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Engagement and Knowledge Sharing in a Virtual Learning Community

Engagement and Knowledge Sharing in a Virtual Learning Community

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Published by: Richard Schwier on Jul 10, 2008
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Engagement and knowledge sharing in a virtual learning community

Ben K. Daniel and Richard A. Schwier Virtual Learning Community Research Laboratory Educational Communications and Technology University of Saskatchewan Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Canada S7N 0K1 richard.schwier@usask.ca, ben.daniel@usask.ca Cite as: Daniel, B.K., & Schwier, R.A. (2007). Engagement and knowledge sharing in a virtual learning community. In C. Montgomerie & J. Seale (Eds.), Proceedings of ED-Media 2007 (pp. 639-646). Cheseapeake, VA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education.
Abstract: The notion of knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities is critical but hardly researched. This paper identifies the process involved in sharing knowledge and the types of knowledge sharing objects that are exchanged in virtual learning communities. Using social network indices, our goal is first to understand the flow of information through assessment of the extent to which learners interact with each other individually and as a community. Then we examine and categorize the content of information exchanged using content analysis techniques. A taxonomy showing the relationships between the different types of knowledge shared in the community is described. We suggest that the results of this research can enable us to think about different ways of supporting the process of knowledge sharing and discourse leading to effective learning and knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities in higher education.

1. Introduction
One of the most important variables describing learning activities in virtual learning communities is knowledge sharing (Daniel, Schwier & Ross, 2005). The term knowledge sharing implies giving and receiving information within a context that includes knowledge of the source. In virtual learning communities what constitutes knowledge sharing objects and the processes involved in sharing are open questions that have received little attention to date. We contend that knowledge-sharing activities in virtual learning communities require critical analysis of the flow of information and knowledge, and the identification of knowledge sharing objects exchanged in these communities. Drawing from knowledge management research, we first explore knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities. Second we employ social network techniques to visualize patterns of interactions between learners. We then propose a knowledge sharing taxonomy to help us understand different types of knowledge sharing activities in virtual learning communities. Third, we use content analysis to examine the types and content of knowledge sharing activities taking place in a virtual learning community and discuss their implications to supporting knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities.

2. Related work
Knowledge management researchers make a clear distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). Explicit knowledge typically refers to knowledge that is easily documented, shared, public and social; whereas tacit knowledge is personal, resides in the human mind, behavior and perception, and is generally difficult to share (Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995; Dixon, 2002). Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) outlined a model of explicit and tacit knowledge, which illustrates how tacit knowledge can be transferred between individuals by observing a person perform a task (tacit to tacit). Tacit knowledge can also be transformed into explicit knowledge through externalization by discussing and documenting the knowledge. Similarly, explicit knowledge can be transferred across an organization (explicit to explicit) through the flow of printed and electronic documents. Despite an increasing number of studies about knowledge management practices, knowledge-sharing mechanisms in general are not well understood (Bechina, 2006; De Long, 2000). We confine our research

within virtual learning communities and other kinds of technology mediated communities (such as distributed communities practice). Our initial observations reveal that tacit and explicit knowledge are common to all kinds of virtual communities but the protocol for sharing differs from one community to another. For instance, in virtual learning communities, the knowledge sharing process can involve continuous engagement in discourse with others in the community in a particular context, so the distinction between knowledge, information and data is also context dependent. For instance, when people exchange data, the data is processed into information. In turn, information can be situated in a particular context and turned into knowledge for a particular individual. Both information and knowledge are grounded in data. Knowledge enables us to interpret information (i.e., derive meaning from data). The interpretation of meaning is framed by the perceiver’s knowledge. So what one person perceives as information can be meaningless data to another (Daniel, Schwier & McCalla, 2003). Further, how specific knowledge is generated from data and information depends on how the data are stored, and how information is presented, organized, communicated and received by particular individuals in a particular community.

3. Research context and results
When dealing with representations it is obvious that different representations can enhance the understanding level of a particular problem (Tufte, 1990). The form of representation makes a dramatic difference in the ease of the task and its proper choice depends upon the knowledge and the method being applied to the problem (Norman, 1993). This work aims to demonstrate how we can analyze the flow of information in a virtual learning community with the aim of understanding knowledge sharing activities. We employ social network analysis to understanding the patterns of interactions between individuals and their central relative importance in the network. Visualization offers advantages and opportunities when we deal with complex data sets, ill structured and dynamic information, and the kind of settings that characterize actual data sets in virtual learning community. Since visualization itself does not reveal actual content of interaction, we use content analysis to synthesize the actual nature of knowledge sharing activities and categorize them into knowledge objects. These analyses draw from three years of online communication among groups of graduate students in Educational Communications and Technology as they participated in seminars. The classes spanned an academic year, and were small graduate seminars with enrolments from six to thirteen students, and each class met primarily online, but with monthly group meetings. While most students were able to attend the group meetings regularly, every class cohort had members who participated exclusively or mostly from a distance. A significant characteristic of both groups was that they were comprised almost exclusively of Western, English-speaking graduate students, with the exception of one student from China. All of the students exhibited facility with writing, and there was ample evidence that students were willing to engage in academic argumentation with each other and with the instructor. It is possible, even likely, that our findings are culturally bound, and so we caution the reader to confine interpretations to the context described in this paper. Given the blended nature of all of the classes, we confine our conclusions to similar environments, and acknowledge that these results cannot be generalized to environments that are entirely online, or entirely face-to-face. 3.1 Social network analysis Social network analysis (SNA) is a set of mathematical methods used to map and measures relationships and flows between people groups, and information/knowledge. It is a set of individuals or groups who are connected to one another through socially meaningful relationships (Freemen, 2004; Hanneman, & Mark, 2005). SNA views social relationships in terms of nodes and ties. Nodes are the individual actors within the networks, and ties are the relationships between the actors. Further, SNA seeks to understand networks and their participants and to evaluate the location of actors in the network. We have employed SNA to visualize patterns of interactions between individuals in order to determine the flow of information and knowledge. The visual representation was constructed out of a two-dimensional matrix (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Weighted binary matrix of engagement The network is weighted (i.e., non-uniform) and non-symmetric and directed. This kind of a matrix is the starting point for almost all network analysis, and is called an "adjacency matrix" because it represents who is next to, or adjacent to whom in the "social space" mapped by the relations that we have measured. An adjacency matrix may be "symmetric" or "asymmetric." We employed AGNA (Applied Graph & Network Analysis) a platform-independent application designed for scientists and researchers who use specific mathematical methods to investigate the flow of information in a network (Benta, 2005). We generated a visual view of a network consisting of 15 nodes and 159 edges out of the matrix in figure 1 and presented as a graph in figure 2 below.

Figure 2. Community visualization In figure 2 the links indicate engagement between nodes (individuals) in the community. A singleedge link suggests one-way communication (when A sends mail or a message to B but B did not respond to A) while a double-edge link suggests two-ways communications. There are several measures employed in social network analysis in degrees of betweenness, centrality, density and reception (see for example Garton, Haythortonthwaite & Wellman, 1999). For our data set we calculated different SNA indices to locate community and individual locations. The size of a network is the number of its nodes. A network is valued (or weighted) when each of its edges has an associated numeric value and binary when its edges merely reflect the presence of connections between nodes i.e. 0 for absence of connections and 1 for presences of connections. In order to visualize the community we use density as an indicator of sense of a community. A density of a network is the total number of edges divided by the number of all possible edges in that network. For a weighted directed network the density is given by: --…………………………………………….(i)

Where D is the density, L - the total number of edges in the network, g - the number of nodes and xij are the matrix elements. We calculated the density of the network to be 0.75714284. Another important measure in SNA is centrality. The degree of centrality of an actor is the most intuitive network conceptualization of

centrality, and it has a simple theoretical relationship with accuracy. The centrality of an individual is simply the number of people that person is directly tied to and thus centrality is an actor-level coefficient which reflects the degree of access to information (or resources) of an actor and hence the probability of that actor to acquire a leadership position in the community (Benta, 2005). A node with a high degree of centrality suggests a high proportion of connectivity with other nodes in the network. The individuals levels of centrality is summarized in figure (3) using Bavelas-Leavitt centrality measure of a node is the ratio of the sum of all of the shortest paths to and from that node to the sum of all of the shortest paths in the entire network. Accordingly, B-L measures how close a node is to the center of the graph of links in some notional space. For instance, by visually inspecting the network (see figure 1) one can infer that Roller enjoys the most central position followed by Daisy and Hillary, while Lindsey and Ross are less central to others in the network.

Roller Ross Robert Lindsey Justina Joseph


Hillary Dena Dickssy Diane Daisy Debra Bond Merge Jose 0 2 4 6 8 10 12 14

B-L Centrality values

Figure 3. Distribution of Bavelas-Leavitt Centrality in the network In SNA the notion of degree suggests the number of connections an individual has in the network. The number of arcs (links) beginning at a node is called the outdegree of the node. And they suggest connections, and in our case initiation of engagement or discourse. Outdegree is measured as the row sum for the node in a dichotomous matrix: outdegree of actor i = !j aij………………… (ii). the number of arcs ending at a node is called the indegree of the node, indicating the reception of engagement. The column sum (for a node) in a dichotomous matrix measures the indegree of the node: indegree of actor j = !i aij…………… (iii). Wasserman and Faust (1994) suggested that a node is a transmitter if its indegree is zero and its outdegree is non-zero. A node is a receiver if its indegree is non-zero and its outdegree is zero, and it is isolated if both indegree and outdegree are zero. Freemen outdegree and indegree measures are some of the most commonly used degree of centrality used for various reasons. In this study we employed Freemen’s indegree and outdegree measures to determine the number of connections among individuals in the community in the community. In this case, indegree reveals the number of individuals who have read messages in the community. Outdegree measures the number of messages an individual has sent to all other individuals in the community. Meanwhile, the total number of messages a person sent to members of the community shows their outdegree centrality. Outdegree measure of a node in a weighted network of is the sum of all values corresponding to the edges incident from it divided by the total number of nodes in the network. And the mathematical expression is: …………………………………………… (iv) Where g is the number of nodes and xij are the sociomatrix elements. Indegree, on the other hand, shows the number of messages a person has received from other members of the community. For a binary network,

the indegree** 1of a node is the total number of edges incident to it divided by the total number of nodes in the network. For a weighted network, the indegree** of a node is the sum of all values corresponding to the edges incident to it divided by the total number of nodes in the network. In both cases, the mathematical expression is: ………………………………………….. (v) Where g is the number of nodes and xji are the sociomatrix elements.

Outdegree and indegree values

8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0 Indegree Outdegree

Jo se M er ge

Theoretically, a central actor in a network is one involved in many relationships (Freeman, 1979; Wasserman & Faust, 1994). The most commonly used measure of centrality, degree centrality, is defined as the number of direct ties that an actor has with other actors in a network. Knoke (1990) asserts that network centrality is synonymous with influence, for the extensive network ties empower central actors by giving them greater access to and control over valuable information on conditions, opportunities, and constraints. Actors on the peripheral of the network, on the other hand, are relegated to less influential positions because of a lack of adequate quantities and qualities of information. Other researchers have similarly pointed out that a positive association between centrality and influence or perceived influence (Brass, 1985; Krackhardt, 1990). Burkhardt and Brass (1990) research established strong association between actor centrality and perceived influence. They also demonstrated that centrality precedes influence rather than vice versa in that being in a central position gives one access to people, information, and other resources such that one becomes more influential (Brass & Burkhardt, 1993). 3.2 Knowledge sharing objects in virtual learning communities Supporting knowledge sharing process in virtual learning communities requires research to be able to identify different types of knowledge sharing objects and different ways in which knowledge can be shared in these environments. Taxonomy provides useful insights into identification of knowledge objects shared in virtual learning communities. Taxonomy is a hierarchical structure for organizing a body of concepts or knowledge. Taxonomies are comprehensive framework grouping various components of knowledge or information and describe how the various groups relate to each other. We draw on the categorization of explicit vs. tacit to build taxonomy of knowledge sharing activities in virtual learning communities (see figure 5).


AGNA is capable of different degrees of influence of a node in different types of graphs; weighted un-weighted, directed, and undirected graphs. The types of indegree** and outdegree** are measures on weighted and directed binary graph types.

Bo nd D eb ra D ai sy D ia ne D ic ks sy D en a H illa ry Jo se ph Ju st in Li a nd se y R ob er t R os s R ol le r

Figure 4. Outdegree and indegree distribution

Figure 5. Taxonomy of knowledge sharing objects Beyond categorization and organization, the taxonomy provides the structure governing how different types of knowledge sharing objects can inform us about the learning activities taking place in virtual learning community. Taxonomy also provides pointers to human based expertise and knowledge. Using taxonomy concepts or knowledge can classified based on observations or natural occurrences. However, a major benefit of using taxonomy to categories knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities is that it allows us to easily identify different types of knowledge sharing activities and suggest ways to support them.


Content analysis

Content analysis enables researchers to include large amounts of textual information and systematically identify its properties (e.g., the frequencies of certain groups of sentences and their meanings through inferences and the detection of the more important structures of its communication content). Moreover, the textual information being analyzed must be categorized according to a certain theoretical framework, which will inform the data analysis, and finally yield a meaningful reading of the content under scrutiny. The creation of coding frames is intrinsically related to a creative approach to variables that exert an influence over textual content. For this study we used a coding framework which is based on semantic representation of content (Daniel, McCalla, & Schwier, 2005). The coding framework builds on a unit of meaning which is a constellation of words or statements that relate to the same central meaning (Baxter, 1991). We consider meaning in a unit of discourse as words, sentences or paragraphs containing aspects related to each other through their content and context. Although our approach has not yet been tested for reliability, the coding scheme has evolved and was negotiated among researchers. A main assumption underlying our coding approach is that data can be interpreted in various ways and that understanding it is dependent on a subjective interpretation of the content from which meaning is derived. Our analysis procedures involved compiling different pieces of transcripts of interactions in the community, randomly selecting a sample of transcripts and reading the transcripts to identity common themes and meaning within the body of the textual information, deriving meaningful codes and assigning blocks of textual information to each code based on the meaning inferred from the interaction. Figure 6 summarizes the frequencies of the knowledge objects shared in the virtual learning community analyzed.

80 70 60 50 40 30 20 10 0


C on te xt

So ur ce s

A rti cl es

Pl ur al Pe ity rs on al ex pe rie nc es

S to rie s

Figure 6. Categories of knowledge objects shared and their frequencies

Data consists of facts and information. Information rooted in a particular context can be processed into knowledge. The content categories of knowledge types follow within the two broad types of explicit and tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is a subtle conception rooted in cognitive schemata referred to as “mental models” and is rather difficult to articulate. It is highly personal and hard to formalize, making it difficult to communicate or to share with others. Individual experiences, subjective insights, intuitions, and hunches fall into this category of knowledge. Meanwhile explicit knowledge is made up of concepts, processes, procedures, principles and they come in the form of tangible objects e.g. documents, articles, reports and databases. Explicit knowledge is more easily transmitted as it is characteristically codified as such it is more easily processed and shared with others (Nonaka et. al. 1995). Whether explicit or tacit, we suggest that the process involved in knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities can be grounded on conversation, argumentation, story telling and socialization.


Implications of knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities

Understanding the process of knowledge sharing within virtual learning is a serious concern in higher education. More and more, institutions are becoming aware of the necessity to support virtual learning communities as formal learning environments. The effectiveness of VLCs in enhancing learning depends on the ability to support the culture of knowledge sharing among its participants. However, knowledge sharing in these environments remains unknown. Social network approach is a useful approach for analyzing the flow of information and knowledge in a virtual learning community. However, it is clear that network properties are not enough to discover all the roles individuals can play in a social network. Currently we are considering at the possibility of employing various social network metrics to understand the flow of information and knowledge sharing in sparsely connected as opposed to densely connected network. In this work we studied the flow of information in one virtual learning community in order to understand the process involved in knowledge sharing and the kinds of knowledge objects being exchanged. We believe that the knowledge sharing objects identified based on the dichotomy of tacit and explicit knowledge can help use address some of the issues that are likely to appear in knowledge sharing activities. Some initial pedagogical issues include instructional strategies and the role of instructor, the learning environment and the technological tools to support knowledge sharing activities, and the learning styles of the individuals involved. Additional issues that need to be addressed in knowledge sharing activities include understanding what type of knowledge can be easily shared, why people are interested in engaging in knowledge sharing, how knowledge is shared, and what are the rewards connected to sharing personal knowledge.


Summary and future research agenda

Learning in most virtual learning communities today can involve learners collaborating together on projects, independently and as a community. However, to effectively collaborate with each other and individually learn, learners need to freely exchange information and share knowledge objects between themselves. This would imply understanding the appropriate types of knowledge that needs to be shared and implementing

R ef le ct io ns

the approaches that can support the process of knowledge sharing. Unfortunately, knowledge sharing is a context-embedded process making its measurement difficult. Bechina (2006) recently observed that there is so far no standard method to measure the sharing process, the implications which can be even under virtual and distributed circumstances. In this work we are investigating different ways of understanding the types of knowledge objects shared in virtual communities, identifying the process involved in sharing them and suggesting possible ways to support them. It was important to identify different types of knowledge objects shared since knowledge sharing processes might be supported differently (Ardichvili, 2003). Although work reported in this paper is still ongoing, the preliminary results has already given us an understanding of the types of knowledge objects often shared in this virtual learning community and the factors to consider when encouraging knowledge sharing. In principle, there are several issues that affect knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities, including different forms of awareness, trust, cultural diversity, language, individuals’ motivation and attitude towards sharing, rewards associated with sharing and available tools and their usability. Space does not allow us to elaborate on each of these factors. Nonetheless the fundamental issues for instructors are to thoroughly understand domain driven pedagogical needs, learners, and tools available in the virtual environment. Such knowledge will enable them to set up appropriate strategies that will facilitate knowledge sharing. In addition it is important to understand what are the indicators facilitating or inhibiting the sharing process within individuals in a particular virtual learning community. We are continuously analyzing data we have recently collected from an online survey involving 29 participants and transcripts of their interactions to corroborate the results of the social network and content analysis presented in this paper. We believe results of the analysis will enable us suggest concrete ways to support knowledge sharing in virtual learning communities. References Ardichvili, A., Page V & Wentling, T (2003) Motivation and Barriers to Participation in Virtual Knowledge-Sharing Communities of Practice. Journal of Knowledge Management, (7), 76-78. Baxter, L.A. (1991). Content analysis. In: B.M. Montgomery and S. Duck, (Eds.), Studying Interpersonal Interaction, 239–254. London: The Guilford Press Bechina, A.A. (2006). Knowledge Sharing Practices: Analysis of a Global Scandinavian Consulting Company. Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management (4), 2 (109 -116) Benta, M.I. (2005). Studying communication networks with AGNA 2.1. Cognitie, Creier, Comportament / Cognition, Brain, Behavior. (110)3, 567-574, 2005. Brass, D. J. (1985). Men’s and women’s networks: A study of interaction patterns and influence in an organization. Academy of Management Journal, 28, 327-343. Brass, D. J., & Burkhardt, M. E. (1993). Potential power and power use: An investigation of structure and behavior. Administrative Science Quarterly, 29, 518-539. Burkhardt, M. E.,& Brass, D. J. (1990). Changing patterns or patterns of change: The effect of a change in technology on social network structure and power. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 104-127. Daniel, B.K., McCalla, G. Schwier, R. (2003). Social Capital in Virtual Learning Communities and Distributed Communities of Practice. The Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 29(3), pp. 113139. Daniel, B.K., Schwier, R.A., and Ross, H. (2005). Intentional and Incidental Discourse Variables in a Virtual Learning Community. Proceedings of E-Learn 2005--World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education to be held in Vancouver, Canada, October 24-28. De Laat, M. (2002). Network and content analysis in an online community discourse. In G. Stahl (Ed.), Computer support for collaborative learning: Foundations for a CSCL community pp. 625-626). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. De Long, D., & Fahey, L (2000) Diagnosing Cultural Barriers to Knowledge Management. Academy Of Management Executive, 14, 113-127. Dixon, N. (2002) Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive by Sharing What They Know. Boston: Harvard Business Press.

Freemen, L.C. (2004). The development of social network analysis: A study in the sociology of science. Vancouver: Empirical Press. Garton, L., Haythornthwaite, C., and Wellman, B. (1999). "Studying Online Social Networks". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3 (1). Hanneman, R. A. and Mark R. (2005). Introduction to social network methods. Riverside, CA: University of California, Riverside. Knoke, D. (1990). Political networks: The structural perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press. Krackhardt, D. (1990). Assessing the political landscape: Structure, cognition, and power in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 35, 342-369. Nonaka, I., Takeuchi, H., (1995). The Knowledge-Creating Company. Oxford: University Press, Oxford. Norman, D. (1993). “Things that make us smart, defending human attributes in the age of the machine”. Addison Wesley. Tufte, E. (1990). “Envisioning Information”. New York: Graphics Press. Wasserman , S., Faust, K. (1994). Social Network Analysis : Methods and Applications. Cambridge University Press.

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