1 ANIMATING DISTANCE LEARNING: THE DEVELOPMENT OF AN ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITY Mary Quinn, DBA, Assistant Professor Malone College Canton, Ohio Abstract The number of students enrolled in distance learning programs or taking online courses continues to grow on a yearly basis. The growth in online learning provides opportunities for students to complete a degree by enabling them to learn at their convenience no matter their location. Online learning provides opportunities for educational institutions to maintain or increase enrollment. One weakness of online education from the students perspective is a feeling of isolation. The formation of a learning community can alleviate the feeling of isolation that some online learners perceive. Consideration must be given to the development of programs and the inclusion of educational practices that promote a learning community. The purpose of this paper is to identify practices in online education that students perceive contribute to the formation of a learning community. Factors that can promote engagement and learning community formation are teacher/student interaction, student/student interaction, and staff or institutional/student interaction.
2 Introduction The number of students enrolled in distance learning programs or taking online courses continues to grow on a yearly basis. According to the Sloan Foundation s fifth annual report on the state of online education in U.S. higher education (2007), the number of students taking at least one online course continues to increase. The report states that almost 3.5 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2006 term. This represents a 9.7 percent increase over the number reported in For comparison, the overall number of higher education students increased 1.5 percent. The growth in online learning provides opportunities for students to earn a degree by enabling them to learn at their convenience no matter their location. Online learning provides opportunities for educational institutions to maintain or increase enrollment. Although online enrollment is on the rise, the retention rate of online students can be significantly lower than that of traditional ground courses. According to Carr, the withdrawal rate varies among institutions and programs, but is typically ten percent higher in online courses compared to ground courses (as cited in DiRamio & Wolverton, 2006). A perception expressed by online students that contributes to lower retention is a sense or feeling of isolation (DiRamio & Wolverton). A potential way to increase retention in online courses is to alleviate the perceived feeling of isolation. The purpose of this paper is to discuss from the student s perspective those practices that might contribute to a feeling of belonging, a sense of community.
3 Literature Review Students Perceived Strengths and Weaknesses of Online Education Research in the area of online education is in the beginning stages. There has been an increase in research in the last five years (Song, Singleton, Hill, & Myung, 2004). Some research has focused on the students perception of the strengths and weaknesses of online learning. Students perceive convenience (Poole, 2000) and flexibility (Kim, Liu, & Bonk, 2005; Petrides, 2002) as strengths of online education. Students perceive delay in response (Kim et al., 2005; Petrides, 2002), lack of connection with the instructor (Vonderwell, 2003), difficulty understanding instructional goals (Song et al., 2004), difficulty in communicating with peers (Kim et al., 2005), and feelings of isolation (Woods, 2002) as weaknesses of online education. In one study, about 60% of the students surveyed thought that online courses were more challenging than ground courses (Kim et al.). Learning Community Persistence in distance education programs can be significantly lower than that of traditional face-to-face programs. Carr reports an 11-15% higher attrition rate in one school s online education courses, and Terry reports a 21% attrition rate in graduate online education courses at Texas A&M (as cited in DiRamio & Wolverton, 2006). According to Tinto, students who possess strong feelings of community are more likely to persist than students who feel isolated (as cited in Rovai, 2003). Increasing the feeling of community is a potential strategy to increase retention (Rovai, 2002).
4 There are varying definitions for the term community (Summers, 2007). Osterman (2002) states that a community exists when members have a sense of belonging. Rovai (2002) also describes community as a feeling of belonging. Wilson and Ryder (2008) define a learning community as a group of people who gather together to provide mutual support for learning and performance. Additionally, learning communities have mutual interdependence and shared goals and values (Rovai, 2002). The benefits of the formation of learning communities have been documented. Participation in a learning community has been shown to have a positive effect on persistence and motivation (Rovai, 2002). Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation increases (Stefanou & Salisbury-Glennon, 2002). Student involvement is positively related to student learning (Astin, 1997). Davies and Graff s (2005) findings demonstrated that students who achieved high or medium passing grades were more actively engaged in the course than students who achieved low passing grades. Smith (1993) found that learning communities foster the social construction of knowledge, cooperative learning, active learning, an emphasis on the integration and synthesis of diverse student perspectives, as well as student-student, student-staff, and staff-staff collaboration. Learning communities include an emphasis on the integration and synthesis of diverse student perspectives (Smith). In a learning community, there are higher levels of both academic and social involvement, and more positive perceptions of the institution (Stefanou & Salisbury-Glennon, 2002). One might be skeptical that a feeling of belonging can be present among a group of students and an instructor who might never be face-to-face. DiRamio and Wolverton (2006) conducted research to determine if attendees at a learning community conference
5 thought that learning community principles were applicable to online learning. Of the eight principles mentioned in the study, three were thought to have applicability. These are (1) encourage students to share their own experiences and ideas in online discussions, (2) encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning, and (3) use instructor-guided peer questioning to encourage student-to-student interaction. The levels of interaction in a learning community are threefold: student-student, student-staff, and staff-staff. According to Rheingold, student participation in discussions is critical to developing an effective virtual learning community. Failure to achieve highquality interaction between students will result in an inferior learning experience (as cited in Peltier, Schibrowsky, & Drago, 2007). Instructor to student communication is critical for generating student connectedness to the virtual learning community (Drago & Peltier, 2004). Song et al. s study revealed that seventy-one percent of participants in the study who were less than satisfied with online learning felt that a lack of community was a challenge to online learning. Method The purpose of this study was to identify practices in the online learning environment that contribute to a sense of belonging, a critical component to the formation of a learning community. The practices are approached from the students perspectives. A survey was developed that included statements describing specific practices that could be implemented in the online environment to determine if the practice was perceived to be positively related to increasing the student s feeling of belonging. The statements centered around the three levels of interaction in a learning community student/instructor interaction, student/student interaction, and staff or institutional/student interaction.
6 Participants The survey was distributed to all students, past and current, enrolled in an undergraduate, adult degree completion program at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. The program is fourteen months long. There are ten courses (each five weeks) and an independent research project. The program is completed cohort style, and the average cohort size is ten. Participants were at differing points in the program, from three months to completion. Survey Procedure The survey was developed using Survey Monkey (www.surveymonkey.com), which is an online survey tool. The link to the survey was ed to the participants. Use of this tool ensured that all responses were anonymous. The survey was available for one week. The survey was distributed to 118 past or current students. Of the 118 students, 29 completed all or part of the survey, for a response rate of 25%. Data Analysis The researcher was interested in information regarding students perceptions of practices in the online program that contributed to a feeling of belonging. A simple scale of agree, disagree, or no opinion was used. The responses were analyzed using chi-square at a.05 probability level, with 1 degree of freedom.
7 Results The responses to the survey are summarized in Table 1. All survey questions stated a practice first, and the statement concluded with would increase my feeling of belonging. Table 1 Survey Responses Agree Disagree A feeling of belonging is important to me 61% 25% Instructor/student interaction statements Personal welcome telephone call from instructor 48% 31% Regularly posted announcements from instructor 90% 3% Regularly scheduled instructor office hours 43% 43% Including video lectures by the instructor 48% 41% Response from the instructor within 24 hours 86% 4% Clearly defined time guidelines for instructor feedback 86% 4% Instructor-led threaded discussion 68% 25% Welcome announcement from instructor posted 86% 4% Having an introductory discussion 63% 22% Student/student interaction statements Required threaded discussions 71% 18% Group/team assignments 59% 24% Posting students pictures 32% 39% A threaded discussion for personal conversation 43% 39% At least one mandatory online chat 39% 50% Inclusion of case studies 29% 43% Student-led threaded discussions 46% 46% Staff or institutional/student interaction statements Overview of student services offered 55% 28% Service learning component 18% 50% Posting a short history of the school 25% 50% Student class representative 14% 71% Discussion of course learning objectives 43% 39% Onsite campus kickoff meeting 27% 39%
8 The first category of questions addressed student/instructor interaction. Of the nine statements in this category, six were determined to be significant. Student/instructor interaction practices that were significant are regularly posted announcements, response within 24 hours, clearly defined time guidelines for feedback, instructor-led threaded discussions, welcome announcement posted, and an introductory discussion. The second category of questions focused on student/student interaction. Of the seven statements in this category, two were determined to be significant. Student/student interaction practices that were significant are required threaded discussions and group or team assignments. The third category focused on providing information to the students about the institution and the services provided by the institution. Of the six questions in this category, none were found to be significant Discussion As expected, a significant number of the respondents agreed that a feeling of belonging was important to them. Previous studies support this finding. In one study, seventy-one percent of the participants who were less than satisfied with online learning as compared to classroom learning stated a lack of community was a challenge in online courses (Song et al., 2004). Kim et al. s (2005) study indicated a lack of a sense of community is a significant barrier to online learning. Instructor/student interaction and student/student interaction are two means to increasing the sense of community. Student/instructor interaction is a factor in creating a sense of community. This finding is consistent with previous research (Young & Norgard, 2006; Kim, Liu, & Bonk, 2005). Regular and timely communication from the instructor were the most critical
9 practices in increasing a feeling of belonging from the students perspective. The frequency of communication and the response time from the instructor can decrease the students sense of isolation. One student stated, I noticed that some instructors did not respond for days. This created a negative image of the institution and the instructor. Student/student interaction is, also, a factor in creating a sense of community. The findings indicate that students want student/student interaction to be focused on course content, rather than a personal focus. Students in the accelerated degree completion program are working adults, often with families. They are taking online courses for the convenience and flexibility. Interaction with these students needs to be purposeful. Limitations The participants in the study were all adult learners. Many adult learners have not been in higher education for a period of time as opposed to younger, traditional students. The level of involvement desired by adult students might not be the same as younger, traditional students. The participants were enrolled in or had completed a fourteen month program. The students have the same instructor for four of the ten courses. This length of time provides more opportunity for interaction to occur between the instructor and the students. Implications for Educational Practice The research supports that a feeling of belonging is important to students in an online course. The strongest driving force that contributes to the feeling of belonging is interaction between the student and the instructor. Interaction amongst students in the class also contributes to a feeling of belonging.
10 There are several ways that instructors can interact and communicate with students. These include telephone calls, threaded discussions, , feedback on student work, and posted announcements. When constructing an online course, an instructor should consider multiple communication methods. Sending a welcome or placing a welcome telephone call to students prior to the start of a course can set the tone for future interaction. This should alleviate any apprehension the student might have. Posting regular announcements and leading threaded discussions will assure students of the instructor s involvement. The strongest factors in fostering a sense of belonging are the response time from the instructor and regularly posted announcements from the instructor. The instructor should set clear expectations and guidelines regarding response time. The instructor should follow the guidelines. If the instructor is going to be unavailable, students should be notified. To encourage student/student interaction, meaningful group assignments should be required. When devising the group assignments and the assignments due dates, consideration should be given to the difficulty of working together across time and space. Adequate time should be allowed for completion. Threaded discussions are another way to promote student/student interaction. Discussion topics should be open-ended to encourage more participation. The instructor can participate by summarizing responses and by interjecting different view points. A sense of community has been shown to be positively related to motivation, learning, student satisfaction, and learning. Designing and implementing practices that promote a sense of community should be an integral part of online course design.
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