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

Full Text:



Acharjya, D. P., & Ahmed, K. P. (2016). A survey on big data analytics: Challenges, open research issues and tools. International Journal of Advanced Computer Science and Applications, 7(2), 511-518.

Allen, I, E., Seaman, J., Poulin, R. and Straut, T. T. (2016). Online report card: Tracking online education in the United States. Retrieved from

Annese, S., & Traetta, M. (2012). Distributed participation in blended learning communities: Actors, contexts and groups. Int. J. Web Based Communities, 8(4), 422-439. doi:10.1504/IJWBC.2012.049558.

Avella, J. T., Kebritchi, M, Nunn, S. G., & Kanai, T. (2016). Learning analytics methods, benefits, and challenges in higher education: A literature review. Online Learning, 20(2), 13–29. doi:.

Aviv, R., Erlich, Z, Ravid, G., & Geva, A. (2003). Network analysis of knowledge construction in asynchronous learning networks. JALN, 7(3), 1-23.

Biza, I., Jaworski, B., & Hemmi, K. (2014). Communities in university mathematics. Research in Mathematics Education, 16(2), 161-176. doi:10.1080/14794802.2014.918351.

Borgatti, S. P., Everett, M. G., & Johnson, J. C. (2013). Analyzing social networks. SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition. Retrieved from

Chambers, D., Wilson, P., Thomson, C., Harden, M. (2012). Social network analysis in healthcare: A systematic scoping review. PloS ONE, 7(8), e41911. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0041911.

Cela, K. L., Sicilia, M. A., & Sanchez, S. (2015). Social network analysis in e-learning environments: A preliminary systematic review. Educ Psychol Rev, 27, 219-246. doi:10.1007/s10648-014-9276-0.

Cross, R., Laseter, T., Parker, A. & Velasquez, G. (2006). Using social network analysis to improve communities of practice. California Management Review, 49(1), 32-60. doi:10.2307/41166370.

Daniel, B. (2014). Big data and analytics in higher education: Opportunities and challenges. British Journal of Educational Technology,46, 904-920. doi:10.1111/bjet.12230.

De Laat, M., & Prinsen, F. R. (2014). Social learning analytics: Navigating the changing settings of higher education. Research & Practice in Assessment, 9, 51 – 60.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

De Wever, B., Schellens, T., Valcke, M. & Van Keer, H. (2006). Content analysis schemes to analyze transcripts of online asynchronous discussion groups: A review. Computers & Education, 46(1), 6 – 28. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2005.04.005.

Freeman, L. C. (2006). The development of social network analysis. Vancouver, Canada: Empirical Press. Gilbert.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105. doi: 0.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2001). Critical thinking, cognitive presence, and computer conferencing in distance education. American Journal of Distance Education, 15(1), 7-23. doi:10.1080/08923640109527071.

Garrison, D. R., & Arbaugh, J. B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues, and future directions. Internet and Higher Education, 10, 157 – 172. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2007.04.001.

Garrison, D. R., & Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 7, 95-105. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.02.001.

Granovetter, M. (2005). The impact of social structure on economic outcomes. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 19(1), 33–50. doi:10.1257/0895330053147958.

Hamilton, E., & Feenberg, A. (2005). The technical codes of online education. Techné: Research in Philosohy and Technology, 9(1).

Hwang, A. & Arbaugh, J. B. (2006). Virtual and traditional feedback-seeking behaviours: Underlying competitive attitudes and consequent grade performance. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 4, 1–28. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4609.2006.00099.x

Haythornthwaite, C. (1996). Social network analysis: An approach and technique for the study of information exchange. LISR, 18, 323-342. doi:10.1016/s0740-8188(96)90003-1.

Jimoyiannis, A., Tsiotakis, P., & Roussinos, D. (2012). Blogs in higher education: Analysing students' participation and presence in a community of blogging. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the IADIS International Conference e-Learning 2012.

Jimoyiannis, A., & Tsiotakis, P. (2017). Beyond students’ perceptions: investigating learning presence in an educational blogging community. Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education, 9(1), 129-146. doi:10.1108/JARHE-06-2015-0046.

Jo, I., Park, Y., & Lee, H. (2017). Three interaction patterns on asynchronous online discussion behaviours: A methodological comparison. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 33(2), 106-122. doi:10.1111/jcal.12168

Kitchenham, B. (2004). Procedures for performing systematic reviews.

Keele, UK: Keele University.

LAK. (2011). 1st International conference on learning analytics and knowledge. Retrieved from

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511815355

Moreno, J. L. (1953). Sociometry. Journal of Interpersonal Relations and Experimental Design, 18(4).

Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Picciano, A.G. (2012). The evolution of big data and learning analytics in American higher education. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 16(3), 9-20. doi:10.24059/olj.v16i3.267.

Pintritch, P. R. (2000). Multiple goals, multiple pathways: The role of goal orientation in learning and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(3), 544-555. doi:10.1037/0022-0663.92.3.544

Prior, D. D., Mazanov, J., Meacheam, D. Heaslip, G. & Hanson, J. (2016). Attitude, digital literacy and self-efficacy: Flow-on effects for online learning behaviour. Internet and Higher Education, 29, 91-97. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2016.01.001

Rourke, L., & Kanuka, H. (2009). Learning in communities of inquiry: A review of literature. Journal of Distance Education, 23(1), 19-48.

Scott, J. (2000). Social network analysis: a handbook. London: Sage.

Senghore, F., Campos-Nanez, E., Fomin, P., & Wasek, J. S. (2014). Using social network analysis to investigate the potential of innovation networks: Lessons learned from NASA’s international space apps challenge. Procedia Computer Science, 28, 380 – 388. doi:10.1016/j.procs.2014.03.047

Shea, P. & Bidjerano, T. (2010). A re-examination of the community of inquiry framework: Social network and content analysis. Internet and Higher Education, 13, 10–21. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2009.11.002

Shea, P., Hayes, S., Smith, S. U., Vickers, J., Bidjerano, T, Pickett, A., …, Jian, S. (2012). Learning presence: Additional research on a new conceptual element within the community of inquiry (CoI) framework. Internet and Higher Education, 15(2), 89-95. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.08.002

Shea, P., Hayes, S., Smith, S. U., Vickers, J., Bidjerano, T, Gozza-Cohen, M., …, Tseng, C. (2013). Online learner self-regulation: Learning presence viewed through quantitative content- and social network analysis. IRRODL, 14(3), 427-461. doi:10.19173/irrodl.v14i3.1466

Shea, P., Hayes, S., Uzuner-Smith, S., Gozza-Cohen, M., Vickers, J., & Bidjerano, T. (2014). Reconceptualizing the community of inquiry framework: An exploratory analysis. Internet and Higher Education, 23, 9-17. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2014.05.002

Sie, R. L., Ullmann, T. D., Rajagopal, K., Cela, K., Bitter-Rijpkema, M., & Sloep, P. B. (2012). Social network analysis for technology-enhanced learning: review and future directions. International Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 4(3), 172-190. doi:10.1504/IJTEL.2012.051582.

Smith, B. L. (2001). The challenge of learning communities as a growing national movement. AAC&U Peer Review, 4(1).

Smith, S. U., Hayes, S., & Shea, P. (2017). A critical review of the use of Wenger’s community of practice (CoP) theoretical framework in online and blended learning research, 2000-2014. Online Learning, 21(1), 209-237. doi:10.24059/olj.v21i1.963.

Staples, M., & Niazi, M. (2007). Experiences using systematic review guidelines. Evaluation and Assessment in Software Engineering EASE06, 80(9), 1425–1437. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2006.09.046

Tirado, R., Hernando, Á., & Aguaded, J. I. (2015). The effect of centralization and cohesion on the social construction of knowledge in discussion forums. Interactive Learning Environments, 23(3), 293-316. doi:10.1080/10494820.2012.745437

Van Dijk, T. A. (1995). Aims of critical discourse analysis. Japanese Discourse, 1, 17–27.

Veletsianos, G., & Kimmons, R. (2016). Scholars in an increasingly open and digital world: How do education professors and students use Twitter? The Internet and Higher Education, 30, 1-10. doi:

Vlachopoulos, P., & Cowan, J. (2010). Reconceptualising moderation in asynchronous online discussions using grounded theory. Distance Education, 31(1), 23-36. doi:10.1080/01587911003724611

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Ward, W. D., Stovel, K., & Sacks, A. (2011). Network analysis and political science. Annual Review of Political Science, 14, 245 – 264. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.12.040907.115949

Wasserman, S., & Faust, K. (1994). Social network analysis. Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/cbo9780511803932

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Wenger, E., White, N., & Smith, J. (2009). Digital habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR: CPsquare.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., & de Laat, M. (2011). Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: A conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.

Wicks, D., Craft, B. B., Lee, D. D., Lumpe, A., Henrikson, R., Baliram, N., . . . Wicks, K. (2015). An evaluation of low versus high collaboration in online learning. JALN, 19(4). doi: 10.24059/olj.v19i4.552.

Zhao, C., & Kuh, G. D. (2004). Adding value: Learning communities and student engagement. Research in Higher Education, 45(2), 115-138. doi:10.1023/

Zhao, Y., Zhu., Q., & Wu, K. (2011). The development of social network analysis research in mainland China: a literature review perspective. In Proceedings of the 2011 iConference. ACM, pp. 296-303.