Developing a sense of community (SoC) in college is vital due to its positive impacts on learning and student success. In this study, the researchers examine students’ perceptions of SoC in synchronous and asynchronous online courses, with specific interest in the experiences of regional campus students who are often considered to be nontraditional. Study participants were enrolled in small business management programs offered on the regional campuses of a public Midwestern university. Participants’ perspectives on the importance of connecting with others in college varied, specifically concerning connecting with other students. However, there was more agreement on the importance of connecting with course instructors. Additionally, participants reported differences in their perceptions and expectations of developing SoC in synchronous versus asynchronous online courses. Web conferencing and games were perceived to have positive impacts on SoC development, while there was a negative perception of the impact of discussion forums.
While the COVID-19 pandemic initiated a shift to online learning for many college students, enrollment in online courses has been increasing for some time (Seaman et al., 2019). The larger pandemic-driven shift to online learning has created an opportunity to learn more about the experiences of students who would have otherwise chosen in-person courses. Separate from the impact of the pandemic, concerns have persisted regarding the development of SoC in online courses, specifically the negative impact that a lack of SoC may have on the experiences and education outcomes of nontraditional students who often enroll in regional, satellite, or branch campuses.
Nontraditional students often balance work, family, and academic obligations. While online learning provides an alternative for students who are navigating these responsibilities, it is essential to improve educators’ understanding of the impacts on perceived and actual classroom SoC development. Johnson et al. discuss motivational differences between traditional and nontraditional students, including self-efficacy and peer support, the latter of which nontraditional students often lack, as nontraditional students generally have fewer opportunities to interact with peers than residential students (Johnson et al., 2016). It is vital to expand educators’ understanding of nontraditional student needs and expectations related to online learning in order to foster the development of a SoC that supports and enhances the student learning experience.
Purpose of the Study
The applied business programs offered on the regional campuses of the studied institution were originally available through multiple modalities, including face-to-face, hybrid, and online. Due to pandemic-related concerns, courses in these programs were made available online only for the Fall 2020 semester. Before the start of the semester, the researchers were concerned about the impact switching to entirely online learning would have on the development of a SoC, especially for those students with little to no experience in online courses. One potential solution offered by the institution was the addition of the synchronous online modality, wherein students complete their coursework entirely online, but regularly attend class meetings using web conferencing software. This offered more structure and peer interaction compared to asynchronous online courses, in which students would not be expected to attend regularly scheduled online class meetings.
With these two modes of online education available, the researchers sought to improve understanding of the experiences and expectations of regional campus students with the development of a SoC in synchronous and asynchronous online courses. To accomplish this, the researchers queried students regarding their perceived definitions of SoC and their perceptions of the importance of SoC in the classroom as well as the tools and approaches that helped or hindered the development of a SoC. While there is literature on the development of a SoC in various course modalities, this study focuses on the expectations and experiences of regional campus students, who are often considered nontraditional, in synchronous and asynchronous courses. The researchers investigated the following research questions:
- How do participants define sense of community?
- What are participants’ perceptions on the importance of developing a sense of community in college?
- What are participants’ experiences in developing a sense of community in online synchronous and asynchronous courses?
- What tools and activities did participants report encouraged development of a sense of community in online courses?
- What tools and activities did participants report hindered development of a sense of community in online courses?
As online learning grows, technology continues to play a significant role for many nontraditional students balancing college with family, work, and more. Online course delivery provides flexibility to students who may otherwise not attend college. However, despite the benefits of using online learning, student participation and drop-out rates remain a concern (Blieck et al., 2019). This review of selected literature includes a brief overview of the definition of a SoC, characteristics of nontraditional students, and student experiences in online courses.
Sense of Community
McMillan and Chavis (1986) defined SoC as “…a feeling that members have a belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment together” (p. 9). Building on prior research, Rovai (2002) identified four components of classroom community: spirit, trust, interaction, and learning. Together, these components form a classroom environment that includes a sense of belonging, shared values, and mutual support.
Although Daiva (2017) noted that existing literature does not have a single definition of nontraditional students, researchers have identified some shared characteristics, including age, education, and social roles. Arjomandi et al. (2018) identified additional characteristics of nontraditional students, such as part-time student status, employment of more than 30 hours per week, age greater than 25, and living with dependents. Chung et al. (2014) also reviewed the characteristics of nontraditional students as presented in the literature, finding a broad array of characteristics, including living off campus. Comparing traditional and nontraditional students, Jinkens (2009) found that these characteristics may be less important compared to the differences in how these student populations view the purpose of education. As changes in technology and required skills have led to an increase in enrollment of nontraditional students (Tamir & Taylor, 2019), more attention should be given to their college experiences.
Online Learning Experiences
Online courses, especially asynchronous ones, can lack the student engagement that is needed to create a SoC (Moore, 2014). A lack of community may reflect students’ disconnect from each other and from the instructor, which may negatively impact learning. Students may feel isolated and lack the confidence to successfully navigate the online learning environment (Moore, 2014). Moreover, student obligations outside of the course could impede community development (Oliphant & Branch-Mueller, 2016) including full-time employment (Stoessel et al., 2015). Nontraditional students are often employed full-time, which may lead to a higher drop-out risk (Stoessel et al., 2015). Compounding the problem, online faculty could also be resistant to providing time for student engagement in a more social manner (Berry, 2019). While increasing student participation can improve learning in online courses (Hrastinski, 2009), students may not feel that interactions, engagement, and collaboration in the online environment are what they desire, leading to less engagement than in-person courses (McClannon et al., 2018). Furthermore, technology issues, including access and literacy, may impact students’ online learning experiences (Barrot et al., 2021; Bonk et al., 2002; Cortes & Barbera, 2013; Muresan & Gogu, 2013). In addition to technology issues, students may also experience challenges with inconsistent assessment formats and information overload, specifically with asynchronous course components (Bonk et al., 2002) or may be burdened by course workload (Oliphant & Branch-Mueller, 2016). Moreover, student confidence may be influenced by the amount of experience a student has in completing online courses (Bressler et al., 2011). However, scholars have discovered processes and methods that encourage the development of a SoC and impact student success.
Several factors can impact student satisfaction and serve as indicators of success. Zembylas et al. (2008) found that while adult learners may enjoy the flexibility of online learning, those learners with little or no experience in online learning may feel added stress due to uncertainty on what to expect. Faculty should focus on these emotions when engaging with students, seeking to enhance positive emotions while mitigating the negative ones (Yu et al., 2020). Additionally, student and faculty engagement outside the online classroom can help to build a community (Berry, 2019). Nontraditional student success can be supported through teacher and peer support among other variables (Johnson et al., 2016). However, Johnson et al. (2016) also note that nontraditional students often have limited interactions with their peers, specifically when compared with the experiences of residential students. Oliphant and Branch-Mueller (2016) identified program structure and opportunities to connect with others as key factors. Specifically, meetings between students and peers or faculty, either in-person or virtually, helped to develop a SoC. Discussion forums and group work may also enable development of a SoC (Oliphant & Branch-Mueller, 2016).
Nontraditional students who are often enrolled on regional campuses report a variety of ways in which they define and conceptualize SoC in the classroom, as well as differences in how they perceive the importance of SoC development in college. In conjunction with these perceptions are the experiences that students had with various tools and approaches used by faculty to foster SoC in online classrooms. Other factors that may impact nontraditional students’ perspectives on online courses include inherent differences between synchronous and asynchronous courses and the previous experiences that students had when completing online courses. The regional campuses included in this study do not offer student housing, and students exhibit one or more traits used to identify nontraditional students, primary of these is their lack of a residential student experience. In this study, the resaerchers investigate student perceptions of SoC and the factors that help or hinder the development of SoC in synchronous and asynchronous online courses.
This study used mixed methods to improve the understanding of expectations and experiences of nontraditional students attending regional campuses in developing SoC in synchronous and asynchronous online courses. Data was collected using a survey instrument that included Likert, scale, and open-ended items.
Site Selection and Study Population
The study included students in applied business programs on regional campuses of a public Midwestern university. Data was collected at the end of the Fall 2020 semester. Out of 740 students who were invited to participate, 42 completed surveys (n = 42), with a response rate of 5.7%. The age of participants ranged from 19 to 61 (M = 30.4, SD = 12.4). All participants reported to have completed at least three college courses that were entirely online, with 10 students who have completed at least 20 online courses.
The study received an exemption from the Institutional Review Board. Students who were enrolled in small business management programs were emailed an invitation to complete a survey on their experiences of the Fall 2020 semester. The survey instrument was divided into three parts: SoC perceptions, experiences in synchronous online courses, and experiences in asynchronous online courses. The survey included items that asked for participants’ definition of SoC, modalities of previously completed courses, perceived importance of developing a SoC in college, ratings of the impact that tools and approaches made on classroom community development, and open-ended items on SoC. While all participants completed the SoC items, 42 completed the items that were related to asynchronous course experiences (n = 42), and 23 completed the items that were related to synchronous course experiences (n = 23). This difference was due to the fact that not all participants completed synchronous courses during the term.
Descriptive statistics and Mann-Whitney U tests were used for analysis. Two groups were created for some items, separating participants who reported having completed 50% or fewer of their college courses as online courses (n = 19) and those who reported having completed more than 50% of their college courses as online courses (n = 23). Additionally, some items compared SoC-related perceptions in online synchronous courses versus asynchronous courses.
The researchers followed Merriam and Tisdell’s (2016) description of the basic qualitative approach for qualitative analysis. The purpose of this approach “...is to understand how people make sense of their lives and their experiences” (Merriam & Tisdell, p. 24). The researchers focused on the participants’ experiences as students in synchronous and asynchronous courses from the perspective of developing a SoC. Additionally, Merriam and Tisdell’s (2016) analysis process for category construction was followed. Using a phenomenological theoretical frame, the data were then coded independently, categories weregenerated, and then codes and categories were compared to identify themes.
Merriam and Tisdell (2016) recommend that investigators triangulate their results by independently coding the data then collectively comparing their results. The researchers also included both qualitative and quantitative data, which provided depth to the analysis and helped to provide context. The two researchers at the focus of this study are faculty members in the academic department, which may positively or negatively influence the analysis. As insiders, the researchers may have improved understanding of student experiences, but this perspective may result in a lack of impartiality.
Participants were asked to define sense of community. Several categories were identified, including people, emotional experiences, and shared experiences. For people, a majority of participants described people, groups, or community as defining SoC. For emotional experiences, almost half of participants described being close to others, fitting in, sense of belonging, or shared values. For shared experiences, a majority of participants described engaging with peers as a part of defining SoC. Several participants reported making connections as necessary, including having a sense of unity or shared purpose. One participant noted that SoC was independent of formal structures: “Sense of community to me is the relationship developed with the people around you regardless of any formal structure within the community.” Another participant’s definition encapsulated all three elements: “To propose a sense of community is a sense of belonging among members, a sense of importance to each other and to the group, and a shared belief that members' commitment will be fulfilled by coming together.”
Perceived Importance of Making Connections in College
Participants responded to the importance of making connections in college using a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree (5) to strongly disagree (1). Table 1 shows mean scores categorized by the degree of experience in taking online courses for participants who had completed 50% or fewer of their college courses online (n=19) and those who had completed more than 50% of their courses online (n=23).
Mann-Whitney U statistics were calculated to compare differences between expectations for synchronous and asynchronous courses. Two items were found to have statistically significant differences: participants who had completed less than 50% of their courses online ranked both connecting with students in college (U = 139.0, z = -2.095, p = .036) and connecting with students in face-to-face courses (U = 123.5, z = -2.492, p = .013) higher than participants who had completed more than 50% of their courses online.
Comparing mean scores, participants who had completed less than 50% of their courses online ranked connecting with instructors in college as highest (M = 4.6, n = 19), and participants who completed more than 50% of their courses online ranked connecting with instructors in online courses highest (M = 4.6, n = 23). For both groups, the means for connecting with instructors was higher than connecting with students.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Experiences
Participants were asked to estimate in what percentage of their synchronous and asynchronous courses SoC had developed. The results are provided in Table 2. Mann-Whitney U statistics were calculated to test for differences. A higher percentage of synchronous courses were reported to have had community development compared to asynchronous courses (U = 322.5, z = -2.264, p = .024).
14 of the 19 students who had completed less than 50% of their previous courses online enrolled in the synchronous course sections. Commenting on the difference between synchronous and asynchronous course experiences, one student noted, “Synchronous classes were the best way to build community. I have no idea who was even in my other classes that were asynchronous.”
Sources of Help and Hindrance to the Development of SoC
Participants were asked to respond to items on each tool commonly used in online courses to help develop a SoC. Each item included a five-point Likert scale ranging from strongly agree (5) to strongly disagree (1). Twenty-three participants reported completing synchronous courses (n=23), while 42 reported completing asynchronous courses (n=42). Table 3 includes the results of the student perceptions of specific tools and activities used to develop a SoC.
In synchronous courses, web conferencing was the most used reported activity (n=21) followed by group assignments (n=20) and discussion forums (n=17). In asynchronous courses, discussion forums were the most used reported (n=40) followed by group assignments (n=38) and web conferencing (n=36). All calculated averages were higher for those reporting synchronous course experiences compared to asynchronous course experiences. Mann-Whitney U test results yielded significant differences between synchronous and asynchronous courses regarding discussion forums (U = 220.5, z = -2.210, p = .027), games (U = 44.5, z = -2.711, p = .007), peer reviews (U = 169.0, z = -1.969, p = .049), student created videos (U = 111.5, z = -2.576, p = .010), and guest speakers (U = 115.0, z = -2.134, p = .033).
When providing open-ended responses regarding what promoted SoC development, emerging themes included the impact of the instructor and attending synchronous course sessions. Another theme was the disagreement of the impact of discussion forums. Regarding the role of the instructor, participants commented that they wanted instructors to communicate proactively and be available to students. Additionally, participants highlighted the positive impact of making a connection with the instructor. One participant noted they appreciated "professors reaching out via email to let us know they are here for us and they are wishing us well and they understand that we are people, we have our own lives, and struggles.” Conversely, an instructor’s lack of availability was reported to have hindered SoC. One participant wrote, “Unavailable professors, or a professor who isn’t flexible,” was detrimental to building a SoC.
Participants reported on the need for instructors to control the learning environment by providing structure and expectations. Participants who completed synchronous online courses remarked that policies requiring the use of cameras was important, specifically that cameras be turned on. “People don’t turn the cameras on and the professor teaches to a grey screen with boxes full of names.” One participant noted that not having a designated class meeting time yielded a lack of structure and negatively impacted development of SoC.
Different types of assignments impacted SoC for participants in different ways. One area of disagreement centered around discussion forums. Some participants remarked that, when appropriately used, discussion forums could be effective. One participant wrote, "Discussions also help in online classes a ton because if a student is feeling lost or like they aren't understanding material well, they can see what others’ views are and what they're gaining from the material." However, other participants reported that discussion forums were not effective, citing the inauthenticity of posts and engagement between students. One participant remarked, “Students butter up their peer responses and do not respond in the way they want, which ultimately creates a false sense of community.” Another student wrote, “There was just no real way to interact. In one class there were discussion posts, but I think most people did their required number of posts to get the credit but did nothing past that.”
Open-ended participant responses to group projects were negative. One participant wrote the following in response to what hindered community development:
Group projects believe it or not. When people don’t communicate or do their work it is extremely frustrating and ruins not only your grade but everyone else’s grade which you and them worked so hard for. Out of the 20+ online classes I have taken (3+ years of online course) I can easily say I have only had about 2 good groups... It’s just more trouble than it’s worth— this does not create a sense of community at all.
Some participants reported that online courses were not conducive to SoC. One participant pointed to the online format as preventing community from developing at all. “Being online, there was little interaction and I didn’t get to know my classmates.” Another student wrote that “not being face-to-face” is what hindered the development of community. Another perspective was not supportive of developing a SoC: “Don’t force it too much. We are all busy. An opportunity to touch base is enough.”
The purpose of this study was to improve educators’ understanding of nontraditional student experiences and expectations in developing a SoC in synchronous and asynchronous courses. This improved understanding may help to inform instructional design and delivery in synchronous and asynchronous online courses with specific attention to situations reflective of nontraditional students attending regional campuses. Additionally, the reserchers sought to improve the understanding of nontraditional student expectations of and desires for a SoC in online courses.
Definition and Importance of SoC
While participants’ definitions reflected many aspects of how the literature characterizes SoC, there were differences on the importance of developing SoC, especially in online courses. This is not surprising given the variety of circumstances that nontraditional students experience. Categories that emerged from the open-ended responses included people, emotions, and shared experiences. This compares to key elements in McMillan & Chavis’s (1986) definition, including belonging, meaningful relationships with others, and a commitment to one another. Several participants, however, reported that connecting with other students in their courses was not important to them, and this was further supported by the quantitative survey results. Mays (2016) similarly found that some nontraditional students had selected online courses to keep from engaging with other students.
Asynchronous online learning options have provided flexibility for students, specifically for nontraditional students who may have a variety of responsibilities that may limit their ability to attend face-to-face or synchronous online classes. As found in this study, the degree of the perceived need for engaging with others and developing a SoC varied. However, a larger number of students in this study gave more value to engaging with faculty than peers. In a sense, creating a “community” with the instructor was perceived to be more important than creating a community with classroom peers.
Participant Experiences in Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Courses
Participants reported greater SoC development in their synchronous online courses. In addition, each tool/activity used to develop SoC in the synchronous courses ranked higher than the corresponding activities in the asynchronous courses. It is important to consider a variety of impacts, including the synchronous format, student perceptions about synchronous courses and community, and students enrolling in asynchronous courses to avoid peer interaction. In this study, participants who reported less prior experience in online courses more commonly enrolled in synchronous courses for the Fall 2020 term. This may have been due to the perception of having more opportunities to interact with peers and faculty. Additionally, study participants in synchronous course sections may have had the scheduling flexibility to attend synchronous online courses, while those enrolling in asynchronous course sections were bound by commitments or a desire to keep from interacting with others.
Research has explored the variation of student preferences for synchronous or asynchronous online course modalities. Some researchers find that students prefer a synchronous course modality (Foronda & Lippincott, 2014; Islam, 2019; Offir et al., 2008; Skylar, 2009), while other students prefer asynchronous (Pontes et al., 2010).Itt is important to note that preferences for a particular modality are far from universal, especially when considering the variety of life circumstances that many nontraditional students experience.
Sources of Help and Hindrance to SoC Development
Based on the survey data, web conferencing helped to build a SoC in synchronous and asynchronous courses when they were well facilitated. While asynchronous courses by definition do not have set class meeting times, instructors may have used web conferencing for office hours, one-on-one student meetings, or other similar interactions, though this is speculation on the part of the researchers. The use of games, discussion forums, and guest speakers ranked higher in synchronous courses, while games and discussion forums ranked higher in asynchronous courses. However, there were several negative open-ended responses toward discussions forums.
Halpin and Crowther (2021) used the web conferencing tool Zoom to engage students with music while learning animal physiology, leading to improved learning outcomes. Skylar (2009) and Islam (2019) found that students preferred synchronous meetings using web conferencing tools. Foronda and Lippincott (2014) also reported that nursing students who used web conferencing in online courses fared the same or better than in face-to-face courses. To foster collaboration, Rapchak (2018) recommends web conferencing and project management tools and Google Docs. While the use of web conferencing ranked high in this study, participants provided several negative comments, citing technology issues as well as instructor facilitation issues. These issues could be remedied with instructor education and training.
Participants in this study responded that connecting with the instructor was important —more important than connecting with other students. Not only were instructors noted as important to connect with, but faculty who did not engage were seen as detrimental to building a SoC. Faculty support of students in distance courses is a factor in student success (Offir et al., 2008). In a meta-analysis, Brindle and Bowles (2017) also found that faculty availability was an important factor in student success.
According to Martin et al. (2018), students participated more actively in discussions facilitated by the instructor than discussions with peers only. Martin et al. (2018) also found that questioning and feedback from the instructor were positively correlated to perceived connectedness by students. The open-ended survey responses related to discussion forums were negative. This tracks with participants reporting that connecting with other students in college was not as important as connecting with the instructor. However, the researchers are unsure if the negativity was due to past experiences with discussion forums or that the discussion forums during the studied period were poorly constructed or facilitated.
Technology issues have been noted as a concern (Foronda & Lippincott, 2014; Eck et al., 2021), with researchers recommending training for students and faculty (Dacanay et al., 2014; Martin & Parker, 2014; Eck et al., 2021). In this study, students were reported as not using their cameras in some cases, but the cause is unclear. There could have been several reasons for this, including technology issues, not having a webcam, or a desire not to have their image seen by the rest of the class. Eck and colleagues (2021) found that faculty training was particularly needed for facilitating synchronous sessions using web conferencing tools. Furthermore, institutional support of faculty, specifically technical support, is also key (Muljana & Luo, 2019).
Participants’ perceptions, expectations, and perceived importance of developing a SoC in online courses varied, specifically between students in synchronous and asynchronous courses and among nontraditional student populations who make up the majority of the student body in regional campuses. An important problem for educators is to respond and accommodate students who are opposed to developing a SoC in online courses while still building a community where students can learn from each other. While it is crucial to understand nontraditional and regional campus students’ needs, it is also essential to improve students’ understanding of why engaging with other learners is important in college. This is specifically important when considering its role in learning, and not necessarily in making friends.
There are several strategies and approaches that educators can adopt to improve SoC development opportunities in their courses. Providing multiple course modalities, including synchronous and asynchronous online courses, can give nontraditional students more flexibility to balance work and family commitments with college. Dacanay et al. (2014) highlights the importance of providing flexible paths for nontraditional students. Furthermore, web conferencing tools, when used appropriately, can be an important resource for developing a SoC. To improve the impact of web conferencing on SoC, institutions should provide professional development opportunities in related technology and pedagogy by offering technology assistance and equipment. In addition to providing technological support to students, Iyer et al. (2021) also suggest that the number of tools that students are expected to learn should be reduced across all courses. It is important to clearly communicate to students not only the expectations of engagement (Iyer et al., 2021) but also the value and benefits of engaging with peers. Additionally, considering the negative comments this survey produced toward discussion forums, it is important to review how discussion forums are used in online courses, including how they are constructed as well as how they are presented to students.
One of the problems encountered through this research was related to efforts to increase engagement and develop a SoC while students’ expectations for a SoC ran counter. One avenue for further study is investigating why some students, specifically nontraditional students, may not want to engage with others in their online courses. A better understanding of this area may lead to developing ways to address these issues with students through improved communication or better course design to increase student-student engagement, specifically when dealing with students who do not want to engage. Another area of potential improvement is student familiarity with the variety of learning tools and platforms currently in use. As such, conducting a comparison of web conferencing platforms and how educators use them may also help improve students' synchronous and asynchronous online learning experiences.
This study had several limitations. The survey response rate was low. Additionally, data collection occurred during a pandemic semester during which all courses were offered online in either a synchronous or asynchronous mode. Some students most likely enrolled in online courses because no in-person courses were offered, and this situation was not captured in the survey. Similarly, participants and faculty most likely were experiencing some degree of stress due to pandemic-related issues, and this may have also impacted the desire of students to build a SoC.
Despite those limitations, this study helps to understand the variety of nontraditional student experiences and expectations regarding the development of a SoC within their courses. Some of the approaches that are perceived to help community develop in synchronous and asynchronous online courses were also explored. Driven by the pandemic-driven expansion of distance learning and its sustained long-term growth, educators should continue to work to improve their understanding of student experiences, specifically those of nontraditional and regional campus students.
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