“Community” for online learning

Sadera, William A.; Robertson, James; Song, Liyan; Midon, N. M. (2009). The role of community in online learning success. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 5(2). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no2/sadera_0609.pdf


What are the effects of community in online education contexts, specifically on how students’ perceive their own success?  This is the question tackled by Sadera, Robertson, Song, and Midon in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching.  The authors make a contribution to the online learning literature that has already established community as an important element of online learning, by studying how or what the effects are of community on perceived student success.


The paper’s readability is inhibited by both the lack of clarity in the research focus initially, and the significant typographical errors.[1]  Not until the “literature survey” do readers begin to understand that the focus is on students’ perceptions or feelings of their own success (vs. success as determined by observable factors, such as achievement [GPA or course scores], improvements in academic achievement, or retention), and then in the rephrasing of the study’s purpose in the Methods section introduction.  Otherwise, the study follows in a logical, coherent manner, typical of a report on social science research, i.e. the introduction is followed by an overview of relevant literature, methods, results, a discussion of findings, and a conclusion, inclusive of the study’s limitations and thoughts for future investigation.


Sadera et al’s work is framed by a sociocultural perspective, which guides their consideration of existing research on community and success in distance education.  They organize literature in three relevant areas of concentration.  The first explores how communities among people geographically disbursed are defined.  Commonalities among research studies in this vein indicate that communities involve a “shared purpose and the relationship among them including their sense of belonging, trust, and interaction” (p. 278).  The authors construct a definition of community that seems lacking, given the review of literature just prior presented.  It reads that a community is “a group of participants, relationships, interactions and their social presence within a given learning environment.”  They add that their definition excludes how communities organize and maintain themselves, i.e community is not defined as or by “the collection of technologies used to manage and communicate within the environment” (p. 278).  The weakness of this definition is striking, because what stands out in their presentation of existing literature on communities is attention to “sense of shared purpose” or “shared emotional connection,” “membership” or “common expectations and goals.”  Even a simple, generally applicable dictionary definition explicitly indicates the particular relevance of something shared or common, e.g.: “a social group of any size whose members reside in a specific locality, share government, and often have a common cultural and historical heritage.”  Perhaps this isn’t influential to the research process, but how we define things are so important to our perspective, that it seemed worth mentioning the stated definition’s seeming deficiency.


The second category of literature the authors include confirms the positive relationship between community and perceived student learning.  They site two particular directions here: (1) a study on the importance or impact of community in different courses, which found no significant difference (though the scope of the study was limited – only two courses and in the same field were studied); and (2) sense of community and students’ perceived learning.  For this second orientation, the authors take up the Classroom Community Scale, an instrument designed specifically “to measure the sense of community in an online learning environment.”  (This tool is considered valid, as its reliability coefficient well exceeds the reliability coefficient Cronbach’s alpha accepted as the bar in social science research.)  Its application in other studies has shown a “positive relationship between students’ sense of community and their perceived learning success in online courses.”  The last area of existing research reviewed deals with community and interaction, “especially important in distance education…because it helps reduce feelings of isolation and contributes to the student success in online environments” (p. 279).  There are three types of interaction relevant to this context: interaction between the learner and the content, between the learner and the instructor, and between or among learners.


Data collection was organized around three areas of inquiry:

–        Is perceived learning affected by participation in the online community?

–        How does the sense of community affect perceived learning?

–        Does the amount and type of online interaction affect the feeling of membership in the learning community?

An online survey on a Likert scale was offered to undergraduate students attending an accredited US university, enrolled in online courses.  The authors had an 11.3% return rate on survey respondents, which left them with a sample of 121 participants, characteristically representative of “adult learners pursuing a technical undergraduate degree online” (p. 280).  Underlying survey questions were three objectives: (1) to collect demographic data, including previous experience in online courses; (2) to assess specific efforts to build community in the course, course design elements (including the instructor’s role), and the role of online technologies; and (3) student active participation in the course and community, including frequency of use of online technologies.


Data collection underwent a pilot several months before formal data collection, which contributes to the reliability of their approach.  SPSS was used to analyze data, as well as Pearson’s Correlation to address the three research questions in turn.  The researchers found a significant positive correlation between self-reported time spent on task and learning and their self-reported participation in learning activities and perceived learning.  In other words, the authors found a relationship between student’s active involvement in the online education community (however formed or described) and learning.  Next, they report positive correlation between students’ perceived learning and community (evaluated on connectedness scores).  Finally, their analysis of online technologies to interact found that only email had any significant impact on connectedness or learning.  In sum, the study finds that learner interaction and engagement, sense of community, and success in online learning are strongly correlated.


The authors make note of worthwhile research foci for the future, based upon the limitations of their study scope and their study’s findings.  Primarily, they indicate the importance of future research that asks the same general questions as this study: how community relates to success among online learners.  Research involving different populations (besides adult undergraduate students, comprising the sample of this study) would contribute to the literature.  Studying factors beyond what is specifically associated with the courses in the research scope, including activities a school or the broader environment might undertake to help cultivate a sense of community or elements of course design built with community-cultivation in mind, would support better understanding community and learning in an online environment.  Also, more research is needed on how online learners may experience community in different [types of] courses.  In the literature survey presented by the authors, a study by Rovai and Barnum is mentioned, which looked at students’ experiences in two online courses.  But, since the courses were in the same general field (education), and the overall scope was small, the findings are not generalizable.


Of particular interest for me, pursing the development of a junior/high school online education program, is the finding that email, not other online tools, such as chat and discussion boards, influenced students’ sense of community.  Given that students, in grades 7-12, in the pilot implementation of my program – a blended learning format, not fully online – find the use of email either incredibly arduous or highly undesirable, I am surprised.  This may point to the difference in online communication preferences between today and 2009, when the study was conducted.  Also,  it is likely that the adults in the study, irrespective of the era (acknowledging the rapid pace of technological change and use), use technologies and communicate differently than 12-19 year olds.  Exploring or hoping for future research on how K-12 students prefer to connect and how this influences their achievement is relevant to my work.


Also, I am especially interested in the study’s finding that learners with the experience of at least one online course did not experience community or connectedness in the same way as online learning novices.  The study found that these students seemed to find community at conferences more than in active participation in elements of their course(s) that might lend to a sense of community.  This reminds of the important finding of Liou, Antrop-González, & Cooper (2009) that students benefit academically from communities of practice that may be well outside of their academic environment.  Their community cultural wealth model highlights the importance of communities such as those created by students’ families or localities for student success.  Further investigation on how learners (particulary in grades 7-12) succed academically, in part through their role in and the characteristics of community within their online education context, will be important to my work, and that of online education in general.


Liou, D. D., Antrop-González, R., & Cooper, R. (2009). Unveiling the promise of community cultural wealth to sustaining Latina/o students’ college-going information networks. Educational Studies, 45(6), 534–555. doi:10.1080/00131940903311347


[1] For example, on page 278, the authors refer to the same research conducted by Rovia and Rovai.  Or, on page 279, a sentence that would make the point of the paragraph is left unfinished: “Not only does online interaction impact on students’ sense of community, but it is also found to be related to students’ learning success in.”

1 comment — post a comment

Andrea Decker

Wow! I am also surprised by the business about e-mail. Our students seem to hate email. They never check it. That’s one of the reasons we’re going to Canvas, in the hopes that e-mail within a Learning Management System will be used with more regularity, and enthusiasm, than e-mail. Very interesting blog post, Clea.

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