Social Network Analysis and Online Learning Communities in Higher Education: A Systematic Literature Review

Shazia K. Jan, Panos Vlachopoulos, Mitch Parsell


This paper presents the results of a systematic literature review which sets out to explore the use of social network analysis (SNA) for investigating online learning communities in higher education. The impetus for such a review originated from an increased interest by researchers in SNA techniques to investigate interactions and learning engagement in various types of online communities. However, the researchers often omit to ground their research and SNA methods in community based learning frameworks such as communities of inquiry (CoI) and communities of practice (CoP). We identified a handful of studies that integrate SNA methods and key constructs from these frameworks and examined: SNA measures and corresponding theoretical constructs used; other analytical techniques used; limitations and; suggestions for further research. We found that while SNA is effective in detecting prominent participants, sub-groups and certain aspects of a CoP, a specific SNA measure cannot be correlated with a particular presence in a CoI. Therefore, SNA needs to be complemented with a qualitative analytical technique. Whether SNA can be used as a stand-alone technique for 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 the development of a fully integrated research framework for a holistic analysis of online learning and teaching.


social network analysis, online learning, communities, systematic review

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