Macquarie University
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Structural investigation of learning communities in higher education online learning

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posted on 2022-03-28, 12:36 authored by Shazia K. Jan
The unprecedented growth in online learning over the past decade has led to similar unprecedented interest in online learning communities. Given their long - established pedagogical significance, learning communities in one form or another have featured prominently in the field of education. Two types have communities that have gained considerable popularity in higher education online learning (HEOL) include the communities of practice (CoPs) and communities of inquiry (CoIs) which originate from the Community of Practice and Community of Inquiry frameworks. There is no shortage of literature reporting on the myriad benefits of learning within CoPs and CoIs which are commonly used as guides for designing learning environments and as theoretical lenses for assessing pedagogical processes in the traditional, face - to - face and online learning environments. This research presents a novel approach for investigating the structure of online communities and identifying CoPs and CoIs in HEOL using social network analysis (SNA). The CoP and CoI frameworks are contextually and conceptually distinct, the former developed specifically for online learning research and practice and the latter originating in the context of professional learning of apprentices. However, both types of communities comprise of structural and non - structural components. The structural component constitutes the interactions that take place between individuals within the community. In HEOL, these interactions typically occur within a learning management system (LMS). These interactions represent the paths or channels upon which the non - structural or qualitative components of the frameworks emerge. The proliferation of online learning has brought with it access to large amounts of data which is increasingly being used by researchers for investigating the design, cultivation, and sustainability of CoPs and CoIs in HEOL. However, a large majority of the existing research on CoPs and CoIs relies heavily on extensive and time - consuming qualitative methodologies and therefore focuses on the non-structural components of the frameworks . To date, although there is some literature that explores certain structural aspects of CoPs and CoIs, there have been no attempts at conceptualization of the holistic structure of and unique structural differences between CoPs and CoIs. Therefore, much remains to be understood with regards to the structural aspects and implications thereof of the two types of communities - a glaring gap in existing literature. Not only that, by virtue of being retrospective, qualitative research does not allow for realization of the immediate practical value of the CoP and CoI frameworks, a short-coming identified in existing literature. Thus, pivoting on the assumption that the distinct conceptual underpinnings and somewhat different pedagogical orientations of the CoP and CoI frameworks would be reflected in the interactional or structural dynamics within the communities, this research explores if and how SNA can be applied to online data for structurally investigating and identifying CoPs and CoIs in HEOL. This thesis comprises of a total of eight chapters, five of which are stand - alone research papers, each based on a different set of data. The thesis follows a sequential mixed method approach inclusive of two exploratory systematic literature reviews, a methodological framework and multiple case studies ...


Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction -- Chapter 2. Learning communities in higher education -- Chapter 3. Social network analysis and learning communities in higher education online learning: a systematic literature review (Paper One) -- Chapter 4. Investigating virtual communities of practice with social network analysis: guidelines from a systematic review of research (Paper Two) -- Chapter 5. Social network analysis: a framework for identifying communities in higher education online learning (Paper Three) -- Chapter 6. Influence of learning design on the formation of online communities of learning (Paper Four) -- Chapter 7. Identifying online communities of inquiry in higher education online learning (Paper Five) -- Chapter 8. Conclusion.


Theoretical thesis. Bibliography: pages 147-163

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Human Sciences, Department of Educational Studies

Department, Centre or School

Department of Educational Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Panos Vlachopoulos


Copyright Shazia K. Jan 2019. Copyright disclaimer:




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