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«THE PROCESS OF COMMUNITY-BUILDING IN DISTANCE LEARNING CLASSES Dr. Ruth E. Brown brownr Phone 308-865-8736 Fax 308-865-8806 attn. Ruth Brown ...»

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JALN Volume 5, Issue 2 - September 2001



Dr. Ruth E. Brown


Phone 308-865-8736

Fax 308-865-8806 attn. Ruth Brown

Communications Department – Thomas 109

University of Nebraska at Kearney

Kearney, NE 68849-1340.


The purpose of this study was to develop a theory about the process through which community formed in adult computer-mediated asynchronous distance learning classes. A grounded theory design incorporated archived class input as well as interviews with twenty-one students and three faculty members from three graduate-level distance education classes.

A three-stage phenomenon was ascertained. The first stage was making friends on-line with whom students felt comfortable communicating. The second stage was community conferment (acceptance) which occurred when students were part of a long, thoughtful, threaded discussion on a subject of importance after which participants felt both personal satisfaction and kinship. The third stage was camaraderie which was achieved after long-term or intense association with others involving personal communication. Each of these stages involved a greater degree of engagement in both the class and the dialogue.

Causal conditions, intervening conditions, strategies and consequences were enumerated. A visual model of the entire process of community-building was advanced. Benefits of community were noted, and suggestions were made to facilitate the formation of an on-line community.


asynchronous, engagement, learner-centered


Distance learning is an increasingly important aspect of higher education because it meets the needs of an expanding pool of nontraditional students who find education necessary for jobs in today’s information age. Unlike the industrial era when skills needed were relatively fixed, today education is needed to meet employers’ growing demand for continually evolving skills. Distance learning provides a convenient, flexible, manageable alternative for this developing segment of society.

However, students in asynchronous distance classes work at computers miles apart at varying times of the day and night. This feeling of being alone is overcome when students join together in a community of learners who support one another [1]. The process of forming a community of learners is an important issue in distance learning because it can affect student satisfaction, retention, and learning [2-5].

The purpose of this study was to develop a theory about the process of community building as experienced by adults in computer-mediated asynchronous distance education classes. More specifically, JALN Volume 5, Issue 2 - September 2001 this study sought to ascertain the steps that led to feeling part of an on-line community of learners.


Although the term “virtual community” is in common use, few studies have been done to discover how adult distance learning students define community, whether they feel part of a community, and, if so, how that phenomenon occurs. This study is significant because it adds new research, rooted in accepted classroom theory and practice, to the literature for higher education distance learning. This research provides background for curriculum designers and facilitators of distance learning classes, regardless of the field.

In addition, this research has potentially far-reaching implications. One possible implication of distance learning community-building may be students’ desire and ability to continue contact with one another and with faculty through electronic networking. Research points to the need for learning communities to sustain themselves [2, 6]. Yet, at least one study found that interaction stops when a distance learning class ends, just like in a traditional classroom [1]. With the availability of e-mail, this does not have to be the case.

Another implication may be institutional ability to remain in electronic contact with students for alumni, development and community relations activities. The ages and increasing number of nontraditional students make that group ripe for distance learning classes and for friend-raising and fundraising activities that could follow. The technological sophistication of distance learners makes them valuable for electronic networking, grassroots support, lobbying and fundraising.

Therefore, developing theory regarding the process of community-building in college and university adult distance learning courses adds to current literature and provides practical application. If nontraditional distance learners feel a sense of community within the classroom and with the institution, it is possible that this emotional connectedness may provide the support needed for them not only to successfully complete a class or a program but also to have a positive lifelong affiliation with both the department and the degree-granting institution [7, 8].

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A. Research Questions

The research was guided by the following central question:

How was community formed in an adult computer-mediated distance learning class?

Sub-questions were as follows:

How did participants describe or explain community?

What were the actions or events that led to community?

What was the process of forming a community in a computer-mediated class?

What phenomenon was at the center of the process?

What caused the phenomenon?

What was the extent of community-building?

JALN Volume 5, Issue 2 - September 2001 What were the intervening conditions and contexts that affected community-building?

What strategies were used in the community-building process?

What was the theory regarding the process of community-building?

B. Definitions For the purpose of the study, the following definitions were used initially. As the study progressed, participants provided their own definitions of community.

Community meant, “support from people who share common joys and trials” [9].

Community-building referred to creating a sense of belonging, of continuity, of being connected to others and to ideas and values [10].

Community of learners meant a group of people with “a shared purpose, good communication, and a climate with justice, discipline, caring, and occasions for celebration” [11].

A distance learner was “anyone who is not actually in the presence of the teacher while learning, whether in a study room, in the next building, at home or in a place located hundreds, even thousands, of miles away” [12].

C. Research Design

1. Qualitative The qualitative paradigm was chosen for this study for reasons which parallel assumptions made by Merriam [13] regarding qualitative research. Merriam said “qualitative researchers are concerned primarily with process, rather than outcomes or products,” [13] and this study was concerned with the process of community-building in a distance education class. It produced an understanding based on multiple contextual factors, but is not meant to generalize [14].

2. Grounded theory Grounded theory was the qualitative design chosen for this study because, unlike many other forms, it uses a “systematic set of procedures to develop an inductively derived grounded theory about a phenomenon” [15]. The purpose of a grounded theory study is to build theory that is both faithful to and illuminates the area of study. In this study, the findings converged to explain the process of forming a community in a distance learning class. The grounded theory methodology generated, and to some degree provisionally tested, the concepts and the relationships between and among them.

D. Data Collection Procedures

1. Site Selection The first level of purposeful sampling was site selection. Chosen were graduate level educational administration courses delivered asynchronously from a midwestern university by Lotus Notes through the Internet. The technology provided multiple mechanisms for interaction between and among students and faculty, as well as archiving capabilities. The software included areas for large group work, small group work, a “library” for inputting relevant literature and commenting on it, a “cafeteria” for casual “conversation” and a “faculty office” for questions and answers. The Lotus Notes classes were created to

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emulate a learning organization, touted by Senge [16], which employs systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, team learning, and shared vision.

2. Participants The second level of purposeful sampling involved selecting the participants. Research participants were selected according to their ability to contribute to the evolving theory. Miles and Huberman [17] called this theoretical sampling. This begins with selecting and studying a homogeneous sample of individuals and then, after developing the theory, selecting and studying a more heterogeneous sample to confirm or disconfirm the contextual and intervening conditions under which the model appears to hold true.

All twelve students in a fall semester class (henceforth referred to as “the veteran class”) participated.

Veterans were selected because earlier research indicated that computer-mediated distance learners progress through stages from novice to experienced learners [18]. Other factors used to select students for the study were the frequency and supportiveness of their archived class input because supportive interaction has been shown to be an important factor in community [9] as well as in computer-mediated classes [18]. Constructive criticism and encouraging comments are examples of communication that is considered supportive.

Six students were chosen from a spring semester class that contained many new distance learners. (This class will be referred to as the “newbie” class.) These students were chosen to test the concepts being constructed and to see if new ones emerged. Three students were chosen from a five-week summer class (henceforth referred to as “the summer class”) which contained both veterans and newbies, again to test the concepts. The two faculty members who facilitated these classes were also chosen to participate. The third faculty member chosen was instrumental in starting the program and continued to facilitate classes.

During study of the summer class, theoretical saturation was reached.

It should be noted that when the word “students” is used in this study, it refers to the twenty-one distance learning graduate students. When the word “participants” is used, it refers to these twenty-one students plus the three distance learning faculty members.

3. Types of data In grounded theory, most of the data comes from interviews with the participants [19]. The first round of interviewing was done by telephone in order to establish similar rapport with participants who were both near to and far from the researcher. Following the interview, the researcher recorded impressions, “observations,” reflections and interpretations in a computer diary. The second round of questions was directed by the data that emerged from the first round and was accomplished by e-mail. In those cases where follow-up questions were needed for either the telephone or the e-mail interviews, the questions were sent and responded to by e-mail. In addition to interviews, participants’ archived Lotus Notes input was studied.

E. Data Analysis Procedures Grounded theory uses set procedures for analysis of the data. These are coding procedures, devised by Strauss and Corbin [15], which involve breaking down the data, conceptualizing it, and putting it back together in new ways. This is the “central process by which theories are built from data” [15]. Open coding, axial coding and selective coding are all used to analyze the data. Open coding develops categories of information, axial coding connects the categories, and selective coding creates a story or JALN Volume 5, Issue 2 - September 2001 visual model that connects the coding and categories. The final result is a set of theoretical propositions, which are then provisionally tested.

Nine themes or categories emerged through open coding that characterized community-building in asynchronous text-based distance education graduate classes. These categories were “similarities/ differences” of students, their various “needs,” the “student’s role,” the “instructor’s role,” the “class structure,” the “program structure,” participants’ “comparisons” of various forms of distance education as well as comparisons of distance and face-to-face classes, past and future “change” in communities and in education, and “feelings” they experienced during their distance learning classes.

Relationships between categories were explored through axial coding. A paradigm model was developed that portrayed the interrelationships of the axial coding categories by using the following headings: causal conditions, phenomenon, context, intervening conditions, strategies and consequences. (See Figure 1.) From this, selective coding generated a theory which is shown here as a visual model with accompanying explanation. (See Figure 4.) F. Methods for Verification The following strategies, common to qualitative research [19], were used to ensure internal validity: longterm observation at the research site, triangulation of multiple data sources, member checks, peer review, and rich, thick description.

IV. RESULTS A. Community Defined by Participants Two themes emerged from the participants’ descriptions of community. The first was that members of a community generally had something in common, whether it was interests, experiences, goals, values or vision. Many participants seemed to say that commonality was the essence of community. The second theme was derived from participants’ descriptions of “learning community.” Those definitions seemed to involve more action on the part of participants who said they were responsible in part not just for their own learning but for others’ learning, too. That pointed to interaction as a potential core category because it was through interaction that similarities were found and that thoughts and feelings were exchanged.

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