Building effective learning communities online: an ethnographic study

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Building effective learning communities online: an ethnographic study

A thesis submitted to Charles Sturt University for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

Ken Eustace

B.Sc, GDipEd, GradDipAppSc(Computing), MA (Paideia)

15 February 2009


Table of Contents

Ch1 Introduction: Planning for travel
Ch2 The review of the Literature: other traveller’s tales
Ch3 The Researcher and Research Design: packing for the journey
Ch4 Action research cycle 1: baseline study of participants
Ch5 Action research cycle 2: curriculum modelling and complementary education
Ch6 Action research cycle 3: a polysynchronous pathway for associates.
Ch7 Analysis, Findings and conclusions: unpacking from the journey



Certificate of Authorship

"I hereby declare that this submission is my own work and that, to the best of my knowledge and belief, it contains no material previously published or written by another person nor material which to a substantial extent has been accepted for the award of any other degree or diploma of a university or other institution of higher learning, except where due acknowledgment is made in the acknowledgments."


Ken Eustace

4 July 2008


The realisation of Doctorate of Philosophy PhD work is never solely the result of hard work and would not have been possible without the support of a number of people and organisations as well as aided by many discussions and good teamwork with staff, students and family. Dr Andrew Wallace and Professor John Weckert deserve a special mention as my supervisors.

I would like to dedicate this thesis to the many adult learners who seek alternative education paradigms for their personal and professional satisfaction. In particular to the late James Jessiman and whose brilliance with open source CAD systems and collaborative workflow shines forth in the Ldraw LEGO CAD global community (

  • Sponsorship of the research: GlobalNet Associates and the Association of Adjacent Schools, Geneva

  • Telelearning environment support: Charles Sturt University Division of Information Technology; Mr Mike Rebbecci

  • Research funding support: Farrer Centre; Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Rice Production; Centre for Research in Complex Systems (CRiCS) and the Centre for Research into Professional Practice Learning & Education (RIPPLE)

  • Collection of data: Dr Malcolm McAfee, Dr Scott Sherman, Mr Geoff Fellows, Ms Lyn Hay

  • Transcription of interviews and proof reading: Ms Sue Tuck & Ms Jill Harris

  • Processing of the ethnographic data including the selection and use of particular techniques: Dr Pat Bazeley

  • Action research and theoretical basis: Professor Stephen Kemmis

  • Interpretation of the results and data analysis: Dr Malcolm McAfee; Assoc. Prof. Margaret Alston

  • Time release funding: Prof. Jim Pratley; Assoc. Prof. Ken Dillon; Assoc. Prof. Bob Moore; Assoc. Prof. Irfan Altas

The contributions to my ethnographic involvement in the MA programme at Paideia were focused around the work and support of Dr. Malcolm McAfee, Dr. Scott Sherman, Dr. Stan Schur, Dr. Marvin Bobes, Dr. Dimitri Dimitroyannis and the archwizard and wizards of AussieMOO Aussie, and its quality controller, James Jessiman.

Intellectual Property Rights

If there is material in the thesis that could or does have implications for the intellectual property rights of the candidate, the University, a sponsor of the research or some other person or body, those implications shall be stated.

Ethics Approval

The proposal to do this research was approved by the Charles Sturt University’s Ethics in Human Research Committee as protocol number 2004/052.


action research, adjacent education, alternative education, comparative education, complementary education, computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL), curriculum modelling, e-learning, ethnography, higher education, human-computer interaction (HCI), information and communications technology (ICT), learner interaction, multi-user object-oriented domain (MOO), online community, polysynchronous telelearning environment, problem-based learning (PBL).


By the mid 1990’s the need for a university teacher to study changing practises to teaching and learning due to the emergence of new technologies and dynamic online learning communities, such as the Paideia MA degree was in strong demand.

The focus of this dissertation is the investigation into how postgraduate e-learning participants can be guided to provide their own effective conditions for peer discourse and deep learning opportunities using the Internet. The dissertation follows a learning journey, beginning with the entering experiences of the teacher-researcher as an information technology lecturer and then following research stages of literature search, questions, action and reflection. An invitation was made to build and adapt a user-centred telelearning environment to support the learning process of participants in an online Master of Arts degree at Paideia, one of the first of its kind as a virtual or online university. The research would be longitudinal and examine the curriculum model and its development due to the influences of telelearning environment change upon the learner, the teacher and the institution.

Higher education e-learning practise where print-based distance education materials were rushed online with unclear learning methodologies and a process of annual review, often lead to poor learner satisfaction. Current information and communications technologies (ICT) products used by universities and publishers, offer various synchronous and asynchronous features. The thesis examined the meaningful integration of those features resulting in a polysynchronous e-learning framework, based on strategies which support deep learning behaviours of diverse global learners, using learner-centred approaches that can add value for postgraduates working in global online communities. The lessons learnt may guide other teachers seeking to implement a similar approach after careful consideration of their own institutional and teaching contexts and collaborative techniques.

While most of the theoretical framework is grounded in the data, the initial theoretical perspectives that provided a starting point and motivation came from computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL). CSCL is a theoretical paradigm for e-learning research that focuses on the use of ICT as a mediating tool for collaborative telelearning environments. It is this approach to ICT in education that emphasises an understanding of language, culture and the social setting, founded in the social constructivism at Paideia.
The research design is a mixed methodology, cyclic, three-stage longitudinal action research study using ethnography. This construction follows the principles of triangulation for evaluating the state of my qualitative research. Ethnographic techniques, using observations, focus group meetings and interview transcripts, as well as the teacher-researcher acting as participant/researcher allows for examination of the leaning community from more than one perspective. The baseline study (Action research cycle – ARC1) is an ethnographic field study at Paideia, which tested understandings about current practices for student learning in online communities. Observations in stage one over 14 months, revealed a strong orientation toward a dynamic and changing learning environment, and highlighted the need to search for alternative approaches or technologies for learning in higher education.

Following further literature searches the work focused on development of a polysynchronous social constructivist-learning environment, a context-based learning framework, which evolved over two further action research cycles. By the end of ARC2, the framework had evolved into a three school, adjacent education model to cater for the varied learning modalities of adults. This was further tested in the final stage in ARC3 of the ethnographic study, working with current and former “associates” at Paideia and the subsequent integration into the researchers’ own professional practice.

The results showed the Paideia e-learning scaffold was a useful place for a wide range of educational research, covering a broad range of circumstances over time, from 1994 – 2005, whilst never attracting the funds or critical numbers for going into mainstream higher education. It allowed the researcher to observe and test e-learning ideas, independent to the institutional view. The findings present a final polysynchronous curriculum model using an evolving telelearning to enhance the frequency and type of deep learning experiences augmented by online discussion and knowledge construction through forum discussion, portfolio building (blogs) and publications. Despite a high level of computer efficacy among informers, they revealed mixed success for coping with learning to use each new re-generation of the software environment. Rapid changes in the learning environment such as perspective (cultural and philosophical), context, role, ownership of curriculum, content management, control and depth of learning, are found to challenge informer learning styles and practices. Informers expressed a need to access to a variety of ICT tools, offering both synchronous and asynchronous advantages on demand and a division of opinion on user preference for text only or multimedia interfaces. Polysynchronous ICT features can add value to the learning processes by providing choice and multiple ways for learners to construct their own learning experiences, despite the variable view the students held of the individual ICT features in regard to user satisfaction and addiction.

There was recognition of the changes caused by learning without borders due to the Internet. E-learning is now subject to greater external influence on the learning process, as greater control may be passed to the learner. This was evident in the surprising number of informers attracted to Paideia by dissatisfaction with conventional university study methods. They were seeking a new way to learn and a need to constantly connect that learning with the local context and personal needs. Discussion included the impact of a range of social issues, such as growing institutional and academic suspicion of online degrees, manifested by developing issues and current events in globalisation (local and global accreditation), knowledge management (re-usable pool of courseware) and internationalisation (cultural perspectives) of higher education, figured regularly upon the informer discourse in this study.

At Paideia, all who study are associates. The old roles of teacher, student and researcher are now just functions of the life long learner and the transition is being influenced by e-learning and the Internet. The guiding principles of online learning communities discovered in this thesis are now embedded, in the professional practice of the teacher-researcher. One size does not fit all. The provision of conditions or scaffold for self-directed learning and facilitation of learning strategies appropriate to the ever changing and evolving e-learning setting are diverse. The findings from this research have significance for students, teachers and researchers, across the higher education sector and beyond, as the boundaries between our traditional roles are made fuzzy by an evolving and amorphous global e-learning environment.
Chapter 1

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