Social network analysis and learning communities in higher education online learning: a systematic literature review

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This paper presents the results of a systematic literature review which sets out to explore the use of social network analysis (SNA) for investigating learning communities specifically, communities of practice (CoP) and community of inquiry (CoI) in higher education online learning (HEOL). The impetus for such a review originated from the reliance on extensive and time-consuming qualitative analysis typically required in research involving the CoP and CoI frameworks. The review consolidates and synthesizes existing research in HEOL in search of a methodological framework for structurally evaluating a CoP and/or CoI using SNA. We identified a handful of studies that integrate SNA measures and key structural components of the CoP and CoI frameworks and examined: SNA measures and corresponding theoretical components used; other analytical techniques used; limitations and; suggestions for further research. The selected studies reported disparate findings in terms of the relationship between SNA measures and the CoP and/or CoI components. The review also highlighted the need to complement SNA with a qualitative analytical technique. Therefore, whether SNA has the potential to be used as a stand-alone technique for structurally identifying communities remains to be seen. We also find a lack of consideration to attributional and performance variables in existing studies. In conclusion, we propose further research and the development of a fully integrated methodological framework which uses SNA to structurally evaluate a CoP and CoI.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-264
Number of pages16
JournalOnline Learning Journal
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • social network analysis
  • online learning
  • communities
  • systematic review


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