Online Learning Communities

The topic in IPT 692R this week fit right in with a presentation Taylor and I made at UVU on Friday at the Scholarship of Teaching and Engagement Conference.  We spoke about learning communities, drawing on a framework explained by Brook & Oliver (2003), who drew strongly on McMillan & Chavis (1986) (though the framework was from another scholar, Biggs (1989)).  When I saw the McMillan & Chavis reading assignment, I was delighted, since I had put it onto my to-read list.

McMillan & Chavis review several studies on community, and then propose a clear definition of the term: “Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together (McMillan, 1976)” (McMillan & Chavis, 1986, p. 9).  They then propose four elements to this definition:

  • membership
  • influence
  • integration & fulfillment of needs
  • shared emotional connection

In their discussion of membership, they explore the issues of boundaries, including those that establish a neighborhood community. They discuss the sometimes very subtle demarcations used to show who is a member and who is not to a particular neighborhood community, and write that “[s]uch barriers separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ and allay anxiety by delimiting who can be trusted” (McMillan & Chavis, 1986,  p. 10).  This reminded me of Sandra Cisneros’s chapter from The House on Mango Street, entitled “Those Who Don’t.”  It’s so short I will quote the entire chapter here:

Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes. (Cisneros, 1984, p. 28)

McMillan & Chavis were concerned with communities in general, not simply online communities.  Brook & Oliver (2003) adapt the definition and elements of community proposed by McMillan & Chavis to the online setting.  As well they adopt Biggs’ (1989) “3 P” model, applying the stages of presage, process, and product to the steps of developing an online learning community. (This model is what Taylor and I used in our presentation.) Brook & Oliver connect this model to the findings of Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson (1997), who argue that the social construction of knowledge in the online environment progresses through five sequential phases:

  • sharing & comparing of information
  • discovery or exploration of dissonance or inconsistency among ideas, concept or statements
  • negotiation of meaning
  • testing & modification of proposed synthesis or co-construction
  • agreement statements & the application of newly constructed meaning

I wonder how this sequence is particularly for online learning.  Does F2F learning progress through a similar sequence?

One of the most interesting quotations in Brooks & Oliver was this: “Essential in the formation of all communities is the purpose that the community serves in the lives of its members (Hawley, 1950; Sarason, 1974).” I think this is very true, and may be one of the hurdles in trying to establish a sense of community in a classroom, whether F2F, blended, or online.  What lasting or significant purpose will that class serve in the lives of its members? Is the course simply a general ed requirement that may have little inherent purpose for students?

Rovai & Jordan (2004) found that blended learning environments may have the strongest sense of community (in comparison to similar F2F and completely online courses).  The authors felt that this was due to the greater range of opportunities for students to interact with each other & with the professor, though they did not research the exact causes (see p. 4).


Brook, Chris, and Oliver, Ron. (2003). “Online learning communities: Investigating a design framework.” Australian Journal of Educational Technology. 19(2): 139-160.

Cisneros, Sandra. (1984). “Those Who Donʼt.” In The House on Mango Street, p. 28.

McMillan, David W., and Chavis, David M. (1986). “Sense of community: A definition and theory.” Journal of Community Psychologym 14(1): 6-23. doi:10.1002/1520-6629(198601)14:1<6::AID-JCOP2290140103>3.0.CO;2-I.

Rovai, Alfred P., and Jordan, Hope M. (2004).  “Blended learning and sense of community: A comparative analysis with traditional and fully online graduate courses.” International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. 5(2): 1-13.


2 thoughts on “Online Learning Communities

  1. thanks for sharing. You said:

    “One of the most interesting quotations in Brooks & Oliver was this: ‘Essential in the formation of all communities is the purpose that the community serves in the lives of its members (Hawley, 1950; Sarason, 1974).'”

    I tend to see community forming more in programs than in individual courses. I wonder if it is because a course is more limited in time and purpose. Maybe an analogy would be like thinking of a yard sale as a place to establish community in a neighborhood. Some people come because they are looking for a couch, others a lamp, maybe others are more open to meeting people etc.


  2. Interesting. I like the yard sale analogy. I have been to yard sales where I have seen others as my competition. I also may try to make friends with the owner because it may give me a better price not over real concern. I think that can happen in online classes. Some are there to take and not share like Gunawardena, Lowe & Anderson (1997) suggested. They may also want to get to know the instructor for alternative reasons other than community building.

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