Effectiveness of Online Learning Communities to Enhance Student Learning | digitalLEARNING Magazine
July 2007

Effectiveness of Online Learning Communities to Enhance Student Learning

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Anu A Gokhale

Professor
Illinois State University, USA
aagokha@ilstu.edu
Considerable attention has been given recently to the ‘Net Generation’, also called the ‘Y Generation’. This group of individuals, born between 1980 and 1994, have been characterised by their familiarity with and reliance on information and communication technologies. Several authors have argued that the digital culture in which the Net Generation has grown up has influenced their preferences in a number of key areas related to education. For example, these students are said to prefer receiving information quickly; be adept at processing information rapidly; prefer multi-tasking and non-linear access to information; have a low tolerance for lectures; prefer active rather than passive learning; rely heavily on communications technologies to access information and to carry out social and professional interactions. The Net Generation has embraced the concept of publishing on the Web, and that bode well for the project’s use of emerging technologies to provide topical modules for discussions, communicate with students, and enhance their understanding of the subject-matter.

This project explores and exploits uses of tools like blogs and podcasts, as part of building online communities to enhance student learning in a computer programming class of about 24 students taught at the author’s home institution. The blogs in this project promote a student community knit by common educational interests, and provide a sense of support for students, especially for women and minority students, pursuing a computing major.

Kennedy et al (Questioning the Net Generation: A Collaborative Project in Australian Higher Education, 2006) purport that universities are ill-equipped to recruit and retain a new generation of learners whose sophisticated use of emerging technologies is incompatible with more traditional practices. The integration of  information and communication technologies (ICTs) into teaching and learning brings unique challenges which heighten the critical interrelationships between technology, instruction, and the organisational environment in which they are embedded.

The technologies being used must serve the needs of the curriculum, not vice versa (Gosper et al, 2007).

What are learning communities?

In educational contexts, the term “learning communities” traditionally has been applied to programmes that involve first and second-year undergraduates, along with faculty.  A variety of approaches are used to restructure the students’ time, credit, and learning experiences to build community among students, between students and their instructors, and among faculty members within and across disciplines (MacGregor in Strategies for Energising Large Classes: From Small Groups to Learning Communities, 2000; Senge et al, Schools That Learn, 2000; Springer et al, Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-analysis, 1999). Learning communities are popular in current school improvement circles (DuFour, What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 2004), but this concept is not new; it began in the realm of business with the understanding that organisations can learn. Change agents in education borrowed the concept in an attempt to improve student learning.

Why online?

The “online” aspect of learning communities is highly relevant, because learning specialists Fernette and Brock Eide (2005) contend that blogging, podcasting, and similar interfaces have tremendous potential for positive impact on students:

  • Promote critical, analytical, and analogical thinking
  • Be a powerful promoter of creative, intuitive, and associational thinking
  • Be a powerful medium for increasing access and exposure to quality information
  • Combine the best of solitary reflection and social interaction

Objectives

There were two objectives of this study:

  • To identify the attributes of blogs that receive highly favorable rating from students, and
  • To determine if there is a significant difference in performance at the 0.05 significance level, on a class final exam between students who are encouraged to participate in online learning communities versus traditional methods (encouraged to meet in groups).

Methodology

This innovative study, involved one or two computing professionals, two senior computing students, and a student with Web design skills organised into teams to run “online learning communities” from a free Web-based service. Students wrote diary-like entries, placed videos, photos, podcasts and more, but it was all related to the computing class. Examples are: quizzes and games based on computing or mathematics concepts; guided discussions; videos on exciting careers related to computing applications; interesting stories about famous and not-so-famous computer scientists, and contributions of computing professionals in solving societal problems.

The student teams were given the following guidelines: 1) Identify their community purpose or goal; 2) Identify their target audience; 3) Think about which interaction tools would serve their purpose and audience and how to structure the space; 4) Think about how they want to host or facilitate their community; 5) Build it, pilot it, and revise; 6) Draw in the members; 7) Nurture it so it grows.

Hiring students as bloggers

According to Richardson (Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, 2006), newer features, such as blogs and videos are much more popular with the Net Generation when younger staff members and current students create the content. The bloggers benefit too; the greater the students’ involvement in the academic life, the greater their acquisition of knowledge and development of skills (Tinto, Classrooms as Communities: Exploring the Educational Character of Student Persistence, 1997).

The women and minority junior/senior computing majors on the teams offered valuable insight into designing blogs that appealed to these populations. The author met the blogging teams regularly to determine what contributions are being made by each of the team members, and to determine any apparent gender- or ethnically-linked patterns to the ideas contributed by students.

Training programmes for student bloggers

The message to the student bloggers was simple: the freshman and sophomores may be intellectually ready for challenging technology-based learning processes and activities, but they may not be personally motivated to seek out online items related to education. It was the bloggers’ task to tap into the current culture of student communication styles and think about what appeals to them, what would strike them as engaging, and then figure out creative ways of applying their own experience to enhance student interest in the field and learning of concepts that may be difficult to grasp. The instructors pointed students in the direction of the online content, but the bloggers had to make that content relevant and engaging to their target audience.

The students on the teams previously completed the course themselves, so they knew about the course content, and about the attitudes typical of students enrolled in the course. The  bloggers were encouraged to seek help with content and resources from computing faculty and professionals in industry. They were free to be creative and innovative, as long as their work remained responsible and relevant to the project.

The online communities were closely monitored by the author and computing faculty, for accuracy and appropriateness of content.

Techniques to motivate participants to explore the blogs

One strategy that proved successful in getting the students to participate was to have them cast a vote for their favorite “online community” every week. Although the criteria for evaluation were developed by a team of faculty, the students in the class determined a winner every week. At the end of the semester, a grand prize for the team that won most number of times during the semester. Since a nearly equal distribution of males and females cast the vote, the online community that won represented one that appealed to
both genders.

Results and discussion

All 24 student participants in the experimental group completed a questionnaire at the end of a 15-week experience with online learning communities. Over 90% of them were highly satisfied with the experience and overwhelmingly agreed that they learned collaboratively as a group. Upon close inspection of open-ended comments, it was found that women were turned off by the aggressive and competitive nature of some content, but when the community was perceived as being supportive with a relaxed, warm
and sociable atmosphere, they participated enthusiastically in the online discussion.

These findings are in agreement with the results of previous work done by the author and other researchers. The study did not find any significant differences among members of different races; however, there was very little racial diversity so the data was insufficient to draw a reliable and valid conclusion on this aspect.
In response to the first objective, the tables provide a comparative study of student perspectives on different attributes of learning communities. At the beginning of the semester, students rated the attributes on their importance in deciding their favorite learning community. At the end of the semester, students rated each learning community using the same attributes. Values are means ± standard deviation of evaluations, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest rating.

The data shows a discrepancy between what students consider “important” attributes of learning communities, and how they ultimately vote. As an example, academic content was rated as being a very important attribute, but the learning community that won the “favourite” vote did not rate very high on this attribute.

In response to the second objective, the effectiveness of online learning communities to enhance student learning and academic performance was evaluated using a pre-test post-test control group design. Using a t-test, the author determined that there were no pretest differences, but the experimental group, when compared to the control group, performed significantly better (t = 2.17) on the posttest (class final exam). It could be argued that more factors are in play and requires more research.

The introduction of new technologies has implications for the whole educational enterprise including infrastructure, curriculum, teaching and learning methods, support for faculty and students, and academic policy and practices. The methodologies and outcomes of this study may be used for different purposes: 1) enhance student preparation before they enter college; 2) promote competence of computing students in specific areas; 3) address specialised topics; and 4) target a segment of the population (like women and minorities) to recruit and retain in computing. In effect, this research demonstrated effective use of emerging technologies to create a network that enhances learning and builds communities, at very little cost.

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