|Australasian Journal of Educational Technology
2006, 22(4), 495-510.
Given the current diversity of communication tools at an educator's disposal, what role (if any) does the discussion forum play in the development of a strong sense of community among students? This study sought to investigate the relationship between discussion forum interaction and perceived student sense of community. The results of the study demonstrate that while mere quantity of discussion forum postings is not an indicator of community development, a significant relationship is observed when contributions are codified into the various discussion interaction types (learner - learner; learner - content; system). An implication emerging from these findings is the ability for the institution to implement evaluative measures to gauge levels of student sense of community in a just in time environment. As discussion interactions are automatically captured and reported, the data provides an indication of the degree of community developing among the student population at a specific snapshot in time. As multiple snapshots provide an ongoing indicator of community development, practitioners have the capacity to develop intervention activities designed to promote further peer to peer discussion and therefore, facilitate the development of a strong sense of community.
This study aimed to investigate the relationship between asynchronous forum contributions and the degree of sense of community established among the student population within a large Australian metropolitan university. To address this aim, the paper firstly explores the dynamic between government policy and education practice, leading to a discussion of the concept of community as a psychological construct. The paper then presents a case for assessing community through quantitative methods incorporating the tracking of student (IT) user behaviours. Finally the paper discusses the findings of a large scale quantitative study, illustrating the applicability for data mining techniques to inform teaching practice and the relationship between student communication interactions and sense of community.
Changes in government policy have not only altered the day to day functioning of institutions but also has impacted upon the study and employment characteristics of the traditional student cohort. The rising cost of education has resulted in an increased number of traditional on campus students undertaking part time employment (Ford, Bosworth & Wilson, 1995). Consequently, student participation in on campus learning activities is often secondary to personal and financial commitments.
The growing demand for increased student numbers and the associated increase in student diversity (Gomes & Murphy, 2003) has required universities to adopt more flexible approaches to delivering education. In particular, the integration of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has been promoted as a means for providing flexible delivery (Flew, 1998) whilst maintaining quality of education standards. The distinction between distance and traditional modes of education is becoming blurred as both on and off campus students access education material through multiple modes of delivery. Lecture content is now placed online and may also contain components of audio or video streaming. Thus, the dissemination of course content is being supported for multiple modes of enrolment through various formats of delivery. However, while the current student cohort can access unit information, the degree of collaboration between peers and teaching staff is potentially inhibited as a result of reduced face to face opportunities for interaction.
The integration of computer mediated communication (CMC) is one approach to overcome the spatial and temporal barriers often associated with collaborative learning (McKenzie & Murphy, 2000). Although many authors advocate the integration of both synchronous and asynchronous CMC for collaborative learning activities (Curtin, 2002; Haythornthwaite, Kazmer & Robins, 2000; Wang & Newlin, 2001), the flexible af fordances associated with an asynchronous medium have resulted in greater acceptance and adoption among educators. In particular, discussion forums have gained popularity, providing avenues and opportunities for social interaction among an increasingly disparate student cohort.
Resulting from this almost ubiquitous integration of discussion forums among education practitioners is the capacity to track and analyse the evolving student discourse (Holt, Kleiber, Swenson, Rees & Milton, 1998). These data can be applied with novel methods to generate new insights into the design of learning and teaching practices, and the overall student experience. As educators are called upon to illustrate quality learning experiences, the quantitative data generated through CMCs may be readily applied to an overarching theoretical framework to inform practitioners of the achievement of student outcomes, and alignment with the initial learning design.
The concept of community as a theoretical framework for teaching and learning is gaining increasing momentum within the academy. Thus, the application of scalable, automated, fine grained, quantitative analyses may further our understanding of how community develops and the types of interactions necessary to foster a strong sense of community among the student cohort. The following section frames and defines the term community within the context of this study.
Literature relating to social constructivist practices has emphasised the importance of developing a community of learners (or learning community) for effective and efficient collaboration and knowledge construction among the student cohort (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Gabelnick, MacGregor, Matthews & Smith, 1990). The educational benefits deriving from fostering a community of learners have been well documented. For instance, Rovai (2002c) in his study on community and learning suggests a positive correlation exists between sense of community and cognitive learning. Rovai demonstrates that students indicating a strong sense of community exhibit increased perceived cognitive learning, course satisfaction, and feel less isolated and are, therefore, more likely to persist with their course of study then their less community oriented peers. Similarly, Tinto (1993) links the establishment of learning communities with reduced student attrition rates in community colleges.
While research in these areas has advanced our understanding of the learning process and community development, the direct comparison between educational studies undertaken is problematised through the variety of definitions and contexts adopted. For example, the term has been applied to a range of educational strategies from collaborative virtual environments (Stacey, 1999), integrated course curricula (Smith, MacGregor, Matthews & Gabelnick, 2004; Tinto, 1998), and undergraduate interest groups (Staasen 2003), to residence based programs (Shapiro & Levine, 1999, p. 36). Despite this diversity of applications of the term within the literature, there is a growing consensus among educators to define and measure community as a psychological construct (Anderson, 2004; Brook & Oliver, 2003b; Dueber & Misanchuk, 2001; Rovai, 2002a). Thus in this context, the notion of community is often expressed as a sense of attachment or belonging to a particular group.
Defining community as a psychological construct also provides researchers with alternative methods of measuring community. The current primary method of evaluating community within education studies is to formulate a set of characteristics that underpin the definition of community. The analysis of the data is then framed within this developed schema to provide an indication of the presence or absence of community (Dueber & Misanchuk, 2001; Holt et al., 1998; Wang, Sierra & Folger, 2003). What is often lacking in these studies is a quantifiable determination of the strength of the social ties among the student cohort and, therefore, the level of community developed. One approach to address this deficit is to adopt a psychological scale to measure an individual's perceived sense of community. Rovai (2002b) developed and validated the Classroom Community Scale (CCS) to quantitatively measure the degree of student sense of community. Although the scale incorporates the theoretical framework posed by McMillan and Chavis (1986), the instrument has been designed specifically for the education context.
This study aimed to investigate the relationship between asynchronous forum contributions and the degree of sense of community established among the student population within a large Australian metropolitan university utilising a quantitative approach. Specifically, the study addresses the following research questions:
Initial data were collected from an online survey. In addition, information on unit discussion forum contributions derived from student participation over the course of one semester of study was collated by the institution's in house learning management system. The percentages of forum interaction types occurring at a unit level were then correlated with student perceived sense of community as measured by the online survey. From the pool of 2017 students enrolled in the identified units, 22% completed the online survey (N = 441). All teaching units involved in the study (N = 21) were represented in the returned student online survey responses. Delimiting the sample population into gender and mode of enrolment revealed that 84% of the respondents were female, 16% male, 81% were enrolled via the internal modality and 19% undertaking an external mode of study. The participant demographics observed in this study are consistent with the general education faculty student population.
Strijbos, Martens, Prins and Jochems (2006) stress the importance of implementing measures of reliability for studies utilising a quantitative methodology to ensure subsequent interpretations are based on potentially replicable data. To ascertain the degree of reliability, this study employed statistical measures such as Cronbach's alpha and Guttman split half coefficients. The analyses demonstrated excellent reliability and consistency with Cronbach alpha and Guttman split half coefficients of 0.90 and 0.89 respectively for the CCS. More refined analysis of the CCS sub-scales also revealed excellent reliability and consistency. The sub-scale social community resulted in a 0.86 Cronbach alpha and 0.85 Guttman split half coefficient. Similarly, for learning community excellent reliability was observed with a 0.84, Cronbach alpha and 0.76, Guttman split half coefficient. As the survey demonstrated acceptable factorial validity and reliability as demonstrated by EFA, Cronbach's alpha and Guttman split half coefficient, the remaining stage involved the marketing of the survey to the intended broader sample population.
|a. Student sense of community||Community*||Social community||Learning community|
|Mean (N = 21)||46.2 (SD = 6.5)||20.2 (SD = 4.2)||26.0 (SD = 3.3)|
|b. Forum interactions||Learner-learner||Learner-content||System|
|Mean (N = 2179)||39.3 (SD = 62.5)||15.9 (SD = 23.1)||48.5 (SD = 77.1)|
|* Community is equal to the sum of the 2 constructs social community and learning. Community scores range from a maximum of 80 to a minimum of 0.|
Harasim (1987) endorses the categorisation of forum interactions and suggests that the most important forum interactions for enhancing the learning process are student to student (learner-learner) and staff to student (learner-content). Building upon the methodology of codifying forum interactions, Schire (2006) differentiates between participation and interaction. The author argues that contributions that are not responded to, in this case system interactions, do not contribute to the knowledge building process. Similarly, Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2001) maintain that an active teacher presence (learner-content) is required to support students in developing higher order cognitive skills. Hence, the aggregation of learner-learner and learner-content interactions (cumulative learner interactions) provides an indication of the degree of social and learning interactions occurring among the teaching staff and student cohort, in contrast to measuring levels of mere participation. Examination of the relationship occurring between the cumulative learner interactions and community indicates a significant correlation (r = 0.504). A significant correlation was also observed between the sub-scale social community and the percentage of cumulative learner interactions (r = 0.576). In contrast, no significant relationship was observed between the sub-scale learning community and the percentage of cumulative learner interactions. Table 3 summarises the correlations observed between the codified forum interactions and community for the sampled population.
|Community||Social community||Learning community|
|Total forum contributions||r = 0.351||r = 0.381||r = 0.213|
|Interaction type (1)||Community||Social community||Learning community|
|System||r = - 0.504*||r = - 0.576**||r = - 0.267|
|Learner-content||r = 0.127||r = 0.216||r = - 0.024|
|Learner-learner||r = 0.479*||r = 0.460*||r = 0.365|
|Cumulative learner interactions (a)||r = 0.504*||r = 0.576**||r = 0.267|
|1. Specific interaction is calculated as a percentage of the total contributions occurring within the unit discussion forum.|
** Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
* Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
a. Cumulative score calculated from the percentage of learner-learner and learner-content interactions occurring within the Unit discussion forum.
Vonderwell (2003), in her study examining student and staff perspectives of online communication, noted that students contributing to the forum experience a degree of frustration when their messages are unrequited. Similar conclusions can be drawn from this study, as units exhibiting high levels of system posts (orphaned contributions) demonstrate a lower reported level of student sense of community. The lack of social interplay among students provides teaching staff with an indication of the degree of community development, and the potentially high level of student frustration and dissatisfaction. The monitoring of the quantity and type of student postings provides a snapshot of the potential level of community evolving among the student cohort. Therefore, educators have the capacity to implement and then monitor learning intervention episodes to encourage greater learner-learner interaction.
The lack of correlation observed with the sub-scale learning community may be an indication of the time required for developing an online social presence, particularly given that with the discussion forum medium a textual interface is the sole mechanism for creating an identity online. Within the offl ine environments, non-verbal communication cues provide a source of information to interpret an individual's social identity. For example, Donath (1999) states: "...the body provides a compelling and convenient definition of identity" (p. 29). However, within the online domain the absence of visual and auditory cues results in an emphasis on the textual artefacts of communication in order to establish an identity. Consequently, developing the foundational layer of social community through establishing an identity and moving through online socialisation may absorb the greater part of the semester, and may therefore limit the opportunity for students to engage in a more learning oriented discourse.
A study undertaken by Gunawardena (1995) illustrates that the rapidity and level of social presence formed online is influenced by the instructors' ability to generate discussion. Hence, the period of socialisation may be reduced through the implementation of effective instructor led social activities and thus, provide increased opportunity for a more learning oriented discourse to emerge among the forum participants.
Potential sources of Australian government funding are increasingly dependent upon student satisfaction ratings, garnered from post-graduation surveys. Consequently the ability to monitor student satisfaction prior to graduation provides a potential lead indicator to preliminarily assess future student ratings and therefore the degree of possible funding secured. The quantitative approach adopted in this study is scaleable in nature and therefore may be extrapolated to the broader institution to ascertain levels of student sense of community. While this study has addressed one domain of student satisfaction, Williams (2002) maintains that satisfaction is influenced by both the learning environment and learning process. Hence while the evaluation of community within units may provide a framework for assessing sense of community and thereby levels of student satisfaction, the incorporation of parameters relating to the learning process would result in a more holistic and accurate representation of student satisfaction.
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|Author: Shane Dawson, Centre for Learning Innovation, Queensland University of Technology, Kelvin Grove Campus, GPO Box 2434, Brisbane Qld 4001. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: http://cli.ed.qut.edu.au/
Please cite as: Dawson, S. (2006). Online forum discussion interactions as an indicator of student community. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 22(4), 495-510. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet22/dawson.html