A Study of the Relationship between Student Social Networks and Sense of Community

Article excerpt

Introduction

Recent education literature has highlighted the importance for practitioners to adopt a community-centred pedagogy as a strategy for facilitating student learning (e.g. Brook & Oliver, 2003; Fink, 2003; Johnson, 2001). The dominant tenet of this pedagogical approach can be traced back to the works of Dewey (1938/1963) and Vygotsky (1978) who maintained that the process of learning is facilitated through individual participation in social interactions. This pedagogical model is framed within social-constructivist principles with a focus on developing activities that promote learner-to-learner interactions to support the co-construction of knowledge and the sharing of information and resources. In this context, learning activities involving group work and collaboration are commonly implemented practices.

However, opportunities for the contemporary learner to engage with peers in a collaborative environment are problematic given the spatial and temporal requirements associated with traditional classroom settings (Squire & Johnson, 2000). The integration of online technologies, such as computer mediated communication (CMC), within the education sector can be seen as one approach for addressing these challenges and therefore, facilitate the implementation of collaborative learning activities. For instance, the adoption of CMC software provides individuals with the capacity to interact via computer networks regardless of spatial and temporal limitations (Kreijns, Kirschner, & Jochems, 2002). De Wever, Schellens, Valke, and Van Keer (2006), suggested that an additional advantage underlying the integration of asynchronous CMC is the capacity for students to reflect on postings and access additional resources before (re)contributing to the overall discussion and therefore facilitating the development of higher order learning outcomes.

The benefits derived from implementing CMC also extend to faculty and researchers as a source of evaluative data. As Meyer (2004) has noted, written communication exchanges occurring among learners are readily accessible for future review. Ahern, Peck, and Laycock (1992) analysed CMC transcripts when investigating the impact of moderator intervention techniques on student participation. In examining the interactions in lieu of the specific written content, Garton, Haythornthwaite and Wellman (1997) have demonstrated that the communication exchanges conducted via CMC can also be used to form a representation of the social network and identify potential relational patterns. The interrogation of these relational networks may inform education practitioners of the extent of community experienced among the student cohort and the progress and outcome of implemented learning activities.

While education research has primarily focussed on developing a greater understanding of the learning process and the activities that promote learning in an online environment (e.g. Gunawardena, 1995; Hara, Bonk, & Angeli, 2000; Schellens & Valcke, 2006; Vonderwell, 2003) there has been limited research examining the types of relations and networks that develop within the education milieu (Cho, Gay, Davidson, & Ingraffea, 2007) and the impact these networks have on an individual's psychological sense of community. The present study seeks to contribute to this field of knowledge by investigating the relationship between a student's position in the social network and their overall sense of community. To address this aim, the paper firstly discusses the application of social network analysis (SNA) as a methodology for education studies. The paper then reports on the findings of an initial study juxtaposing Rovai's (2002b) sense of community scale with SNA in an education environment.

Social Network Analysis

The concept of social network analysis (SNA) has attracted much attention in the social and behavioural sciences. …