First Monday

The ZONE learning community: Gaining knowledge through mentoring by Joi L. Moore, Camille Dickson-Deane, Krista Galyen, Christiana Kumalasari, and Kyungbin Kwon

Assisting doctoral students with developing teaching skills along with providing effective instruction is a common dilemma in academia. We propose a model for developing skill sets of two audiences, doctoral teaching assistants and students. For the teaching assistants, or ZONE mentors, they gain valuable and meaningful skills in course design, online feedback and evaluation, and demonstration of course concepts. For students, the ZONE model encourages self–direction, development of evaluation skills, and the ability to problem solve when assisting peers. Each audience gains experience through scaffolding and mentoring.


The ZONE environment




Learning is prevalent outside the physical boundaries of a classroom (Boud and Middleton, 2003; Lohman, 2006; Watkins and Marsick, 1992). As people seek assistance on the Internet in a specific domain area, online learning communities are established through chat rooms, discussion boards, and other types of social media. The establishment of online learning communities involves informal and formal strategies that facilitate active engagement amongst its members. As it relates to the increasing demand of student–instructor interaction in online courses, learning communities have the potential to assist instructors with managing the assessment and feedback activities in a timely manner as well as facilitate student learning through active and passive participation. In this paper, we describe the environmental and mentoring strategies used within The Digital Media Zone (a.k.a., “The ZONE”) at the University of Missouri, and propose it as a quality model for others who wish to support online learning communities in higher education.

The need for a different model

Although online programs experience success, faculty and students can at times experience difficulties in teaching and learning effectively in virtual classrooms (U.S. Department of Education. Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, 2010). In most higher education online learning, it is common for one instructor (and possibly one assistant) to teach a course. In addition, online course activities encourage student–to–student and student–to–instructor interactions via e–mail, chat rooms, and discussion boards. When there is a dissonance between student expectations and instructional delivery in virtual classrooms, there may be negative perceptions of overall course value.

Although online learning allows for “anytime, anywhere” access to learning content, unresolved difficulties and misconceptions can quickly become frustrating for students and teachers. One example of a misconception is student perception of 24–hour access to faculty. Unless there are solutions to facilitate access to information or clarification of this misconception, this easily contributes to an increase in students’ anxiety as they sit by the computer waiting for responses to their questions or private messages. At the same time, faculty can easily become overwhelmed, as the perceived expectation of 24–hour access for answering student questions, is unmanageable. Additional difficulties that students face in online courses are feelings of isolation and a lack of community, which can often hamper student participation (An and Frick, 2006; Jones, et al., 2008; Liaw, et al., 2007; Yang and Durrington, 2010). One example of the lack of course participation is manifested by students’ unwillingness to post questions whilst struggling with a technical problem.

Courses involving skill development, such as Web application development, have additional issues. Regardless of the nature of course delivery, these courses rely heavily on practice and feedback. Frequent and timely feedback from faculty, multiple opportunities for practice, and observing others’ work is highly beneficial yet difficult in individualistic learning environments.

These additional complexities and problems that occur with student interactions and instructor feedback point to the need for a different model. In this paper, we present The ZONE as a model for supporting online learning community. The ZONE is composed of students, faculty and Mentors in a higher education setting, which is delivered primarily through the use of mentoring. We will first describe the Digital Media ZONE environment, the staff and student involvement and roles, the curriculum that is supported in the ZONE and then finally the theoretical foundations for The ZONE Model.



The ZONE environment

The Digital Media ZONE is a physical and virtual support environment that emphasizes a collaborative teaching and learning community. The ZONE is comprised of two faculty who are instructors for the courses that are offered and doctoral students working as “ZONE Mentors.” The faculty and mentors facilitate students’ learning through direct instruction, guidance, mentoring, and other support via discussion boards, e–mail, instant messaging, telephone, and in–person consultations.

The ZONE resides within the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies (SISLT), a division within the College of Education (COE) at the University of Missouri, which offers more than 35 completely online courses for students. The students enroll in graduate programs specializing in education technology, technology in schools, and library science. In 2011, there were over 400 students dispersed throughout the United States and beyond, taking SISLT online courses.

The ZONE has two components: physical and virtual. The physical support comprises of staff working in an accessible location on campus. The ZONE Mentors work Monday through Friday during designated hours where students are free to walk in at any time to receive tutoring, troubleshoot specific course tools, or just discuss coursework challenges. The ZONE mentors are cross–trained; therefore, students do not need to wait for a specific mentor. The virtual support acts as a mirror to the physical support and allows any student at a distance to contact the ZONE Mentors through various communication tools. Additionally, the virtual environment includes the students’ online course environment. Delivered through the Sakai Learning Management System (LMS), the ZONE Mentors support the instructor by facilitating, modeling, and coaching the students in the content via online discussion boards and other electronic communication means. For example, if Student A is from China and Student B is from Columbia, Missouri, both have opportunities to talk directly and get support from a Zone Mentor. While Student A might use instant messaging, e–mail, and screen–sharing to get support outside of class, Student B might visit the physical location of the ZONE. However, both of the students would be able to get in–class support from their ZONE Mentor(s) assigned to their class when posting to the course discussion board.

The ZONE Mentors and the physical environment

ZONE mentors are of varying nationalities, possess technical skills, have different prior work experiences, but most importantly, are sociable. This mixture of skill sets and experience levels not only facilitates student learning, but the [physical] environment also fosters knowledge sharing via collaboration, incidental learning, and support of each other. This model environment is further enhanced by the design of the physical space in which the knowledge resides (see Figure 1). The space is centrally located, specifically for College of Education (COE) students, and includes five workstations including both PCs and Macs. The workstations are located at the periphery of the space, with a circular table at the center which, both facilitates walk–ins and collaborative discussions (i.e., students). Wireless access is also available and reduces the need to be confined to the workstations; increased portability as needed.


Physical environment in The ZONE
Figure 1: Physical environment in The ZONE.


The ZONE curriculum

The primary curriculum is designed and delivered via project–based instruction. The curriculum includes digital media and Web development courses that use meaningful and authentic projects where students can build skills, share knowledge, and share/observe each other’s work. In this manner, situated learning among students is facilitated, but it may still be difficult to fully establish a learning community (Lave and Wenger, 1991). Group projects are also used within the courses as another method to establish learning communities and encourage collaboration among students. Both of these methods not only encourage the social interaction that can be lacking in an online environment, but also use the social interaction and collaboration to encourage unique learning opportunities.

Students engage with each other, mentors, and instructors primarily through discussion board. Over the course of a semester, there are various forms of freely expressed and question oriented discussions to promote open communications and ultimately, a social presence. Through this discourse, students’ interactions with the content and with each other help to establish negotiation of meaning and cognitive presence (Hull and Saxon, 2009; Tsai, et al., 2008).


An instructor and zone mentor working together on an introduction to digital media course, for example, will use a discussion forum as the primary communication medium. This medium will be supported by the use of video, voice, and text chats, private messaging, e–mail, telephone, resource documents, podcasts, video casts, and face–to–face interactions. The student can then interact with the material and peers in the discussion forum by stating views/positions, and describing feelings and perceptions thus creating a social presence.

These interactions not only promote learning, it also actively creates a foundation for the establishment of a cognitive presence where information exchange can lead to the presentation and explanation of ideas; thus encouraging in–depth negotiations towards a co–creation of [new] knowledge (Garrison, et al., 2000; Short, et al., 1976).

Active problem–solving environments

ZONE–related courses mostly include programming activities. These courses can prove to be difficult to learn by typically having many solutions to create applications, Web pages, etc. (Milne and Rowe, 2002; Schulte and Bennedsen, 2006; Teague and Roe, 2008). Using groups to encourage collaborative learning can create new group–related challenges such as the management of individual accountability of tasks, general group management and collaboration, and each student acquiring learning objectives with different group tasks. Additional problems emerge when students do not provide peer feedback and depend on the faculty as the only source of knowledge. These challenges place further strain on the faculty as they deliver the online courses.

The faculty and mentors in the ZONE are and want to continue to not only be flexible when evaluating student projects but also ensure that quality and timely feedback is provided. This dwells well, as there is continued effort to being solution–oriented thus providing fodder for the course learning community. The ZONE provides a solution to this dilemma by offering a mentoring environment that encourages peers to collaborate, share, and be active problem solvers in the course environment.

Theoretical foundations of the Zone Learning Community

The theoretical foundation of the ZONE Learning Community is grounded in Garrison, et al.’s (2000) community of inquiry (COI) model, shown in Figure 2. Through the combination of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence, the educational experience emerges. In the ZONE Learning Community, the instructor and Zone Mentors facilitate student social presence and cognitive presence by setting the climate and selecting the content to provide in the course resources. The facilitation between the students and the instructor/Mentors occurs in two facets: the online learning community and the face–to–face learning community. This combined interaction creates somewhat of a blende– learning community where the interactions can occur in a virtual environment, in the assigned physical space or a combination of both (see Figure 3). There are sub–COI models in each of the facets, and each facet in turn uses cognitive apprenticeship and legitimate peripheral participation activities to build a larger interlocked COI.


Zone Learning Community
Figure 2: Zone Learning Community; modeled after Garrison, et al.’s (2000) community of inquiry model.



Two facets of The Zone Learning Community
Figure 3: Two facets of The Zone Learning Community: The curved line represents the complementary facets, which are not entirely separable. The small circles represent Garrison, et al.’s community of inquiry and components of community of practice.


The main instructional focus within this community is to enable experiential learning. The learning process reflects the transformation of concrete experiences and abstract conceptualizations through internal reflective observation or active experimentation of the external world (Kolb and Kolb, 2005). Critical reflection, through the learning process, is argued, whilst individually constructed knowledge is validated. As such, the shared world intertwines with the individual’s private world. These experiences allow the facilitators of this community to progress through various stages; from reflective guides to a problem solving catalyst, then mentor the student, and finally assess the learning journey (Fenwick, 2003). This learning process also illustrates the model of cognitive apprenticeship model where tacit processes are purposefully made visible to students so that they can observe and then practice (Collins, et al., 1989). Instructors employ the four dimensions (i.e., content, method, sequence and sociology) described by Collins, et al. (1989) to implement the Zone’s learning environment. The dimensions encompass the six known instructional strategies (i.e., modeling, coaching, scaffolding, reflection, articulation and exploration) as a way of developing expertise in the specified course (Collins, et al., 1989; Dennen and Burner, 2008). The sociology dimension incorporates additional models/strategies of situated learning, community of practice, legitimate peripheral participation, cooperative learning and encouraging intrinsic motivation to further catalyze the ability to co–construct knowledge/skills.

As the curriculum changes and course requirements adapt to the impending real world needs, the model is amended. The courses still use elements of cognitive apprenticeship whereby projects are used to encourage active participation in learning activities. Some of the courses include efforts at review and knowledge co–construction in two ways: 1) by allowing students to post challenges that are experienced and encouraging fellow colleagues to provide solutions; and, 2) by incorporating an evaluation phase into the syllabus where students actively review fellow student projects. Both methods trigger events, which encourage individual exploration and shared resolutions. Thus, exhibiting elements of legitimate peripheral participation as mentors and instructors move to the periphery, and those who were once novices in the course take leadership roles in the knowledge construction methods (see Figure 4). The activities illuminate individuals within the community as main contributors to co–constructed knowledge, which is, in essence, the foundational beginnings of a community of practice (CoP).


Facet 1 is the online learning community
Figure 4: Facet 1 is the online learning community; mentors (M) and instructors (I) are the experienced members, providing most of the modeling. Over time, they move towards the periphery and observe while students (S) take over some of their roles as knowledge contributors for the course.


Face–to–face learning community

The face–to–face learning community is different from the online learning community in that it serves two purposes: as a learning community for mentors and instructors and a place for students to access face–to–face mentoring as needed. The unique aspect of the face–to–face learning community is that the focus is also on mentors and instructors as students themselves. New mentors stay on the periphery and observe and are mentored by more experienced Zone Mentors until they are able to lead a course of their own. Figure 5 depicts the face–to–face Zone Learning Community. In this figure, two mentors and one instructor are highly experienced and are providing social interaction, information, sharing, collaboration, and cognitive apprenticeship to the other three mentors, one instructor, and a student. When a student visits the face–to–face learning community, these interactions allow problem–solving activities and solutions to not only be shared between the mentors who are present, but also potentially with mentors and instructors who are absent as well as students in the online community.


Facet 2 is the face-to-face learning community
Figure 5: Facet 2 is the face–to–face learning community, with a primary focus on mentor (M) and instructor (I) learning. The student (S) visitation provides the context for the problem solving and mentoring activity.


The face–to–face community exhibits a growing CoP with student visitors who gain solutions and share with colleagues in the online community. The CoP knowledge, skills, and abilities continue to grow as mentors are allowed to cross–pollinate between courses, further contributing the overall knowledge of the Zone community. These cross–pollination activities also produce opportunities for research; an important part of a doctoral students’ development. The ability to research the CoP provides SISLT’s online courses with practical solutions enhanced by theoretical frameworks. Both cross–pollination and research activities are especially important as mentors graduate and leave the face–to–face community. Ensuring that the CoP’s knowledge is maintained past–graduation is of great importance to the community even as those who graduate utilize shared practices to secure employment.




This paper presents a tangible model for delivering online courses in higher education. The unique combination of community of inquiry and experiential learning methods (i.e., cognitive apprenticeship, legitimate peripheral participation and community of practice) in both face–to–face and online learning environments presents a possible solution to increasing negative views on distance education.

The ZONE provides two essential solutions to the SISLT program of studies: 1) to provide support for students in online courses; and, 2) to provide doctoral students with much required teaching experience. Some of the courses have as many as 75 students in sub–cohorts and, with the assistance of the Zone Mentors, the effectiveness of course delivery can increase. By encouraging more student interaction through peer review activities and feedback, a given student gains more experience and knowledge. This approach takes the focus away from an instructor being the primary source of knowledge and allowing students to gain more confidence. In addition, this activity is tangibly rewarding to students as a form of class participation whilst the Zone Mentors develop online mentoring and facilitation skills. These skills are not only highly valued for future distance learning employment positions, but also assist in the research and development of varying learning environments.

As the model evolves with changes in online course delivery and the influx of new mobile technologies, we will be better able to serve the needs of digitally connected students. These new experiences will provide more opportunities to document, research as well as contribute to the design and implementation of future learning opportunities. End of article


About the authors

Joi L. Moore is an Associate Professor in the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri where she manages and teaches courses in the digital media curriculum. Dr. Moore’s current research interests include: constructing knowledge in online learning environments; analyzing information architecture in electronic performance support systems and interactive learning environments; usability engineering; and, designing user–centered Web applications (human–computer interaction and human information behavior).

Camille Dickson–Deane has experience in three different countries in the fields of banking, legal publishing, Web development, education, project management and learning technologies. She has her B.S. in computer science and her M.S. in software development and management. At present she is a Ph.D. candidate in learning technologies at the University of Missouri. Her interests include the evaluation and cultural impact of e–learning and professional development using elearning models (i.e., workplace e–learning).

Krista Galyen is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Information Science & Learning Technologies at the University of Missouri. Her current research interests include online communities, teaching and learning in online environments, and 3D virtual learning environments.

Christiana Kumalasari received her M.D. from Trisakti University Medical School (Jakarta, Indonesia) and Ph.D. in information science and learning technologies from the University of Missouri. Dr. Kumalasari is very experienced in working with interactive multimedia and Web development. Her research interests includes technology enhanced learning, problem–based learning, and simulation; especially in the health education.

Kyungbin Kwon is an Academic Technology Liaison for the School of Medicine at the University of Missouri. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri’s School of Information Science & Learning Technologies. Dr. Kwon has five years of experience teaching online courses and has helped to develop various online courses. Currently, he designs online learning modules for medical school faculty and staff.



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Editorial history

Received 24 August 2011; accepted 18 March 2012.

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“The ZONE learning community: Gaining knowledge through mentoring” is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

The ZONE learning community: Gaining knowledge through mentoring
by Joi L. Moore, Camille Dickson–Deane, Krista Galyen, Christiana Kumalasari, and Kyungbin Kwon
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 9 - 3 September 2012