Monday, August 06, 2007

Learners' Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning

The article “Learners' Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework” (Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006) discusses the authors’ findings from interviews with online students regarding what they felt could be done in order to improve the online learning experience. Since the students were part of a program that consisted of both face-to-face and online courses, the students were inclined to compare the two learning environments. The students indicated that they missed face-to-face interactions in their online courses; therefore, their responses to questions regarding how to improve the online learning experience sometimes involved a comparison of the two learning environments.

The Learners’ Views
From their interviews, the authors indicated that five themes emerged: “robustness of online dialogue, spontaneity and improvisation, perceiving and being perceived by the other, getting to know others, and learning to be an online learner” (Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006).

Robustness of Online Dialogue
There were a variety of notable comments from the students regarding the discussion forums. The comments included such things as indicating that the discussion board was simply a way of checking in, that discussions were drawn out, and that there was a lot of “rehashing.” Students mentioned that the discussions were less “dynamic” than face-to-face discussions and that there was less emotion in the dialogue.

Spontaneity and Improvisation
There is less spontaneity in an online discussion, and one student indicated that they were less likely to participate in an online discussion because of the amount of time it took to compose a message. A number of the students reported that they were frustrated with having to wait for a response to a question from other students. They indicated that this was particularly frustrating if others misunderstood the question, thus causing the dialogue to take longer.

Although the students requested more synchronous communication, the chatroom was not very popular. One student indicated that she could not type fast enough and would have appreciated having the ability to use sound within the chatroom.

Perceiving and Being Perceived by the Other
Students commented that it was difficult to get to know people and really learn who they are except that the learner pages that each students constructed in which they told each other a little about themselves were helpful.

One student commented that there was too much praise in the discussion board to the point that it bordered on the ridiculous. She indicated that there wasn’t very much disagreement which would cause the discussion to flow.

Getting To Know Others
At the beginning of the course, the students were divided into triads. Members of a triad worked with each other to provide support and constructive feedback on assignments. Each triad was also required to moderate one discussion forum. The instructor chose the discussion topic and readings for each discussion forum but after being given directions on how to facilitate online discussions, the moderators were responsible for generating discussion questions and taking the discussion in any direction they wanted.

The students felt that there was a sense of community between and among the members of the class and the professors. They indicated that they were supported, that others cared, and that others were willing to share resources and information, and answer questions.

One of the students that she wished she had had the opportunity to take advantage of the professors’ expertise and get their insights into the material through informal conversations.

Learning To Be An Online Learner
Many of the learners indicated that they were not confident about engaging in online learning and were concerned that they were “not doing it right.” Some expressed a concern that they were behind and didn’t know it. They wished there was face-to-face contact so they could see if they were on track. They were concerned that they were not picking up the small points that they would have picked up with informal conversations with their classmates or by stopping by a professor’s office.

Learners were concerned that what they wrote in the discussion boards would be judged and that they did not sound academic enough.

The authors examined the comments of the students through the lens of a community of inquiry framework proposed by Garrison, Anderson, & Archer (2000) (as cited in Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald. 2006). Their framework is based on a model of critical thinking and practical inquiry. According to Garrison et al. (2000) (as cited in Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald. 2006), “learning occurs through the interaction of social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence within a community of inquiry that is composed of teachers and students”.

The students commented on the lack of spontaneity with the course. The authors cite Thompson and MacDonald (2005) by stating that a well mapped out course increases students’ confidence and competence but that a course should be flexible enough to respond to emerging learning needs. The authors also indicate that research needs to be conducted to better understand how technology can be used more effectively and innovatively to lead to tangents for greater cognitive presence.

An analysis of the students’ comments in this study are similar to what Thomas (2002) reported (as cited in Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald, 2006). Thomas (2002) found an overall incoherence in online discussion in terms of "branching structure, the large proportion of messages that terminated branches, and the abstracted nature of student interaction" suggesting that "the online discussion forum does not promote the interactive dialogue of conversation, but rather leads students towards poorly interrelated monologues" (p. 361). The authors of this study suggest that “[a]lthough CMC tools are still evolving, current practices suggest that online communication can be disjointed as learners jump in and out of online discussions.”

Regarding postings in discussion forums, the authors suggest that comments need to “challenge and provoke learners to reflect and construct new knowledge thereby stimulating in-depth discussion.”

The students indicated that although there was some social presence in the online course that was part of this study, there was less social presence than there is in a face-to-face class. Because of the text-based nature of the course, learners are limited in how they ca express themselves beyond words. The authors suggest that the use of audio and video technologies within a course will allow for a richer communication medium and will enhance social presence. A particular suggestion offered is that ideas be presented through the use of short digital “movies” that contain pictures or videos of the professor or learners along with their voice. The authors also suggest that the use of application sharing software should be researched in order to increase social presence and enhance online learning.

Although the use of synchronous communication in an online class can provide students with the opportunity to get immediate feedback, the authors state that it also prevents students from having the flexibility to work on their courses at the times when they desire.

The students in the study indicated that the communication within the online course was more formal than what it is in a face-to-face class and that the formal communication decreased the social presence. The authors suggest, “[a] balance must be achieved between the need for the professionalism required in a university setting and the need for informality required to enhance social presence.”

Implications for Practice
The authors suggest five recommendations based on the results of their study.

  1. Create opportunities to enhance spontaneity and emergent design – Collaborative learning tools, such as wikis and blikis, should be used so as to allow flexibility in learning needs as they arise.
  2. Coach learners how to learn online – Educators should be good role models in their online interactions, encourage behaviors that promote community building, provide constructive feedback, and coach and support learners in their interactions.
  3. Explore the use of diverse technologies for enhancing communication and social presence – The authors point out that educators do not take advantage of the latest technologies that could enhance communication and social presence. They quote Berge and Collins (1995) (as cited in Stodel, Thompson, & MacDonald. 2006) who state, “there is no shortage of technology, only a shortage of the educational vision necessary to use the technology to create new educational environments." They point out that text-based discussion forums are generally the only form of communication in online courses but quote Thomas (2002) who cautioned that, "the attainment of a discourse that is both interactive and academic in nature is difficult within the online environment of the traditional threaded discussion." They suggest that technologies such as web-based audio and video-conferencing, and application sharing, might be more effective at establishing and supporting social presence and generating richer communication.
  4. Articulate and manage the expectations of the online community – The expectations of both the learners and the instructors should be discussed and made clear. The discussion should focus on the process of learning and the best way to achieve the learning objectives. The best way to achieve the learning objectives of both the group and the individual learners and the learning process involved in reaching the objectives should be the focus of the discussion.
  5. Understand all learners in online learning environments – Educators should attempt to help each learner feel comfortable and confident in the online learning environment.