Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Building a Model Explaining the Social Nature of Online Learning

Academic journal article Educational Technology & Society

Building a Model Explaining the Social Nature of Online Learning

Article excerpt

Introduction

Online learning has become a pervasive part of higher education. Online enrollment increased from 1.98 million in 2003 to 2.35 million in 2004, and approximately 74 percent of public institutions of higher education identified online education as a critical long-term strategy in 2005 (Allen & Seaman, 2005). Many positive reports of online learning success show its impact and potential, such as relative equivalence in test-result outcomes with face-to-face courses (Talent-Runnels, et al., 2006), broad implementation and rapid growth across higher education, and provision of access for many students who would otherwise have to forego higher education. Although students appreciate the flexibility and convenience offered by online learning environments, online students do experience a sense of isolation (Abrahamson, 1998; Bessar & Donahue, 1996; Rahm & Reed, 1998), and express being more satisfied with face-to-face courses (Allen, Bourhis, Burrell, & Marbry, 2002; Simonsen, 1997; Klesius, Homan, & Thompson, 1997). In her study, Carr (2000) found higher dropout rates for distance education (10-20%) over traditional programs. Reasons given for the high dropout percentage of distance learners include limited support and service of distance education, dissatisfaction with teaching methods, unfamiliarity with the technology used, and student feelings of isolation. Hara and Kling (2000) also found that online students were frustrated by the communication and technical difficulties that impeded interaction. Arbaugh (2000) argues that the lack of social interaction was a factor that depressed student satisfaction in online learning. This dissatisfaction with online learning can be seen in high rates of attrition for online students (Chyung, 2001). Ashar and Skenes (1993) found that while adults were attracted to a higher education business program because of strong learning needs; those needs were not strong enough to retain them. However, retention was positively impacted by establishing a social environment within the program. Students need to feel involved and develop relationships with other students in an online course (Rovai, 2002a). Following from an appreciation of the social nature of learning, learning and cognitive development are recognized as substantially constituted through social participation and interaction (Vygotsky, 1978; Wenger, 1996). In order to understand how students' online learning satisfaction is affected by their social participation and interaction with others, the present study seeks to build a model of the elements that contribute to the social nature of online experience and influence satisfaction in online learning environments. We begin by framing our research with key social constructs for understanding the social nature of online learning. Next, we describe the use of path analysis, to examine the relationships among these constructs. Our results, present a model for explaining how these social constructs influence satisfaction in online courses.

Theoretical Perspectives

Advances in our understanding of how we learn show that context play a significant role in determining what we learn and how we will be able to use what we learn. Wenger (1998) describes social participation as a process for learning and knowing which is relevant "not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities" (p.4). In a community of practice, people learn by socially negotiating meaning of the world with what they see, who they know, and what they do. Through negotiation about practice people expand what they know and are able to do, as well as learn from others' actions and feedback. Their growth of knowledge is represented not only in individual change but also in the shared values, relationships, networks, and knowledge produced when interacting with others. …

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