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Online communities of practice : can 1st year students really develop a ‘feeling of belonging’ at distance or is this more ‘e’ hot air?
Developing a ‘sense of belonging’ in the first year of any university study is a challenge. Students are engaging in paid work with increasingly long hours and they report reduced levels of peer collaboration. These factors have significant potential to erode opportunities to grow any inclusive learning community. In the course being discussed in this paper there were additional challenges including diverse modes of learning, learner ages, levels of interest and experience in the subject matter. In response to these needs, we were keen to see if we could create an environment that would encourage inclusive and active engagement regardless of student circumstances, a ‘community of practice’ (COP). Is it possible to develop a COP for first year students? This paper begins the process of evaluating our experience and the findings suggest that we did manage to foster a community of practice however we also found that these strategies may have higher levels of acceptance by particular cohorts rather than universally. In this paper we share our challenges, successes and ideas for transferring our learning to the development and reviews of other courses. The ‘take home’ lessons from this experience might equally be applied to first time online learners at other stages of their degree or post graduate learners who may be exposed to active learning online for the first time.