The digital divide – a term educators are likely familiar with, describes the ‘haves’ with the ‘have-nots’ in the digital world. Those that have access to Internet connection and those that don’t. This divide is closing, but there’s a new divide in town, it’s the LMS (learning management system) divide, a social presence gap created by LMS platforms* where students feel socially ‘there’ or not. Feelings of not ‘being there’, can leave the learner feeling disconnected, isolated, and even frustrated with online learning. Much research supports this phenomenon, with one report finding that, “students participating in online courses often have a sense of isolation, which can impact a learner’s success within a distance learning program”.
I experienced the LMS divide this past week in both of the online classes I’m taking this semester to complete my Master’s degree. Trying to communicate with my classmates, one for a group project using a wiki, and the other in a threaded class discussion using the discussion forums, I felt as if I were talking to my peers through a brick wall. There was more than one barrier to collaborating and conversing about the course content. The discussion board was cumbersome, awkward and difficult to navigate with 25 classmates in one class, and was quite a mess with over 257 posts. In the other class, our group of four working on a group assignment tried to use the wiki tool, which was another exercise in frustration, non-intuitive, flat and awkward. After talking to other online educators in the last few days, the consensus is, the time has come for change and growth in e-learning platforms.
What is Social Presence
Social presence, defined as “the ability of participants in a community of [learning] to project themselves socially and emotionally as ‘real’ people through the medium of communication being used...”(Garrison and Anderson) or “a student’s sense of being and belonging in a course“, described by researcher Picianno in his article on student interaction and presence in an online course, though I bring it to a more simplistic description – a sense of ‘being there’ and being together.
Social Presence and Community of Inquiry Model
The Community of Inquiry Model, developed by Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000) presents the social dimension along with cognitive and teaching presence as essential for effective learning in the online community. I’ve experienced the robust and rich learning that takes place when all three do intersect, and the void when they don’t. The social dimension in this framework, involves several components beyond the scope of this post, but globally include group collaboration where emotions and opinions are exchanged, group work that requires focused collaboration and builds participation and acceptance.
Why Online Classrooms need Social Presence
Let’s get to the point here, social presence is needed for effective learning, and its needed to take online learning to the next level. Learning has become learner centric, students want an active role in the learning process. Though common sense tells us that students are more likely to engage in learning when they feel connected, research supports this premise. One report below states,
“Students who perceived high social presence in the online discussions also believed they learned more from it than did students perceiving low social presence.” Swan, K. & Shih, L-F. (2005).
What will bridge the LMS divide?
This is an interesting topic and much discussed among educators, which I’m sure many readers of this blog are part of. Here’s one group actively engaged in the discussion, Beyond the LMS: Selection, Ownership and Implementation Issues, and the role of the LMS in the broader academic technology ecosystem. Also worthy of note, is an upcoming LMS Unconference, though there is an agenda, the conference outcomes will be dependent upon each individual’s reasons for participating in the sessions as they relate to learning management platforms.
Based on these groups and conversations, it appears the scope of online learning is going beyond the traditional LMS. Social presence is just one dimension of online learning, and its up to us as educators to make sure the focus is kept on the student, not just the content. We’ve seen many advancements in enhancing content, e-books learning objects and more being offered by textbook publishers. Let’s see if we can harness the energy and enthusiasm that’s created a plethora of social platforms, that millions are part of, including Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google +, etc all which involve interaction and sharing. These platforms give a compelling argument for the value in establishing authentic ‘presence’.
What Online Learning Needs
Seamless integration of tools, for students and instructors:
- Enhanced collaboration tools for students that incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous tools for students and instructors. Collaborative tools like Google Docs, Skpe, VoiceThread or Google + Hangouts (Hangouts have tremendous potential for online learning).
- Instructor tools that provide opportunity for giving enhanced feedback to students, such as pod casts, screen casts and video messages.
- Profile building that makes learning personal - allowing students to add pictures, icons, profiles, ‘likes’, interests and previous experiences.
- Discussion boards where students can seamlessly include content and media from other sources on the web, and even from other classes.
- Social tools and sharing that allow and encourage students to bookmark content related to course: videos, web sites, e-books, photos or more.
* In this post, when I refer to LMS platforms, I’m referring to the most dominant platforms used by higher education institutions, those with the most market share.