The Use of Online Synchronous Discussion Groups to Enhance Community Formation and Professional Identity Development
Synchronous online discussions are being increasingly used in higher education in order to facilitate learning and group interaction between on-campus and off-campus students. In response to calls from the engineering community to integrate humanities studies into the engineering curriculum, English and Engineering faculty at a large urban university collaborated to design an online literature discussion course for first-year engineering students. Students were assigned two works of literature that dealt with ethical and professional development issues in engineering. The online discussions took place outside class in a Multiuser Object Oriented (MOO) environment, where all discussions were logged. As researchers examined the transcripts of these discussions, the theme of community formation emerged. The transcripts were coded and then used to identify the varying levels of community formation during the course of the semester as well as the students’ development of professional identity. Results suggest that behaviors of the mentor, negotiation of group knowledge, and exclusion of late arriving members characterized communities. The results also suggest that through reading and discussion of professional issues, students may begin to view themselves as members of the engineering profession.