This Is AuburnElectronic Theses and Dissertations

Roles, Relationships, and Power: The Patterns of Knowledge Co-Construction in an Online Educational Leadership Course




Slear, James

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology

Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



Social interaction is an essential component of learning, but the online learning environment presents challenges to creating meaningful interactions (Palloff & Pratt, 2003; Simonsen, 2015). Researchers have long sought to improve online learning by promoting higher quality interaction. One thread of this research places social knowledge co-construction at the apex of learning quality indicators (Aviv et al., 2003; Schellens & Valcke, 2007; De Wever et al., 2009; Hull & Saxon, 2009). As students negotiate meaning and co-construct new knowledge, their discussion is a “subtle political interaction that brings many aspects of power, motivation and persuasion into play” (Stahl, 2003, p. 5). The dynamics of power in the co-construction of knowledge is an understudied area that should be explored so that instructors and instructional designers can continue to improve the quality of online learning. The purpose of this concurrent mixed-methods design was to examine ways in which differences in experience levels, patterns of participation, and fulfillment of assigned roles shape the patterns and degree of social knowledge co-construction achieved by graduate student professionals enrolled in online educational leadership course. Online course assignments were of two types, weekly paired case study discussions and whole-group major case study analyses. This provided two distinct datasets to address the study’s two research questions. In the weekly case study discussions, students were randomly paired and tasked to discuss an educational leadership case study. Each case study concerned topics found in various k-12 school settings and was tied to a particular leadership theory, which the course introduced. The level of social knowledge co-construction achieved by each pair was compared with the degree of power parity within each pair. Results found a small but statistically significant relationship between knowledge co-construction and power parity. In the major case study analyses, students were assigned to specialized discussion roles on a rotational basis. Analysis was split into phases with specified goals and instructions to move the analysis from problem identification through resolution. The discussion transcripts were evaluated for individual contributions to social knowledge co-construction. Social network analysis results found that when students assigned to serve as discussion catalysts, that is students tasked to identify and explore sources of disagreement or contention, made greater contributions to co-construction, more students made greater contributions overall. Likewise, a positive relationship was found between levels of participation and levels of knowledge co-construction. This study made several contributions to the current literature. It is the first known study to explore the potential effects of power parity on social knowledge co-construction. It demonstrated a novel method to improve how individual contributions to knowledge co-construction can be measured. It provided further evidence of the value of students performing specialized discussion roles. Finally, it presented conditions under which it may be possible to use social network analysis as an efficient way to estimate knowledge co-construction at both individual and class levels of analysis.