Institution Granting Degree
University of Bath, U.K.
virtual community, teacher community, qualitative
This study seeks to illuminate an understanding of naturally forming online communities of professional educators in the context of off-line communities. Essentially, an online discussion forum for educators is evaluated for the purpose of determining whether the forum provides a “space” conducive for the development of a community of professional educators as benchmarked against an understanding of offline community formation and existence. The foundational works of Ferdinand Tonnies, James Coleman, and Ray Oldenburg are used to develop 13 characteristics of community - as understood in the context of informal social communities as opposed to the types related to more formal aspects society. The primary approach to this study is qualitative in nature with some quasi-statistical support to elucidate analysis and conclusions. The study employs the use of a “snapshot survey” approach to gathering a single point of data for a single U.S.-based discussion forum. The research used QSR NVivo 7 to collect, catalog, and analyze discussions from this online forum, examining discussions topically, contextually, and structurally. The study analyzed all active discussions on a specific day, with all contained postings within the discussion threads – resulting in 4,211 postings split among 115 discussions made by 301 unique posters. The study finds that online communities closely resemble offline communities in structure and interaction, but only for select participants. These participants demonstrating or facilitating the characteristics of community comprise around 10% of the total number of users participating in the analyzed discussions. The level of participation correlates to the likelihood of benefit from and participation in the online community. Those participants who did not participate heavily in discussions primarily remained in the more formal and professional set of exchanges, whereas those with higher levels of participation in the analyzed discussions (and overall participation rates in the context of the forum in its entirety) participated both heavily in the more informal and “playful” discussions and in the more formal professional discussions, with the participation in the latter type taking on more of an “expert” role.