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  • Academic Communities of Engagement (ACE) Framework

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    The Academic Communities of Engagement (ACE) framework describes learner engagement in online and blended learning environments and identifies the critical limiting and facilitating factors (Borup et al., 2020). Specifically, the ACE framework identifies three dimensions of engagement: affective, behavioral, and cognitive (the ABC dimensions of engagement). Within a blended or online learning environment, students can independently engage in learning activities without the support of others. However, a learner’s independent engagement is likely insufficient for academic success and require support from others to be successful. The ACE framework originally grouped support actors within the following two communities:  The course community of support consisting of those who support the student because of the course enrollment (i.e., instructors, peers) The personal community of support consisting of supportive individuals outside of the course (i.e., friends, family). The framework can also be adapted to various contexts, and we share three adaptation examples.

    Despite its importance to learning outcomes, learner engagement has been generally ill-defined. In fact, many researchers within the field of instructional design and technology have used the term without providing any definition at all (Henrie et al., 2015). Those who have attempted to define learner engagement have agreed that learner engagement is multidimensional. However, researchers commonly disagree on which dimensions to include and how to define them (Christenson et al., 2012). While disagreements will likely always exist (Fredricks, 2011), some researchers have coalesced around three dimensions of learner engagement. The ACE framework operationalizes the dimensions as follows (Borup et al., 2020):

    The affective, behavioral, and cognitive (ABC) dimensions of engagement are influenced by “facilitators” that support or hinder engagement (see Figure 1). Students’ abilities to engage academically in online and blended learning activities can vary widely and are dependent on their background and characteristics such as self-regulation abilities, socioemotional abilities, academic competency, and previous online and blended learning experiences. Dimensions of engagement are influenced by the learner’s personal and course environments and communities (see Figure 1). While there is overlap between environments and communities, the distinction made by the ACE framework is that the environment is the physical location (the where) and materials/activities (the what) and the community is the support actors (the who).

    Figure 1 

    ACE framework image depicting the relationship between facilitators of academic engagement, dimensions of academic engagement, and desired learning outcomes.

    Supporting and Increasing Learner Engagement 

    Learner engagement is malleable and can be shaped by changes to the learner’s personal and course environments. Even in well-designed and organized environments, there likely exists a gap between a learner’s independent engagement (or the ability to engage in learning activities without others’ support) and the level of engagement necessary for academic success (see Figure 2). 

    Figure 2

    ACE framework image depicting the gap between a student’s ability to engage independently and the level of engagement needed for academic success.

    Similar to how sociocultural learning theories describe support for knowledge construction, the primary claim of the ACE framework is that a student’s individual ability to independently engage affectively, behaviorally, and cognitively is limited but can increase when supported by others. The ACE framework originally grouped support actors within the following two communities:

    Figure 3

    The original ACE framework described two primary engagement support communities at the personal level and course level.

    While independent engagement is represented by an equilateral triangle, in reality a student’s ability to engage can vary across the different dimensions. Similarly, the support students receive can be asymmetrical. For instance, in the figure below a student has high affective engagement but low behavioral and cognitive engagement. They received a high level of support from their course community and much less support from their personal community. The order that the communities are represented in the figure are largely arbitrary and can be changed if the researcher chooses. For instance, in the following figure we swapped the location of the support communities with the inner triangle representing the course community support and the outer triangle representing the personal community support. 

    Figure 4

    The ACE framework with high course community support

    While not a comprehensive list, the ACE framework offers some possible support elements and aligns them with the three dimensions of engagement (see Figure 4). Specifically, the authors of the ACE framework proposed that affective engagement would likely increase when learners are provided the support elements of facilitating communication, developing relationships, and instilling excitement for learning. support elements such as troubleshooting, orienting, organizing, managing, monitoring, and encouraging progress could help to increase a learner’s behavioral engagement. Lastly, instructing and collaborating supports were presented as likely supports for cognitive engagement. 

    Figure 5

    Support elements for the ABC dimensions of engagement as proposed by the original ACE framework.

    The Future of the ACE Framework 

    Since it was published in 2020, researchers have used and adapted the ACE framework in a variety of settings. In the appendix, we share three adaptations that provide especially important insights into:

    As a relatively new framework, additional case studies will continue to help refine or expand aspects of the framework. Measures of the ACE framework should also be developed and validated. This type of research is best when done collaboratively with stakeholders. This type of research is especially important if we are to identify strategies to increase learner engagement in online and blended learning.

    References

    Borup, J., Graham, C. R., West, R. E., Archambault, L., & Spring, K. J. (2020). Academic communities of engagement: An expansive lens for examining support structures in blended and online learning. Educational Technology Research and Development. 68, 807-832. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-020-09744-x

    Christenson, S. L., Reschly, A. L., & Wylie, C. (2012). Preface. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement. Springer.

    Fredricks, J. A. (2011). Engagement in school and out-of-school contexts: A multidimensional view of engagement. Theory into Practice, 50(4), 327–335. https://doi.org/10.1080/00405841.2011.607401

    Henrie, C. R., Halverson, L. R., & Graham, C. R. (2015). Measuring student engagement in technology-mediated learning: A review. Computers & Education, 90(1), 36–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2015.09.005

    Appendix: ACE Framework Adaptations

    When first published, the authors of the ACE framework called for future research to confirm, refine, and/or expand on the framework. In the following sections, we highlight three cases of the ACE framework that have made important adaptations.

    The Dynamics Between Independent Engagement, Personal Community, and Course Community 

    In their research at a full-time cyber charter school, Hanny et al. (2023) conducted and analyzed parent interviews to better understand parents’ efforts to support their children’s ABC engagement. They found that parents commonly identified a gap between their child’s engagement with current level of support and the amount of engagement that was necessary for academic success. 

    Figure 6

    The ACE framework with an engagement gap between a learner’s engagement following support and the engagement necessary for academic success. 

    Parents addressed this engagement gap in three ways. First, parents worked to increase their child’s ability to independently engage in learning activities, often by helping them to develop better self-regulation and socioemotional skills. Second, parents worked to increase their own knowledge and skills so that they could offer their child more effective support. Third, parents advocated for their child to increase the levels of support offered by the support actors within the course community.

    Figure 7

    Three ways that parents work to close the engagement gap for their students, (1) (left) by increasing their child’s ability to independently engage, (2) (center) by increasing their own ability to support engagement, and (3) (right) by advocating for greater support from those in the course community.



    Local and Global Course Communities 

    Several studies have applied the ACE framework to contexts with multiple, distinct environments and communities within the same course. For instance, when Shin and her colleagues (Shin et al., 2022) offered a Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to teachers of English throughout the world, they learned that some of the MOOC participants were also attending in-person MOOC camp sessions facilitated by local experts. In their research, they used the ACE framework to better understand how in-person MOOC camps in Brazil, Vietnam, and Peru impacted learners’ ABC dimensions of engagement. Their analysis of interviews with MOOC camp participants and facilitators found that the local MOOC camps offered important support that increased engagement in the MOOC (offered only in English). The camps helped participants to better persist through the MOOC activities and transfer their learning to their teaching. This local course community provided linguistic support for teachers whose levels of English language proficiency could not support comprehension of the MOOC content. In addition, the camps offered content support by experts who could situate the global MOOC content within the local culture and context. As a result, Shin et al. (2022) adapted the ACE framework for culturally and linguistically learners (ACE-CLD) to include three communities and environments: the personal community/environment, the in-person local course community/environment, and the global online community/environment (see Figure 6). 

    Figure 8

    Adapted figure to include the global and local course environments and communities as facilitators of engagement.

    Figure 9

    The adapted ACE figure with local and global course communities of support

    A similar distinction has been made between local and online course communities and environments. For instance, Spring et al. (2023) examined a blended program where university students enrolled in online courses but also attended weekly local, in-person sessions to discuss their learning with peers. Unlike the MOOC camps described by Shin et al. (2022), these discussions were facilitated by volunteers who were not experts in the different course content areas but knowledgeable at fostering a supportive learning community. As a result, the facilitators were best equipped to support affective and behavioral engagement, and the online teacher supported cognitive engagement. Similarly, Borup and his colleagues conducted a series of case studies examining a learning model where high school students enrolled in one or two online courses and completed the courses under the supervision of an on-site facilitator in a classroom environment. In these cases, the in-person community and environment offered the learner support that their online community and environment did not or could not provide. 

    School/Institutional Community of Support

    The original ACE framework did not include the school/institutional community of support. However, current applications of the ACE framework at the institutional level have found there are environmental and community facilitators/barriers to engagement that can be addressed at the institutional level (Spricigo et al., 2023; Tuiloma et al., 2022). While it is possible to combine the course and school communities, there are advantages and precedent to separating them. For instance, Rovai and colleagues developed measures for learners’ sense of community at the course and school levels (Rovai, 2002; Rovai et al., 2004). Similarly, Skinner and Pitzer (2012) distinguished between engagement in the classroom and with the school. Others have also distinguished between support offered to online learners at the institution level and the course level (Thrope, 2002; Trespalacios et al., 2023). This type of distinction, can provide a broader and more nuanced understanding of a learner’s engagement and various support actors and the supports they provide. This is especially important when learners are enrolled in multiple courses at a single school/institution and less important when learners are only enrolled in a single course and do not engage with the school/institution. 

    Figure 10

    Adapted figure to include school/institutional course environment and community as facilitators of engagement.

    Figure 11

    The adapted ACE figure with school/institutional community of support.


    Appendix References

    Hanny, C. N., Graham, C. R., West, R. E., Borup, J. (2023). “Someone in their corner”: Parental support in online secondary education. International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 24(1), 85-105. https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v24i1.666

    Rovai, A. P. (2002). Development of an instrument to measure classroom community. The Internet and Higher Education, 5(3), 197–211. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(02)00102-1

    Rovai, A. P., Wighting, M. J., & Lucking, R. (2004). The classroom and school community inventory: Development, refinement, and validation of a self-report measure for educational research. The Internet and Higher Education, 7(4), 263–280. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2004.09.001 

    Shin, J. K., Borup, J., & Kim, W. (2022). Creating local course communities to engage culturally and linguistically diverse teachers in global MOOCs. In E. Baumgarter, R. Kaplan-Rakowski, R. E. Ferdig, R. Hartshorne, & C. Mouza (Eds.), A retrospective of teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic (pp. 73-79). AACE-Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/221522/

    Spricigo, C. B., Camilotti, B. M., Graham, C. R., & Baptista, R. (2023). An exploration of institutional and personal barriers to online academic engagement at a Brazilian university. Educación XX1, 26(2).

    Spring, K. J., Graham, C. R., Hanny, C. N., Tuiloma, S., & Badar, K. (2023). Academic Communities of Engagement: Exploring the impact of online and in-person support communities on the academic engagement of online learners. Journal of Computing in Higher Education.

    Skinner, E. A., & Pitzer, J. R. (2012). Developmental dynamics of student engagement, coping, and everyday resilience. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.), Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 21-44). Boston, MA: Springer US. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-2018-7_2 

    Thorpe, M. (2002). Rethinking learner support: the challenge of collaborative online learning. Open Learning, 17(2), 105–119. https://doi.org/10.1080/02680510220146887a 

    Trespalacios, J., Uribe-Flórez, L., Lowenthal, P., Lowe, S., & Jensen, S. (2023). Students’ Perceptions of Institutional Services and Online Learning Self-Efficacy. American Journal of Distance Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2021.1956836

    Tuiloma, S., Graham, C. R., Martinez Arias, A. M., & Parra Caicedo, D. M. (2022). Providing institutional support for academic engagement in online and blended learning programs. Education Sciences, 12. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci12100641 

    Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, Ed.). Harvard University Press.

    Trespalacios, J., Uribe-Flórez, L., Lowenthal, P., Lowe, S., & Jensen, S. (2023). Students’ Perceptions of Institutional Services and Online Learning Self-Efficacy. American Journal of Distance Education. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923647.2021.1956836

    Tuiloma, S., Graham, C. R., Martinez Arias, A. M., & Parra Caicedo, D. M. (2022). Providing institutional support for academic engagement in online and blended learning programs. Education Sciences, 12. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci12100641 


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