Attrition rates are a concern in all forms of education and have been especially problematic for some forms of online learning and distance education. When cohort groups work together through a course of studies, completion rates are very similar to those experienced with face-to-face cohorts. But when learners are allowed increased freedom to enroll whenever they want and to pace their own study, attrition rates are typically considerably higher (Anderson & Wark, 2004). In our ongoing work to enhance online learning, while retaining self pacing and continuous enrollment, we have been using a variety of social software interventions.

In this post I examine the literature on the type of community that can be created in this self-paced context. The literature on collaborative and cooperative learning and most of that on online communities assumes that the learners are working in institutionally established cohort groups. The literature on independent study models was built up in an era when learner-learner interaction was non existent and learner-teacher interaction limited by postal speeds. Thus, the contribution of this literature to Net-infused, self-paced educational models is limited. In looking for new models and ideas, I stumbled upon he idea of affinity groups. Affinity groups have been popularized in informal learning, sports groups and gaming communities may be a closer match and inspiration for developing, supporting and consequently measuring the impact of social support in this unique educational context.

In this post I argue that an online affinity group provides a useful model that we can use and support to increase participation in and successful completion of self-paced, formal online courses.

What is an Affinity Group?

Affinity is defined by Webster “as a sympathy marked by community of interest”. Obviously learners enroled in a course share a community of interest- that being successful completion of that course. But what is often lacking in self-paced learning is a mechanism to explore and develop that “sympathy” with others.

Ironically, the term ‘affinity group’ seems to be used by two very ideologically disparate camps. Marketers talk about developing affinity groups to support a product after its purchase and helping insure repeat business by the customer. Marketers also refer to ‘affinity cards’ that allow users to direct funds earned through their purchases to particular causes, alma maters or other organizations that they support. At the opposite end of the political spectrum activist and anarchistic groups refer to affinity groups as the means by which multiple forms of “action” can evolve in a trusted environment. Luke Hauser contends that “Affinity groups serve as a source of support and solidarity for their members. Feelings of being isolated or alienated from the movement, or the crowd, or the world in general can be alleviated through the love and trust which develops when an affinity group works, plays, and relates together over a period of time. By generating familiarty and trust, the AG structure reduces the possibility of infiltration by outside provocateurs.”

Affinity groups in an online gaming context were described by James Gee (Gee, 2003) as having six characteristics.

Common endeavor. Members of affinity groups do not converse or gather together for the joy of socialization, but rather they share interest and expectation to be working cooperatively on a common task. In education, these tasks can be as large and formal as collaborative projects or as informal as reviewing together in order to improve understanding and subsequent test results. This expectation means that learning designers need to create meaningful activities that learners will perceive as warranting the expenditure of their precious and limited resource of time. These endeavors should be directly related to important learning outcomes. Many educators find that for some students allocating marks is essential to provide external motivation to engage in these activities. However, compulsory participation can lead to assessing the amount of participation in the activity, rather than the amount of learning achieved.

Whole process. Gee warns that the affinity group should not be a short term learning activity such as brainstorming group. Rather affinity groups should be allowed to flow across tasks, activities and structures of the complete learning experience. In online terms, this means that contributions to the group should be persistent and not be destroyed when the course ends. In addition the affinity group should be allowed to configure itself across multiple learning tasks and not have its function or organization model constrained or dictated to by educators.

Extensive orientation. Gee’s 3rd characteristic builds upon the second and focuses on the capacity for learners to allow the activities of affinity group to pervade the learning environment. Extensive knowledge is not bonded by teacher expectations. Rather it is allowed to flow out and beyond the confines of the course into the personal and professional lives of the learners.

Intensive knowledge: Besides the breadth of extensive knowledge, Gee notes that affinity groups afford members opportunities to share their individual skills This means that the unique contexts, skills, gifts and reflections of each learner should be accessible to the group, so that they can be utilized in enhancing the individual and cooperative learning process and outcomes.

Tacit and Disbursed. Gee notes that affinity groups are distributed organizations. This fits well with online learning but also resonates with connectivist ideas (Siemens, 2005)that argue that knowledge is as much a function of the network of resources available to the learner as particular facts or concepts stored in their individual brains.

Leaders: Finally, Gee notes that the role of leaders in affinity groups is to design and support the members such that their tacit knowledge becomes explicit and is allowed to grow within the collective space, minds and artifacts of the group. Recognizing, supporting and rewarding these leaders is an unresolved challenge for Net based self-paced learning models.

Affinity groups have been used in face-to-face instruction and often the results are described positively. Teller and Gates (2000) note how undergraduate computer science students are allocated into affinity groups with structured individual and group tasks focused on providing direct experience of discipline based research. They claim that “students develop domain expertise, gain an understanding and appreciation of the research process and its practice, and acquire team, communication, problem-solving, and higher-level thinking skills” through experiences in their affinity groups. Mohanan (2003)also uses affinity groups, that she differentiates from short term “buzzgroups” or tutor groups because the affinity groups are long term and work together outside of class time. She argues that “affinity group discussions provide students the best opportunities to strengthen their skills of academic argumentation as well as oral communication skills.”

Green (2002)argues that we should be taking clues from the affinity groups sponsored by sports groups to stimulate ‘clanning’- the term invented by futurist Kathleen Popcorn to describe the trend to belong “to a group that represents common feelings, causes or ideas” . He argues that the affiliation created within these groups will enhance social presence and lead directly to more successful distance education experiences.

All of the above suggests that “affinity groups’ may play an important role in stimulating social discourse, cohesion, perseverance and positive regard with online learners. But these groups need not be as locked down in time as most online learning cohorts demand and thus may play and even more important role in supporting self-paced learners

Implications of Affinity Groups to Self-Paced learning

The scant literature directly relating to affinity groups in education suggests that affinity groups are both pedagogically useful and generally appreciated by learners. One can easily extrapolate from the volumes of studies related to both classroom and online collaborative and cooperative learning research and can see affinity groups as a subset of this socialized form of learning. Affinity groups may be a very useful organizational model that stimulates social activity and social presence even within self-paced and continuous learning. This form of education has been described as independent study, but I argue that with appropriate technological, social and pedagogical support, self-paced learning need not be independent learning.

One cannot however expect affinity groups to suddenly and spontaneously emerge from education models and systems based upon independent study assumptions. Rather the following organizational interventions are suggested:

Discovery Allow students to discover each other: Affinity cannot grow, supporting new forms of self-paced learning unless learners are able to discover each other. The profile systems built into many social programs such as ELGG are ideal tools, allowing learners to selectively release (and subsequently search for classmates with) details about themselves, their interests and their learning.

Activities: Create meaningful activities for collaborative activities: Traditionally designers of independent study materials have focused on behaviorist models of learning and learning activities that do not require social interventions. To create the raison d’etre for initial affinity group formation designers need to create welcoming and affirming activities that are perceived as meaningful and valued educational activities and that support the creation and maintenance of affinity groups.

Leadership Provide opportunities and invitation for learners to develop and express their leadership potential. Learning is inherently a growth experience and one of the most valuable learning is that related to developing and growing one’s leadership abilities. Leading in a group with whom one has never met physically is challenging, but the abundance of on-line communities extant on the Net illustrates that it is quite possible. Learners need to be both encouraged and empowered to extend themselves by designing, leading and explicating knowledge constructed within the affinity groups.

Research and measure: Formal learning in any environment is complicated and those forms that are distributed and away from the eye of the researcher or teacher are even more obfuscated. The number of ways that affinity groups can be created (presage variables), the activities they can engage in (process activities) and the variety of outcomes (products) is large ((Biggs, 1989). Only through systematic investigation of these variables using a variety of methodologies will we begin to find proven ways to create, sustain and benefit from affinity groups in self-paced, networked learning..

Reference List

Anderson, T., & Wark, N. (2004). Why do teachers get to learn the most? A case study of a course based on student creation of learning objects. e-Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 7(2)
Retrieved Nov. 2004 from

Biggs, J.B. (1989). Approaches to the enhancement of tertiary teaching. Higher Education Research and Development, 8 , 7-25.

Gee, J. (2003). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Green, J. (2002). Exemplars of on-line peer support: are we looking in the right places? In Higher Education Research and Development Society of Australasia: Perth: Retrieved Feb. 2006 from

Mohanan, T. (2003). Affinity Groups: The Idea and Its Potential. Ideas on Teaching., 1, 14-15.
Retrieved Feb. 2006 from

Siemens, G. (2005). A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Instructional Technology and Distance Education, 2(1), 3-10.
Retrieved Oct. 2005 from

Teller P.,& Gates, A. (2000). Applying The Affinity Research Group Model To Computer Science Research. In 30th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference: IEEE. Retrieved Feb. 2006 from