In my initial studies, I developed an analytical framework by which patterns of adaptive role-behaviors in online learning communities could be related to peer learner influence. The framework identified eight key role-behaviors of social engagement in a community of inquiry, ranging in levels of influence from none (vicarious learner), through simple acknowledgement of others contributions, to “high impact” behaviors through which iterative collaborative knowledge building is enacted (initiator, facilitator and complicator role-behaviors).

This framework has been developed in subsequent qualitative and quantitative analysis studies, to assess student engagement in an online learning community and to explore the role of peer learning. My findings suggest that measures of peer centrality as suggested by social network analyses, while useful are too simplistic to explain the differential impact of different participant contributors.

From a content analysis of student interactions in an online course, I discovered that the attention paid to peer-learners appeared to be related strongly to social influence. Patterns of student interaction indicated that students engaged in three progressive levels of community engagement: Participation, Involvement, and Social Engagement. Qualitatively different levels of collaborative student engagement were associated with the different degrees of engagement (Waters and Gasson, 2005).  In a second study, I demonstrated that learner engagement appears to be correlated with specific role-behaviors that develop, complicate, and redirect the collective understanding of an online community of learners (Waters and Gasson, 2006). In a subsequent analysis, I identified key student participants as “thought-leaders,” whose learning role-behaviors provide the basis for collaborative knowledge-building in a community of learning (Waters and Gasson, 2007). My latest study employed quantitative measures of social network positioning to demonstrate that students’ centrality and connectedness in an online community of learning were closely related to their predominant patterns of role-behavior as peer-learners (Waters, 2008). This study has provided a measure of the degree to which specific student thought-leaders complicate and redirect group discussions, that was validated in my dissertation study (2009).

The findings challenge the assumption that a participatory democracy (Dewey, 1916) is the optimal model to support constructivist student learning in online environments. The findings suggest that gentle encouragement of a “benevolent oligarchy” of thought-leaders may be the key to the constructivist knowledge construction that underlies peer-learning as a core mechanism of social engagement in online education environments.


Dewey, J. “Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education” , Macmillan,1916.

Waters, J. Social Network Behavior, Thought-Leaders and Knowledge Building In An Online Learning Community

Waters, J and Gasson, S. “Distributed Knowledge Construction In An Online Community Of Inquiry,” Proceedings of Hawaii Intl. Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-40), Knowledge Management Track. Jan. 2007.

Waters, J. and Gasson, S. “Social Engagement In An Online Community Of Inquiry,” in Proceedings of ICIS ’06, Milwaukee, WI., HCI Track,  December 2006.