Scenario two: Fostering a community of practice in a graduate level online program
Connectedness, interactivity, collaboration, and authentic “real world” learning opportunities help to promote professional identity development (Croxton 2014; Espasa & Meneses, 2010; Liu et al., 2007; Mahle, 2011; Park & Choi, 2009).Though perceptions of community are often bound by geographic proximity, online communities can be developed and sustained through electronic media (Haythornthwaite, Kazmer, Kobins, & Shoemaker, 2004; Reid, 1995; Smith, McLaughlin, & Osborne, 1997). Haythornthwaite et al. (2004) explain,“...when we view community as what activities people do together, rather than where or through what means they do them, we can see that community can exist liberated from geography, physical neighborhood, and campuses" (p. 36).
Communication in online courses can take many forms, including emails with peers and faculty, online discussion boards, and live online course meetings, to name just a few. While many boast the merits of asynchronous online learning to be “any time, any place,” other studies, particularly related to graduate learning, have revealed that participation in live, synchronous lectures with other students promoted more community building than all other forms of communication (Croxton, 2016; Haythornthwaite & Bregman, 2004; Haythornthwaite et al. 2004). Haythornthwaite and Bregman (2004) explain, "The immediacy afforded by synchronous communication media, and the greater number of physical cues offered by synchronous video over audio over text each contribute to a greater sense of being there with others” (p. 139). In a study of graduate online learners, Croxton (2016) highlighted the positive feedback of students who participated in regular synchronous online sessions with their instructor and peers. One student noted,
1 was blown away with how well the courses were conducted. I enjoy using Blackboard Collaborate because it allows me to interact with instructors and students in real time instead of sending emails or relying on discussion forums. ... I am glad that I have this opportunity to interact with my peers and feel that 1 interact just as well with them online as being in the classroom, (p. 137)
In this same study, another student explained.
The way that [my] university does it is a lot better than other online classes 1 had because... people interact in the online class, whereas in the classes 1 took prior it was just me reading stuff and me interacting with the professor. So, I think you still get the same kind of face to face contact. (p. 137)
As such, faculty members who are considering ways by which to foster the development of professional identities for their learners might consider opportunities for live interactions within the learning community of students and instructor. So long as these sessions are recorded for those who are not able to attend the “live” sessions, there still remains the luxury of “any time, any place.” If regular synchronous class sessions are not an option, another consideration is for faculty members to facilitate periodic, individual synchronous sessions with their students, either by video or phone conference. In the Croxton (2016) study, one interviewee noted,
[My professor] requires students to have a phone/Collaborate meeting with her during the semester and it was such a wonderful opportunity to talk and get to know each other. It meant quite a bit to me that she took the time to get to know me as a person, (p. 134)
While there are many facets involved in building an online community of practice, opportunities for synchronous interactivity remain critical for professional identity development.
Another means by which online learning programs can help to foster professional identity development is through learning cohorts. Belonging to a learning community or cohort has been noted to enhance students' feelings of connectedness, satisfaction, and educational success (Armstrong & Sanson, 2011; Conrad 2005; Croxton, 2016; Engstrom, Santo, & Yost 2008; Maddix, 2010). Returning to the social identify theory, the learning cohort model can help to promote an individuals identification as a member of a group (Stets & Burke, 2000) by attending to the emotional, evaluative, and psychological factors that come with being part of a group (Tajfel, 1972;Turner, 1975). For the purposes of this chapter, a community is described as “a general sense of connection, belonging, and comfort that develops over time among members of a group who share purpose or commitment to a common goal" (Conrad, 2005, p. 2), while a cohort is defined as group of learners who complete an entire program as single unit (Lawrence, 2002). A cohort model that requires students to take courses together in a sequence helps participants form bonds with other as they move throughout their programs. Adding in professional practitioners, mentors, and consistent instructional faculty to the cohort further facilitates the development of professional identity as students learn from and alongside like-minded peers and professionals.