In recent decades there has been a considerable growth in the delivery of professional education in online mode. To support this mode of learning, educators now have at their disposal an array of tools, with recent additions comprising tools for collaborative working and asynchronous learning. Learners undertaking courses in a face-to-face delivery environment typically forge close ties with their peers, and also build rapport with academic staff through lectures, tutorials and one-to-one or small group consultations (Lam, 2004; Singh et al, 2009). These ties tend to lead naturally to opportunities for collaborative working. It is widely acknowledged that this collaboration can have a positive impact on learning performance. By contrast, learning in an online environment can leave some learners feeling isolated from their educators and their peers, leading to a decline in motivation and ultimately performance. Others actively seek to operate in isolation, are reluctant to engage with others, and have to be persuaded of the benefits of forming links with others during their online study. The challenge for the educator is to design online learning programmes in such a way that a spirit of collaborative working is fostered and a productive learning community is established. It was against the backdrop of this challenge that the project presented in this paper was initiated in a UK Higher Education establishment in which there has been a significant increase in the number of professional, vocational and post-experience programmes delivered in online mode. The aims of the project were to explore the approaches being taken, and the tools being used, by colleagues to foster interaction and build learning communities in their online programmes; to gain insights into their students' experiences of online learning; and to capture areas of good practice which could be shared more widely. Following a literature review examining key themes in online learning, an examination of available tools was undertaken. This was followed by an observation study and series of semi-structured interviews with academic staff, relevant support staff and learners. Drawing on activity theory, findings were analysed to identify issues in current practice. These findings highlighted needs for training in online learning design, rather than simply 'technology use' for the academics, and also a need to educate learners about collaborative working and learning. The practical outcomes of the project were twofold: first, using aspects of activity theory, a number of illustrative cases of good practice were constructed for use in training academics. Second, learning guides were devised, again drawing on activity theory, to help students understand the nature and scope of an online learning community and their role as an interacting participant within it. These cases and guides, informed by activity theory, represent an important aspect of the contribution of this project to the wider professional learning community.
FULFORD, H., BAILEY, M., STEPHEN, G. and MCWHIRR, S. 2014. Building online learner communities: an activity theory perspective. Presented at the ProPEL international conference: new challenges in professional practices, education and learning, 25-27 June 2014, Stirling, UK.