Visualizing Online Teaching Community Development

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

Who do faculty seek out for advice about online teaching? How does that impact the practices (both good and bad) that are shared? Using social network analysis (SNA), it is possible to visualize the online teaching community, to influence it in targeted ways, and to analyze changes to its structure.


Stephanie Richter is the Director of Faculty Development and Instructional Support for the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. She consults with and provides professional development for faculty on integrating technology into teaching and supports the online teaching and learning initiatives at NIU. She holds a Master of Science in Education in Instructional Technology and a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics Education, and is currently pursuing a doctorate in Instructional Technology at Northern Illinois University. Research interests include online learning, online course design, social media and networking, faculty development, and faculty use of learning management systems.
Tracy Miller is the Assistant Director of the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University. At NIU she is responsible for operations, quality assurance, and compliance process and reporting for the center.

Additional Authors

Jason Rhode, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Instructional Technology and Executive Director of Extended Learning at Northern Illinois University (NIU). In his role he serves as chief online learning officer, oversees NIU's Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, and provides strategic leadership and long-range vision for development and delivery of academic credit-bearing online and off-campus courses and programs.

Extended Abstract

For online learning initiatives to be successful, it would be ideal for there to be strong collaboration between online learning support and academic departments. However, centralized support structures may create a concentrated core of expertise that is not well integrated with the rest of the institution. At the same time, faculty often turn to their colleagues for advice about online teaching instead of online teaching support teams, regardless of whether those colleagues are knowledgeable about the field. This can perpetuate negative views of online learning and harmful online teaching practices. We need research and analysis tools to identify the structure of the online learning community within an institution, to break down these divides and overcome the information gaps.  

Social network analysis (SNA) is one such tool. Using ethnographic or survey techniques, SNA can be used to visualize relationships within a community or organization. In SNA, relationships among the members of a community are identified and mapped in a diagram of dots (members) connected by ties (lines with arrows which represent relationships). In addition, statistical measures of the network can be conducted to determine the network density and composition. This analysis can identify key brokers in the community and opportunities for increasing connections among community members. Alternatively, SNA can identify any gaps in the network, where faculty may be isolated with respect to online teaching because they do not have any connections to other faculty. SNA can also be used to record the growth and development of the community over time.  

In the proposed presentation, we will introduce social network analysis as a research method for visualizing, measuring, and analyzing community formation by building a network diagram representing the participants connections. We will also share the results of a study on online community formation at one institution, showing the growth and change of the network over 3 years. In particular, we will demonstrate how one academic department's faculty network changed as a result of targeted online teaching programming in the form of a faculty learning community which met monthly. Throughout the session, participants will be able to discuss how communities formed around online learning at their own institutions, identify opportunities for incorporating SNA into their assessment plans or research proposals, and discuss strategies for identifying and solving potential issues in community network structure. Participants will build a visualization of the social network among those attending the session, as well, to demonstrate some of the basic social network analysis techniques.