Social Capital in Online Learning: Insights for Designing Collaborative Online Learning Experiences
A qualitative study explored how groups and networks are formed in an online learning environment and investigated whether online learning enables the development of social capital and if so, what the potential risks and effects of social capital in online learning are. A case study is used to gather in-depth information from focus group interviews and semi-structured interviews conducted with online students at the University of South Africa (Unisa). In this way information was gathered about the subjective experiences and perceptions of a diverse group of online students.
From the research it is clear that students develop personal learning environments which comprise both mandatory interactions on the official, formal learning environment and voluntary interactions on informal learning networks. Social capital theory is used to explain how close ties between students provide bonding social capital and weak ties facilitate bridging social capital. Both types of social capital contribute to the facilitation of online learning albeit in different ways. The findings indicate negative effects or risks to collaboration in online learning which is explained by using theory on the down side of social capital. The paper reports on how the theoretical insights can be employed in designing and developing collaborative online learning experiences which support social capital development and meaningful and sustainable interactions between online students.