social norms, values, and beliefs of the members reinforce and perpetuate the structure of the community
Collaboration CL Students express an interest to work together on tasks or projects
Diversity DV There is a free flow of diverse information Students respect diverse viewpoints, cultures, backgrounds Diversity among the group is encouraged groupthink is discouraged
Progressive Discourse PD Students are sharing information and ideas Students are asking probing questions Students are actively revising ideas and opinions Students are comfortable sharing dissenting viewpoints Students are encouraged to ask questions Students support risk-taking Discussion is valued within the community
Mutual Appropriation MA Students experience an opportunity to teach others Students actively learn from others Students and mentors are equal Discussions are bi-directional Students talents are recognized Students help each other or answer questions
Knowledge-building KB Students encourage others to learn Students express an interest and desire to learn Students are intentionally focused on knowledge building
Commonalities CO Students actively commonalities with other stndents (hobbies, interests, etc.)
Technical Support TE Students actively seek technical support
Student Support SU Students seek support for assignments within the course Stndents ask questions about WGU in general Students request support services outside of the course
I also tracked the direction of the communication, whether it was student-student or
student-facilitator, using an arrow symbol (see Table 5). I also noted when students
asked questions versus providing responses to questions.
Final Coding Scheme for Directional Discourse Analysis that Emerged During the
Response Indicator Code Examples of the learning community element that
might be displayed in online discourse.
Student-Student Communication > Student asks another student a question Student responds to another students question
Student asks facilitator a question
Student-Facilitator Communication < Student responds to facilitators question Facilitator asks student a question Facilitator responds to a students question
Question Q Student or facilitator posts a question
Response R Student
I was the primary coder for the discourse analysis. I asked a second coder to review a
sample of 80 posts and she coded 72, or 90%, of the threads as I had coded them.
We had the greatest discrepancy when it came to threads that displayed
characteristics of progressive discourse, mutual appropriation, and/or knowledge
building, because the elements are not easily recognizable in any single post; rather
you have to look at the context of a series of posts to determine whether the elements
are present. We were able to resolve the discrepancies by reviewing several groups
of posts together. We then reviewed the data coding to ensure we agreed on all other
instances where I had coded posts as progressive discourse, mutual appropriation, or
knowledge building. No additional corrections were made.
Field Notes and Observation. I lurked during the orientation courses. I had
access to all forms of communication within the Campus Pipeline platform so I was
able to follow the courses from start to finish. The students were aware of my
presence and they would direct questions to me specifically about student support
services outside of the orientation course. The participant observer approach is
important because one cannot sample a communitys experience from the records,
even if you have access to everything that has ever been said... .The researcher must
participate to achieve depth of analysis (Thomsen, Straubhaar, & Bolyard, 1998,
Analysis section ][1). I kept field notes relating to management and design decisions
regarding the development, implementation, and revision of the orientation. I also
kept notes regarding the efforts made by mentors, administrators, and students make
to support community beyond the orientation.
To the extent possible, the collection, organization, and analysis of data
occurred concurrently. 1 followed Glaser and Strauss (1967) grounded theory
methodology which assisted me with finding gaps in data as they were gathered and
allowed me to gather additional data as needed. I used the constant comparative
method to analyze the data (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), highlighting instances in the
data related to the research questions and identifying themes and patterns in the data
to inform the revision of the eight community elements and instructional design
strategies related to development of online learning communities.
Since 1 am employed as the Director of Academic Services for Western
Governors University and 1 was the lead developer on the Education Without
Boundaries textbook, questions about the validity and accuracy of the data analysis
and interpretation can be raised. I followed Merriams (1998, p. 169) basic strategies
to ensure internal validity through
1. triangulation of the data using multiple sources of data
2. member checks of the data by asking two students and the facilitator to
review the data and interpretations to see if the results were plausible
3. peer examination of the findings by asking colleagues to comment on the
findings as they emerged
4. clarifying my biases and assumptions at the outset of the study.
I also address the concept of external validity by considering whether the reader of
the findings would be able to determine whether this particular situation and context
could be transferred or generalized to another situation and context by providing a
detailed enough description of the case so that other practitioners can identify
elements of the case that they can transfer to other contexts (Merriam, 1983, p. 175).
All data are stored electronically including field notes, transcripts of phone
interviews, survey results, and all forms of electronic discourse. All of the data are
stored on the WGU server which is backed-up each night and the tape is stored off-
site in a security box at a local bank. Confidentiality has been achieved by storing
the data on the server in my personal folder which is not accessible by other WGU
staff members, students, or outsiders. The data will be maintained on the WGU
server for a minimum of three years upon completion of the research. Students and
mentors identities are treated as confidential and all written or presented work do not
include identifiable references to students or mentors. All hard copies of notes and
interview tapes are stored in a locked filing cabinet in my home office. The data are
available for review at any time.
This study contains limiting conditions that are inherent in many qualitative
research studies and some that were a result of this situation. Limitations to
generalizing the results to other contexts or situations exist because this case study is
very context-specific, random sampling was not used, and no variables were
controlled. The emergent nature of online learning community is learner-centered
and learner-driven which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to replicate the research
in other contexts. In fact, I saw very different forms of community develop in the
EWB course across a six-month period of time utilizing the simple course structure
and similar instructional design strategies. I was also limited by the fact that I was
unable to administer the learning communities questionnaire without embedding it in
the larger New Student Experience and Education Without Boundaries
questionnaire. I fear that the questionnaire may have been too long. Given the
limitations, I still feel that the strengths and significance of the case study outweigh
the potential weaknesses.
The Context of the Case Study and Constraints
The case study focuses specifically on a single Education Without Boundaries
(EWB) orientation class that took place during early 2002. The four-week
orientation course started on the first of the month with 24 students. There were a
total of thirteen females and eleven males, with six enrolled in the undergraduate
programs and eighteen enrolled in the graduate program. The course also included
one facilitator and two guest speakers.
Development of the Education Without Boundaries Textbook
The online orientation course was developed to complement a textbook.
Before designing the orientation textbook, I worked with two of my WGU colleagues
and members of the WGU management team to determine the purpose for the
orientatioa On February 1,2001, we identified the following principles to guide the
development of the orientation (quoted verbatim from class documents):
In developing a student orientation we hope to positively affect student
retention and the development of learning community by:
Providing students with an overview of distance learning and WGUs
competency-based model of education so that students are more aware of
the challenges and benefits of the models. We want students to establish
appropriate expectations regarding their time and resource commitments
to the program. We also want students to clearly understand the WGU
model before developing their Academic Action Plans.
Providing an environment where students can learn how to use the
communication tools and interact with peers and mentors in a low-risk
Providing an opportunity for students to develop a network of support that
will continue throughout the students programs.
Offering students an opportunity to reflect on their learning styles and
how these styles may need to be adapted in an online or competency-
Providing students with the resources they need to support self-directed
learning. We also want students to know where they can go to get help.
Increasing students motivation to learn by focusing on relevant tasks in
the orientation which, we hope, will establish a framework for this vision
to be carried on throughout the program.
I worked with a publishing company, Pearson Education, to develop the orientation
textbook. Since many excellent student orientation texts already existed, I decided to
pull relevant chapters from four different texts to build the WGU orientation
textbook. Once the chapters were identified, I worked with two of my colleagues to
write additional chapters relating specifically to WGU. All of the chapters are now
combined in an orientation textbook called Education Without Boundaries: Strategies
for Success in Your WGU Program. All students admitted to WGU receive a hard-
copy of the textbook a week prior to the start of the orientation course. The text
includes chapter exercises, learning style instruments, and skill surveys that provide a
foundation for online discussions. The online portion of the orientation, upon which
this research rests, consists of online discussions of the chapters in the textbook and
interpretation and discussion of the instruments contained in the textbook.
Limitations of the Course Platform
The Education Without Boundaries (EWB) course was designed as a blended
course in the sense that students have a hard-copy text and then complete all
interaction in an online environment. The online portion of the course was offered
through the Campus Pipeline platform which is provided free to WGU as an
enhancement to the SCT Banner student information system. All students had access
to the Campus Pipeline platform through their personalized My.WGU (my.wgu.edu)
student portal. The Campus Pipeline platform provides access to a crude form of
threaded discussion, student email, and chat. Students reported that the Campus
Pipeline course room was difficult to navigate because the system did not track
emails or threads that students had already viewed (through some kind of
highlighting mechanism) and students had to drill down a minimum of two layers to
view responses to topic questions. Students were unable to see all of the comments
posted to a single topic in one view.
From an administrative perspective, the Campus Pipeline product integrates
seamlessly with the SCT Banner student information system which is really meant to
house and support student data, not to facilitate student interaction or community.
Through the Pearson Education agreement, the design team had the option of using
the BlackBoard platform to host the orientation course, but we decided against
switching platforms since one of the goals of the course was to introduce students to
the tools they would be using while students at WGU. We decided it was best to
encourage students to use the Campus Pipeline threaded discussions since this would
be their primary means of accessing community beyond the course.
Recognizing that technology can be a barrier to the development of online
community, the design team linked a tutorial about the technology platform on the
course page and the orientation facilitator provided directions about posting, creating
new threads, responding to threads, etc., in her introduction to the course. The
students were also asked to complete a technology readiness survey and the facilitator
followed up with all students that needed help with technology.
Limitations Due to the Length of the Course
The management team wanted the course to be four weeks long to give
students an intensive introduction to distance learning and to facilitate twelve start
dates per year for billing purposes (prior to the orientation students could start 365
days a year). The management team also feared that a longer orientation course
would be an unnecessary obstacle to student progress. The short duration of the
course may have been a constraint for this case study because the students in the
course mentioned that they did not have enough time to get to know their peers.
However we focused on developing and supporting learning community in such a
way that students could model community participation to gain skills that they could
then use beyond the course.
Limitations Due to the Emergent
Nature of Learning Community
All communities are not equal. It was interesting to watch the development
of community across six months of orientation courses. We used the same
instructional design strategies each month yet community developed to different
extents each month. I was constantly reminded of the fact that people are one of the
variables that we cannot control or manipulate. In fact, the case study course is an
example of the emergent nature of learning community because many of the students
did not respond as favorably to our instructional design strategies to support
community as students in other sections of the orientation.
Research Questions as a Guide for Case Study Analysis
The primary research question is: What instructional design strategies
contribute to the development of online learning communities? The central research
question was supported by the following sub-questions:
To what extent is the group successful in establishing community?
How do learners describe, explain, or value community? Learners have
preconceptions about the role of community in the learning process.
Learners were surveyed and their responses guided the identification of
important features of community that should be included in future design
What is the process of forming a community in a technology-mediated
environment? There is a discernible sequence of development in the
movement toward community in this environment. In the future we will
align instructional design strategies with the process of community
development to maximize the success of our design strategies.
What emergent actions or events lead to community? We observed
activities and events that emerged and seemed conducive to the creation
of community. In the future we will specifically include design strategies
to support many of these activities and events to foster community.
In the following section, each of the questions is discussed along with the
instructional design strategies we implemented to support online learning
Primary Research Question: What Instructional Design
Strategies Contribute to the Development of Online
For this study I focused on instructional design strategies that could be
implemented in a ample communication platform utilizing threaded discussions,
email, and online chat to support online community. This section discusses the
instructional design strategies implemented to support the development of online
community. My goal in identifying these strategies was to provide just enough
support so that the learners, through their actions and communication, facilitate the
emergence of learning community or help to identify interventions needed to support
community. I focused on the eight elements of learning community that were derived
from the literature review as the foundation for the original instructional design
strategies. I collected data to measure the effectiveness of the instructional design
strategies using the Education Without Boundaries and New Student Experience
survey, student interviews, electronic discourse analysis, and observation.
I developed the survey hems to specifically gather data regarding the
instructional design strategies in relation to the learning community elements (see
Table 6). 1 did not include specific questions on the survey to measure the extent to
which knowledge-building occurred. Knowledge-building seems to be a natural
result of progressive discourse and mutual appropriation and, I believe, is best
identified through electronic discourse analysis and observation. Six students from
the case study course responded to the survey for a 25% return and a total of 44
students responded from the other five courses for a 42% return. The survey yielded
two kinds of data: (a) ordinal data that is gained from the students answering items on
a scale of potential state responses including not at all, somewhat, moderately so,
and very much so, and (b) students follow-up comments to questions. Table 6
summarizes the results of the survey for the case study participants and aggregate
results for all other students that were enrolled in the five other orientation courses
during the six-month comparison period. I recognize that survey the return rate is not
impressive and that I must be careful interpreting the results, however I decided to
continue to use the survey results because it gave me a sense of the trends in student
feedback and the additional comments that students provided were insightful. I am
mindful of the fact that the overall sentiment of the case study class may be more
negative than the 25% who responded.
Survey Questions Used to Gather Data Regarding the Effectiveness of the Instructional Design
Scale of l=Not at All, 2=Somewhat, 3=Moderatefy So, A=Very Much So
Survey Questions Community Elements Case Study Students N=6 All Other Students N=44
Did you feel comfortable sharing information and commumcating with others in the course? Safe and Supportive Conditions 3 3.4
Did you feel encouraged to express your own ideas in the course? Progressive Discourse 3.8 3.6
Did you feel like the course created a safe environment; that is, a positive and affirming environment where learners are encouraged to respond fully? Safe and Supportive Conditions 3.3 3.6
Did you feel that there was a free flow of diverse information in the course? Diversity 3.3 3.2
Did you feel that the students in the course established a group identity? Community Identity 2.6 2.4
Did having an opportunity in the course to share personal information about yourself and leant things about other learners help you feel like part of a learning community? Mutual Appropriation 3.3 3.1
Did being able to share areas of mutual interest in this course help you find other learners to interact with? Shared Goals 3 2.6
Did you like having an opportunity to work with other learners to define group norms and rules for interaction with each other? Collaboration 3.3 2.9
Did you leant a lot about how to interact with others in this course and share ideas about what you were learning? Progressive Discourse 3 2.8
Do you feel the group was successful at creating community during the course? Community Identity 3.2 2.7
I find these survey data to be interesting because it indicates that the case
study students are reporting a slightly more positive response to the instructional
design strategies than other months, yet the discourse analysis and observations
typically point to the case study students experiencing a lesser sense of community.
However, it is difficult to generalize the survey results since the response rate was
In this section, I present findings relating to each of the eight learning
community elements and the corresponding instructional design strategies.
1 Community Identity. The symbolic construction of a community is
accomplished by ensuring that the group is apart from and different from other
social groups through the establishment of a group identity recognizable from within
and outside of the group (Calderwood, 2000, p. 12-13). To facilitate the creation of
the community's collective identity, the design team defined a distinctive gathering
place for the group (PallofF & Pratt, 1999, p. 24) by establishing an orientation
forum in WGUs Campus Pipeline. Students enrolled in the orientation were able to
access the forum through their personalized My.WGU (nQr.wgu.edu) web portal.
The course was secure so that other students could not access the course unless they
were enrolled which created boundaries for those students who were in and out of the
community. The orientation facilitator notified the students when the course started
and ended and distributed an email list so that students could communicate with
others in the course.
The simple Campus Pipeline course platform restricted our ability to support
the development of community identity because (a) students were unable to post or
upload photos or documents to the course, (b) the platform did not provide a utility to
allow students to create their own communities, and (c) there was no area that we
could set aside for students to post personal information about themselves or provide
and retrieve contact information with their peers. The short four-week timeframe
may have also limited our ability to support the development of community identity
because even though there were clear boundaries for the community, the students
may not have had enough time to identify with each other and the community as a
The survey data indicate that students in the course experienced a less than
moderate sense of community identity (M = 2.6). However, students did demonstrate
some sense of community identity with a more frequent use of we in the threads
beginning the second week of the course. For example:
[Vaundee: Responding to Judys post about the outcome of a
personality questionnaire.] Fm also excited that you want to keep
everyone happy, because when the going gets tough and the nerves
begin to fray, youll be our anchor. Well be depending on you and
others with your personality type.
[Judy: Responding to Vaundees post.] I think well all need to keep
each other going. I think it will be great.
[Maria: Responding to Billies post.] Wish you the best. Hang in
there and remember were here too.
[Sara: Responding to Judys email about being confused about the
program.] Im not happy that were all confused, but Im glad Im not
the only one.
[Shelly: Responding to Vaundees post.] Im excited to get to know
each of you and hope we can help each other succeed.
Other sections of the orientation course expressed a greater sense of community
identity by requesting t-shirts, an alumni organization, and by expressly requesting
help from WGU to continue their communities beyond the orientation course.
2, Safe and Supportive Conditions. A learning community provides caring
and nurturing conditions (Coombe, 1999; Retallick, 1999) that foster the
development of trust and respect among the learners, which in turn encourages risk-
taking, the exchange of ideas and feedback, shared responsibility and support for
learning and outcomes, and distributed or negotiated control (Barab & Dufiy, 1998;
Downes, 1998; Etzioni & Etzioni, 1997; GTabinger & Dunlap, 1996; HUtz, 1998;
Jonaseen, Peck, & Wilson, 1999; Lawrence, 1997; Sdme, 1994; Wells, 1999). Based
on our experience with prior students and earlier sections of the orientation course,
we decided to provide the greatest amount of structure in terms of facilitator
involvement during the first week of the course so that students would have an
opportunity to communicate with the facilitator and learn to use the communication
tools. The facilitator modeled communication conducive to safe and supportive
conditions by sharing personal details about her life and goals and by responding
favorably to students that shared similar information. For example, the facilitator
responded to each students self-introduction to welcome the student to the
community and to provide support.
To further encourage the development of safe and supportive conditions
within the course the design team specifically crafted low-risk questions to encourage
students to communicate their ideas and experiences. The questions required
students to reflect on their past experiences rather than focus on content knowledge.
Students started recognizing their commonalities such as geographic location,
academic program, work experience, etc. Students were also required to post results
of several personality and learning style instruments which encouraged risk-taking
and sharing among the students.
The survey data indicate that students felt the course provided safe and
supportive conditions. Students responded that they felt the environment was
positive and affirming (M = 3.6) and they indicated that they were comfortable
sharing information and communicating with others (M = 3.4). The survey findings
were further supported by the discourse in which students were sharing personal
information about their lives, goals, hobbies, work, and education.
3. Shared Goals. A learning community is formed, in part, when individuals
from multiple perspectives willingly collaborate as a larger collective whole toward a
shared goal or vision (Barab & Dufly, 1998; Palloff & Pratt, 1998; Senge, 1995). As
a design team we were dedicated to the notion that community should emerge among
students so we faced a design dilemma when we focused on shared goals should we
assign a goal for the group or allow the group to self-organize and define its own
goals? We felt that an assigned goal would not get the buy-in from the students so we
decided to facilitate the early discovery of commonalities among students by
immediately engaging students in structured self-introductions (Curtis & Lawson,
2001) and discussion of their personal goals. The facilitator modeled self-
introduction by providing details about her interests, goals for the course, and her
current academic studies. The students followed suit by providing the same level of
details about themselves. Soon, students began to encounter commonalities such as
geographic location, program of study, and hobbies.
To further support the sharing of common interests and goals, Brown (2001)
suggests that an area within the learning environment be established that allows
students to learn more about each other and exchange email, phone, and fax numbers.
Unfortunately, the simple Campus Pipeline platform did not allow students to share
this information easily so the design team developed a class list that indicated the
students names, academic programs, and email addresses so that they could more
easily connect with one another. However, the simple class list with names and
contact information was not enough because students wanted more personal
information about their peers as indicated in the following quote from a student
interview following the course:
[Sharon] I remember Mimi had asked us to ask a question each of us
had to give some comment. Mine was, who is who? All of a sudden
we see all of these people and their comments and I was getting
overwhelmed with who is who. I asked that question and it was
interesting how others came up with ideas of how we could keep track
of people. One person said I am creating a file and I was too so we
emailed our file and shared the information about the people so then I
was able to keep track of people. I almost thought there was too many
people to get to know everyone so I had to choose ones that I found
that I had common interests with or who were teaching subjects that I
teach. That way I knew those were the people I would interact more
Students also responded via the survey:
[Survey response.] I had trouble keeping people straight in my mind.
Once I knew something about someone, I didnt have a frame to
organize that information.
[Survey response.] Providing an opportunity to give an introduction
via a web page, and not just a discussion board... seeing lists of people
and interests... It was too hard to gather that information from 100+
The Campus Pipeline platform would be more effective if it had an area that would
allow students to post photos and share personal information and contact information
with their peers. Students expressed interest in a tool that would help them organize
information about their peers.
Students in the case study orientation course did not create a shared goal for
their community. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the course is short so students
did not have an opportunity to develop group goals or visions and the students were
enrolled in various degree programs. Some students in the course did not make
strong connections with others in the course as follows:
[Survey response.] I didn't establish a relationship with anyone.
Because we didn't all have the same educational goals, the expectation
was that interactions would be temporary and we would all go our
[Survey response.] I did connect with one other person who has
several things in common with me, and is geographically close. Td
like to find other people who are participating in WGU, perhaps
starting at a different time, who are also elementary teachers.
[Survey response.] It would have been nice to maybe match up similar
interests and let those people form a group. But I wouldn't know how
to go about doing that.
[Survey response.] Members need to depend on each other... perhaps
something constructivist AND collaborative could be built into the
program where the learners actually SEE how having a support group
will/can benefit. Perhaps if we realized we WERE the class of2002.
However, other sections of the orientation course developed shared goals and visions.
We saw greater success with orientation courses that had a majority of students in a
single program or major. For example, some orientation courses consisted mostly of
students enrolled in the Master of Arts program so they developed goals for
graduation and decided to move through the program as a cohort so that they could
continue to support each other beyond the orientation course.
4. Collaboration Involvement in a learning community requires social
interaction. Collaborative online learning communities provide community members
the chance to learn from and with others and to contribute to others learning. The
facilitator encouraged collaboration by requiring students to post and respond to
threaded discussion topics, specifically those posted by other students.
We made the most significant design decision when we decided not to include
collaborative projects in the orientation course. We realized that a collaborative
project would probably encourage community development more than any other
intervention. The management team discouraged the use of collaborative projects
because their view at the time was that WGU needed to focus on providing
individualized academic programs. Their impression was that students chose to
attend WGU because they wanted a personalized program that did not necessarily
require course attendance and focused almost entirely on the one-on-one relationship
with the mentor. Furthermore, the design team decided not to include collaborative
projects in the orientation course because of the short length of the course (four
weeks) and the logistics of hying to accomplish a group project that had merit given
the mix of students enrolled in different programs. Also, the limitations of the
Campus Pipeline platform made it exceedingly difficult to manage group projects.
We thought we would have the greatest student satisfaction and achievement if the
first experience was low-risk and did not require students to juggle schedules to meet
with a group of students that would disband once the orientation was completed.
During the six-week follow-up interviews with two students, the students
indicated that they felt a greater sense of community in the courses they were
enrolled in due to collaborative projects as follows:
[Sharon] It was really good to work on projects together and there was
a larger group that they divided into three smaller groups. The smaller
group has six students. We got graded on our participation.
[Shelley] We had to work together and we gave each other
assignments to get the project completed. Just doing the project we
had to do a part of the project. Part of the assignment was to make
sure that eveiyone participated... .We felt like we really got to know
each other. There was six of us and it seemed like a good size and
A student response to the survey noted the following:
[Survey response.] If the mentor could have divided us into small
groups and then have us complete a project of some kind as a group,
that probably would have fostered a community.
At least one student expressed an interest in collaborating beyond the orientation
course as follows:
[Shelley] Maybe we can share ideas and work on some projects
together with other business teachers.
5. Diversity. A learning community encourages diversity of opinions,
membership, and multiple perspectives (Barab & Duffy, 2000; Brown & Campione,
1994; Jonassen, Peck & Wilson, 1999; Reil, 1996; Sergiovanni, 1999; Wellman &
Gulia, 1999; Wells, 1999; Wenger, 1998). Due to the low number of newly admitted
undergraduate students, the management team combined the undergraduate and
graduate students together in one course. The orientation had students in the Master
of Arts, Learning and Technology, Associate of Arts, Network Administration,
Business, and Computer Information Systems programs. Rather than encouraging
some kind of level playing field, the facilitator encouraged students to celebrate the
diversity and unique characteristics they were bringing to the program with respect to
viewpoints, experience, background, and communication styles. The survey data
indicates that students felt there was a free flow of diverse information in the course
(M = 3.2).
We specifically designed open-ended discussion topics that encouraged
students to share their viewpoints and personal experiences to support diversity in the
course. Some students valued a wide range of experiences and backgrounds in their
communities, while others expressed an interest in finding commonalities with others
and a narrowing of focus as noted in the following examples:
[Survey response.] Lots of diverse ideas, but perhaps too much
diversity. Many comments were made, but I felt there was little
discussion. Maybe some narrower questions, or a more refined
definition of topics to post might have helped.
[Survey response.] I didn't find there were any ideas of mutual interest
shared. The group was so diverse that it was hard to find common
ground in the short time of the course. No one seemed to be on the
same plane as me.
[Survey response.] We all seemed to be coming from very similar
backgrounds, so diversity was limited.
[Survey response.] I thought it was so awesome to have students from
all around the world and all over the country participating in the
6 Mutual Appropriation. Brown and Campione (1994) define mutual
appropriation as the process by which learners of all ages and levels of expertise
and interests seed the environment with ideas and knowledge that are appropriated
by different learners at different rates, according to their needs and to the current
state of the zones of proximal development in which they are engaged (p. 237; see
also Vygotsky, 1978). Mutual appropriation refers to the bi-directional and
reciprocal nature of learning in which members of the community are both learners
and teachers (Butt, 1999; Sergiovanni, 1999). From an instructional design
perspective, we supported mutual appropriation by intentionally asking the facilitator
to encourage and model mutual appropriation by reminding students that they were
both teachers and learners in the course and future communities at WGU. We also
developed thought provoking, open-ended discussion topics to support mutual
appropriation in the course.
In addition to discussing course readings, students would occasionally bring
up seemingly random topics. In one instance, a new undergraduate student noticed
that two of the community members were business teachers so she asked for help
finding resources in accounting and both of the teachers responded with ideas of
books and other resources. In another example a community member asked the
community about gardening and planting trees because it seemed that this particular
group had common interests in gardening. She received several responses from her
peers. Typically, the random topics would surface during the third and fourth week
of the course when students were most comfortable with the safe and supportive
conditions of the community. The random topics also allowed the students to be
both teachers and learners which seemed to naturally support progressive discourse.
7. Progressive Discourse: Bereiter (1994) proposed the term "progressive
discourse" to describe the process by which the sharing, questioning, and revising of
opinions leads to "a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to
their own previous understanding" (p. 6). The design team crafted open-ended
discussion topics to encourage sharing and questioning. The facilitator modeled
progressive discourse by sharing, questioning, and revising her opinions. There were
several instances in which the community demonstrated progressive discourse. One
instance stemmed from the facilitator asking students about assessment anxiety since
they would be faced with multiple assessments in their WGU academic programs.
The next thread was started by a student that wanted to know others opinions on
standardized testing as follows:
[Vaundee] Speaking of tests. How do you folks feel about
standardized testing and the effect it can have on students graduating,
federal and state funding, and teachers jobs. I have heard a lot of
opinions and am interested in what you thinking. Test scores say a lot
about a schools rating on many levels. Is that an accurate or better,
yet, a fair assessment of the school?
[Kenneth: In response to Vaundee.] I teach in a school that has a very
transient population. Our teachers have found that we prepare our
students for standardized testing by the end of the year, but in many
cases our classes have entirely different populations by the end of die
year than the beginning. Many of the students that are here have had
completely different experiences in preparing for testing than those
who have left. Our school test scores then are much different than
schools with a stable environment.
[Dorreen: In response to Vaundee.] We are not the same and so a
standardized test is not accurate for everyone. But, realistically I don't
know of another way. You have to somehow make sure the student
has mastered the concept. My son will never pass a test with essays.
But, if you talk to him, he would pass with flying colors. In our school
systems, teachers tend to not have the resources or time to meet each
child's individual need. I think we need to somehow find a way
[Vaundee: In response to Dorreen.] We are in the same boat with our
sons....I'm concerned that the world may miss out on some of his
greatest skills because a written test may keep him out of a school he
wants to attend or a program that will benefit him. Let's keep working
[Judy: In response to Vaundee.] Tough question on standardized tests.
After the workshops Tve been attending this week, I think the question
is how do we assess the kids every day instead of waiting for the big
summative tests to direct us.
[Richard: In response to Vaundee.] As far as I can tell, such tests and
paper writing reflects a pretty good description of the student, where
he/she stands in terms of learning, and where to go from there. But I
think I know from where you are coming. A phd professor in the
psych department at Yale was set back for years and years due to
standardized tests until he discovered more than one form of IQ. He
was the pioneer of "emotional IQ" and was considered "autistic" all
his life and held out of college. Of course the stories of Einstein's
failings of traditional school are legendary. I think these days most
schools explore all forms of knowledge and IQ rather than outdated
standard IQ and other assessment tests.
The survey data indicates that students felt encouraged to express their own ideas (M
= 3.6) and students had an opportunity to interact with others and share ideas about
their learning (M = 2.8).
8. Knowledge-building. It is the active and intentional pursuit of knowledge
that distinguishes learning communities from other chance encounters or purely
social networks (Palmer, 1999). The orientation course was intentionally designed to
engage students in building knowledge about (a) themselves through the use of skill
surveys, chapter expercises, and learning style instruments, (b) other students through
threaded discussions and chat, (c) WGU programs through interaction with the
enrollment counselor who attended the course as a guest speaker, (d) distance
learning through the use of the course platform and discussion about various types of
distance learning opportunities, and (e) available resources via interaction with the
financial aid administrator, librarian, and mentors that acted as guest speakers during
the course. Students successfully completed all of the above activities but often
times the posts and discussions were shallow. Students clearly learned new skills but
it is not discemable whether deeper knowledge building actually occurred in the
Sub-question: To What Extent is the Group
Successful in Establishing Community?
The case study group did not seem to develop a strong sense of community as
a whole, but smaller communities developed within the course. Students expressed
an interest in continuing their connections with students beyond the course as they
take other courses and continue in their programs as noted in the following examples:
[Survey response.] [Im interested] in a way for the students to
continue on and be a support to each other as they go through then-
[Survey response.] There are many people from my Ed w/out
boundaries class participating in the class I'm now taking at WWU
(Western Washington University). Made it easier to jump into a new
class, knowing I had a connection with the group.
[Survey response.] Community continues on as we have additional
[Survey response.] It would be great to continue communication as we
progress through the degree.
Students developed a sense of awareness of learning communities and developed the
skills they needed to continue with community participation beyond the orientation
course. The orientation course also served as a support group for new students. Two
of the students interviewed noted a sense of support in the course as follows:
[Vaundee] The learning community has become critical for me just in
the support sense right now in the beginning.
[Rick] The support, once again, was the main thing for me. Learning
with friends makes it so much more fun and makes the dream of
bettering oneself so much more of a reality than just doing a
correspondence course, taking a test, and turning it in.
Sub-question: How Do Learners
Describe. Explain, or Value Community?
The design team followed Browns (2001) suggestion to foreground
community participation by immediately discussing online community with the
learners. The following questions were adapted from Browns research and were
scripted into the first module of the orientation:
1. What is online community?
2. What can you expect to gain from online community?
Unfortunately, only two students specifically addressed the community questions as
[Sara] I fed that any group of people that have respect for one another,
help each other and can work with each other to accomplish goals is a
[Judy] I think a group of us in the same program will be an enjoyable,
learn from each other virtual community. Im hoping for your help
Much stronger data were gathered using the survey that was administered at the end
of the orientation courses. One question on the survey asked students to define
community. Forty-four students responded and their responses are captured in Table
7. I reviewed the 44 responses and noted the characteristics contained within the
definition of community. For example, many students responded that community is
defined by a group of people who share a common goal, so that response would be
counted in both the gathering or group of people row and the common
Characteristics Contained in Students Definitions of I .earning Community
Characteristics of "community" contained in student responses
Gathering or group of people
Motivated to succeed as a group/benefit from members of group
Working together (collaboration)
Number of responses
Clearly the majority of students defined community as a gathering or group of
people with a common goal, purpose, or aspiration.
During the interviews with six students following the orientation course, I
asked the students to define online learning community. Students responded as
[Vaundee] I think its a community that narrows the gap between
students and educators in an online setting. I would say that when I
first heard the term online learning community it was a classroom
but online. People that you would have contact with in the classroom
[Sharon] A group of us that are getting together to learn, with different
focuses and degrees, that get together in a learning environment on the
computer rather than face-to-face. I dont have to always be at a class
or a building or a place at a certain time, I have more flexibility to be
online rather than on time.
[Shawn] Online learning community is a place where people can come
together at their own time and own place to share ideas and support
each other and get to know each other without trying to get to a set
time and set place.
[Sharon] I think it is working together, having a support group out
there, even though you cant see them. At first it was hard because I
didnt know who I was sharing information with. We used a variety
of methods to reach the goal that we all have graduation.
[Judy] Online learning to me means gaining knowledge through
researching the Internet, chatting with experts, taking courses online,
and/or achieving degrees. It also means sometimes learning at our
own pace and within our own time flame.
By phrasing the interview question to gather responses to the definition of online
learning community I was able to recognize that the anytime, anyplace
phenomenon that students typically identify with online learning is also a
characteristic of online learning communities.
Sub-question: What is the Process of Forming a Community
in a Technology-Mediated Environment?
Developing a sense of community takes time. As discussed earlier in this
chapter one of the constraints of this study was the short timeframe of the orientation
course. A sense of community developed to various degrees during the six different
orientation courses. Some courses experienced the development of a strong sense of
community to the point that students took control of the course by the second week
by leading discussions and organizing chat sessions and face-to-face meetings. In a
couple of the courses students made plans to continue their community beyond the
orientation course to support their degree programs. One group of students even
asked for a WGU honor society and WGU t-shirts so that they could express their
support for the university. The course, upon which this case study rests, did not
experience the development of a strong sense of community.
It may be that the four-week course was just too short to reliably develop a
sense of community as noted below:
[Survey response.] ... I'm not sure that this class really allowed a
community to form. I do think it was starting to jell, though. It just
needed more time.
[Survey response.] There wasnt enough time. There wasn't
enough.. .personality. [We] were, by and large, strangers getting the
Building community takes time and, based on my observations, many of the courses
were on the way to developing full-blown communities but there was not enough
time to complete the community building process. Many of the elements were in
place to support community development such as safe and supportive conditions,
diversity, and shared goals, but the group dispersed before true community could be
I did notice that there was a general process for the development of
community that can be extrapolated from the data gathered for this research. The
following comment gathered during a follow-up interview with a student sums up the
[Rick] I look at online community as a progressive entity...in other
words, on day one its just a bunch of names on a screen. Then a few
hours go by and its kind of like elementary school. You get to know
all the boys and girls and they get to know you, and instead of
passing notes in class we email each other and post notes on the
board. The most fun part, I think, is learning the people, their
personalities, and knowing we have so much in common with our
goals, struggles, etc. And within a week or two it sort of gets more
real and one realizes that one has actually made friends and we are
able to help/assist each other reach our academic (and sometimes
other) goals. And, of course, there is a mystery to it in that one
wonders if one day he/she might meet some of the other students, and
I believe some of us will meet as the friendships seem real.
The process of community development for this case study tends to parallel the
weeks in the orientation course. The process can be broken down into three phases.
Phase One: Orientation. During the first week of the course students engaged
in self-introductions and learned how to use the technology to communicate with
their peers. They became aware that there were other students with similar interests
and goals. Week one of the course was highly structured and the facilitator spent a
lot of energy creating a safe and supportive environment by utilizing low-risk
questions to encourage student involvement. The first week was also marked by a
higher facilitator to student communication ratio (see Figure 5).
Comparison of frequency of student and facilitator posts
Phase Two: Skill Development. During the second and third weeks of the
course the students began to take greater initiative and they communicated more
frequently with each other rather than directly to the facilitator. Their relationships
began to coalesce as they spent greater amounts of time in mutual appropriation and
Phase Three: Closure and Dispersal. During the fourth week of the course the
students activity tapered off as they began to focus on the next stage of their
academic program and worked to tie up loose ends by completing missing
assignments. There was a greater sense of structure provided by the facilitator as she
helped students make the transition from the orientation course to the individual
mentors. The facilitator needed to bring closure to the course and community while
supporting students to continue their community involvement beyond the course.
All of the orientation groups convened during the six-month comparison
period followed this same three-phase process regardless of the extent to which
learning community seemed to develop within the groups. I think it is important to
be aware of this process because I think we could better align instructional design
strategies with the phases of the community development process to maximize the
potential for the development of learning community in future efforts.
Sub-question: What Emergent Actions or
Events Lead tn Community?
In addition to the instructional design activities and interventions incorporated by the
design team, there were actions or events that emerged by the course facilitator and
students. Based on my observations, survey and interview responses, I have
organized these emergent activities into several points in this section.
1. Students are more apt to continue to visit a community if others respond to
their posts and they find fresh content. Imagine logging on to an online community
only to find an online ghost town. Many students expressed concerns that there was
a large lag time between responses, if there were any responses at all. Students
wanted reciprocity in their communication with other members of the community and
they were more likely to visit the community frequently if there are new posts or
content to respond to as noted in the following examples:
[Survey response.] In the message board, it's just hard to respond
especially when there's little likelihood of the response being seen. I
know I didn't spend much time going back over previous responses...
[Survey response.] At first my replies were too long. Most people
wanted shorter responses, I guess. It was difficult with the different
[sic] levels of comfort with technology and such sporatic [sic]
responses to find a real sense of community.
[Survey response.] Not everyone responded and there was quite a bit
of lag time between responses. It's frustrating to check the messages
and have nothing [sic] new to respond to.
[Survey response.] I never had any response to my comments so don't
have any idea about how useful they were.
[Survey response.] I think some people were willing to get involved
and others were not. Often times I would try to respond to questions
and start chat with someone and get no response. I do not see how you
could improve that people are going to respond how they see fit.
[Survey response.] Students and faculty replying to student responses
helps you feel like part of the community.
[Survey response.] I tried to respond to others postings-I wished others
had responded back as well.
2. Sharing personal information allows students to find commonalities with
others. Some students appreciated the opportunity to learn about other students
backgrounds and interests because it allowed them to find commonality with others
as noted in the following two examples:
[Survey response.] The introduction responses were great. I was able
to leam about the other people and get a feel for similarities and
differences. It also helped me when I found out that there were others
around my same level of technology literacy.
[Survey response.] I think you have to [share personal information] in
order to start establishing a group identity and a working relationship.
3. Students want real-time chat. Several students requested real-time chat as a
way to develop community. The design team shied away from real-time chat because
they thought students would not want to be bound by time and place. Further, chats
are difficult to manage with large numbers of students and technically difficult for
novice users. The following examples provide support for real-time chat:
[Survey response.] I think real time chat with participants will
encourage a greater sense of community and feel that it should be
done more on a regular basis.
[Survey response.] Again, I suggest a group chat and perhaps
assigning groups of people to some small project that requires them to
[Survey response.] Real time discussion periods would make a big
Interviews indicated that students were often overwhelmed by the number of posts in
the threaded discussions. They suggested that real-time chats provide a way to stay in
touch with peers and accomplish tasks quickly without spending a lot of time reading
[Vaundee] Although the CommunityZero platform might work but it
hasnt worked for me because I dont have the time. If there was a
scheduled time that we were to meet to have a chat that might work.
That would work for me because that is how we get together now in
class and we chat for 15-20 minutes and were finished.
[Shawn] One of the things Ive noticed with the orientation was that
people were on different schedules and it was a negative aspect of
community because when I was on no one else was on so I wasnt
able to keep up-to-date and I was always playing catch-up. It seems
like the chat might be helpful for 5 6 people that you could get to
know real well and talk about classes. I liked the chat a lot because I
could get to know people better. It was more spontaneous.
[Shelly: She is explaining the sense of community she has in one of
her courses.] As we were working on the team project it was nice to
chat for one hour, maybe three or four times during the semester,
because it was an easy way to assign projects and not have to wait for
others to respond in a discussion. You dont want too many to be in
the chat. In the orientation we had too many people in the class and it
was too confusing to try to keep track of everything and it took a lot of
time to read through everyones comments.
4. Students like to have the option to post photos. The Campus Pipeline
course platform does not allow students to post or upload documents or photos to the
course or threaded discussion areas. However, the facilitator asked students to visit
and use another platform called CommunityZero which supported uploaded