approaches to their learning. This study will examine these phenomena in the context that includes thedevelopment of a learning community in a blended environment—one that includes regular online andface-to-face engagement among learners.This paper also considers how learners in non-formal environments form communities. In order tounderstand the characteristics of community in formal online learning environments, we developed aconceptual model of VLCs from existing literature and later refined it (Schwier, 2007). This model of formal virtual learning communities included three interacting categories of characteristics: catalysts,emphases and elements, and it is this model that will serve as the conceptual framework for this study.
Catalysts of Virtual Learning Communities
. Communication is a catalyst for community. Where there iscommunication, community can emerge; where communication is absent, community disappears. Fourfactors were found to act as catalysts and orbit communication in formal virtual learning communities:awareness, interaction, engagement, and alignment (Schwier 2007; Wenger, 1998). These are the productsof communication when it acts as a catalyst for community.
Emphases of Virtual Learning Communities
. Formal learning environments emphasize different purposes,and the model suggests five tentative emphases: ideas, relationship, reflection, ceremony and place.
Elements of Formal Virtual Learning Communities
. Thirteen elements were identified in a series of grounded theory studies of online graduate-level seminars and subjected to social network and modelinganalyses (Schwier & Daniel, 2007). These elements underscore the idea that communities are a complex of many factors and variables, and they include: historicity, identity, mutuality, plurality, autonomy,participation, trust, trajectory, technology, social protocols, reflection, intensity, and learning.
Methods and Analysis
The context for the study was a professional development course on teaching in higher education offered tonine novice professors over the course of one academic year in a western Canadian research-intensiveuniversity. Participation in the course was voluntary, and there were no professional incentives available to participants beyond what they believed they could learn from the course to improve their teaching performance. The course was deliberately designed to be non-formal and to emphasize self-directedlearning by explicitly addressing each of the definition items described earlier.The course ran for a full year, from September to April. In total, twelve topics and key questions weredefined, with each topic occupying a two-week segment of the class schedule. Students in the courseinvestigate a defined topic by consulting resources that are provided, other resources they find elsewhereand their own experience. Each student was encouraged to read at least one article, and to participate in anonline discussion organized around central questions from the topic. At the end of each two-week segmentof the course, participants assembled for two hours to discuss the topic and the results of their investigations and online conversations.To facilitate online conversations and reflections, we created an online community site at http://ning.comthat included participant profiles, a discussion board for asynchronous communication and a blog space for each participant to use to write about personal reflections, questions, observations or to share resources.The site was private, but individual participants could make any of their own blog posts public if theywished. At the start of each two-week segment of the course, a new discussion topic was added to thediscussion board, and participants were encouraged to post their thoughts. During the first face-to-facemeeting with the group, a one-hour training session was held to familiarize participants with the onlinetools, and to help participants create their user profiles.Data for this preliminary study included transcripts of postings by instructors and participants to thethreaded asynchronous discussion board, and transcripts of a focus group that was held with participantsfollowing the completion of the first term of the course.