In this study, we combined social network analysis with mixed methods approaches to examine social roles and network patterns in social network data gathered from one complete class group of learners in a higher education setting. We investigated the strength of social ties to examine the support activity of this learner sub-group, with a particular comparison between mature learners and other learners, and female and male learners. We also interrogated the meaning of online social relationships, the social strength of online ties and the relation between the existence of a tie to the expectation that the associated individuals have about the implied relationship. We used these analyses to draw inferences about support networks on which these learners rely, considering how learners in an education setting access (or not) the supports which they require. We also considered whether successful access to such supports is influenced by a learner's position in the social structure and whether accessing such supports is considered by the learners themselves to have a significant impact on their experience in HE. A central methodology included the use of a clustering algorithm to carry out a role analysis that categorised the learners into groups, according to the structure of their support networks. Our study considered both age and gender as defining characteristics and discovered social isolation within the network but also social integrators, that is, individuals, or networks of individuals, who are key to functioning support networks. We hope that the findings of this study will help in the understanding of the role of socials supports and provide insights into the learner experience in HE.

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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.