Factors and issues supporting learning communities among distance learners
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The purpose of this study was to investigate sources and processes that impacted community building among distance learners enrolled in an online cohort program within the context of higher education. Sub-purposes were threefold. First, this study identified the existence of a community in the online cohort program. Next, it identified factors and issues that supported the creation and sustained the community in the online cohort. A third purpose was to describe the processes of individual participants’ involvement in the community throughout the period of the cohort program. A qualitative case study design was appropriate, given the research questions. The case was an online, four semester-long, non-degree program based on a cohort model offered in a large southeastern university. Data were primarily gathered through two phases of open-ended questionnaires to self-selected participants. Another source of data was the postings on the course bulletin boards made by the four primary participants during the last three semesters. Data were inductively analyzed and interpreted searching for themes and patterns. Those indicators that supported the development of a community extracted from related literature were also found in the data. These indicators included shared goals and practice, support, and feelings of belonging. In this study, the students of the cohort shared the communal goal of pursuing additional credential to their education certification. Through interaction, engagement, and alignment, the students showed that they supported each other’s learning, developed shared practice, and felt a sense of belonging. Community building in this online cohort was a result of the interaction of students, instructors, and circumstances of this particular program. Interaction, engagement, and alignment among the students; assistance and facilitation by the instructors; course structure; and the use of a cohort model appeared to have had an impact on community building. Although the students belonged to the same community, they revealed diverse experiences in it. They engaged in the community differently depending on their individual needs, desire, and situations. The individual students reported different concepts of a community, different levels of involvement in the community, and different way of connecting with others in the community.