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«NRMERA 2011 Distinguished Paper Instructors’ Perceptions of Community and Engagement in Online Courses Athena Kennedy Suzanne Young Mary Alice ...»

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Kennedy, A., Young, S., & Bruce, M. A. (2012). Instructors’ perceptions of

community and engagement in online courses. The Researcher, 24(2), 74-81.

NRMERA 2011 Distinguished Paper

Instructors’ Perceptions of Community

and Engagement in Online Courses

Athena Kennedy Suzanne Young Mary Alice Bruce

University of Wyoming

Abstract: Instructor facilitation and communication is foundational in building online community and

engagement. Instructors’ perceptions about strategies they use are key to improving online community and engagement. Findings of this study indicate that instructors’ perceived high levels of community building and engagement in online classes. Instructors identify student contact with instructor, personal connections among students, and organization as critical factors in a positive online learning environment.

Keywords: Online Instruction, Student Engagement, Learning Community Community and engagement among students in online courses have emerged as topics of interest in distance education (An, Shin, & Lim, 2009; Bailey & Card, 2009; Liu et al., 2007;

Rovai, 2002; Wilson et al., 2004; Young & Bruce, 2011). Classroom community and student engagement are closely related to one another; students who feel a sense of connectedness rather than isolation are very likely better prepared to become more actively involved with course learning. Increased student satisfaction, motivation, and effective learning are associated with community and student engagement in the online environment (An et al., 2009; Liu et al., 2007; Rovai, 2002; Wilson et al., 2004; Young & Bruce, 2011). Instructors’ perceptions of community and engagement in online courses are an important factor in assessing strategies that work best for creating online community and enhancing student engagement. This study investigated instructors’ perceptions of their employment of strategies for building community and student engagement in the online classroom.

An et al. (2009) noted that, based on substantial literature, online learning communities and social presence are important factors in helping students actively engage in the online classroom, thereby increasing their feelings of being part of the learning group and being strongly connected to others in the course. Liu et al. (2007) conducted a case study of online degree programs and found a relationship between perceptions of community and engagement.

In addition, Liu et al. (2007) found a relationship between community building and reducing students’ feelings of isolation. At the same time the authors found the probability of withdrawal from online courses was reduced when students felt connected with others (Liu et al., 2007).

These results indicate the importance of community in the online classroom. Wilson et al. (2004) Athena Kennedy is a graduate student in the PhD in Educational Administration at the University of Wyoming.

She can be reached at awolfe@uwyo.edu. Suzanne Young is an Associate Dean and professor in the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Young may be reached at syoung@uwyo.edu. Mary Alice Bruce is the Department Head of the Professional Studies Department and a professor in the College of Education at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Bruce may be reached at mabruce@uwyo.edu.

Kennedy et al.

explained the following rationale for creating online learning communities: “Learning communities provide a social context for the material, students feel more connected within a community, and learning communities can serve as a bridge between school and work environments” (p. 3). Connectedness and social aspects help students cope with the lack of faceto-face contact in online classes because they fill the void in this desired human interaction.

Instructor facilitation and communication is foundational in online community building and engagement. Ko and Rossen (2010) suggested strategies for communicating with students in online classes such as posting announcements to keep students reminded and informed, as well as setting rules and protocols for communication in the class such as discussion posts. An et al.

(2009) concluded that thoughtful instructional strategies are critical in generating more student interactions, and it is important to systematically design online learning environments where learners can build a community through the discussion setting. Since a significant amount of communication occurs in the discussions in online classes, this area has great potential for increasing community and student engagement.

Bailey and Card (2009) interviewed award-winning online instructors. They conducted a qualitative, phenomenological analysis of the participants’ responses. Eight effective pedagogical practices for effective online teaching were shared, “fostering relationships, engagement, timeliness, communication, organization, technology, flexibility, and high expectations” (p. 154). The authors also found that participants listed interactive activities among students and instructors such as sharing photos and biographies, participating in an informal class blog, and assigning small group projects, as successful ways to engage students in their learning. These findings suggest students feel more meaningfully engaged in online courses when instructors participate actively in discussions thus creating an essential sense of instructor presence (Arbaugh, 2010; Sung & Mayer, 2012).

Arguments in favor of building community and engagement in the online classroom are provided in the literature (An et al., 2009; Bailey & Card, 2009; Dixon, 2010; Liu et al., 2007;

Rovai, 2002; Wilson et al., 2004; Young & Bruce, 2011). However to further enhance success, there is a need to examine and evaluate instructors’ strategies for enhancing community and engagement in online classes. Seok, Kinsell, DaCosta, and Tung (2010) compared instructors’ and students’ perceptions of online course effectiveness. The findings indicated that “…instructors had statistically significant higher perceptions toward online course effectiveness than students” in the areas of getting started, course management, communications, and content” (p. 34). These findings indicated there might be a gap between instructors’ perceptions and what is actually occurring in online classes. This study also showed instructors with advanced technology skills had positive perceptions of online course effectiveness (Seok et al.).

Technology skills are not necessarily indicative of effective teaching; therefore this finding also suggests the need for further research on instructors’ perceptions.

Researchers have provided a variety of suggestions for best practices in online teaching for building community and student engagement. Wilson et al. (2004) suggested that it is important in building online communities, for online instructors to “model community participation skills and values, including turn-taking, netiquette, thoughtful responses to peer’s posts, and organization and facilitation of community events and chat” (p. 10). In addition, instructors should interact with students in discussions to guide them in community building and be present in conversations where issues among students might arise (Sung & Mayer, 2012). Liu et al. (2007) noted that without instructor attention and monitoring, strategic planning and support, purposeful assignments and activities, online communities cannot be created on their own. Historically, Rovai (2002) suggested using both task-driven and socio-emotional interactions to enhance sense of community cognitively and psychologically.

Volume 24, Issue 2 | The Researcher 75 Kennedy et al.

Audience considerations are important in online course design. Richardson and Newby (2006) suggested that instructors must consider issues such as student age, experience in online coursework, program, etc. when designing an online course. These considerations enhance course design and provide a foundation for choosing technological tools for the course.

Technology choices are vast in today’s world and research has suggested technology is improving teaching and learning. Using new technologies, such as podcasting and vodcasting, may add interest and anticipation to online courses (Borup, West, & Graham, 2012). Specifically emerging video technologies offer a myriad of possibilities for students and instructors to ease the sense of isolation and enhance interactions related to course material and learning (Sherer & Shea, 2011). They also help build instructor student relationships while tapping into different modes of learning (Bailey & Card, 2009; Borup et al., 2012; Ko & Rossen, 2010; Sull, 2010). Also, informal activities that can enhance social presence and connections include the posting of biographies, pictures, and an exchange of unique personal updates on social networking sites and course message boards (Lester & Perini, 2010). Social networking is a place where students live and can be engaged; utilizing it for course content is a way to engage students and increase community online. Technology use is a crucial factor in enhancing student engagement and community that should be considered when designing courses.

Additionally, online instructors’ communication frequency and interaction is important in enhancing distance learning for students. Based on their research findings, Dennen, Darabi, and Smith (2007) asserted online instructors should “… maintain frequency of contact with students in a timely manner, have a regular presence in class discussion spaces, and make expectations clear to learners through the use of example assignments or models of discussion posts” (p. 77).

These practices will help students perform better and increase their satisfaction with the course.

However, according to Arbaugh (2010), in his study of 46 online courses across 2 years, instructors must moderate the intensity of their interactions and not take excessive responsibility for student attitudes that results in less student perceived learning and satisfaction.

Many suggestions have been made about building online community and student engagement based on research findings. Dixon (2010) noted that opportunities for meaningful interactions online help students perceive a sense of belonging and engagement despite the lack of face-to-face presence. With this in mind, it is important to gain understanding about the relationship among online community and engagement. Instructors’ perceptions about strategies they use for facilitating this are key to improving online community and engagement.

The research questions guiding this study were the following:

1. What strategies do online instructors use to engage students and build community in online learning?

2. What are differences across disciplines (colleges) in how instructors perceive they are creating engagement and building community?

3. What are the differences in perceptions of creating engagement and building community online among male and female instructors?


All instructors teaching online at a university in the Rocky Mountain region were invited to participate in the study during the 2011 spring semester. Courses were in education, health sciences, business, arts and sciences, and agriculture. A total of 75 instructors were invited to complete a survey.

Volume 24, Issue 2 | The Researcher 76 Kennedy et al.

An online survey was adapted from Young and Bruce (2011) to assess the degree to which instructors believed they engaged students with learning in the course and developed a classroom community. Twenty-eight items were developed based on research that was grounded in student engagement (11 items) and classroom community (17 items). Reliability for the community sub-scale was 0.73, and for the engagement sub-scale was 0.63. Overall reliability for the scale was 0.81. In addition, instructors were asked to provide some demographic information. The survey was expected to take approximately 10 minutes to complete.

The initial invitation was sent to instructors about a month prior to the end of the semester, followed by two reminders at one-week intervals. Forty-three instructors responded for an overall response rate of 57% (n=43).


Participants responded to several demographic questions on the survey. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents described themselves as male (n=16), while 56% (n=24) indicated they were female. Instructors reported that they had taught courses online an average of 16.6 times, often teaching the same course multiple times.

What strategies do online instructors use to engage students and build community in online learning? Means and standard deviations were found for items on the two sub-scales and rank ordered to indicate items that appeared to most strongly describe how instructors were working to create community and engagement in their online courses. Table 1 below shows the rankordered community items and Table 2 shows the rank-ordered engagement items. Overall, instructors perceived that they provided well-organized courses, they are fair and available, and that they work hard to create strong connections with their students. All of these strategies lead to classrooms that have a strong sense of community and engagement in student learning.

–  –  –

What are differences across disciplines (colleges) in how instructors perceive they are creating engagement and building community? Items for the two sub-scales were averaged to create sub-scale scores for engagement and for community. Because of the small numbers of instructor responses as well as the similarity of disciplines and convergence of means, the six colleges were grouped into two larger groups for further analysis. Agriculture, Education, and Health Sciences formed one group; Arts and Sciences, Business, and Engineering formed the second group. A one-way ANOVA was conducted using the two sub-scales as dependent variables and the college group in which the course was offered as the independent variable.

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