JCMC 6 (1) September 2000
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Community Development Among Distance Learners: Temporal and Technological Dimensions
Caroline Haythornthwaite, Michelle M. Kazmer, Jennifer Robins
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Graduate School of Library and Information Science
- The Research Setting and Data Collection
- Joining the Community
- Maintaining Presence in the Virtual Community
- Disengaging from the Community
- Supporting Virtual Distance Learning Communities
- Appendix A
- Appendix B
- About the Authors
AbstractThis paper explores social support and community development among members of a computer-supported distance learning program. The research focuses on what characterizes this community, and how students define and maintain community while largely restricted to communication through media that have been viewed as unsuitable for the maintenance of close social bonds. Interviews conducted over a year with 17 students reveal the importance of community and its role in supporting them in their "different kind of world" and important temporal and technological dimensions associated with community development. Each cohort begins in physical proximity with an intensive, on-campus "boot camp" that acts as a lasting bonding experience. When students return home, they reinvent this physical proximity as virtual proximity, appropriating technology and the opportunities afforded them by class and program structures to socialize and work with people they met on-campus. They enjoy the temporal proximity of "live" lectures and appropriate Internet Relay Chat's "whispering" facility to socialize; they make near-synchronous use of email, and use the timing of assignment submission to initiate email exchanges. Those who fail to make such connections feel isolated and more stressed than those who are more active in the community. Recommendations include promoting initial bonding, monitoring and supporting continued interaction and participation, and providing multiple means of communication to support the need to engage in work and social interaction, both publicly and privately. Overall, our interviews show that belonging to a community brings benefits to the individuals and to the program, and supports efforts by educators who strive to provide such a community for their distance learners.
IntroductionAs Internet-based education programs expand, educators are being challenged to go beyond delivering information to remote learners to building community among them (Bruffee, 1993; Dede, 1990, 1996; Harasim, Hiltz, Teles & Turoff, 1995; Kaye, 1995; Renniger & Shumar, in press). These programs are no longer add-ons to on-campus endeavors. Instead, they represent a true alternative to on-campus options, and current programs are merely the beginning of a continuing trend for this type of anywhere, anytime learning (e.g., Beller & Or, 1998). As online programs become accepted replacements for the on-campus experience, there is increasing interest in understanding how interactions among learners are being addressed in the online world. How can we ensure that online programs are more than electronic correspondence courses? Key to overcoming the correspondence model is moving the student from the position of an isolated learner to that of a member of a learning community. Thus, there is a need to understand what community means in these environments so that we can promote them, and support individuals in adding to the critical mass of interaction necessary for their formation and maintenance.
The emphasis on creating community is fueled by research that reveals a number of positive outcomes for individuals and the learning communities to which they belong. The strong interpersonal ties shared by community members increase the willingness to share information and resources, setting the stage for collaborative learning (Haythornthwaite, in press). Strong communal ties increase the flow of information among all members, the availability of support, commitment to group goals, cooperation among members, and satisfaction with group efforts (Argyle, 1991; Bruffee, 1993; Chidambaram & Bostrom, 1997; Dede, 1996; Gabarro, 1990; Harasim et al., 1995; McGrath, 1984; Wellman, 1999). Trust in the community fosters contribution and support in times of need (Haines, Hurlbert & Beggs, 1996). Individuals benefit from community membership by experiencing a greater sense of well being and happiness, and having a larger and more willing set of others to call on for support in times of need (Hammer, 1981; Haines & Hurlbert, 1992; Haines, Hurlbert & Beggs, 1996; House, 1981; van der Poel, 1993; Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman & Gulia, 1999b).
Yet, when we consider fostering community, we are constrained by a view of community tightly bound to the notion of people living close to each other, interacting face-to-face to share companionship and support of all kinds (Wellman, 1999). So, too, our concept of learning communities is bound up with the notions of university campuses and physical colleges. How can we build community without a physical place, and through computer media that are traditionally described as "lean," unable to transmit the full range of verbal and non-verbal cues necessary to support strong interpersonal ties (e.g., Daft & Lengel, 1986)?
Although still considered by many to be outside the realm of "real" community, studies of online environments have already found that we can indeed create community and sustain strong ties through electronic media (e.g., Baym 1995, 1997; McLaughlin, Osborne & Smith, 1995; Reid, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Smith, McLaughlin & Osborne, 1996). These studies show that when we view community as what activities people do together, rather than where or through what means they do them, we can see that community can exist 'liberated' from geography, physical neighborhoods and campuses (Wellman, 1979, 1999). We still maintain close ties with others, yet we can do this using email, online chat rooms, telephones, cars and airplanes. Moreover, we can maintain ties and community with otherwise unreachable others, perhaps predicated on a single interest shared with a small number of other people from around the globe (Wellman & Gulia, 1999a; Wellman, Salaff, Dimitrova, Garton, Gulia & Haythornthwaite, 1996).
Studies of online communities show that members exhibit behaviors that traditionally identify the presence of community offline. Online participants in email networks, newsgroups, chat rooms and MUD environments support common goals and a strong commitment to the purpose and tone of their community (Baym, 1995; Curtis, 1997; Donath 1999; King, Grinter & Pickering, 1997; Reid, 1995; Rheingold, 1993). They recognize boundaries that define who belongs and who does not, establishing their own hierarchies of expertise, their own vocabularies and modes of discourse (Marvin, 1995; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). Members share a common history and a common meeting place (e.g., the Usenet group or chat room). They socially construct rules and behaviors, and enact community rituals (Bruckman, 1998; Fernback, 1999; Jones, 1995, 1998; Kollock & Smith, 1999; McLaughlin, Osborne & Smith, 1995; Mynatt, O'Day, Adler & Ito, 1998; Smith, McLaughlin & Osborne, 1996). Rules of behavior and a shared history provide an identity for the group and a way of knowing how to behave and how to anticipate the behavior of others (Donath, 1999; Mynatt et al, 1998), as well as identifying those who does not belong to the community or who are new to the community (McLaughlin, Osborne & Smith, 1995).
Established rules of behavior, conduct, and expression help individuals know how to behave in the online space, and how to expect others to behave. This helps them feel comfortable in the environment, allowing them to invest time and trust in their ties with others. As they build stronger, more intimate ties, they gain access to the kind of support and continuity that underpins community, moving the individual from a position of isolation to membership in a known community (for a further elaboration of the role of ties in online learning communities, see Haythornthwaite, in press).
These studies show that it is indeed possible to maintain community online. However, we do not take as a given that it exists in any specific context. Thus, in the context of any specific online environment, it is important first to ask: Do members recognize their environment as a "community"? Do they feel they belong to it? Then, to determine what characterizes community in that environment:1 What does "community" mean for members of this environment? What is its membership and boundaries? What are members' common goals? What history do they share? What rules of behavior have they evolved? Finally, if we find community to be a positive construct, we then ask: How can we promote community in this context and gain its benefits for individual members?
This study applies these questions in the context of an online educational environment. Over the last year we have followed 17 computer-supported distance students in the Library Education Experimental Program (LEEP) of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS), at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.2 Our goal has been to explore how these students create and maintain interpersonal relations in such an environment, which ties are important for maintaining them through the program, and whether these ties have built a sense of community in this environment. Hence our focus has not been on evaluating courses or course delivery mechanisms. We are also interested in understanding the "whole" student experience in a distance context, not in carving off instructional interactions from the management of the rest of their lives, and so we have explored what other aspects of work and home compete for their attention during their time in the program.
Although we did not take as a given that community exists among these students, we were immediately gratified to find that the students have a strong sense of community, primarily based on their association with other LEEP students. We also find two other major results from this work. First, that the temporal characteristics of the program are reflected in temporal aspects of attachment to, membership in, and departure from the community. Students enter, exist in, and then exit from the program and from the community, requiring and returning different kinds of support at different stages. Second, we see how the technologies, both the computer technologies and the ways in which the courses are structured, provide opportunities and means for interaction that affect and contribute to support and community among these students.
We begin with a description of the LEEP environment and data collection. The remaining discussion presents results from our analysis of the interview data.
The Research Setting and Data CollectionLEEP is a distance option for the Master's degree at GSLIS. Students accepted into this option begin their program in a cohort with approximately thirty to fifty others who attend an intensive on-campus session - known as "boot camp" to the students - where they complete one of the required courses in just two weeks. Following this session, students return home and take their remaining courses via the Internet. They return to campus once a term for a one-day session for each class they are in. Those taking multiple courses and those with more free time may be on campus for several days; others spend as little as a day on campus, coming in just for one class and leaving immediately after. They will always encounter students in their current class, but may not encounter students they met at boot camp or former classmates during these on-campus sessions. Each mid-term on-campus session includes an optional social evening where faculty and students can come together for dinner and conversation.
Courses are conducted using a combination of synchronous and asynchronous interaction. Instructors deliver "live" lectures using RealAudio along with PowerPoint slides or web pages. Live sessions have been offered as infrequently as twice a term, and as frequently as once a week by different instructors. During live sessions, all students gather virtually in the class Internet Relay Chat (IRC) room. The names of all attendees are available to class participants. Students use IRC to submit questions during the lecture; text submitted to the class chat room is visible to all members of the class. Separate chat rooms can be used for break-out sessions, and a "chalk board" can be used to present discussion results to others. Lectures and chat from the class chat room are recorded and available for later viewing through the LEEP web facilities. Students can also use IRC's "whisper" facility to direct a comment to specific others in the class, without the text being recorded or visible to anyone else.
Webboards are used in most classes for discussion and exercises, and there are also webboards for program-wide announcements and discussion. All students have email accounts. They use email to reach other students, instructors, GSLIS administrators, and the LEEP assistants who provide technical support. They have access to their own telephones and to a toll-free 800 number to call GSLIS instructors or staff. Phone conversations are less common than email communication but are used to reach the same people.
Homework and assignments are generally "handed in" via the Internet as web pages, webboard postings, or attachments to email. Students also send in assignments by fax, and sometimes by regular mail. Many courses include group projects; students coordinate their own interactions to complete these projects, calling on instructors as necessary. In-class presentations can be achieved by having students call in to GSLIS and having their phone conversation broadcast via RealAudio. Such presentations are usually accompanied by a web page or slide display that can be seen by all students. Assignments, grading and comments are returned to students via regular mail or email.
Students who participated in this study volunteered to be interviewed at length over one year. We endeavored to exclude those who were current participants in other LEEP research studies to avoid overloading the students. Our list was divided alphabetically among three interviewers who contacted students on their list, aiming for five students apiece. In the end we conducted interviews with 17 students; four interviews were conducted with 16 of them, and three interviews with one student. Interviews were conducted by phone and lasted approximately one hour. The four interviews were conducted in mid-term Fall 1998, near the end of the Fall term 1998, mid-term Spring 1999, and near the end of the Spring term 1999. Each interview was tape-recorded and then transcribed. Each interviewee has been given a pseudonym, with the names reflecting the gender of the interviewee.
Students were not all first term students: three began the program in 1996 (from which many of their cohort had already graduated), two in 1997, and the remainder in Fall 1998. All students were similar in their high motivation to achieve the degree; and all worked outside the home (16 full-time, one part-time, but full-time by the end of the year), most in library or library-related endeavors (e.g., archives) which provided synergy with their coursework. Experience in these settings ranged from 1 to 20 years. Students were all mature adults, living in their own accommodations, usually with a spouse; three had small children, 4 had grown children; only two lived alone.
Community is predicated on exchange and support (Haines, Hurlbert & Beggs, 1996; Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman & Gulia, 1999b; Wellman & Wortley, 1990) and so our interview questions were directed at exploring issues of support and community development among the LEEP students. Questions focused on who, among other LEEP students, staff, and faculty and non-LEEP contacts, provided the support that allowed students to complete the program and feel part of the program.
Interview questions focused on interaction patterns: who provided individuals with support and to whom did they give support, what did they feel the LEEP community gave to them and they to it. We explored what made it possible for students to continue in this environment, i.e., did major support come from those outside LEEP, e.g., their family, friends or co-workers, or did major support come from members of LEEP, e.g., other students, technical staff, or faculty members. Indeed, did they need support and if so, of what kind, or was this just a routine activity for them? We explored what they did with others, e.g., working on class assignments, socializing online or off, exchanging personal news, or giving advice, and what this meant to them in their feelings toward LEEP as a community. We also explored what other obligations (work, family, etc.) or life events competed with their attention to their studies and how this affected their interaction patterns.
We used a grounded theory approach to our questioning and analysis (Strauss, 1987; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Analysis of each set of interviews was used to formulate hypotheses and areas of questioning for the following interviews. Interviews were semi-structured, and interviewers followed the lead of the interviewee in exploring issues of support and community, while still maintaining a focus on our core concerns (see Appendix A for a summary of the areas explored in each interview). Analyzing the data consisted of coding the data looking for themes in student experiences, comparing across students for commonalities and differences, and analyzing the characteristics of the themes that emerged.
We have accumulated a wealth of information, not all of which can be reported on here. While answers to all the questions inform the results presented here, this paper is largely based on a series of questions that probed for students' ideas of what community meant to them. Questions used to lead the interviews included: Do you feel there is a LEEP community that you are part of? How would you characterize that community? What do you feel you get from this community? What do you feel you contribute to the community? Do you think there is enough community? How does this community compare with other communities you belong to now or have in the past? (See Appendix B for a brief summary of other core categories being explored from these interviews.)
CommunityWe explored first whether students actually believe that there is such a thing as a community associated with the distance education program, and whether they feel they belonged to it. Indeed, the null hypothesis of "no community" was one we hoped to reject, and we were relieved to be able to do so. All our interviewees report that they perceive a community associated with LEEP, and all but one felt they maintained a strong involvement with that community. Although some acknowledge that lately they have "faded back" from involvement in the community, nevertheless they identify something from which they have receded, which at one time was extremely important to their LEEP experience.
As noted above, researchers of face-to-face and virtual environments have identified a number of characteristics that identify the presence of a community, including recognition of members and non-members, a shared history, a common meeting place, commitment to a common purpose, adoption of normative standards of behavior, and emergence of hierarchy and roles. So, too, the distance learners can identify who belongs and does not belong to their community. Early on they make a distinction between themselves as members of the LEEP environment, and non-LEEP others. As Betty states at the end of her first semester as a LEEP student:
It's a different kind of world that most people aren't used to so they can't really understand it since they're on the outside. [Betty]
They are often called on to describe their community to non-members who "don't completely understand how it works" [Alice], and this reinforces for them their difference from others and their similarities with LEEP students. Over time, they increase their separation from non-members. For example, one student mentioned that the time she spent explaining LEEP to friends and family decreased as the novelty of her own experience decreased. Thus, as members get more embedded in and familiar with their own community, they no longer extend membership even to introducing others to the environment.
While other LEEP students are central to their community, certain important others provide support and fill roles essential for the community. LEEP students include in their wider definition of the community the technical staff who provide essential start-up information, and who help them whenever they are having difficulties; the faculty who deliver the courses and who also provide support; and administrators whom they communicate with via email and meet when on-campus.
Yet it is bonds with other students that matter the most, bonds that strengthen because of shared history, 'shared survival' particularly from the boot camp experience, but also from finishing the first class at a distance as well as working together toward a common purpose. As Jeff states at the end of his first semester,
The on-campus session, you know the boot camp, created sort of a shared experience, sort of a history. And the class did the same thing, by the end of the class we all had survived something together. Common purpose. Common professional sort of profile. [Jeff]
During boot camp, and then over their time in the program, they form bonds of friendship and share emotional and practical support with other LEEP students (see below for further details on student-student bonding). They share the common goal of completing the program and graduating with their degree, and joining their chosen profession.
Their common meeting ground is primarily the LEEP computer environment. This consists of: general webboards used by all LEEP students, faculty and staff; webboards for discussions associated with each class; IRC chat rooms used in conjunction with live lectures for classes; and email. Of secondary importance as a common ground is the physical campus where students spend their time during boot camp, and again once per semester. Social rules of interaction are built up around the technologies available for communicating and the opportunities for interaction afforded by entrainment (McGrath, 1991) with class activities. For example, students use the whisper facility of the chat technology to socialize during class, and the timing of assignment submission to initiate email conversations with others. In this way students achieve a "virtual proximity" in replacement of the physical proximity they lack (see also Haythornthwaite, 2000).
Thus, there are many characteristics that the LEEP community shares with offline communities, even though separated by distance and restricted to computer-mediated communication (CMC). However, community does not suddenly appear fully formed when students begin the program. There is a learning and adjustment phase that is more difficult for some than for others. Moreover, the degree of, and need for, involvement and embeddedness in the LEEP community varies across individuals, and over time. Just as students learn to enter the program, they also learn to exit it as well. Equally important as this temporal dimension of community membership is the way in which the technologies - the webboards, chat rooms, and class structures - provide means and opportunity for interactions, both synchronous and asynchronous, that make it possible to make connections and create community among these distance learners.
The following sections are organized according to the temporal aspect of community development. Within each section the importance and use of technologies is highlighted to show how these establish the conditions under which community is built.
Joining the community
Boot camp unites members of each year's cohort and builds a community for them within the overall LEEP program. While later their community will grow to include others associated with LEEP, at first their community is centered on their boot camp cohort. Their common experience provides the shared history that forms strong intra-cohort bonds and initiates many lasting friendships. It is when the students begin the distance portion of their program that they become aware of the distinction between themselves and others, between who is inside and outside their community. Family, work mates, and traditional students now are outsiders who did not share boot camp, and nor do they share this new educational environment. As Alice states,
The community is a unique experience. Not many people are part of an experience like this in education.
The cohort is reinforced at a distance during student's first semester. Immediately following boot camp, most students take the remaining required course of the program together. Cohort membership sustains individuals through this first semester, as they are in class with those with whom they engaged face-to-face. Their interpersonal ties remain strong, sustained by the memory of names, faces, and shared experiences:
Even though they would be just a name on the screen in the chat room or on the webboard, you still had the memory of knowing them from boot camp, which was such an intense experience. That gave you a connection. It was almost like they were there. You could imagine them. Since it was just recently, and you had them fresh in your mind, you knew exactly who was saying it and what it sounded like, if they had really said it, and what it would have sounded like. [Alice]
At home they now deal with technical difficulties, course work load(s), and managing work, home and school with no one at hand who understands their "different kind of world." But, virtually at hand,
…there's a group of people out there who know exactly what I'm going through and can help me, that have been there, and have done everything, and they're supportive and caring and kind and even if I have a stupid question it's okay. They'll answer it. And vice versa… if someone else has a stupid question … [Rene]
Exchanges with other LEEP students become vital for validating their own experiences and for overcoming isolation:
I felt it was individual for me at times, when I thought certain assignments were difficult, but then you talk to other students and they're having the same challenges, same difficulties. [Beth]
These descriptions of the strength and importance of association, and identification with cohort members are echoed in the reports from all the interviewees. Students' reports show the strength of the interpersonal ties created among these distance learners, ties built during boot camp, and then sustained at a distance (see also Small, 1999 for similar reports from distance learners).
As with offline strong ties, these learners provide each other with multiple resources, including information, social support and emotional support, and the resources flow both ways as individuals both give and receive these resources (Haythornthwaite, in press, 2000; van der Poel, 1993; Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman, 1999). Moreover, the exchanges need not be immediate or in-kind exchanges. Barbara explained how she repaid extra work by a classmate in one semester by extra work on her part in a different class in the next semester. Bill explains that he receives "moral support" from the community, but gives "fresh ideas"; Rene receives friendship and contributes "comic relief." Such delay of repayment and the more generalized and balanced reciprocity (Wellman, Carrington & Hall, 1988; Wellman & Gulia, 1999b) demonstrate the trust present in communal relations among these individuals, a key attribute of community.
For those who have just completed boot camp, the circle of willing and helpful others is large, comprising their whole boot camp cohort.3 They find they have a wealth of people whom they know and can call on for information, and who provide this spontaneously in a supportive atmosphere:
I'm not a practicing librarian so I had these people helping me out and feeding me information and they were great. We'd just be talking on the web or in class in the chat room and they'd use all of these acronyms and I'd come back on and say whatever. Then somebody would whisper and give me an explanation. Everybody was so nice and polite. There was never a hint of 'you should know this.' [Beth]
Thus, students find themselves in a "safe" environment, filled with supportive others, a condition considered essential for collaborative learning (Bruffee, 1993). As Barbara explains:
I think the other thing that the community has given me is the encouragement, you know in a regular situation to just… to speak out and say something… to write something in and to have a comment. It doesn't feel like an unsafe environment to say something. It feels like nobody's going to ridicule you for what you say. [Barbara]
But not everyone feels safe to begin with, not everyone is able to mobilize the resources of the cohort, or adjust to this strange new world. Those who fail to make community connections, particularly early in the program, are more distressed about their LEEP experience. Here is one student's account of how she felt at the beginning of their first semester.
I'll have to tell you that it has been one of the most stressful times in my whole life… I've had quite a lot of difficulty adjusting to the isolation of being in a non-traditional classroom… not being able to talk face to face with the other students… I started to have a lot of anxiety… just wondering if what I was posting sounded okay or if it sounded so bad… Finally I just had to take time off work. [Nancy]
Although the stress experienced by this student represents an extreme case, Nancy's feelings of uncertainty are present in other's reports also, particularly in relation to webboard postings. For example,
At the beginning it was difficult for me because I felt like when I posted something it had to be perfect. All the time all these other people are just talking away … I found that difficult to get used to because I felt like I had to be perfect. [Ted]
The reduced cues environment that reduces negative feedback such as ridicule also reduces positive feedback so that individuals do not know if they are doing the right thing. Nancy finally telephoned the instructor to find out how she was doing. Making this connection to the faculty member, and other connections with LEEP students, including a strong personal tie that provided her with social support, greatly increased her comfort level in the program.
Individuals who feel less comfortable, less safe in the community, are those who also feel they contribute less to the community, those who do not actively engage in reciprocal exchange of resources. For example, Sue explains that she gains most of her support and community needs outside LEEP, thus she feels she has an "extremely slender" attachment to the LEEP community. What she receives from the community is disproportional to what she perceives she contributes. The LEEP community offers support and "it's reaffirming when, if you are really burnt out then you talk to other classmates and that gets you back on track." Yet she feels that she does not return a lot to the community, "I don't feel I give a lot [to the community] to be completely honest. I feel I'm very marginal… I don't feel that I put in as much effort as other people."
Sue's case demonstrates an extreme position, but others range in between that and the engagement of highly active and highly immersed community members. For example, Ted, early in his time in LEEP, sees others as highly active in the community - "I swear they must live by the computer. It must be by their bed and they post in their dreams" - but feels his own contribution is not "as adequate as I wish it would be," judging his activity level to be "a little less than halfway of those who never talk and those who talk all the time."
At this stage, Ted is also trying actively to stay fully engaged in the LEEP community, trying not to fade back. His contact with others in his class at the time he made this comment was largely through the webboard postings:
I feel like every week I have to post something, even if I don't know what I'm doing. So I'll try to put some ideas across. Where in a classroom, there are some days where you don't say anything, you just listen; where there are other days where you are really animated because you have experience maybe. You know what the readings were about and they turned you on and you want to talk about it or you are more conversant in. Sometimes I'm not and I almost feel like I have to [contribute] every week. [Ted]
We can see from Ted's account that there is conscious effort made to stay with the community, and not to disappear in the anonymity of cyberspace. This is an important aspect of LEEP students' experience that we explore next.
Maintaining Presence in the Virtual Community
Making a Conscious Effort to Maintain Ties
Maintaining ties and community at a distance and via CMC is perceived by students to require more effort than in a face-to-face community. Students feel they need to expend effort beyond what is needed in an on-campus situation in order to remain connected to the community, to be "more purposeful in [their] community development and more strategic" [Holly]. As Doris describes it,
You have to make more of a point to reinforce things because you're not going to bump into people, you have to make a point of nurturing friendships more so than you do in a neighborhood community or church community or work community where you just bump into people… Maybe you do have to work at it more, because it's easier to drop out of it, too… you can just kind of fade back if you want and just say, well I'm just going to sit here and do it more like a correspondence course unless the professor has a particular requirement. Whereas maybe it's harder to do that in a face-to-face community. [Doris]
Those who fail to make community connections, particularly early in the program, are more distressed about their LEEP experience. Here, Nancy reflects on her first few months in LEEP:
I was so stressed out, and that was before I talked to [the instructor]. . . we talked for a long time, maybe an hour and a half, or longer, and I know, I realize I should have done that a couple of weeks into the class . . . I was feeling very isolated and very lonely. [Nancy]
As students become more integrated with other LEEP students, and with faculty and staff, they move from a stressful position of isolation to confident membership in their community. This is in keeping with results of research on social support in other settings. The more others with whom an individual maintains supportive ties, the more positive the association with measures of happiness, mental health and well-being (Haines & Hurlbert, 1992; Hammer, 1981; van der Poel, 1993; Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman & Gulia, 1999b). Dynamic and interactive communication has also been associated with increased satisfaction, performance quality, learning, sociability, and cooperation (Rafaeli & Sudweeks, 1997). So, too, these students show more satisfaction and happiness when connected to others.
Regulating Social Distance: Fading Back/Coming Forward
As Doris' comment above indicates, fading back, not participating, treating LEEP as a correspondence course, is relatively easy in this CMC environment. The phrase "fade back" is used in two ways by students: to describe being in the background of a class - somewhat like sitting in the back row in a classroom, but less purposive than deliberately choosing a back seat; and to describe letting go of or "disengaging" from the program. We discuss the first meaning of "fade back" here and disengaging in the following section.
In the LEEP distance environment, you cannot be seen by others, put on the spot, or made to participate. This lack of exposure is facilitated by the "reduced cues" of the CMC environment, i.e., text without voice, voice without body language, class attendance without seating arrangements (Culnan & Markus, 1987; Haythornthwaite, Wellman & Garton, 1998; Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). Indeed, students can sign in for class so their names appear in the IRC session, yet never be visible so instructors cannot see if they are actually present. This can have a negative impact on the learning community when students let themselves fade back and then fail to contribute to the public good (Connolly & Thorn, 1990; Markus, 1990). It can also have a negative impact on the individual as he or she misses out on the socializing and support given by others and finding that others share their trials and tribulations.
However, the reduced cues environment can also act positively to encourage contribution to the community, extending an "open invitation to participate in this online environment" [Barbara], where you are free to ask "stupid" questions.
You don't have to see the immediate gasping reactions to what you say if you… if you say 4 … or write something that maybe you think 'Oh, maybe that was too inane… or that was too stupid… or that was too obvious.' You don't see those eyes rolling. [Barbara]
Another aspect of fading back is how comfortable individuals are with being visible or invisible.5 Ted expressed a discomfort with being invisible, and so he found ways to overcome that, to come forward and be present in the community. By contrast, Alice says she likes to be able to fade back:
It's a community where you can fade back really easily, which I like. I'm from a big family where you can fade back if you need to. I like that. [Alice]
But, she also notes that this same environment provides little opportunity to "stand out and shine," to be recognized across the program for your work.
Thus, we see that students can bring themselves forward or they can choose to fade back, and some students may be satisfied with either condition, or at least with the option of either condition. Yet, those who fade back unwillingly, perhaps because of technical problems (for example, in a class that held only two live sessions, one student was unable to connect for the first one, and described herself mid-term as still "waiting to see what it [LEEP] was all about"), or because the social distance was initially too great to bridge (see Nancy's comments above), are not satisfied with this condition. Moreover, a non-participant does not contribute to the communal exchange, and diminishes the overall potential for interaction and collaborative learning.
In the same way that face-to-face classes can encourage some and discourage others, so too, the technologies used to support distance classes, can, paradoxically, both increase and decrease active involvement in communal exchanges. The new technologies have neither cured nor caused this paradox, but instead have put a new spin on it. However, perhaps even more than in face-to-face classes, we need to monitor contribution, ensuring that each individual is connected to the class in a manner that serves their educational experience, and that also serves the learning community.
Coming Together: The importance of synchronous connection
As students strive to engage with LEEP, we are led to ask what helps them make this connection: What means of communication, what activities, and what support helps them feel part of a community?
There are two means of communication that support class-wide interaction at a distance: the synchronous IRC sessions, and the asynchronous webboard posting. Synchronous communication, particularly during the live lecture times, contributes much more to community building than asynchronous communication (although webboard postings have been described as "butter on toast," continuing interaction that is "real thin but still tasty" [Jerry]). While a few students find the live sessions an inconvenience, most express a need for this kind of contact. Live sessions provide both intellectual and emotional content, but more importantly provide simultaneous, many-to-many contact that helps stave off feelings of isolation.
I seem to get more out of class when we meet live more often… It keeps you from feeling isolated… The immediacy [is nice], even though you're typing, not speaking to them directly, you're typing with them. [Janet]I need to hear my professor's voice. I need the stimulation of you know, comments, and you know, I need my other classmates to respond to me, or I need to respond to my other classmates in the chat, when we're having a class. I mean I just need that feedback from them. [Nancy]
Small (1999) reports similar comments from computer-supported distance students as they "bemoaned the lack of frequent, face-to-face contact with faculty" (p. 36).
Face-to-face communication, although considered by the students as essential for building community, nevertheless takes a second place to the use of communication technologies because of their distance from each other. Students who 'save up' their social interactions for face-to-face mid-term sessions remain isolated and dissatisfied with the meager contact they have. When the face-to-face contact supplements ongoing relations it "enhanced the program. It enhanced enjoying what you were doing because you had personal relationships with people" [Beth], and also has a powerful effect on their sense of community. However, it is not so much the face-to-face contact that they share, rather it is opportunity to come together with "a bunch of people who all know what this is about" [Doris].
Along with the public, class-wide communication, private communication is also important for students. Email, IRC whispering, and the telephone fill an important niche for students, providing private, person-to-person contact. This helps sustain stronger interpersonal ties, allowing those in crisis to communicate with their closest friends (via email, or phone), and allowing small sub-groups to socialize around class activities and class times (via email and IRC whispering). We notice also that the structure of the classes also structures interaction time. Poole & DeSanctis (1990) have coined the term 'adaptive structuration' to refer to the way in which use of media is determined by group use. Here we see how the structure of the class also sets conditions that lead to the way in which individuals make use of the media (see also Haythornthwaite, 2000). Students engage in near-synchronous email sessions that are entrained with regular class activities, such as weekly webboard posting or assignment due dates. For example,
A lot of times last semester when I was working late at night, and then I would post my assignments, we found out that a lot of our - well, both of us were working late at night. We were both working late at night; so even now, sometimes, I'll - if I'm finishing up something, and I'll just send her a quick note. I'll say '… are you there?' And she'll write me back, 'Yes, I'm here.' So, yeah I really feel very close to her, even though she's in [another state]. [Nancy]
Thus, we see that the way the course is structured creates opportunities for media to be used to maintain contact with others. This is an important point to consider when designing such classes because the opportunities for interaction support not only the class content, but also the invisible social community that makes it possible and fun to engage in this sort of learning community.
Disengaging from the Community
As students progress through the program, the desperate need to make contact diminishes. They become familiar with class routines, the technologies and norms for their use, and their distanced companions and fellow travelers. It is no longer all new, and even when new versions of software are introduced such changes are seen as minor. Yet, change is happening.
First, their cohort becomes diluted. Members of previous and following cohorts join their classes and their in-class connection to members of their own cohort fades. As the immediacy of boot camp fades making and sustaining connections to LEEP students becomes harder, particularly when making new connections to non-cohort class members.
Early in their program, most students strive to maintain connections to the LEEP community, making new contacts through classes and particularly through group projects. Over time, students taking fewer classes per semester see the possibility of being left behind while everyone they know finishes without them. Some increase their pace in the program in order to remain with their cohort or close friends (e.g., by increasing from one to two courses per semester). Yet, the cohort still dissipates, and so does their attachment to the community. Fellow cohort members and others students with whom they have been close throughout the program fail to end up in the same classes or may have already graduated. Sue, who is nearing the end of her degree, describes how this affects her in-class interactions:
Now I am in a class where there is no one in there that I really have any kind of connection with and I actually have to email someone today and ask if they will provide me with some information and it's a little awkward because I don't have any kind of relationship with that person. [Sue]
As students approach the end of their time in the LEEP program, they go through a process of disengaging from the program, allowing nature to take its course, fading back from the community, reluctantly watching it and their membership in it recede in time. Here is Holly's account of this phenomenon:
I feel a sense of loss because that real close community that I had with those folks isn't there any more, and I think [it's] because you have that on campus time with those people, and you really develop a bond with them. [Holly]
And, although other opportunities have presented themselves for getting together with other LEEP students (most notably an online 'technical know-how session' which many students mentioned), Holly says that …
I'll see those opportunities and then I say, it's just hard to fit more things in and so you start, you know you have to make choices, yeah I want to be a part of a LEEP community but on the other hand I'm graduating in one semester, I have a job, I have a family, I can only give so much. So I think sometimes, something like an online community… I don't know, you just have to make your choices, and sometimes it's easier to say 'no' to an online community because it's not right there in front of your face all the time. [Holly]
Once again, the reduced cues environment makes it easier to fade back and allow the community, and their contribution to the community, to slip away.
At the same time as students are going through a process of disengaging from LEEP, they are simultaneously engaging or re-engaging with the "outside world." Students about to leave the program stop making the effort to maintain ties with other LEEP students, as Holly's comment shows. They turn their attention instead to their work and home communities, re-engaging with the people and activities that received less attention while they were completing the degree. Some LEEP graduates are starting new jobs and need to develop ties with a new work community; others are reconnecting with the jobs they held throughout their time in the program. We see their focus changing from being overwhelmingly (in fact often stressfully so) engaged with LEEP, to largely, and then to only marginally engaged with LEEP. As an extreme example, when one of the interviewees was asked to participate in an interview only a few months after she had graduated, her response was, "I've totally put all of that out of my mind."
Overall we see that the tight formation of community that begins during boot camp sustains students through the early portions of their program. By the middle of the program, they are accomplished LEEPers, able to introduce newbies to the environment, but also like old dogs occasionally annoyed at the puppies biting at their toes. By the end of the program, they are consciously disengaging from the LEEP community now that their friends have left, and turning their attention to the next new world to conquer.
Supporting Virtual Distance Learning Communities
This paper has focused on the community aspects of computer-supported distance learners' experiences, and the temporal aspects of joining, existing in, and exiting from the program. We are pleased to find a strong sense of community, initiated by the boot camp, and sustained at a distance via computer media. We also hear that the distance experience can be trying, particularly at the beginning, as students cope with new technologies and new ways of interacting in a world no one understands (including the students themselves in their early months in the program). Interviews show how students, interacting from a distance and starting from a position of isolation, make connections with fellow students and recognize and live with members of a virtual community. The existence of the community is felt by all participants, enforced in part by their differences from outsiders, and in part by their shared trials and experiences with insiders. Our interviews also show that this sense of community and the social support received from other students helps make it possible to share and learn in this environment.
We also note several aspects of the CMC community that have an impact on supporting a distanced learning community. Although we recognize that we have examined only one distanced environment, the LEEP program has evolved over three years and we have heard from students in cohorts from each year. Thus, we believe that these observations will be useful for other online distance education programs. While it is possible that just by bringing students together into the program they may achieve a sense of community, we believe that without attention to community characteristics we would be providing an impoverished environment, or one in which community is recognized only as students near completion of their program. In time-limited groups such as our distance learning environment, we need to bootstrap community and augment the bonds that make it worthwhile and rewarding to make the extra effort to stay in contact. Thus, we provide the following as suggestions on how to accelerate a process that might occur on its own given enough time.6
Promote Initial Bonding
We note the importance of the initial bonding experience and the stressfulness of the first semester off campus. It takes more effort to maintain ties, and during early semesters individuals are still unsure of how to go about maintaining a presence in the virtual community. Our interviews suggest that it is necessary to provide opportunities for group interaction and to focus on encouraging and making possible individual participation, particularly in the first off-campus course. Our interviews also suggest that synchronous activity is likely to help more than asynchronous since it provides a common meeting ground and at least temporal proximity, elements important for building community. Regular meetings may help more than irregular ones since they help establish a routine on which students can 'piggy-back' their social interactions. This extends to assignments and weekly work as well, as students establish routines of work submission followed by social interaction. It also appears to be important for instructors of first semester students to give feedback on the quality and appropriateness of postings, so that individuals may gain a sense of what is right and wrong in this new environment.
Monitor and Support Continued Interaction and Participation
Where the goal is to support collaborative learning, we also need to support and encourage participation. When students fade back they fail to contribute to the pool of resources that should be available to all students. Thus, we need to be aware of where and when fading back occurs and to take steps to pull students back in not only to the educational experience, but also to the social experience of the program. Although we are not likely to monitor person-to-person activity, we can monitor contribution to class webboards, and to chat sessions. Even a simple count of who contributed would quickly highlight those having problems engaging in the class, and allow instructors to plan their next steps accordingly.
Building community requires more than just work activity. Moreover, socializing eases work relations. Thus, it is important to provide means and opportunities for students to become engaged in both the educational and social experience of the program.
Provide Multiple Means of Communication
These interviews and other studies show the importance of multiple means of communication: public and private, synchronous and asynchronous, multi-party and one-on-one, distanced and face-to-face for sustaining group interaction (Haythornthwaite, 2000; Haythornthwaite & Wellman, 1998; Dennis & Valacich, 1999). Whether seen as directly relevant to the educational experience or not, students need these multiple ways of interacting in order to support their need to engage in class, task, social, support, emotional and intellectual exchanges.
ConclusionOverall, we see many positive outcomes with these students that bode well for distance programs. We see tangible results such as students' receiving increased job responsibilities and access to special opportunities because of their participation in this type of environment long before they complete the program. We see intangible results as stressed, fearful and/or timid individuals gain confidence and take on leadership roles in LEEP. We also see people who could not otherwise achieve this degree becoming full-fledged members of their chosen profession. Lastly, we see something unique from this kind of distance program - that students receive a 'dual education.' They learn to use new technology and gain experience in distanced interaction as well as learn the subject matter for the program. We believe this is an important addition to the repertoire of any educational program, and one well worth pursuing.
AcknowledgementsOur thanks go to the 17 individuals who gave generously of their time for the interviews that provide the data for this paper. This work was supported by a grant from the University of Illinois Campus Research Board. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association for Library and Information Science Educators conference, January 2000, San Antonio, TX.
Footnotes1. See McLaughlin, Osborne & Smith (1995), who state that "what constitutes virtual community?" is the "unexplored territory" in CMC research (p. 93).
2. For details on the GSLIS LEEP program, see http://www.lis.uiuc.edu/gslis/degrees/leep.html and http://leep.lis.uiuc.edu
3. The boot camp bonding is so strong that one cohort referred to themselves as "3.2" for the second session boot camp that started students in the third year of the program, separating themselves from the others who started in the same year.
4. It is interesting to note how students refer to their email and webboard postings as if a conversation had occurred in the normal manner of a traditional classroom. They say "if I say" when it is something they write. We have noticed this extensively in our interviews, and we believe it reflects their attention to the act they are engaged in rather than to the technology through which it is achieved. Over time, the technology disappears into the background, becoming the means and not the end of their endeavors (see also Bruce & Hogan, 1999).
5. For further discussion of students' concerns regarding visibility, see Bregman and Haythornthwaite (in press).
6. For students' advice to students, see Kazmer (2000).
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Appendix A:Summaries of areas explored in the interviews
The first interview emphasized the student's own view of their experiences in the LEEP program (emphasis for all interviews was on the program, not on specific courses). We began with information about the students themselves, including their stage in the program, and their goals and motivations for undertaking LEEP and for pursuing the LIS professional degree. Further questions were oriented to collect egocentric network data, i.e., emphasizing with whom students interacted, about what, how often, and via which media. Interactions across multiple worlds were explored including home (in-house and extended family), work (co-workers, employers), and volunteer and/or professional associations. Interviews explored what parts of students' experiences in LEEP were important to them (reflecting either a positive or negative experience) including: how they learned to operate in the CMC-based environment; whether and how they were able to create and maintain personal bonds; how they managed tensions and synergies between LEEP and home or work; what made them feel a member of the program; how they maintained relations with close circles of friends, cohort and/or LEEP community members. The interview concluded by asking for advice they would give to incoming LEEP students.
The second interview began with a "temperature taking" of students' attitudes toward LEEP and its technologies now a semester had passed and whether there had been changes in their work or home situation. We explored the impact of their LEEP involvement on: their interactions with members of their household, family, co-workers, employers; their involvement in other activities; and their needs and sources of support. The interview then turned to an in-depth exploration of community: whether individuals believed there was a LEEP community; whether they felt they belonged to it; how they characterized it; how they maintained their presence in the community; and what they both gave to and received from the community. We also explored whether the feeling of community extended to the faculty as a whole and to the university. As before, the interview concluded by asking for advice for new students.
The third interview began as the second one did by exploring students' attitudes to LEEP and its technologies, and whether there were changes in their home or work conditions. Since this interview also marked the beginning of another semester, changes in their courses and course load were also explored. Then the interview explored how strong and weak ties were manifest in this environment. Students were asked how they maintained their strong ties, i.e., ties to those who most helped them keep going in the program, exploring what types of people were in their close circle, how they met them, and how they maintained the tie via CMC and/or other means. Then the interview focused on weaker ties, first specifically on people outside LEEP who also helped them in their efforts with the program, and then on others associated with LEEP, the school, or the university who helped them with their program. Then we asked about a variety of different kinds of support and to whom they would go for each type of support, from technical support to trouble resolving an issue with a class mate. The interview continued with further exploration of community, asking for any changes in their feelings and awareness of community, incidents that best characterize community, how over time they came to perceive the existence of a community, how the LEEP community differs from other communities they know, and how involvement with LEEP affects their membership in other communities (volunteer and professional). The interview again concluded with a question about advice for new students.
In the final interview we began again with a review of the students' attitudes to LEEP and any changes in their conditions. We then explored what people liked most and least about the online classes they had taken so far, including the way in which the class was conducted, the use of the technologies, the amount and kind of work, and whether they felt these would work for other classes. At the same time we explored whether they felt connected to the class and what made them feel connected, and what kind of side activities they engaged in during live sessions. We then again returned to the notion of community, asking about changes in their involvement with other communities because of LEEP, about the change from the on-campus 'boot camp' to the first course at a distance, and how they now felt about their membership in the LIS professional community. As before, the interview concluded with a question about advice for new students.
Appendix B:Other categories being explored from these interviews
While this paper reports on the core category of "community," our interviews and our ongoing analyses also explore these categories:
Multiple worlds: intersections, synergies and/or conflicts involved in managing and maintaining presence in multiple social worlds (e.g., online and offline; home, work, leisure, and school; student life and professional life). Support networks: support needs of LEEP students (e.g., social, technical), sources of support while engaged in the distance program (e.g., home and work support; support from LEEP students, instructors, administrators, and technical staff), and means and opportunities used for giving and receiving support; Social circles: the nature and role of close social circles within LEEP, e.g., networks of close friends, and how these are maintained at a distance and via computer media; nature and role of networks of weaker ties; Technology Affordances: the technologies (computer media), their affordances, and the way these affordances support interaction, community and educational outcomes; Presentation: students concerns in presenting themselves given the means, methods and opportunities available in the LEEP environment; Advice for New Students: recommendations from students for how to operate in the LEEP environment.
About The AuthorsCaroline Haythornthwaite is Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research centers on information exchange in computer mediated environments, examining the way in which the media are used to support work and social interaction. Current research includes exploration of information exchange and the development of community among distance learners, and knowledge processes in computer-supported interdisciplinary scientific research teams (supported by NSF; see http://www.dkrc.org).
Address: GSLIS, UIUC, 501 East Daniel, Champaign, IL, 61822. 217- 244-7453; fax 217-244-3302
Michelle M. Kazmer is a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research area is knowledge-building communities in which members communicate primarily through computer media and are not physically collocated. Currently, she is focusing on how individuals enter into and "disengage" from these communities.
Address: GSLIS, UIUC, 501 East Daniel, Champaign, IL, 61822. 217-333-7197
Jenny Robins is a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the design and use of collaboratories.
Address: GSLIS, UIUC, 501 East Daniel, Champaign, IL, 61822. 217-333-7197
Susan Shoemaker is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College, where she teaches Reference, Social Science Reference, and Bibliographic Instruction. Her research interests include computer-mediated communication in distance education programs and among minority groups.
Address: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Simmons College, 300 The Fenway, Boston, MA 02115. 617-521-2800; fax 617-521-3192.
©Copyright 2000 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication