Online Learning Communities: If You Build Them, Will They Stay?

Janette R. Hill
University of Georgia

Arjan Raven
Georgia State University

The use of electronic technologies for the delivery of instruction continues to grow at an exponential rate. More universities are seeking ways to use on-line tools to deliver instruction as the technological infrastructure expands in terms of its capabilities and power (Daniel, 1998; Katz, 1999). At the same time the institutional infrastructure is expanding, learners who could be taking courses at a distance have easier access to the technologies needed to acquire and share information with other participants. Increasingly, these learners are requesting that universities supply them with the means to engage in formal learning via distance technologies. Learners are even specifying the areas most relevant for them (management, information technologies, health, English) (Otchet, 1998).


Another interesting phenomena surrounding Web-based instruction (WBI) is the degree to which the demand infiltrates varied disciplines. Unlike other technological innovations (e.g., computer-based instruction, PowerPoint presentations), use of the Web for formal and informal learning activities is occurring across subject areas. Learners and faculty members in a variety of disciplines (e.g., art, history, information systems, education, science) are drawn to the promise this technology holds for the delivery of instruction at a distance.


Despite the increased robustness of the technology and appeal of the delivery mechanism across disciplines, several challenges associated with the successful implementation of WBI remain unresolved (see Barley, 1999, for an overview of several issues). One significant challenge traditionally associated with distance education is retention (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Historically, drop out rates have ranged from 30 to 50 percent. While many factors contribute to noncompletion, two of the reasons stated in research relate to level of interaction and support in distance delivered courses (Moore & Kearsley, 1996). Systematic application of strategies and techniques to increase interaction and support for learners in WBI may help reduce the noncompletion rate.


Closely associated with retention is student satisfaction with distance delivered courses. While some studies have reported high satisfaction from learners in on-line courses (see, for example, Hill, 1999a; Hill, Rezabek, & Murry, 1998; Wayland, Swift & Wilson, 1994), others have indicated that students often experience frustration with distance delivered courses (c.f. Ritchie & Newby, 1989). We have also seen evidence of this in our Web-based classes. Dissatisfaction with courses can have several consequences, among them: low evaluation ratings for the instructor, students dropping out of a course, students not taking distance delivered courses in the future, or low evaluations for the program that the course is part of (see Swift, Wilson & Wayland, 1997, for further discussion). As we move further into the digital age and the increase in demand for WBI continues to expand, we need to discover ways to satisfy learners, and keep them engaged in the on-line learning process.


One explanation for high dropout rates and dissatisfaction with distance delivered courses may relate to a lack of community in non face-to-face courses. In discussing the importance of interactivity, DeVries & Wheeler (1996) discuss the lack of face-to-face contact as a major barrier for distance education. Martin (1999) also mentions the lack of face-to-face contact as a negative aspect to distance delivered courses. Research by the lead author, however, indicates that community building can occur in distance delivered courses (Hill, 1999a), much like community building can occur in virtual teams in the business sector (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Raven, 1999). In a recent course offered via Web-based technologies Hill not only observed a community being developed; she evoked specific strategies and techniques to assist with community building (Hill, 1999b). While these strategies and techniques have yet to be explored in a formal study, informal testing of the strategies and techniques in a Web-based course during the summer of 1999 indicate a relationship between their application and community building in WBI. Given that a sense of a learning community has been demonstrated to contribute to performance in group settings (Lave & Wenger, 1991), discovering the best strategies and techniques for community building may lead to enhanced course outcomes (e.g., retention, satisfaction, learning outcomes) by participants in WBI.


The strategies and techniques related to community building in WBI are directly tied to implementation of WBI; however, steps can be taken at the design and development stages to also help ensure the development of a community in WBI. Currently, there is a significant amount of literature related to the creation of distance education, including literature related to the design and development of WBI (see Khan, 1997, for a collection of chapters related to WBI). What is missing from the literature is a clear delineation of guidelines for community building, and how best to facilitate this during design, development and implementation. Best practices related to community building in WBI remain unknown. By examining the integration of specific strategies and techniques in a WBI for community building, we can determine best practices for the delivery of instruction via on-line technologies. This will then enable us to create a comprehensive design framework to guide faculty and learners in all phases of WBI: design, development and implementation.



This study explored best practices for community building in WBI. In doing so, the study sought to examine specific strategies and techniques designed to facilitate the establishment of an on-line community. These strategies and techniques, derived from previous work (Hill, 1999a, b; Hill, Rezabek, & Murry, 1998), were applied and examined in a research setting in order to test their viability and reliability for purposes of guiding the creation of best practice for community building. These best practices can then be used to guide future research in the area of community building in WBI.


The study was guided by the following general research question:

What are the best techniques/strategies to enhance learning and community building in WBI?


This question was addressed through two specific sub-questions:

•What can we do, as designers of, and instructors in, WBI to assist the learner in the effective building of community, and use of Web-based instruction?


•What strategies can learners use to assist themselves in community building and learning while engaged in these environments?

Significance of the Study


While considerable research has been conducted in the general area of distance learning, research specific to Web-based environments for learning has only recently been published (see, for example, Dehoney & Reeves, 1999; Khan, 1997; Hill, 1997a; Hill, 1999a; Owston, 1997; Pritchard, 1998), and most is being presented at a theoretical rather than an empirical level. As the Web and Internet-based technologies (e.g., bulletin boards, e-mail, CUSeeMe, streaming video) continue to grow in popularity and use in higher education, UGA would benefit greatly from investigation of best practices related to WBI. Examination of how best to design and develop learning environments integrating various information technologies and using specific community-building strategies and techniques becomes vital if WBI is to reach its potential for instructional use.


Research Plan


Specifics related to the procedures used in the study are described in the following sections.


Research Design


An embedded case study design was employed in this study, involving the use of multiple cases, or embedded units, within a larger context. The unit of study in the case was the individual faculty member, design expert, or student involved in the WBI implementation. Case study designs are recommended when multiple sources of evidence will be gathered during data collection. Multiple sources of evidence used to triangulate the data to address concerns with internal validity (Yin, 1994). This approach was used by the lead author in previous research (Hill & Hannafin, 1997; Hill, 1997b), and proved successful when looking to describe rich contexts and for model development (Hill, 1999c).


The methods used in collecting data combined descriptive and analytical approaches. The research was descriptive in that strategies and techniques for implementing WBI will be derived from the data gathered during the study. The research was analytic in that information gathered will be analyzed to identify strategies and techniques. This was accomplished through analytical induction. Strategies and techniques revealed during data collection were compared to the strategies and techniques resulting from previous work (Hill, 1999b). Best practices for implementing WBI were then derived based on the analysis of the evidence (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).


Selection and Description of the Participants


The population of this study included university instructors, instructional design experts and working professionals returning to school from various sectors of business and industry (e.g., information technology management, technical support, Web development). The participants were all involved in the graduate-level course Information Infrastructures at a university in metro-Atlanta.


The sample used in the study was selected for a variety of reasons. First, the redesign and development of the information systems course for on-line delivery marked the first time the department was involved in WBI. This provided a unique opportunity to use the entire model to inform the design, development and implementation of the course. In addition, the course was the first in a program to be delivered on-line. Future course offerings create additional participants for future research. Third, the faculty members repurposing the course for Web-based delivery have experience with Web-based technologies. They have used Web pages to enhance the face-to-face delivery of instruction for the course. Their expertise with the tools facilitated the smooth design and development of the course for Web-based delivery. Finally, the sample was representative of other graduate programs at other institutions throughout the United States, facilitating generalizability of results to a broader population.


All learners were informed of the nature of the study and general requirements. Those selecting to participate were asked to give written consent for taking part in the study.


The Course

Information Infrastructures examines computers, software and communication networks as complex systems of interacting parts, called the "information technology infrastructure." It examines the complex organization of computers, networks, software and delivery goals which collectively form the platform for assimilating and delivering information products and services to the organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, suppliers, government, etc.). The course has strong “hands-on” components, and students are introduced to the development of active webpages, entity relationship diagramming, normalization, and the use of standard query language (SQL). Given the nature of the course, it presents considerable challenges for on-line delivery (projects, group work, etc.). Discovering ways to facilitate distance delivery of these courses is an important step in meeting the needs of our students and their future contributions to society.


Information Infrastructures was chosen for two main reasons:


•Involvement in the on-line version of the course is voluntary, thus helping ensure a variety of learners (e.g., experience with WBI, technologies used in the course) being involved in the study.


•Learners begin the course with a variety of backgrounds, as well as differences in their technology experience. This variety is essential for examining strategies and techniques across potential students involved in WBI.


WBI Development


A variety of technologies were used in the development and implementation of Information Infrastructures. These include: Dreamweaver® for the development of Web pages, advanced scripting (e.g., VisualBasicScript®) to enable high-end capabilities in the Web site, database technologies to support the overall site infrastructure, and WebCT® for the integration of e-mail, bulletin board, and chat systems. Other technologies were employed as deemed necessary by the subject matter experts and instructional designers during design and development.


Measures and Instrumentation


A combination of positivistic and interpretivist techniques were used in gathering evidence for the study. Positivistic (i.e., quantitative) techniques, including surveys and questionnaires, were used to generate individual difference measures for each case. Interpretivist (i.e., qualitative) techniques, including interviews, observations, and content analysis of discussion transcripts, were to monitor the use of community-building strategies and techniques.


Settings and Procedures. Data was collected in a variety of environments. Expert review (subject-matter expert and instructional designers) took place in the environment in which the participant has access to the Web (e.g., the expert’s office at their home institution). Pilot testing with learners in the spring and data gathering with learners in the summer took place in the environment in which the WBI was used, including campus computer labs and the learners' homes/places of employment (depending on where they have access to the Web).The facilities and necessary equipment for data gathering are established. Procedures for data collection and an overall project timeline were fully outlined.


Analysis.To the extent possible, the collection, organization, and analysis of data occurred concurrently. Previous research indicates that this will assist with indicating gaps in data as they are gathered and allow for adaptations in the process (e.g., need for additional information) (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Hert, 1992; Hill & Hannafin, 1997). The analysis of the data gathered involved several stages, including reading through the data, highlighting instances in the data related to the research questions, and identifying themes and patterns in the data to help inform the generation of an explicit list of strategies and techniques for community building in WBI. These analysis techniques have been documented in the literature (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992; Krathwohl, 1998; Yin, 1994) and also used by the first author in previous research (Hill, 1997b; Hill & Hannafin, 1997).


The initial phases of data analysis involved the segmentation of data in accordance with the research questions. As the researchers read the data, multi-colored highlighters were used to mark-up the data according to research question (Ericsson & Simon, 1984; Hill & Hannafin, 1997). Sections of the data related to specific research questions were coded using established strategies and techniques for community building (Hill, 1999b). Additional codes established as themes and patterns not readily applicable to the established categories emerged. All data were compiled according to research questions in the final stage of analysis. Each data set by research question is analyzed for purposes of pattern matching. Pattern matching involves the examination of data, looking for similarities in the reactions, thoughts, and actions of the participants (Hill & Hannafin, 1997; Hill 1997b). Patterns were used to inform the generation of an overall list of strategies and techniques for community building in WBI. This area will then be added into an overall design framework and theoretical models for the creation of WBI.




The study took place over a eight-month period, January - August 2000; analysis of the data continues today.The overall research effort can be divided into three main phases:


•January - April, Spring 2000: Systematic integration of community-building strategies and techniques in a WBI setting during design and development.


•May - August, Summer 2000: Validation of effectiveness of community building strategies and techniques during implementation of WBI. Identification of additional techniques and strategies to enhance community building and learning in WBI.


•September - December, Fall 2000: Development of a comprehensive theoretical model that enables the investigation of the relationship between learning and community building in WBI environments.Development of a comprehensive model for the creation of WBI to include principles and guidelines for design, development, and implementation.


Each phase of the project has a data collection and analysis component.These include:


•January - April, Spring 2000: Questionnaires and interviews with subject matter experts and instructional design experts to ensure the integration of community-building strategies and techniques into Information Infrastructures.Pilot testing of the course Web site with sample learners to ensure the integration of community-building strategies and techniques into Information Infrastructures.Data analysis will take place throughout data collection to inform revisions needed to the Web-based course.


•May - August, Summer 2000: Questionnaires, observations, and interviews with the faculty member teaching and students enrolled in Information Infrastructures. Data analysis will take place throughout data collection to inform revisions needed to the Web-based course.


•September - December, Fall 2000: Thorough data analysis of all information collected.Follow-up interviews with experts, faculty, and students, as determined by the data analysis.Completion of initial project report, to be submitted in January 2001, including the generation of the theoretical and application models for WBI.


Findings to Date


Analysis of the data started over the summer and is continuing this fall.While we do not have "final" results of the data analysis, several trends in the data have been identified and can be used to indicate initial answers to the overall research questions posed.


In terms of the overall research question, What are the best techniques/strategies to enhance learning and community building in WBI?, there appear to be several strategies that can help facilitate community building in on-line courses.The strategies we implemented can be broken out into four main categories:atmosphere, foundation, communication, and technology.A brief description of some of the main strategies is provided in the following paragraphs; we suspect that more strategies will be revealed as we continue the analysis of the data.




Failure safe. A safe on-line environment is one that the learner perceives to be a space where open communication can occur without concern for flaming and non-constructive criticism. It is an environment where trust is valued and honesty is not only promoted, but also encouraged. With connections to increased communication, creating a safe environment can help the learner in overcoming feelings of disconnection and isolation (McLellan, 1998).


Spirit of adventure.One of the current realities of WBI is that few people have a lot of experience in facilitating and/or learning in these environments. It is genuinely a new frontier filled with many unknowns and unfamiliar ground. Encouraging and creating a spirit of adventure, as well as an attitude of " we are all in this together," can assist the learner with feeling connected. Further, this type of atmosphere can assist with reservations about the environment and encourage interaction.




Structural dependence.Structural dependence can be established when the learner relies upon the structure in which learning occurs. The facilitation of structural dependence can assist the learner in overcoming information overload. The learner can establish patterns related to where to find things on the Web site. Further, they can set expectations of when to anticipate certain types of communication.


Organization. WBI environments can be overwhelming in their scope. It is therefore important to create a structure that is appealing and inviting (McLellan, 1998). It is also important that the organization of the WBI environment support efficient and effective access to information when it is needed (Waugh, Levin & Smith, 1994). It is important to attend to the structure and its organization so the learner's potential satisfaction level with WBI is higher.




Connection messages.It can be very easy to loose touch with fellow participants in WBI. Establishing teams or buddies in WBI can encourage the learner to keep in touch with others. Individual messages (learner-learner, learner-facilitator) can also help the learner with maintaining their connection with the larger community (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).




Flexibility. Despite the substantial growth of the Web, both in terms of capabilities and power, "technology happens!" It is therefore very important to remain flexible in terms of how information and dialogue is shared in WBI. One means of being flexible is by providing multiple means of access to information as well as multiple ways to share information within the community. Providing the learner with multiple venues will enable multiple opportunities for sharing and receiving information, thus helping to minimize stress for the learner when the technology fails.


Minimize glitches. Some technology challenges are well beyond an individual facilitator's or learner's control. However, whenever possible, it is important to remove the technology glitches so the learner's interaction in WBI is positive and not filled with impossible challenges (McLellan, 1998). It is also important to provide some form of training (e.g., on-line job aids or FAQs) to help the participant work through the technology challenge when it does occur.This will help make the WBI experience enjoyable, thus motivating the learner to continue participating and contributing to the community.


Implications and Conclusions


In the last five years, many accounts of successful community building in WBIs have been reported in the literature (Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Parson, 1997; Powers & Mitchell, 1997). This is encouraging news for those just venturing into facilitating and learning in WBIs. The risks associated with e-education can be very real for participants, particularly those involved in a WBI for the first time (Neumann, 1998). Knowing there are strategies and techniques for assisting participants in becoming more comfortable in this new learning environment is encouraging.


It should be noted that establishing a community may not always be necessary. There may be times when it is more important to get the information and get on with other things than it is to encourage participants to establish a community. It is also likely that there will always be participants who are not interested in establishing a community. These are not "bad" cases; they simply represent different goals for WBIs.


Yet there are times when it is important to recognize that we can learn from the company we keep. It is in these instances when a community is very important (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999), and understanding the strategies and techniques for establishing a community can be very useful.


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ITFORUM PAPER #46 - Online Learning Communities: If You Build Them, Will They Stay?by Janette R. Hill, University of Georgia, and Arjan Raven, Georgia State University.  Posted on ITFORUM October 10, 2000. The authors retain all copyrights of this work. Used on  ITFORUM by permission of the authors.Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at