Online Learning Communities: Exploring the impact of group size on community development

Christopher Brook and Ron Oliver, Edith Cowan University, Australia

And the Aussies just keep coming with great stuff.

What can the instructor do to influence the individual’s perception of community? This is part of a larger study being conducted by the authors.

First, a few background notes: …

Sense of community is context specific (Sonn, Bishop, & Drew, 1999).

Community is a sense rather than a tangible entity (Wiesenfeld, 1999).

Sense of Community includes elements of :

-Membership (safety)

-Influence (meetings)Chavis et.al. 198

-Integration and fulfillment of needs

-Shared emotional connection (McMillan & Chavis, 1986).

Sense of community may be used by using the sense of Community Index (Chavis, et.al., 1986). If this is an instrument, I want to have a look at it. Sorry to say I hadn’t heard of it before, but I’ll definitely be looking into it.

Pre-existing factors that appear to influence community development in online settings:

Institution policies (Cho & Berge, 2002)
Technical systems (Hill & Raven, 2000)
The instructor (Hiltz, 1998; Paloff & Pratt, 1999)
The course (Hiltz, 1998)
Group numbers (Brook & Oliver, 2003)
Student characteristics (Hiltz, 1998)

Instructor contributions to community:
Establishing a common purpose
Enabling meetings to take place
Helping students use the technology
Moderating discursive activities

Brook & Oliver’s study looked specifically at the cohort size and how it influence the experience, and what instructors can do to influence the sense of community

The examined four cases (course) of cohorts sized 27, 14, 9, 7.

Instructors immediately broke the larger cohorts into smaller groups. Why? An apparent attempt for all to contribute, to feel safety, and to set boundaries.

In each case, communication tended to be dominated by a minority of students and few people contributed.

Why?
-An apparent limited opportunity for all to contribute

-An apparent risk of shame

-A sense of boundaries – the “little” group was pleasurable.

Derived their sense of community from the small groups, not from the large group settings.

The sense of community declined over the operation of one course in one whole class setting (but I think it was the class that had only 7 in the cohort), while it grew in other settings. This may have been an anomaly.

There appears to be considerable variation in cohort numbers and instructors managed cohort size differently.

…Whole class settings appear to present a limited opportunity for all students to make meaningful contributions.

One preliminary conclusion is that the instructor should manage cohort sizes. But there isn’t solid information on what is an optimal group size. Smaller is better than large, evidently, but at what point does it break down? This is a good start toward answering that question.

My opinion is that this is an excellent research design that needs to be replicated internationally. The answers to these seemingly simple questions are so contextually embedded that it will require an effort examining a large number of courses in a number of contexts.

Brook and Oliver are examining similar things and getting similar results to our own research at the U of S. Comforting.

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