Sense of Community


I’ve been asked to supply some data backing up my claim that students place a low level of importance on the idea of developing a sense of community in their e-learning opportunities. I have spoken about this at various times, including three days ago during a keynote presentation about the myths and realities of e-Learning (titled “e-Learning Mythbusters”). Above is a slide from that presentation. Showing 36 items on a slide is generally not a good approach, but this was intended to illustrate how the last two items on the far-right are significantly less important to students than the other 34 items.

There is only one question on the PSOL that seems to get at the issue of building community (sort of). Question #8 reads as follows: “Student-to-student collaborations are valuable to me.” This question probably involves more things than just building community, since student-to-student collaborations means very different things in different courses or programs. However, the fact remains that this question scores incredibly poorly on the importance scale. There are 26 importance/satisfaction questions on the PSOL (36 if you add 10 of your own, more on that below). Of the 26 questions, this one scores at #26 on the importance scale, and it’s not even close to number 25. This statement is shown in the last column (yellow-black checkered) of the 36 columns in the slide (that is LSC data with 10 added statements for a total of 36).

  • For the national results, question #8 has an importance score of 5.16. (Note: 5.0 is somewhat important)
  • For the LSC peer group institutions, #8 has an importance score of 5.17.
  • For Lake Superior College, #8 has an importance score of 5.00.
  • For Minnesota Online schools, #8 has an importance score of 4.93.

Since that question doesn’t directly measure the idea of “community,” we have added a question to our survey in two of the three annual administrations at LSC. We added the following statement: “I feel of sense of community or belonging through the LSC Virtual Campus.” With the 10 added statements, there are now 36 statements in total. This added item comes out as #35, with the student-to-student collaborations coming in at #36 and the lowest level of importance. The “sense of community” statement is shown in the chart as next-to-last column (black-white striped).

  • In year 1 (FY04) at LSC, we didn’t include this statement on the survey. (no added questions)
  • In year 2 (FY05) at LSC, this item scored 5.16 on the importance scale (35 out of 36)
  • In year 3 (FY06) at LSC, this item scored 5.50 on the importance scale (35 out of 36)

Interpreting the results is always a bit of a crapshoot at best, but here’s my take on why this is rated lowly by the students. Think of your typical online student. At my school, our online students are typically raising a family, working at one or two jobs, and in many other ways not your typical “captured” college student. In other words, they are already heavily involved in several “communities” that are very important to them – work(1), work(2), kid’s school, church, neighborhood, friends, etc. etc. For many people, the idea of developing another community (takes time and commitment) is just a bit too much to ask. One reason that they are drawn to e-Learning in the first place is because their lives are very full and heavily scheduled. They want to get their coursework done and meet deadlines (okay, that’s not always true). Building community in their e-learning takes time that they prefer to spend in other pursuits.

One more take on all this, which I believe is especially true of the younger e-learners out there. They spend a great deal of time building online community in their social networking (Facebook, MySpace, etc.). The last thing they want is for their e-Learning to look like their social networking. They are sending a message to us when they tell educators to stay out of their social networking spaces. We also need to recognize the amount of informal learning that takes place outside of the e-Learning environment. Of course, we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

3 thoughts on “Sense of Community

  1. Hi Barry
    Thanks for pointing this out to me, it goes well with the other post you’d made.
    One thing that has struck me, and may well explain why I was surprised that the sense of community does seem to be so low, is if there is a difference in the way that courses run. The way that the online work I do is structured is such that the students have to communicate for their coursework …
    Also, is it the survey I’ve found at Services/Retention/Tools/Priorities Survey for Online Learners/Overview.htm ?
    Looking at the other questions asked, I can see why the community aspect isn’t rated as highly as others – I think that if I was completing it, I’d rank the others more highly, probably not realising the value I put on being able to have the confidence to contact peers should I need to.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out to me, Barry.
    I’ve just had a look at the survey (at least, I’m assuming it’s the one that I found from your link to PSOL), and I think that I’d also have rated community aspects lower than many other things were I to have completed the survey.
    My feeling is, though, that aspects of community are much more intangible, than, say, lecturers answering email. Hence, students don’t see it as important, but, were it not to exist, I suspect you’d have more comments that students felt lonely and isolated & didn’t have others to talk to.

  3. You could also check out the results of a study related to this topic at

    A relevant section states,

    The survey concluded by asking students if they would take part in any collaborative activities, however structured. About 49% indicated they would not; 29% indicated they would and 22% were unsure. When queried for the reasons that they did not wish to engage in collaborative activities, 58% said they preferred to learn on their own. About 25% indicated that they have a strong support group at work or at home, and 17% provided a variety of other reasons.
    The survey results suggest that most current students choose not to participate in collaborative activities even if these activities are built into the course and participation could affect course marks. However, there was interest in enhanced forms of interaction with content and in the ability to view contributions of other students. Most also indicated an interest in collaborating, but not if such collaboration constrained their freedom to move through the course at their own pace.

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