ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES WITH ONLINE MENTORS (OLCOM): A Model of Online Learning Communities

By Chang, Shujen L. | Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES WITH ONLINE MENTORS (OLCOM): A Model of Online Learning Communities


Chang, Shujen L., Quarterly Review of Distance Education


This paper describes a model of online learning communities characterized by online mentors (OLCOM), which has been implemented at a large southeastern state university. The OLCOM is a virtual online learning community, which incorporates online mentors to assist online teaching and facilitate online learning along with other members in the OLCOM. The goal of the OLCOM is to ensure that course completion rates and GPAs in OLCOM are as high as those in face-to-face learning communities. The role of each member in OLCOM was described and the effectiveness of OLCOM was assessed by student satisfaction on mentor performance and student performance. This paper concludes that the OLCOM is an effective model for online learning programs.

INTRODUCTION

Online learning programs have expanded dramatically in the higher education community, as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 1999). An increasing number of courses has being developed and offered via the World Wide Web; however, the quality of online courses has become a major concern to both online learners and educators (NCES). The most commonly asked question is whether these online courses are as effective as face-to-face courses in terms of achieving course completion rates and learning achievement. Thus far, the answer to this question is still inconclusive.

The Department of Distance Learning (DDL) at a large southeastern state university was assigned the mission of facilitating the faculty and academic departments at the university to establish undergraduate online degree programs in 1995. The online degree programs are to provide continuous education for people who have earned an Associate of Art degree at a community college to continue their study and earn a bachelor's degree in two years.

With the common concern of online learning and teaching effectiveness, the goal for the undergraduate online degree programs was set to achieve the same course completion rates and same grade point averages (GPAs) as those of face-to-face degree programs at the same university. In achieving this goal, a model of online learning communities with online mentors (OLCOM) was created to ensure the effectiveness of online learning and teaching. The OLCOM expanded its members to include online mentors, mentor support team, and academic coordinators, in addition to online students and faculty that are commonly included in online learning communities. An online mentor, trained and supported by the mentor support team, was assigned to each online course of the undergraduate online degree programs to assist the faculty and students in the course.

In 1999-2000 academic year, OLCOM was implemented in four undergraduate online degree programs at the university. These programs were: Computer Science, Information Studies, Interdisciplinary Social Science, and Nursing. There were 8 different courses offered with a total of 26 sections, which had approximately 570 online students supported by 26 mentors. The maximum ratio of student to mentor was set at 20 to 1, which had been kept in most courses.

ONLINE LEARNING COMMUNITIES

In general, an online learning community (OLC) in higher education refers to a community that is formed by online students and the faculty to achieve certain learning goals in a course website in which the students and the faculty interact synchronously or asynchronously through online learning activities. Based on the theory of collaborative learning (Dewey, 1933) and social interaction (Vygotsky, 1978), many researchers advocate building OLCs for online learning as an effective instructional strategy to achieve learning outcomes (Bauman, 1997; Brown, 2001; Haythornthwaite, 1998; Hill & Raven, 2000; Kim, 2000; Kowch & Schwier, 1997; Lally & Barrett, 1999b; Misanchuk & Andersen, 2001; Palloff & Pratt, 1999; Rose, Ding, Marchionini, Beale, & Nolet, 1998; Tu & Corry, 2002).

Developing learning communities may be more challenging in online environments than in face-to-face learning environments, although the notion of OLCs is viewed as an expansion of the concept of a face-to-face learning community (Caverly & MacDonald, 2002). …

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