Friday, June 28, 2013

Alone (or All One) Together Online: What Keeps Us Together in the Virtual Classroom

The constructivists maintain that social interaction leads to knowledge construction, higher order learning, and greater student success rates (i.e., achievement and completion). Students have to socially network in order for the neural network to do its thing and make connections between concepts and ideas. Sherry Turkle's wonderfully insightful book Alone Together is about, as she says, "how we are changed as technology offers us substitutes for connecting with each other face-to-face." The danger may be that if we use substitute (artificial) networking online, we may produce artificial learning or hamper the connections needed to enable real comprehension and mastery.

How do we build a community of learners from strangers who only meet online? Etienne Wenger prescribes course design elements that encourage interaction and reification (making things seem real). The use of real-time voice and video is one method the Confer instructor uses to deliver to students a sense of a real-time, articulate, caring, human. As Walsh et. al. reported in their study of Web conferencing learning communities, students may struggle with video and audio, but they prefer it to the alternative. "I think seeing someone on screen during the tutorial can keep you interested and makes the tutorial feel more interactive," says a Humanities student. Another student says, "I think the tutors who use this need to try and make it as interactive as possible ... [and to] input their own thoughts and ideas." Asked how the instructors could improve their use of the Web conferencing technology, students suggested:
  • "Find ways to ensure students participate in the live sessions"
  • "Develop and encourage methods for collaboration between students"
  • "Remember to use students' names to help make it a more personal experience"
McBrien and Jones cite similar observations from the students in their synchronous online learning study. "Talking through the microphone really helped me connect my thoughts, knowing that I could only express myself verbally. It also made me feel more in control of how I communicated my ideas because a large group of people weren't staring at me..." "Voting was great - great to see what everyone else in class felt - you don't always get that feedback." Their students reported these negatives in the virtual classroom:
  • Missing friends
  • Lack of support when presenting
  • Missing non-verbal gestures
One student observed that the class "needs to be planned more carefully and maybe tried the first session with all of the students in the classroom, not home."

We may be years away from taking these general suggestions and translating them into practical course design for the synchronous virtual classroom. As Mia Lobel et. al.  observe: "There is virtually no data describing how existing successful pedagogies, which are predicated on real-time interactive immediacy and skill practice, could be adapted to online learning environments. Much discussion and exploration is needed concerning the delivery of human relations skills online, when the pedagogy is based on group interaction, specifically active experiencing, concrete observation, abstract conceptualization and active practice and the content design is predicated on theories of group development, and observational and facilitation skills which necessitate participation and interaction."

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