Students enrolled in a face-to-face classroom have the opportunity to interact with their peers and develop a sense of community, feelings of belonging, and connectedness. However, students taking courses accessed through the Internet, while they do have classmates, generally cannot see the other students and usually do not interact synchronously with these individuals because the flexibility of both time and location allow for differences in course access. This lack of face-to-face synchronous interaction with other students enrolled in online classes has led to concern about online education because of the social nature of learning. To facilitate the social nature of learning, instructors in the online environment may design classes that engage students and promote the building of community among the students enrolled in the course. Those instructors who perceive that social learning is important will, therefore, encourage students to build the connections that lead to a sense of community and a successful online learning experience.
The number of students involved in online coursework is growing for both post-secondary and secondary education (U.S. Dept. of Ed., 2006). However, in an online classroom, students lack the face-to-face interaction necessary for developing the sense of community and camaraderie that highlight the social nature of learning. Without this face-to-face interaction, developing community can be a challenging task (Poe & Stassen, 2005). For students to feel part of a class and to develop a sense of community that will lead to feelings of belonging, acceptance, and trust in classmates who cannot be heard or seen is difficult.
The value of social connections/relationships can be found in literature from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which spelled out the importance of social relationships by placing social groups and relationships as important needs (Rathus, 1996) to learner-centered education, which puts the focus on learners rather than the instructor. Although the concept of learner-centered education has been around for centuries, the concept was not readily accepted in the beginning.
The one name that nearly every educator knows is John Dewey (1859-1952), who dramatically influenced education throughout his adult life. Dewey believed in the value of experience, with the learner at the center of a series of events. He believed “that the only way a child would develop to its [sic] potential was in a social setting” (Henson, 2003, p. 9). Dewey’s view of learner-centered education was that education “was problem-based and fun” (Henson, 2003, p. 10). When looking at the social nature of learning, Gentry, Rizza, Peters, and Hu (2005) found the “social nature of learning has been widely acknowledged (e.g., Dewey, 1938; Lave & Wenger, 1991), thus creating appropriate social learning environments that foster learning . . . is a desirable goal” (Background, ¶ 5).
Two modern-day educational theories, Constructivism and Cognition, both support the social values of learning. An educational writer who (along with Dewey) strongly supported the value of social interactions to learning was Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky (1896-1934) studied interactions and found students were able to “talk each other through to solutions . . . and collectively solve problems more efficiently than they could solve them when working alone” (Henson, 2003, p. 13). The Constructivism theory is identified by a number of characteristics of which one is the value of social support and refers to the interacting with others when “explaining, defending, discussing, and assessing” ideas (Sherman & Kurshan, 2005, p. 12).