Understanding Groups in Outdoor Adventure Education through Social Network Analysis

Article excerpt

Introduction

The small group nature of outdoor adventure education (OAE) plays a critical role in the types of experiences students have during a course. Interpersonal relationships are a critical component to the student experience on OAE courses (Goldenberg, McAvoy, & Klenosky, 2005; McKenzie, 2003). Many students participate in these experiences to develop new relationships and to feel a sense of belonging to a community (D'Amato & Krasny, 2011). Others have suggested that the experiences and the learning that can be achieved is moderated by the relationships students generate with others (Sammet, 2010; Sibthorp, Paisley, Furman, & Gookin, 2008). The quality of relationships between members of a group ultimately affects the social climate which in turn, affects how well the group functions. Furthermore, interpersonal relationships operate at the individual level, but play an important role in producing group level outcomes such as teamwork, cohesion, and communication. Social network analysis (SNA) is a tool that can offer a representation of the interpersonal relationships within a group and show how relationship structures can produce group level outcomes.

The purpose of this paper is to explain the methodological foundations of SNA and show how it can be used in OAE for both research and application. While SNA is not uncommon in other fields such as sociology, education, or economics, it has not been widely used in OAE research. Because small groups and relationships are so central to the OAE experience, SNA can inform applied questions as well as provide researchers in OAE a new and versatile tool to examine group processes. To provide a context for how SNA may be used, we first explain why one OAE organization chose this method to answer an applied problem. Specifically, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) was interested in how to provide the best experiences for students who received scholarships to attend courses. Second, we present an overview of SNA and show how it differs from traditional survey methods. Third, we return to the NOLS example and show how the data were collected, the results of the data, and how this method provided answers to this problem. Lastly, we consider how SNA can be used for both practitioner and research purposes.

Applied Example of Social Network Analysis

The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) wanted to better understand the social and relationship dynamics experienced by groups on its courses with varying compositions of students receiving scholarships. Social network analysis was used because the interest was in seeing the interpersonal connections between students and to see how these connections produced group level outcomes such as cohesion. In addition, social network analysis also provides a visual component that maps these connections and generates a set of statistics based on mathematical algorithms, which both provide an understanding of individual positioning within the network and group structure. Others have used SNA to understand relationships and group structure among adolescents, such as to understand peer relations among groups with varying compositions of race and ethnicity (Bellmore, Nishina, Witkow, Graham, & Juvonen, 2007), the stability and change of social standing among early adolescents (Lansford, Killeya-Jones, Miller, & Costanzo, 2009), and the social integration and isolation of adolescents based on friendship patterns (Wolfer, Bull, & Scheithauer, 2012).

The National Outdoor Leadership School is an international OAE organization that provides extended, expedition-style wilderness-based courses for students age 14 and older. Though a variety of activity types (sailing, mountaineering, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and kayaking, etc.) and course lengths are offered by the school, the prototypical NOLS course consists of a 30-day wilderness backpacking expedition. Students are expected to learn the technical and leadership skills of wilderness travel that will provide them the necessary skills to plan and execute their own small group expedition at the end of the course. …