“If you wish to make an impact for one year, plant corn; if you wish to make an impact for one generation, plant a tree; if you wish to make an impact for eternity: educate a child.”
Participating in any eLearning course in an online environment has impacts for both instructors and students alike. Whether the selection of learning activities, the course LMS, layout or the use of social media as an adjunct learning tool, there are any one of a number of influences which will affect the way we react to our students, they to us and themselves and to the attached technology which provides the course background. This in turn affects their learning and our success in delivering course material we wish to impart. Does the student feel welcomed? Are there appropriate assessment tools? Is there a sense of community or collegiality? These questions ask about specific issues but do not address the generality of the online environment itself and how this impacts both teacher and learner.
One of the key requirements for success in any online environment is communication and this has been borne out by studies completed in various locales around the world (Tomei,2004, Santovena et al, 2011). The objective of this paper is to examine one of the central themes which we have noticed in the online environment namely communication, how it has affected our understanding of the ways in which online content can be presented and made better and how we will use these lessons and observations to better affect our online practice.
What Have I learned?
The most important part of any online course is interaction, by which I mean communication: between students as a group, between teacher and students and between students and the attendant technology which makes up the online VLE. In f-2-f courses verbal communication is a routine part of the day-to-day rubric of the classroom setting. In online courses however there is a potential disconnect as student and instructor are removed from one another physically, sometimes by great distances. Additionally there is no set time for class attendance as there would be in a physical setting such as at a campus.
Due to these types of separation there is a need for the explicit laying out of everything in detail. Course expectations must be clearly stated, schedules and assignment times detailed, outlines of course work posted, assessment and evaluation methods enlarged upon, availability of the instructor to answer questions or clear up problems; all of which are relevant details which cannot be omitted and which will directly and detrimentally affect successful outcomes for the student in the context of the course itself should anything be overlooked. This in turn will lead the student in the direction which the teacher has chosen in the context of curriculum that have been pre-set either as a result of the pre-formative design process.
How does this affect me in the light of the course?
A lack of communication in any course set up affects the instructor and student equally. For the student this results in frustration and a sense that there is no coherent structural component which the instructor has laid out. For the instructor it leads to a sense of not having given the student the best possible effort, of having tried as much as is humanly possible to deliver a quality product which is of a uniformly high standard, consistently delivered and beyond reproach In essence the student feels less than well served at a subliminal level. Poor communication for the instructor can also mean missing out when a student is showing signs of struggling with the course materials or deadlines.
What new insights have developed for me?
It is very important to have checks and balances in place to monitor the process of communication between students, instructor and the underlying technological base which enables the online course to be run smoothly with little or no interruptions. This means the instructor must be prepared at all levels as much as is humanly possible: having tried to anticipate all possible scenarios where communication may break down and having mechanisms in place to deal with eventualities which come up or may not have not been foreseen prior.
There may be a place in the online setting for the use of SMS sites as well as other Web applications such as blogging, wikis, and social bookmarking (Orlando 2011). Of equal importance is the consideration that there is no one preferential method of communication and that instructors must always bear this fact in mind when both designing and delivering online course materials (Bender et al, 2006).
How will this affect my practice?
The most obvious thing which comes to mind is the necessity for open and ongoing communication between instructor and student, between student and student, and student and the VLE. An appropriate schedule must be posted which is flexible and affords lots of opportunity for communication between parties in any online learning endeavour. If communication fails the students quickly become disillusioned and may lose interest or faith in the instructor’s abilities to deal with problems which occur with the course as they arise. I think pre-arranged, scheduled times for contact should be part of any course framework, plus the instructor should make him or herself available at other non-scheduled times for those who cannot make the regular times for whatever reasons.
Additionally I will encourage interaction between students as part of the course design. Student interaction is one of the underpinnings of successful online offerings and student outcomes, clearly supported by research (Santovena, 2011, and Lynch, 1999). This will be accomplished through the use of participatory wikis and to a lesser extent through the use of forums and message boards. Given the remote locales and widely differing schedules of my students this is probably the only solution I can see at this present moment.
Any course offering which I design will of necessity require a VLE which is bullet-proof, that is it should support the students attempts to complete course work, contribute to forums, message boards, wikis and perhaps even blogs although I lean less heavily in that direction at this time. I cannot honestly see my learners engaging in reflective practice: they are for the most part not that kind of people. I am not saying that I won’t try to utilize them as tools simply that the tools must match the job at hand or the student will get short shrift with the resulting poor outcomes in terms of successful achievement of assigned course work and projects.
What does this mean to me as an instructor? That I am going to have to be careful, respectful and aware of the paramount importance of communication in the design and presentation of online course material. Communication is key in any course work and this will have to be kept top-of-mind.
1)- Communicating with Online Learners, Sharon Bender, Jackie Brewer, Robert Whale, International Journal of Instructional Technology & Long Distance Learning, June 2006;
2)- SANTOVEÑA, Sonia María (2011). “Communication Processes in Virtual Learning Environments and their Impact on Online Lifelong Learning” [online article]. Revista de Universidad y Sociedad del Conocimiento (RUSC). Vol. 8, No 1, pp. 111-127. UOC. [Accessed:dd/mm/yy].http://rusc.uoc.edu/ojs/index.php/rusc/article/view/v8n1-santovena/v8n1-santovena-eng ISSN 1698-580X
3)- Lynch, K., THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF ON-LINE LEARNING, OFTE Seminar, ASCILITE , Brisbane Australia 1999, © Lynch, K. The author(s) assign to ASCILITE and educational non-profit instiutions a non-exclusive license to use this document for personal use and in course of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced.
4)- Orlando, John, Teaching with Technology, Tools and Strategies to Improve Student Learning, Faculty Focus, Magna Publications, http://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/teaching-with-technology-tools-and-strategies-to-improve-student-learning/, January 2011,