Virtual Communities of Practice for Research Postgraduate Students: Determining Needs and Reducing Isolation
Keywords:communities of practice, student isolation, enterprise social networks, postgraduate research, knowledge sharing, action research.
Postgraduate research is considered a lonely endeavour with students frequently experiencing social and intellectual isolation. Research offices in many higher education institutions have developed programmes to support supervisors and students undertaking research studies and supervision. These programmes include instruction on research techniques and methodologies but are often lacking in community-based approaches such as creating support and peer groups where students can share information and ideas directly. This study explores the use of online communities of practice as a support tool for postgraduate researchers in a university in Ireland. The research questions seek to determine the antecedents for successful implementation, the dominant problems associated with using online communities, and the motivators for, and barriers to, participation in communities of practice in this context. The study facilitates student collaboration by implementing a community of practice on an enterprise social network (ESN) platform. These platforms are increasingly used in industry to facilitate online community groups that collaborate professionally and socially. Professionally, ESN can be used as a platform to host virtual communities of practice (vCoP), where members can engage in sharing knowledge of their practice domains and experiences. The promotion of ESN and vCoP for this study is a joint initiative of the Research Support Office, the Students' Union, and the Postgraduate Society, who advocate for a strong peer to peer support system for postgraduate students. The study adopts an Action Research design and a mixed-methods approach, and data collection includes system use metrics, surveys, focus groups and interviews. The practical objective of the project is to manage the implementation of the virtual community as a peer-to-peer support environment, and success is determined primarily from usage statistics. This may lead to developing a framework for implementation that is generalisable to other higher education institutions.
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