What Does Community Mean To Me?

Shared leadership… is less like  an orchestra, where the conductor is always in charge, and more like a jazz band, where leadership is passed around … depending on what the music demands at the moment and who feels most moved by the spirit to express the music.’ Schlechy 2001

What Does Community Mean To Me?

Definition and Context

Community is defined as: “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common such as: Montreal’s Italian community, or: the scientific community; and: the people of a district or country considered collectively, especially in the context of social values and responsibilities,  and:  the condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common, and finally: a similarity or identity,”  (Oxford Online Dictionaries, 2013). It is immediately unmistakable that community does not revolve around the individual but is about groups of people coming together with a common interest or interests and/or to achieve a common set of goals. Another, more in depth definition has noted four components which are integral to the creation of a sense of community:

  • membership, where there is a sense of belonging or a sense of personal relationship;
  • influence,  a sense of mattering, both within the group and without;
  • integration and fulfillment of needs, where the members needs will be met by membership and participation in group activities, and;
  • a shared emotional connection, where members will have a commonality of history and experience which will contribute to shared experiences and achievement of commonly held requirements or goals. (McMillian & Chavis,1986)

We see this repeatedly in the context of the instructional setting: groups of people linked by or sharing a common interest, having a shared attitude or desires, who receive benefits from allied group participation. For students these benefits are easy to define: the application of shared knowledge to develop a skill set to complete educational goals with a pre-supposed return at the end, be it a degree, diploma or certificate. This certification is then applied in the student’s life for various reasons such as job advancement, ongoing on-the-job requirements or for purely personal satisfaction. Additionally there is less overall work for the same amount of effort put in thus freeing the student to concentrate on other subjects or assignments. As instructors one task in the creation of course content, especially in light of online offerings, is the construction and encouragement of a sense of community as it enables better learning outcomes for students. There is also the sense of collegiality where all are encouraged to participate for in doing so community truly comes alive.

Published literature has shown that the creation of online community has a direct correlation to student success, both in terms of perception on the part of students and measureable educational outcomes (Sadera, 2009). It is the responsibility of the instructor to help develop a sense of community through the encouragement of engagement on the part of students and the provision of course content which is interactive and inclusive in scope and practice.

Best Practices for Instructors

Leadership or presence in the virtual world is a key component in any course offered online. There are typically three ‘presences’ in the online world when considering the context of eLearning: the teacher presence, the cognitive presence and the social presence (Anderson 2004) and it is this social presence we shall consider here because that is what online community is above all else: a sense of the social in an environment which can be a less than welcoming one, especially for new students. To that end instructors need to develop and utilize best practices which nurture the student while generating positive learning opportunities and encouraging participation.  Some examples from one source which seem to cover the most ground are listed below:

  • be present at the course site, generate a positive instructor identity;
  • create a supportive community;
  • respect diverse talents and ways of learning, consider cultural differences;
  • set clear expectations for students as to work demands;
  • use a variety of large group, small group and individual work assignments;
  • use both asynchronous and synchronous activities;
  • start an early ‘feedback loop’ for students;
  • prepare discussion forums which excite students and encourage participation;
  • focus on content resources, links and applications to current events which are easily accessible by student resources;
  • combine core concept learning with customized and personalized learning;
  • have an original closing exercise at the end of the course. (Boettcher,  2012)

We can see that most of these guidelines revolve around learner involvement, engagement and inclusion. It is the instructor’s responsibility to provide a course environment which promotes the generation of all 3 factors.

The Role of the Instructor in Building Community

The instructor has multiple roles and responsibilities all of which influence the outcome of the course and student success as a result. Firstly, they must be seen to be a participant, to be involved in the course. This encourages students and gives them a sense of social presence in the context of the course. The instructor must be a facilitator, making the course come alive through the provision of content, ensuring that the student gets the most possible out of material available. Additionally, they assess learner needs and provide support as required in the online environment (Anderson, 2004).  The instructor must also be the person who plays the watchdog and ensures fairness and equality for all students regardless of age, gender, orientation, skill level etc. They should encourage, monitor group activities, ensure that selected tasks are relevant to the course and student needs (Brindley et al, 2009).The instructor is responsible for fulfilling many roles all at once:  friend, colleague, mentor, confessor, facilitator, enforcer and more.

The Role of the Student In Building Community

Just as the instructor has a role and inherent responsibilities in the creation of online community so does the student. The student needs to participate first and foremost, to be a contributing member of the group. This means engaging in all opportunities:  forums, message boards, assignments etc. in a timely and whole hearted manner. Students need to be respectful of others, self-directed learners, motivated and possess a positive attitude towards themselves as learners. Students need to be able to reflect and be unafraid of trying the new and strange. Like the instructor, they need to buy-in to the idea of online community; they will, after all provide the spirit of the group’s enterprise.

How Will I Deal With Issues Around Cultural, Gender or Ethical Concerns?

Cultural Concerns

Given that there is no time or geographic restriction on attendees in the online environment people who enroll in our course work may be from another state, province or conceivably another country at a great distance removed from us. We must be aware that people from other lands and cultures may:

  • either not understand our language or do so imperfectly and their grasp of idiom may be limited;
  •  be culturally different which may mean having different mores and norms;
  • have different perceptions and expectations of both their fellow students and the  instructor;
  • work with computer equipment and software which may be vastly different, with greater or lesser capability than what we use;
  • have different learning styles or have been raised to participate differently in class;
  • have different ways of expressing themselves in both reflection and online identity;
  • have a different work ethic which may result in different attitudes towards fulfilling course and group assignments (UBC, April 2011).

Online designers and instructors must be cognizant of and prepared to deal with the added responsibility of these considerations when contemplating overall course design. Some issues may be addressed through instructor preparation in advance: links to online and real world sources for learners who are challenged or who feel they have been discriminated against or are seeking avenues to surmount difficulties they may be experiencing. Every effort should be put into removing barriers for students who are from another country or culture, speak a different language, or perhaps do not speak at all.

There must be mechanisms in place to address these issues in a timely manner and the instructor must be above reproach by having thought through possible roadblocks and having either solutions close to hand or the willingness to deal with the issues as soon as raised. I feel that the competent instructor should ask people to self- identify or make it clear right at the course outset that there are avenues available to students who feel there are barriers to their success and endeavour to remove those roadblocks as soon as possible.

Gender Concerns

The achievement of equitable gender standing in online courses is not just about ensuring fair and reasonable access for men and women. Parity for all is accomplished through increased opportunities in communication and the removal of barriers to both sexes. Because of the differences in learning styles and communication patterns between both genders instructors need to rethink their design strategies to cope with these variances and ensure a level playing field for both groups. While early research suggested that women did not achieve as high rankings in online course offerings , new studies have shown that the opposite is true, women excel at online courses for any of a number of reasons:

  • they are more collaborative,
  • they communicate more effectively,
  • they cooperate more effectively than men,
  • they work better in the online environment,
  • they develop better elearning styles than their male counterparts which result in better outcomes.

This means the Internet, and  the online learning environment ,which was at one point considered an almost exclusively male domain, can no longer be viewed in that light. Further, there is no ‘gender blindness’ in online learning but rather a weighting towards women as they naturally excel in the collaborative environment which is encouraged by both constructivist and connectivist schools of thought and practice (Monteith, 2002) The implications are clear for designers of online content: much thought and preparation must be given to ensuring parity for everyone when designing new online content.

Ethical Concerns

When dealing with online ethical considerations so much is new as educators struggle to develop material which is consistent and respectful to all relative to the online world. New paradigms and learning environments mean that as often as not educators are breaking new ground as they try to cope with classes which may be separated by geography, time and culture, issues associated with privacy, acceptable behaviours by both staff and students, and whether or not computer-reliant education promotes a fair and reasonable learning environment. How the online learning environment promotes or inhibits academic freedoms raises more questions than provide answers (Anderson & Simpson, 2007).

There should be a ‘zero tolerance’ policy which is put in place at the beginning of any course which clearly states expectations regarding ethics and other associated policies. I think the first policy to be articulated should be that all people, regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity, and orientation or language skills should be respected, valued and treated equally. The people who make up the student body should not only be cognizant but supportive of this requirement. There should be a real effort to ensure that people are comfortable with the course, the first part of which is inclusivity. This starts with and ends with the instructor. Students should be able to trust that should there be a concern they should be able to approach their teacher and receive a prompt resolution which fully addresses their unease. It is up to the instructor to foster this spirit in online offerings and be diligent in applying these policies with a fair and even hand.

Conclusion

Community may be described as working together for mutually recognized goals and rewards. In the online context where so much can be left open to interpretation and potential abuse it is incumbent on designers and presenters of online content to be aware of and encourage the development of community in their course work. This means providing an environment where student community is encouraged and promoted.

References:

1)- As retrieved from The Oxford Online dictionaries; http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/community;

2)- Anderson, Bill and Simpson, Mary (2007) ‘Ethical issues in online education’, Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, 22:2, 129 -138, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02680510701306673;

3)- Anderson,Terry,  2004, Theory  and Practice of Online Learning, Chapter 11: ‘Teaching in An Online Learning Context’, Athabaska University;

4)-  Boettcher, J. 2007. Ten Core Principles for Designing Effective Learning Environments: Insights from Brain Research and Pedagogical Theory, http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=54  (accessed April 24, 2008);

5)- Boettcher,J,  July 2012, Designing for Learning, 10 Best Practices for Teaching Online, Quick Guide for New Online Faculty, http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tenbest.html ;

6)- Brey, P. (2006) Social and ethical dimensions of computer-mediated education, Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 4(2), 91–101.

7)- Brindley J. E,;  Walti, C, Blaschke ,L. M. ; Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment; International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Volume 10, Number 3,  ISSN: 1492-3831, June 2009; http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1313 ;

8)- Craig, A, Goold A, Coldwell J and Mustard J, Perceptions of Roles and Responsibilities in Online Learning: A Case Study, Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects Volume 4, 2008 http://www.ijello.org/Volume4/IJELLOv4p205-223Craig510.pdf

9)- Gunn, C, French S, McLeod  H, McSporran M, Gender issues in computer-supported learning, www.researchinlearningtechnology.net/index.php/rlt/article/…/12997

10)- Monteith, K., University of Stirling,  Gendered Learning and Learning About Gender Online , A Content Analysis of Online Discussion, http://www.odeluce.stir.ac.uk/docs/Gendered%20Learning.pdf;  2002

11)- McMillian, D. & Chavis, D.(1986). Sense of community: A definition and theory. Journal of Community Psychology. 14, 6-23

12)- Sadera, W. A. ; Robertson, J,7. ; Song, L. ; Midon, N. ; The Role Of Community in Online Learning Success, MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Volume 5, Number 2, June 2009,

13)- University of British Columbia,  Documentation: Cultural Issues in Teaching Online/Learning Module, http://wiki.ubc.ca/Documentation:Cultural_Issues_in_Teaching_Online/Learning_Module#License  ; April 2011

14)- Vesely, P., Bloom, L. and Sherlock, J.; Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions,  MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Vol. 3, No. 3, September 2007

Roles in Creating Community

‘We must act as if our institutions are ours to create, our learning is ours to define, our leadership we seek is ours to become.’  Peter Block

Roles in Creating Community

Designers, developers, and presenters of online content face special challenges when considering the best ways to generate student engagement and successful participation in online courses. Where community in a face-to-face classroom setting is virtually guaranteed by the normal interactions of people in the social setting which is the classroom, this is not the case in the online environment. John King illustrates this point in the video as noted in the following link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D201NOHg3M4#! .

The point being made is that the online environment is a vastly different one than that faced by instructors in the classroom and that different strategies must be employed to effectively deal with this difference. Teachers must look at their roles in the instructional process and lead from a different standpoint, one where integration of technology is placed hand-in-hand with active student involvement and a review of traditionally held beliefs about standard pedagogical views (Labonte 2008).  This of course requires a re-evaluation of the teacher’s roles and responsibilities in the relationship with their students. The objective of this paper is to examine teacher roles and some of the effects that the modern day teacher has in the development of the online learning environment.

What Have I Learned?

The standard educational paradigm has changed for teachers and instructors in the new online world. As Downes describes it; ” If I had to summarize the best advice I could give to e-learning developers, it would be this: here are two key lessons for learning professionals:

1. Adapt to the on-demand world.

2. Embed learning into the context of people’s work.” (Downes, 2012)

This means that more emphasis has to be on the student’s needs: younger learners have different styles, requirements, and expectations of the educational system generally  and online course work specifically. Designers and presenters alike ignore this fact at their peril. At the same time there are more older learners as well who have their own styles and needs. Learning to address this wide disparity will be ever more challenging. The results of ignoring this and other good practices in the virtual classroom such as the development of reciprocity between students, the encouragement of active learning, the conveyance of expectations and the like cannot be undervalued (Dreon, 2013). If these factors are ignored the student is likely to feel alienated, suffer from disillusionment in the educational process and perhaps even fail or have to resort to remedial work to pass the course or courses they are enrolled in.

How Do I Identify With This Topic?

As a student in an online course where community was not completely at the forefront I have seen first-hand the results of a lack of community in a  body of students.  There must be an active encouragement of community in the virtual class, as well as buy-in from the students. This required commitment or active participation if you will must be fostered in the students by the instructor through various techniques and mechanisms such as message boards, social networks, participatory learning forums, and group assignments all designed to promote a spirit of communal cooperation.  Community neither created or encouraged is like a garden without water: there may be seeds and soil but no growth.   

How Will I Apply This New Learning In My Online Course?

The underlying challenge for developers and presenters of online content is to ensure that the virtual environment of any course encourages a sense of community, both in the forefront of things as well as in the background. There must be the creation of a `social sense` in the virtual environment; a both subtle and overt engagement of the students or there is the risk of social isolation and the concomitant loss of interest with associated poor outcomes (Brindley et al 2009). This development of community has other related side benefits: an increased ability to think and formulate critically, the co-creation of knowledge and meaning both in the individual and the group as a whole, the encouragement of a reflective state, and transformative learning. Taken together it can be seen that a new approach to both the design and application of online content must be kept top-of-mind, one that integrates the demands of learning styles of multiple, diverse groups of learners with a newer framework for encouraging community based learning exercises and environments as advocated by both Downs and Siemens.

To these ends there are several strategies which come to mind to help build community in groups being offered online content:

  • enable learner readiness for group work (and thence community building) through a pre-published statement of expectations at the beginning of the course;
  • establish a sense of community by encouraging openness, honesty, ethical fairness,  dialogue between students,  and diverse, respectful discussions;
  • ensure that tasks assigned during the course are those best performed in a group setting;
  • group tasks should be relevant to the course in the context of individual learners and the group as a whole.

The responsibility for all this rests solely with the instructor. He or she must be moderator, facilitator, mediator, confessor and above all friend to the student. The overall success or failure of the student is directly influenced by the instructor’s role and the way he or she develops the sense of both community and contribution to that community on the part of the student.

References:

1)- As retrieved from ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, Essays on meaning and learning networks’, Stephen Downes, May 2012, http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=58207

2) ) Oliver Dreon, Feb 2013, Faculty Focus ezine, ezine@facultyfocusemail.com;

3)- Randy Labonte, 2008, Leadership and Elearning, Change Processes for Implementing Educational Technologies,  Education for a Digital World, BCcampus and Commonwealth of Learning, 2008, www.bccampus.ca;

4)-John King, YouTube video June 2010, Purdue University, Competencies for Online Teaching Success,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D201NOHg3M4#!

4)- Randy Labonte, 2008, Leadership and Elearning, Change Processes for Implementing Educational Technologies,  Education for a Digital World, BCcampus and Commonwealth of Learning, 2008, www.bccampus.ca;

5)-  Jane E. Brindley, Christine Walti & Lisa M. Blaschke, Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups In An Online Environment, The International Review of Online and Distance Learning, Volume 10, No3 (2009) (http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1313 )

6)- George Siemens, ‘Connectivism, A Learning Theory for The Digital Age, eLearnspace,  http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/connectivism.htm

Students In Groups Vs. Individual Learning

One of the most exciting developments in modern education goes by the name of cooperative (or collaborative) learning and has children working in pairs or small groups. An impressive collection of studies has shown that participation in well-functioning cooperative groups leads students to feel more positive about themselves, about each other, and about the subject they’re studying. Students also learn more effectively on a variety of measures when they can learn with each other instead of against each other or apart from each other. Cooperative learning works with kindergartners and graduate students, with students who struggle to understand and students who pick things up instantly; it works for math and science, language skills and social studies, fine arts and foreign languages.

Alfie Kohn from Punished By Rewards

Students In Groups Vs. Individual Learning

In the traditional face-to-face classroom setting the instructor controls the in-class learning agenda utilizing pacing and style of learning through the lens of a monopoly of information. Given the immediacy of access to large volumes of information and an increasingly collaborative environment that is the virtual classroom this traditional type of instructional model may be less applicable in the modern world on online learning. Non-traditional techniques and instructional paradigms (methods) must be considered and implemented to guarantee better results for both student and teacher. To that end designers of course content must consider alternate strategies which will work best for the online environment.

It has been shown that group collaboration can be used to positively affect learning outcomes for students and teachers alike: for students by encouraging critical thinking skills in the context of the course work, for teachers freeing them up from the normal processes of day-to-day teaching: course and lesson plans, instructional notes etc., allowing them to focus on other design related considerations . My feeling is that this forces students into types of communication and interaction which might not normally occur in the face-to-face classroom environment.

This is not to say that techniques and strategies from the traditional setting cannot be adapted to the online environment but rather that they may become another tool to use effectively with some prior consideration. Several questions arise when considering the use of groups in the online environment to complete course work. How do group dynamics affect learning in the online environment? Should students be allowed to choose which group of people they associate with to complete online assignments or should this be an instructor driven consideration?

Advantages of Online Group Work

Listed below are factors which positively affect student outcomes when groups are used in online course work:

  • critical thinking is encouraged and stimulated;
  • there is a free exchange of relevant ideas information, and course related  concepts with associated student interaction;
  • problem solving is encouraged;
  • normal geographic and time constraints are less of an influence on students;
  • discussions which occur will take place on a higher levels: such as evaluation, analysis or synthesis;
  • develops a sense of cooperation and teamwork, creating a social framework between geographically distanced students;
  • encourages peer-to-peer feedback;
  • heterogeneous groups encourage differing points of view, discussion and better learning;
  •  encourages reflection.

Disadvantages of Online Group Work

Listed below are factors which may negatively affect student outcomes when groups are used in online course work:

  • poor group dynamics may affect student outcomes;
  • not all students may contribute at the same level;
  • subject matter may not be conducive to group work (a very real concern for the courses I am considering);
  •  without direction the group may take valuable time to sort out roles, meaning there must be direction from the instructor;
  • groups which are more homogeneous in nature may isolate or alienate individual members.

Should Groups Be Self-defining or Instructor Selected?

The question above is problematic as no matter which way the course designer decides to place the emphasis someone may suffer. Those students who learn best on their own may not like or see the need for group work. The majority of adult students who engage in online learning are self-motivated, enthusiastic learners who wish to be considered in the educational process. They have engaged themselves and decided to take an online offering for any one of a variety of reasons: location relative to the institution, work and time constraints, course material which may not otherwise be available, pacing better suited to student needs and abilities, and economy. A fine balance must be struck between allowing these motivated students to choose their own path and ensuring that in the process of forming and achieving course goals and objectives fairness and equality are guaranteed for all students of the course.

Instructors considering the inclusion of group work as an alternative for some portions of online content must concern themselves with guaranteeing the heterogeneity of groups. This will ensure there is the best chance of a balanced perspective for all students in the group with appropriate representation in relation to gender, age, ethnicity, language capability, etc., with all the benefits which arise naturally from this as noted above; benefits which include the free exchange of ideas and information, the development of higher level thinking processes, reflection and the stimulation of critical thinking.

Whichever method is used be it instructor assignment or student choice of who joins what group, there must be adequate mechanisms in place to ensure that all students are satisfied with their group, that all students are contributing equally and that the group individually and as a whole is getting the best learning from the experience. Some alternatives might include the use of performance rubrics or forum posts which are posted between members of each group and the instructor.to evaluate individual participation.

The key consideration, as with any course design, is the employment of specific strategies which apply to the educational needs at hand which are inherent to the objectives and goals as pre-set in the course structure. Group work may not work well for all types of courses or materials and this must be considered from the outset of the design process as well.  It follows then that we must seriously consider group work as yet another tool in the box to be used to best effect for our student’s benefit but not become so caught up in the whirlwind that we include it in material for which it may not be relevant. If we do use this tool it must be in a manner which ties directly to best practices.

References:

Instructional Strategies for Online Courses, Illinois Online Network,  http://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/tutorials/pedagogy/instructionalstrategies.asp#SMALL%20GROUP%20WORK;

Scott D. Johnson and Steven R. Aragon, An Instructional Strategy Framework for Online Learning Environments, published in: http://education.illinois.edu/sites/default/files/online/general/NewDirections_OnlineStrat.pdf; (undated);

Becker, Karen L. (2003) Just Tell Me What to Do: Group Dynamics in a Virtual Environment . In Proceedings Women in Research Conference, Rockhampton, Australia as retrieved from: http://eprints.qut.edu.au/12187/1/12187.pdf ;

The Impact Of The Online Environment

“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.

 References:

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,

Pedagogy of Online Learning

Pedagogy of Online Learning

“Education is the only business still debating the usefulness of technology.”
 Rod Paige

           In this segment of the course we are asked to examine the pedagogy of online learning, in effect examining what defines online learning and how we are going to effect changes as designers of online content. Part of the reference material is based on a study, the conclusion of which is that online education is not well received by university and college teachers; in essence educators do not feel there is a valid enough basis to actively support online education as a viable alternate to face-to-face instruction in the classroom.

What have I learned about this topic?

The 2011 Outlook for Online Learning and Distance Education found that:

  1. professors generally had a  negative viewpoint towards online teaching resources and were resistant to the provision of such services at least in part because of internal politics coupled with budgetary constraints;
  2. part of this resistance appears to be a  lack of good understanding of the pedagogy of learning and specifically online based learning theory, professors may  be teaching according to old paradigms which may have applied earlier in their careers but no longer suitable to today’ generations of learners;
  3. there is a serious lack of support for the use of technology in the field of teaching at institutions of higher education, even though there is some evidence which suggests (Bates, Sangra 2011) that given support and faculty involvement there may be cost savings to be realized;
  4. there is a general lack of awareness of the actual costing of online course offerings and whether or not they are viable alternatives to face-to-face courses;
  5. there is a lack of system wide distance education opportunities which may result in poor outcomes for students;
  6. course offerings presently available may not be of the best quality and are based on materials and media which are not truly interactive;
  7. there is a complete lack of data about the effectiveness of online and distance education programs offered at most educational institutions in Canada.       (Bates,  2011)

There must be a concerted effort of the part educators and administrators to develop programs which will overcome the resistance to online offerings which has been documented by the study as noted. Additional work must be put in to the addressing the dichotomy in thinking which on the one hand indicates that instructors are generally resistant to online course offerings yet fully two thirds of a survey group report they have encouraged students to take online courses where offered. (Allen, et al June 2012)

Students of today have different styles, expectations and capabilities of learning. These new ways of learning must be accommodated or the student will get nothing from the educational experience and be less than well served from time spent in the classroom whether physical or virtual. Some of this is as a result of a lack of formalized education on learning theory which comes from teachers never having had the training in the first place or being used to, and less willing to part with a more didactic role in the classroom or when offering course content on the Web. (Bates 2011) It has been shown that the more exposure that faculty have to the online learning environment and surrounding technology the more facility they develop in its use with better resultant student outcomes as well as better use of newer, perhaps hitherto untried educational techniques such as communities of practice and scaffolding which better assist younger generations. (Bates, 2011)

There appears to be a general sense of opposition to adapting existing learning systems to online alternatives. This is seen as counter-productive as it ignores the positive benefits which may be derived: the potential to accommodate more students, potential cost savings, the improvement of learning outcomes and the provision of better access for people such as distance learners, people with disabilities and those in remote locales.  (Bates and Sangra, 2011) Educators must be ready to make adjustments in their teaching regimes which reflect student needs and advancing technology, or do their students a disservice in not providing the best alternatives possible.

In order to move into new areas of learning both teachers and the institutions they work for must attempt to ascertain if online choices provide best value for dollars expended.  Surveys have shown that there is no one conclusive set of data to either support or refute whether online learning is a viable, cost effective option for both the student and institution (Green, 2010).  The conclusion which can be drawn from this is unmistakeable: to better serve their students both teachers and administrators must support efforts to see if this is an effective alternate and offer it wherever possible.

There are a large amount of online course offerings from any number of universities and colleges here in Canada and yet it is still not possible to find a complete undergraduate degree program at other than a couple of institutions. This makes portability of credits and ongoing educational endeavours problematic for distance and dsiabled students which may result in their quitting courses or give up on educational choices altogether. Lastly, there is little or no provision for access for those students who may lack educational requirements to attend college or university but may wish to do so thus creating an unnecessary barrier to learning and not enabling adults and others access to the higher education system. (Bates, 2011)

Bates also cites some US studies which show that the design and presentation of online content may be developed by associate faculty who do not have the appropriate levels of training (or empathy) to put together packages which are relevant to the needs and requirements of modern day learners. This in turn creates an atmosphere of distrust at the faculty level in online educational products and services, further poisoning an already distrusted resource.

Finally, there is a complete dearth of any kind of statistical measurement of the state of online learning here in Canada. This further serves to underscore the sense hostility and active resistance towards online/interactive content making an uphill battle even harder for new instructors or designers.

What does this mean to me in light of online courses?

It would appear that there must be a shift in thinking on the part of both administrators and teachers as a whole. Attitudes must change in order for students to get the best value for monies invested in tuition, especially for online courses. More time and attention must be focused on winning over die hard anti-online proponents.  The cost vs. benefits of online courses should be studied more effectively to provide a good statistical basis which support arguments for online course material as a cost effective alternative to classroom courses. It is clear that more educators both on the front line and behind the scenes should rethink their ideas of the structure and nature of their own  understanding of the pedagogy of online education, in effect becoming re-acquainted with both old disciplines and the new. More research must be engaged in to ascertain the levels of effectiveness of online learning both in relation to costs and deliver of a quality product which gives students good value for money invested.

As an aside I personally happen to agree with the assertions made in the study. A nephew of mine taught Art History at a large eastern university, and he has expressed the opinion that both he and his colleagues there felt the average online college and university courses were, quite simply, garbage for exactly the reasons as mentioned above. This opinion was offered well prior to my starting this course so it was with a certain amount of interest that I noted his comments. While it is in no way a scientific statement of actual survey questions it does anecdotally give some credence to what is noted above, namely that faculty are resistant to the provision of online content and course work.

How will I apply lessons learned here in my design practice?

I will take some of the lessons learned here forward into my practice by:

  1. trying to be a  good advocate for online learning where and as possible, through dialogue with other instructors and teachers;
  2. endeavouring to stay ahead of the ongoing research into cognitive theory as it applies to learning and teaching;
  3. designing course content which is relevant to new theory yet rooted in best practice;
  4. try to remain open minded about new developments in the field;
  5. listening to students needs and requests;  learning and teaching is a two-way highway, not a goat trail in one direction only;
  6. advocate for more research into quality control and assurance with professional bodies and associations;
  7. attempting to remove barriers to online learning wherever possible.

I am still not happy with the content of this journal entry and think that I will use this as a basis for other explorations I other directions, for now that’s all I can do.

References:

1)-  2011 Outlook for Online Learning and Distance Education,  Dr. Tony Bates, Contact North | elearnnetwork.ca;  www.contactnorth.ca, 2011;

2)- Conflicted: Faculty and Online Education 2012, I. Elaine Allen, Ph.D., Jeff Seaman, Ph.D., Doug Lederman, Scott Jaschik, June 2012;

3)- Digital Faculty, Professors, Teaching and Technology 2012, I. Elaine Allen, Ph.D., Jeff Seaman, Ph.D., Doug Lederman, Scott Jaschik, August 2012;

4)- Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Teaching and Learning, A. Bates  and A. Sangrà ,2010  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

5)- Green, K. C. (2010) Managing Online Education, Encino CA: The Campus Computing Project/WCET

Third post: requirements for learners and instructors, are they so different?

This is part of the week 2 assignment where w e examine the needs of our learners and ourselves. I am going to post these for you to contemplate and to sere as another part of the  gauge to see where this blog is going and where it is taking me, personally and in terms of the course, I still have no idea but imagine that as a certain amount of time passes a pattern will emerge. I know that I am still not intimately connected with this medium as yet, but I will try harder, will make it work out…

First some things about the students

I am in a unique position as my learners come from a wide set of backgrounds. Somewhat like Lilia they are from all over the province (and in a few cases across the country).

There is wide variability in what they do and the hours they work:

  • some are shipboard personnel who work a 28 day on / 28 day off cycle, 12 hours per day;
  • some are shore side who work a 2,3 or 4 week rotation at lifeboat stations and must be available 24/7,
  • some are shore based and work a ‘regular’ job from 0800 – 1600

There is wide variability in their educational backgrounds:

  • some are university educated;
  • some have technical school backgrounds,
  • some have Grade 12 and some do not

There is wide variability in their work areas:

  • some work on ships up and down the coast and in the Arctic in the summer season;
  • some at lifeboat stations, some of those quite remote (Bella Bella for instance);
  • some at lightstations, in most instances quite remote, removed from technological access by factors such as weather.

So, the first several questions are fairly easily answered: they are a diverse bunch, with varied educational needs and limited technological access in a lot of cases. This produces challenges for both the designer/instructor and student as there are certain things which just cannot be changed or made easy, depending on the technical content of what you might be teaching. Assessment for any course is one of the key components, we all know that intuitively, and are careful to design tools which help us see where our students are lagging behind or not absorbing the lessons.

Some signs that might indicate learners struggling with course content might include:

  • particpation for the first portion of the course then tapering off or no attendance at all;
  • assignments started but not finished or not started at all;
  • students not communicating with the instructor;
  • students not participating in course forums or posting on message boards.

I have given a lot of thought about strategies to deal with this type student frustration, but aside from the normal things one would contemplate: an easily navigated & understandable LMS, course content made easy and seamless, understandable course outcomes and expectations, regular communications where possible, and  trying to encourage student community I am at a loss.

This is a diverse, committed, truly vibrant community of people and I want to do the best I can for them to remove the sense of isolation which can be a fairly common occurrence. Any one have further suggestions?

Michael’s online learning needs

Some things I need to make my online course go along well are:

  • An easily navigated LMS which doesn’t crash and is intuitive to use;
  • Links to sites and videos etc., which all work and are updated promptly as needed;
  • A clear statement of course expectations;
  • Feedback mechanisms for both student and instructors;
  • Timely assessment of assignments;
  • Access to the instructor at reasonable times which work for everyone;
  • The early establishment of a sense of community amongst students and the instructor;
  • Appropriate online resources: ebooks, links, videos etc.,
  •  Encouragement of online meetings between students where possible.

So what is the point of all this? Students are individuals, who come from diverse backgrounds educationally,  culturally and age related.  They have different varied needs but one of the common needs they have is to get the most they can from our courses. We can learn from our needs for this course (they seem to be remarkably similar for most people in  the course) and apply those things to our design process when developing course material later.

It is our obligation to provide the best we can for our students, however varied their ages, education or cultural background: an educational environment which is free from bias, welcoming,  enriching, stimulating and  free from barriers to learning. It is our task and our challenge to provide this environment as best we can.

A quote for today:

The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.
Jean Piaget

Now on to the assignment. Joanne, I am trying hard to keep mt oar in but this is proving a challenge. I may be a bit late with the assignment (i.e.: tomorrow morning) but it will be done…

Second post

 Joanne had us put together five points we considered important to pre-course development. I think that we are being asked to enter into a reflective exercise with blogging so will enter these points and then see what happens as time passes. I’m sure they will change, and if I take the time to look back at the QA guidelines exercise we completed in 4150 am forced to admit that

After some consideration I think that the five points I would choose first off are as follows:

1)- Preparation: the site and all course materials, links, video feeds, forums etc., should be thoroughly checked and verified as being ‘student ready’ so there are as few problems with access as possible;

2)- There should be  clear and unambiguous descriptions of course expectations and outcomes for both students and instructors, with as little left to chance as is possible;

3)- A thorough explanation of the site functions, assignments and time lines;

4)- Methods of communication between students and instructors completely explained with pre-set times for activities such as video conferencing clearly established,and fall back methods outlined as well in case of unavoidable scheduling clashes;

5)- The encouragement of a sense of community should be stressed right from the beginning: bringing students together in a supportive environment through introductory forums etc., to encourage involvement and a sense of inclusion for all.

Looking back on this I must say that I have a feeling this will change as time goes on, but that is the way this particular game is set up isn’t it? We learn and grow and change to meet new challenges arise. Think I’ll close with a quote:

“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Alvin Toffler