Online Interest Groups for Graduate Students: Benefit or Burden?

Online Interest Groups for Graduate Students: Benefit or Burden?

Sherri Melrose (Athabasca University, Canada), Sharon L. Moore (Athabasca University, Canada) and Helen Ewing (A. T. Still University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4615-5.ch005
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This chapter extends discussion of an educational innovation project where faculty (the authors and associates) provided virtual gathering spaces (Clinical Interest Groups) for online health professions students to congregate. Unlike gathering spaces offered in discrete courses, the non-graded Clinical Interest Groups were open to all students in the nursing faculty’s graduate programs. Getzlaf, Melrose, Moore, Ewing, Fedorchuk, and Troute-Wood (2012) found that students believed the virtual gathering spaces offered a valuable place where learners could discuss common interests and support one another. However, findings also revealed that participation in the groups was limited due to competing demands on students’ time from other commitments. As online learning programs become commonplace, and as online social networking spaces also increase in popularity and usage, educators must consider both the benefit and the burden of inviting professional learners to participate in supplemental activities such as online interest groups. Areas for future research are suggested.
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Project Overview

Getzlaf et al’s (2012) 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 was the most relevant to the project and to the present discussion. 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).

The action research project involved inviting students enrolled in a Master of Nursing (MN) or Master of Health Studies (MHS) program at a Canadian university to participate in optional, non-graded online Clinical Interest Groups. While students in the MN program hold undergraduate degrees in nursing, those in the MHS program come from a variety of health disciplines including nursing, physiotherapy, occupational health, dietetics, and medicine. Course work in the program is completed exclusively online using the Moodle learning management system. The primary medium for communication and interaction is asynchronous text-based threaded discussions completed in 14-week online courses. Prior to providing the interest groups, there was no opportunity outside of the courses for students to gather together and interact with other learners in their programs. The programs focus on development of leadership skills and, despite the fact that most students are employed in clinical settings and have extensive clinical expertise; there was no option for students to engage in discussions with their peers about clinical areas of interest.

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