Date of Award

1-1-2004

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Faculty

Faculty of Communications and Creative Industries

First Advisor

Professor Ron Oliver

Abstract

As educators and training providers embrace online technologies, some researchers posit that the development of a learning community is perhaps the most fundamental goal of online instructors (Hiltz, 1997). The process for developing and maintaining learning communities, however, remains unclear (Bonk & Wisher, 2000; PaJloff & Pratt, 1999). This study sought to provide insight into factors that influence community development through an exploration of the community experience in online settings. To do this, it was necessary to establish an understanding of the community construct through an extensive review of contemporary literature. A review of the online learning community literature was conducted to provide a broader perspective on the process for developing a learning community and to ensure that current knowledge informed the study. As a consequence of the expansive literature review a framework to guide the exploration of the community experience in online settings was designed. This framework identified pre-existing factors as well as instructor actions that influence community development in a chain if events that concludes with the community experience. The research took the form of a multi case study methodology based on the qualitative research paradigm conducted over a one:-semester period. Data gathering processes were based on Grounded Theory (Strauss, 1987) utilising course related discourse, instructor interviews, observations and the , Sense of Community Index (Chavis, Hogge, McMillan, & Wandersman, 1986). Data analysis utilised a constant comparative approach in the data coding and management processes. Data was categorised according to factors that demonstrate community development, the elements of SOC and emergent themes. Findings were presented as an aggregation of all courses to provide an expansive view of factors that influence community development. Findings suggest that the Model developed to guide the study provides a robust framework that is useful in investigating the sense of community experienced in online settings. Numerous pre-existing factors that limit community development were identified. However, instructor actions that promote community development, and in some instances overcome limitations presented by pre-existing factors, were also identified. The interrelationship between these factors was seen to influence in various ways the sense of community experienced by students in the each of the settings. The major implications of the study are that instructors will inevitably encounter pre-existing conditions that will limit community development. Given the context specific nature of the community experience it is difficult for researchers to provide a discrete set of design principles that will account for all considerations in the process of community development. It is the instructor who is in the position to ascertain the most effective strategies to overcome factors that limit community development. The Model developed in this study, provides a robust framework for identifying pre-existing factors that are likely to influence community development. The Model also provides a strong framework for guiding instructors in the selection of instructional strategies that promote community development. At the conclusion of the thesis factors that serve to limit the generalisability of findings are described and suggestions 'for future research are provided.

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