Online Interest Groups: Virtual Gathering Spaces to Promote Graduate Student Interaction

Online Interest Groups: Virtual Gathering Spaces to Promote Graduate Student Interaction

Beverley Getzlaf (Centre for Nursing and Health Studies, Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB, Canada), Sherri Melrose (Centre for Nursing and Health Studies, Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB, Canada), Sharon Moore (Centre for Nursing and Health Studies, Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB, Canada), Helen L. Ewing (Arizona School of Health Sciences, A.T. Still University, Mesa, AZ), James Fedorchuk (Centre for Nursing and Health Studies, Athabasca University, Athabasca, AB, Canada) and Tammy Troute-Wood (Center for Nursing and Health Studies, Athabasca University, AB, Canada)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 14
DOI: 10.4018/ijopcd.2012100105
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Abstract

This article discusses a 15 month educational innovation project, the objective of which was to investigate the perceptions of health profession students about their participation in a program-wide virtual community gathering space (Clinical Interest Groups) during their online graduate studies. Participants were students in two graduate programs who joined online forum discussions of the Clinical Interest Groups. The project was developed as action research and employed an exploratory, descriptive methodology to generate data from three sources: participant responses to a 15-item Likert type questionnaire, five open-ended questions included on the questionnaire, and online postings contributed by participants to the forum discussions. Findings of use to online educators are that the Clinical Interest Groups provided a gathering place in which graduate students could discuss common interests and support one another, and that participation in the groups was limited due to competing demands on students’ time from other commitments.
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Conceptual Framework And Literature Review

The project was guided by the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework described by Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer (1999). The COI framework highlights three major dimensions of the online learning environment that overlap to form the educational experience of the student: social presence (interpersonal connection), cognitive presence (construction of meaning through communication) and teaching presence (facilitation of active learning). Of these dimensions, social presence is the most relevant to this project.

Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and emotionally in a community of inquiry (Rourke et al., 1999). Social presence includes feeling comfortable, safe and willing to accept both support and differing points of view (Anderson, (2005). Rourke et al. suggest that social presence increases academic, social and institutional integration, resulting in increased persistence and course completion. There are a number of studies that have supported this suggestion, concluding that social presence is created in online learning environments and contributes positively to learning, satisfaction and persistence in online learning (Aragon, 2003; Mayne & Wu, 2011; Melrose & Bergeron, 2006; Richardson & Swan, 2003; Russo & Benson, 2005; Swan & Shih, 2005; Tu, 2002). On the other hand, feelings of isolation can be exacerbated when students do not feel a sense of social presence or when they do not feel that they are part of a community (Jung, 2001).

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