Electronic Classroom, Electronic Community: Designing eLearning Environments to Foster Virtual Social Networks and Student Learning

Electronic Classroom, Electronic Community: Designing eLearning Environments to Foster Virtual Social Networks and Student Learning

Lisa Harris (RMIT University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-735-5.ch006
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The capacity for online learning environments to provide good quality learning experiences for students has been the focus of speculation and debate in the higher education sector from the late 1990s to the present day. In this area, “quality” has become synonymous with engaging students in a learning community. This chapter reports on a qualitative research project designed to explore the significance of community for students studying online. Using three fundamentally different types of online learning environments as case studies, this research explored the relationship between the constructed online learning environment and the development of learning communities or what the author has termed social learning support networks (SLSN). Exploring the common themes to emerge from these three case studies, this research provides new evidence of the benefit of community for students studying online and argues that future online learning environments should be shaped by five key principles designed to foster a sense of social connection between students.
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‘I pay the schoolmaster, but ‘tis the schoolboys that educate my son’. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


The Three Case Studies

This research used a multiple-case study approach to explore three different online environments. The first case used a rudimentary web page with email communication and discussion boards. The second, a purpose built Virtual Social Space operating within a Course Management System (WebCT). The third, a text based virtual campus operating in a MOO environment (Multi user dimensions-Object-Oriented).

The first case study took a group of undergraduate social science students who were studying a single course online as part of a three-year on-campus program offered by the School of Social Science and Planning, RMIT University Melbourne, Australia. The online environment in which these students were studying was primitive using only a web page and email, and provided little or no opportunity for the participating students to develop a sense of connection with each other. Students’ interactions were teacher driven and focused on course content and assessment activities. The students interviewed in this case were asked to explore their experiences of developing connections with other students both on campus and in the online learning environment they were studying in.

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