“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

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‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me in class?”, I considered my experiences as an online student—having more than one exchange, though not toxic, that were strong enough to leave a sting—dampening my enthusiasm for engaging and participating with my classmates. I’ve since worked with students and faculty that have experienced similar exchanges. Though not all reach the toxic level, there have been instances where faculty encountered students using strong and offensive language, requiring the removal of offensive posts within discussion forums and other actions.

Lack of civility in online forums within learning communities is manageable in small, closed online learning communities where an instructor is in control of a class of up to thirty, or even forty students. However, as classes expand, with MOOCs, and other types of learning communities growing, in combination with platforms that allow anonymity (such as Coursera) it will become an issue for educators [and their institutions] involved in online learning at some time or another. Peers within my network have shared their experiences as students and instructors within MOOCs that involve politically charged or contentious subject matters where discussion forums are fraught with offensive, even toxic comments and vitriol discussion.  It is for this reason that I write this post; to provoke thought and discussion in order for educators to be proactive and develop appropriate strategies.

COI-ANIM-300x233

Community of Inquiry via coi.athabscau.ca

More so because online behavior in learning communities is complex.  On one hand, a sense of presence, or “being there” is critical to deep and meaningful learning and thus needs to be encouraged. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a well-researched framework (Garrison, 2007) that addresses three dimensions of presence—social, instructor and cognitive that are deemed necessary for higher education students to experience deep learning in online environments.

Yet on the other, the CoI framework, due to its two-dimensional nature, does not give us insight into the type of exchanges, the tone behind the student-to-student exchanges online and how they might affect learning. Just as tone of voice, eye contact and body language affect verbal communication—word choice, characters used, even font size and type, (e.g. CAPITAL LETTERS), in text exchanges affect meaning of a message conveyed in an online space. Yet some students will exhibit online disinhibition, emboldened by lack of personal contact, distance and in some cases anonymity. Such behavior can wreak havoc within a learning community—can discourage participants, damage student confidence, stall, or impede learning.

In open learning situations that are not controlled by any one individual due to a connectivist learning approach or student-centered focus for example, dealing with such behavior is challenging, though not impossible. Swift and deliberate action is required by one or more individuals. Even in controlled settings, on a closed platform, or within a small learning community, action is required to preserve a learning climate and community.

Highlights from the Paper:

Below are highlights from “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.”

  • The study is qualitative in nature. Analysis of data collected from two universities, from undergraduate and graduate students revealed “instructors’ and students’ experiences of connection with, or disconnection from, each other were profoundly influenced by the phenomenon of online disinhibition.
  • Students recounted stories of class peers turning “ugly” or “abusive” in online posts, making “personal attacks” against classmates, even “swearing at people, calling them idiots and stuff like that.” One student, attributed this tendency to people’s comfort with the online environment: “something that was surprising to me was that people were comfortable enough with the environment to lose a sense of decorum…like they just lost it.”
  • In most of the students’ stories, arguments and disruptive behaviour were seen as the direct result of the kinds of miscommunications that occur in online environments, where paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are not available to clarify meaning.
  • Online disinhibition is also associated with positive outcomes— In some cases, the student-to-student or student-to-instructor relationship may be enriched—for example, when a student shares an experience that personalizes and thus deepens the learning for everyone, or when a shy student opens up.
  • In other cases, the relationship may be inevitably damaged, as when a student confides something she or he later regrets, or says something that other students consider inappropriate or offensive.

Conclusions
Online disinhibition is a phenomenon that affects not only learning exchanges in online communities, but social (e.g. Twitter) and gaming platforms, etc. Yet learning environments need a special layer of protection that goes beyond a ‘report abuse’ option that exists within most online platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Learning in online communities requires a level of trust, familiarity, and has associated with it an expectation of a ‘safe’ zone. How can educators create a safe learning community in a closed, online class? What about in an open learning community, in a MOOC?  Answers to questions like these depend upon the learning community, the participants, the purpose of the learning and other factors. But it is up to us as educators to look for answers; we need to have strategies and built-in mechanisms within the different types of online learning communities that will provide [albeit wide] guard rails to foster, yet protect a climate of learning and development.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, specifically anonymity in online learning communities. Stay tuned!

References:

 

Four Good Reasons Why Students Need Instructor Feedback in Online Courses

In this post I describe why instructor feedback in an online course is essential for students that have yet to master a specific skill set and knowledge, and why MOOCs won’t cut it.

girl_thinkingIn a world of MOOC news within higher education, what is getting lost are the other modes of online learning that include closed online classes, offered for-credit at colleges and universities. These courses rely on cognitive or constructive pedagogy, with determined learning objectives and are delivered 100% online to small classes of thirty or fewer students. In this model, the instructor can support and interact with students, provide feedback, and encourage critical thinking. This type of personalized instruction can’t be provided in a massive open online course [MOOC], which leads me to suggest that the MOOC model [as it stands now] is not the right modality for most lower-level college courses required for a college degree.

What is Instructor Feedback?
I want to clarify before going further what instructor feedback means in the context of online learning classes. Instructor feedback is constructive and specific information that is provided by the instructor to the student on his or her course work [artifacts or other] and/or class contributions in relation to the course objectives and expectations. Feedback can be provided in a variety of mediums including, written, recorded voice, chat, video or other. In my next post I’ll address how to give effective feedback to students using various methods.

College Students Need Feedback
College students benefit greatly from instructor feedback, including when it’s provided in a small online learning community where interaction exists between students and instructor and students and students. In a Massive Open Online Course, [or even a F2F class of 100+ students]  it’s impossible to provide the required learning conditions for this type of interaction. It worries me that colleges and universities appear to be moving towards the MOOC model for delivering some or all courses (as in the case of SUNY or California’s public higher education institutions); courses that don’t provide for a student-to-instructor ratio that supports personalized learning. The MOOC model cannot provide the type of learning experiences needed for freshman or junior college students that is required for courses that include writing composition, communications, literature analysis, and other humanities courses. One could even argue that this is the case for some courses in math and sciences. Though I am an advocate of MOOCs, since they provide an excellent learning experience in numerous circumstances, the model which relies on the premise of massive, is not an effective one for every learner in every learning situation.

iStock_studentsCloudXSmallWhy MOOCs Won’t Work for College Students
I am not suggesting that college students can never learn in a MOOC setting, but I do suggest that certain courses not only require a low student-to-instructor ratio, and that colleges need to provide students with the skills in how-to-learn in a networked environment where learning is pulled and not pushed. I’ll use my 18-year old daughter, a high school senior here as an example. She will be a college freshman this September, and though she is a good student, with several Advanced Placement courses under her belt, she in no way would be able to learn successfully in a MOOC in her freshman year. Not that she can’t learn, or won’t be able to at some point, but she is a product of the public school system where students are told what to do, when to do it, how to do it. Furthermore, high school students are not prompted to think outside the box, to create a networked learning environment, or to be a self-directed learner.  My daughter is an expert test taker, she says she has figured out the system, can produce what the teachers are looking for, and thus can get good grades. She is similar to many high school students. How can we expect these students to be successful in a massive course with little guidance let alone feedback?

Four Reasons why Students Need Instructor Feedback and Peer Support
Below are four reasons that support the position that college students need instructor feedback in small, closed, online classes.  I should mention that I concede that small (under forty students) face-to-face classes can accomplish all but point #3, though this point is an essential component for students working within a digital world and can only be accomplished in an online class.

  1. Prompt feedback allows students to assess existing knowledge, reflect on what they have learned, what they still need to learn, and receive suggestions for improvement [Chickering and Gamson, 1997].  The principles in the classic article Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, still apply today; the tools and methods may change but the principles should not.
  2. Students want feedback from instructors. Research suggests that students want feedback, and personalized feedback that includes suggestions for improvement, with explanations (Getzlaf et al, 2009).  In an online course, detailed and specific feedback on assignments or class contributions through discussion forums, live chats etc., is even more critical given the medium.
  3. Students require guidance in how-to-learn in an open and online environment; instructor feedback and peer interaction in closed online courses can develop digital communication skills, including how to seek information, create personal learning environments and collaborate virtually with peers.
  4. Over 60% of newly admitted college students in the US are not ready for college level work. They lack the basic writing and math skills required for the college courses they are enrolled in (SREB, 2010).  For this reason alone, college students need instructor guidance and support in completing lower level college classes, and in some cases remedial classes. Instructors can also guide students to find open resources, and provide support and encouragement to students who might be discouraged or frustrated.

Concluding Thoughts
Bottom line – the MOOC model cannot provide the level of feedback and support needed for many college students.  Instructors skilled in online teaching for small classes can provide constructive feedback to students, create a learning community that promotes interaction, and most importantly, teaches students how-to-learn in an online environment. I’ll be watching closely what happens within higher education with regards to MOOCs, and hope that administrators consider carefully a strategy that supports student development in the first and second year of college. In my next post, I’ll provide practical how-to instruction on tools and methods for giving meaningful feedback to students in an online class.

Resources:

What do Students [Really] Want in an Online Course?

girl laptop and bookAfter analyzing student feedback from over twenty courses in our college’s online program, a dominant theme emerged—students appear to want to interact with their peers online, to engage in stimulating discussions, and look for constructive feedback from their instructor. Students not only want to learn, but are looking to establish a personal connection, a sense of presence. In this post I include a synopsis of anonymous, end-of-course student feedback, and several of the students [unedited] comments.

I look forward to the task of reading and analyzing student feedback. My goal is to determine if we can improve the instructional design and delivery of our courses. Course instructors also look forward to reviewing their course surveys; they look for strengths and opportunities. Though when looking at the student feedback collectively, rather than individually by course, we are able to identify patterns and even trends. What I share in this post is not a scientific study by any means, but I hope that the insights may be helpful to educators when reading how students are expressing their needs; sharing how they want to learn in an 100% online format.

I’ve compiled the survey into ‘trends’ and ‘themes’ [below]. The trends are compiled after examining the college’s sessions’ feedback from the past twelve months.

Trends

  • The number of students using the mobile format of our video lectures [which are included in each course] is increasing. We expect this trend to continue. We introduced the mobile format (which augmented the formats of online streaming, and DVD options) over 12 months ago.
  • Student involvement in forum discussions appears to be increasing [as indicated by number of postings]. Likely factors are the instructors’ use and adherence to the grading rubric for discussion posts, and instructor involvement within discussion forums.

iStock_000019623568XSmallTheme: Peer Interaction
The comments below supports the theme that students want peer interaction and to engage in discussions. The comments are in response to the survey question, ‘What I [the student] liked most about the course’… [my observations are in blue].

  • The positive and encouraging feedback from other students”.
  • I enjoyed the feedback from my professor and other students. It is what helped me the most”.
  • I would have liked more interaction with other students”.
  • “I enjoyed the whole course very much! I really like the interaction with other students through the forum posts. It was constructive reading what others had written and replying to each other.”
  • I enjoyed the intellectual conversations occurring during the weekly discussions and also Dr. [-----] lectures!”
  • “I truly liked the nature of the debates. Even when we disagreed, we voiced our opinions in a cordial and respectful manner.” [Controversial issues can be a great way to stimulate conversation, but need an instructor to moderate].
  • It may be beneficial to have a live discussion instead of a forum. It seemed like towards the end of the course people aren’t posting as much and the discussion wasn’t as interesting or helpful. And that way the professor could kind of guide the discussion a little more.[Interesting that students are almost anticipating what is possible given the advances in accessible technology].

Theme: Students and Instructor Feedback

  • I also liked that the professor didn’t just grade down for something, but made it clear when I was doing something wrong.” [Students appear open to constructive feedback].
  • “I wish I would get more feedback on my homework. Most times all I receive is the grade with a comment (good work, etc). I would like some specific critique to help me improve.”
  • He posted in the professor news board, and did a couple of extra things every now and then, but I would’ve liked it if he had posted in the discussion forums more often. [Instructor involvement is not only appreciated by students, but establishes the instructor's presence].

Closing Thoughts
What is encouraging from the analysis of the feedback, is that students appear to want to learn, and the technology, the learning platform has disappeared—has become transparent. Students are not focusing on the technology but on the learning experience. Students view learning as learning, it is becoming less about the delivery format.

Dear Professor, I Really Enjoyed the Online Course But….

Some of the most worthwhile feedback for instructors is student responses on end-of-course surveys that give constructive suggestions. Analyzing student responses collectively from our end-of-course, anonymous surveys at the institution where I work reveals rich, qualitative data that helps us determine how we can better support students. In this post I share the patterns that emerged after we examined over 100 student response forms from our most recent session of fifteen general education courses [survey response rate was just over 60%].

The students’ voices jumped of the pages of data; students were loud and clear about what they want from their learning experience, which we categorized into two areas, 1) specific and constructive feedback from the instructor, and 2) active involvement within the online course through discussions and activities. This is not a scientific analysis per se, but other educators may find value in what students have to say and perhaps take away ideas to apply to their own online programs.

About the End-of-Course Survey
Our survey includes twenty questions: seventeen that are a mixture of multiple choice and Likert scale questions, and three open-ended response questions as follows:

  1. What did you like most about the course?
  2. What did you like least about the course?
  3. How could we improve the course?

Theme One: Students’ Want Instructor Feedback
Student responses suggested they want constructive and specific feedback from their course instructor, and the timing of the feedback is also critical. Quick turnaround times  on grading are crucial for courses with condensed time frames of eight to ten weeks where assignments build upon the other. Below are a selection of comments that are representative of the many.

  • “I felt that the professor could have communicated more critically on our assignments.”
  • “My personal preference would have been to receive more timely feedback regarding our written assignments. My preference is to receive feedback during the course than once the course is over.  Doing so provides the student with the necessary feedback and constructive criticisms that can be incorporated into the future assignment.”
  • “He [course instructor] was involved [in the discussion boards] but he did not get all of my grades back to me very quickly, especially the discussion forum grades. I did not get any of the three grades back for those until after I had finished all of them. He also did not participate very much in the class discussion forums. But he was …. great communicating with me individually.”
  • “I would like to have had feedback from the professor on my papers. I would get an email saying feedback on a certain paper can be seen, but when I would click on the link …. I would see my grade but no comments.“

Theme Two: Students Want Interaction
For the most part, students appear to want to interact in the online class. They want to be ‘active’ either through discussion forums, and/or class assignments that involve interaction such as a peer review assignments or collaborative assignments where groups create an essay or presentation.

However, the onus is on the course instructor to construct group assignments and discussions that result in quality exchanges that support the desired course learning outcomes. Students are sensitive to busy work, or assignments that don’t create meaningful learning. On the other hand, assignments may have the potential to be quality, but require the instructor’s guidance and involvement.

  • “It was hard to find study partners; I did miss the camaraderie of classmates.”
  • “I honestly do not like the forced discussion forum, though I understand that it is necessary. I have never liked forced discussions, they always feel fake, and usually leaves you trying to rehash something someone else has all ready said, because so many students can only come up with so many things pertinent to the topic at hand before things start to become repetitive.”
  • “It would be nice if the instructor were more active with the question board.”
  • “More wiki assignments and class activities would not only strengthen the student\’s knowledge by exposing him to the opinions of others, but also make the course more enjoyable.”
  • “I did not like the group project. It was very difficult to get a hold of my team mates. I would have preferred writing the essay on my own.” [Often group assignments require instructor involvement to ensure students participate].
  • “I enjoyed the group project and the discussion in the discussion boards.  I really had fun talking with the other classmates there.”
  • “The small amount of students in this course made it difficult to communicate and discuss things with them.” [Instructor involvement to get the discussion going with a small group may be needed].
  • “I honestly wasn’t expecting to like this class very much … I have taken a class from Dr. Smith [name changed] before [in a face-to-face setting], and he wasn’t my favorite teacher then, but his interaction through this course (which I think is more of ‘his element’) even helped me grow to enjoy him personally as a teacher more.” [This instructor has established his online presence successfully :)].

Analysis and Application
What is heartening after completing this analysis is recognizing that student responses suggest they are eager to engage in the learning process. Research also supports this fact, to students a course is a course regardless of its modality (Cavanagh, 2012 ).  We can consider teaching by the same token, teaching in the online environment in a structured course has the same goal as teaching face-to-face, albeit the methods are different. A different or modified set of skills set are needed by the instructor in the online environment, yet acquiring this skill set need not be a daunting process. Developing skills  can begin one class at a time with simple actions such as: asking for, then reviewing student feedback, monitoring student progress, trying new tactics, talking to colleagues, etc. The list goes on. If you have suggestions you would like to share with readers about what you have learned, please post a comment.

Reference:
Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

The Methods and Means to grading Student Participation in Online Discussions

This is the final post in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online environment in the context of courses for credit. In this post I’ll share how to grade and asses students contributions in online discussion forums – the final yet essential step that solidifies and reinforces student learning. I am eager to share my insight into the measurement component of online discussions, as we found within our own institution’s online program that it was the assessment aspect, through the use of a rubric was the critical element that raised the bar for our threaded discussions. The rubric allowed course instructors to give ‘good’ feedback to students, clarified for students what was expected of them in discussions and to the astonishment of some of our professors, it [the rubric] improved the quality and quantity of discussion postings significantly.

Components of effective Online Discussions - Review
Getting students to participate in an online space is no easy task, [as discussed in post one and two] it’s strategic, purposeful, and involves much effort even before a course begins. Below are the core elements that build the foundation for online discussions, elements that will create and sustain dialogue.

  1. A well designed course/instructional plan  – as discussed in post one
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations – post one
  3. Well constructed topics/questions [critical] – post two
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator – post two
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback – to follow

The Argument against grading…
There are pros and cons to grading discussion forums – the cons are few, though worthy of consideration. Some educators feel it ‘forces’ students to participate, students will only do what is necessary (the bare minimum), and not engage further. Others suggest that with a ‘prescribed’ set of questions, the discussion becomes narrow, allowing little room for creativity. I happen to disagree with the these arguments, as experience and research has shown hands-down that grading participation is effective in promoting and encouraging meaningful discussion when the elements are included. Let’s move on to the means…

The Means to Grading – the rubric
As mentioned, a key factor to effective discussions are expectations for students: clear, concise and [even] quantitative guidelines that students can follow. From trial and error, we discovered that creating a standard rubric that instructors could tweak and customize to his or her course was the ‘means’ to grading. Within our range of courses, discussion assignments vary in grading weight, but the criteria for each is consistent.

Below is the preamble to the rubric [for the student's benefit] that we use in one of our classes [with a link to the rubric].

The participation/contribution grade is based upon the content, depth and quality of your contributions to the forum discussions using the standards found within the grading rubric below. Contributions to weekly discussions represent xx points, which makes up 20% of your final grade. Participating consistently, with thoughtful answers early in the week, and responding to, and engaging in discussion with your peers will have positive effects on your overall grade.”  Click here to view the rubric.

How much is the discussion/contribution component worth in the overall  grading scheme of  an online class? In our program – it depends upon the course, and ranges between 10% and goes as high as 25% of the total grade - the average is 15%.

The Method
Finally we get to the actual grading component. How much easier it is for course instructors with a tool [rubric] in hand to assign grades and give feedback! One of our professors called me after we implemented the rubric for her course, saying ‘why didn’t we do this earlier – it’s so much easier to give ‘good’ feedback that students can act upon‘.  I agree!

The timing of feedback is a determining factor in students participating or not. Our instructors post grades [usually] within the week following the close of a discussion – for example posting Thursday after the close of a discussion, usually Sundays. If a student has not participated at all, he or she gets a ’0′. No surprise that the student usually participates the following week. This allows time for the student to assess his or her participation, and improve upon or continue with behaviors that support learning throughout the coming week. The momentum is built by following this timetable, and aids in sustaining dialogue.

Besides assigning a grade to discussion postings, instructors on occasion, provide feedback to individual students- one or two sentences of encouragement or reasons for a given grade. A more efficient method, is when the instructor provides collective feedback in the form of a post or announcement that summarizes his or her observations, comments and suggestions of which all students benefit.

Conclusion
I am convinced that online discussions can be a tremendous vehicle for course instructors to engage students and support achievement of the learning goals. The assessment component also demonstrates to students the instructor’s presence, shows students that someone is reading their posts, and cares enough about his or her learning to give feedback. Having the tool in place, [the rubric] makes the entire evaluation process focused, and allows the course instructor to be effective in supporting learning.

Related Posts
Post One: How to get students to Participate in Online Discussions
Post Two: How to facilitate Robust Discussions Online

Resources
Rubric for asynchronous Participation, by Barbara Frey
The TLT Group, A non-profit organization for performance and learning
Rubrics for Higher Education, click here

How-to facilitate robust online discussions

Class discussion can be an effective learning tool – the challenge?  How-to facilitate and manage discussions virtually…

This is post two in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. Post one, introduced five components of effective discussions and addressed the first two – 1) course design and 2) establishing guidelines for students. In this post I”ll show how course instructors can develop and sustain dialogue by 3) creating ‘good’ and ‘right’ questions, and 4) guiding and moderating the discussions to support meaningful discourse. In the final post I’ll discuss methods for assessing student contributions in online forums. Please note, this series deals with discussions in the context of online courses for credit.

Discussions with no goal
Imagine for a minute, what a soccer game would look like if played without goal posts. Players running up and down the field aimlessly – with no goal, no purpose. This is similar to a discussion forum without a focus or direction — students posting and trying to engage in discussion aimlessly. Discussion getting off topic, rambling – learning [if it happens at all] is by chance. Online discussion need goals, structure and a purpose tied to the learning objectives of a course. The discussion is what builds cognitive presence, as  mentioned in previous posts, and is part of the Community of Inquiry model. Cognitive presence is an essential component to learning, according to this model for online learning, allowing for the construction of new knowledge.

“the challenge is that educators have the responsibility to provide structure and guidance that will encourage and support students assuming increased control of their learning(Garrison, 2006).

Creating ‘good’ and ‘right’ Discussion Questions
Good questions are just as important as the right questions. Questions must meet two criteria, be open-ended [good] and prompt students to reflect and analyze, and be ‘right’ in that the they support and lead students to construct and develop knowledge in support of  learning objectives. In a paper by Muilenburg and Berge, developing questions can be strategic to promote higher levels of cognitive thinking in consideration of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Example of question about critical incidents or problems:
“If you were consulting in this [a given] situation, how would you approach it? What might some of your recommendations be?  Explain thoroughly drawing upon the course readings for this week. Respond to one other classmate’s post with feedback and comments on his or her approach.

Promoting controversial discussion is another tactic that can be effective in supporting development of critical thinking skills. Instructor attention and facilitation is needed more so with this method, though most professors find the ensuing results well worth any additional effort. One of our instructor’s employes this method frequently by  selecting a recent ‘hot’ news topic, prompting students to take one ‘side’, explain his or her position, and then respond to a classmate with an opposing viewpoint.

Peer or Guest Moderators
The moderator does not always have to be the course instructor. Other options include, 1) class participants in the form of peer moderating, 2)  a teaching assistant or 3)  a ‘guest‘ moderator/speaker  (though usually the ‘guest’ is only for one week within a given class).

Peers as moderators…
Several studies have shown peer moderators to be just as, if not more effective than course instructors. In several courses I took for my graduate work, class members worked in teams of two or three and moderated discussions on a rotation basis throughout the course. Other courses operated by asking for peer moderator volunteers at the beginning of a session. These volunteers were given guidelines and support for skills in moderating.

There is a fine art of moderating as the course instructor. The drawbacks include, too much involvement where the conversation becomes instructor focused, and students become reticent to participate and hold back. Or, students that are fearful of making a ‘wrong’ statement, or feeling they have nothing worthwhile to contribute.

The role of the moderator is to promote thinking, challenge learners to think, consider a problem or situation from alternative viewpoints and to develop new knowledge through thinking and constructing.

Questions to promote Deep Learning…

  • That is an interesting point. What might someone who disagrees with you say to challenge your opinion?
  • Can you compare your response to xxx (other student post)? Are you both saying the same thing or not? Why or why not?
  • You make a good observation, Can you give us some examples to support your view?
  • What are alternatives to the one you suggested? Are there other solutions?
  • What is your reasoning for this? Can you compare this with the xxxx post? What is different and what is similar?
  • What might happen to xxxxx if your idea was implemented as you described?

Moderating discussions supports learning. As course instructor, you have much to say, much to give and contribute to students learning experience. With an effective course design, well crafted discussion questions and a skilled moderator that challenges and guides learning, online discussions will be active and robust where critical thinking skills flourish. Check back on Thursday for the final post in this series, how to asses and evaluate student participation in online discussions.

Resources
Post one: How to develop effective Online Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
Post three: The Method and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online      Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
Muilenburg, M. & Zane L. Berge. (2006). A framework for designing questions for online learning. Academia.edu

Seo, K.K. (2007). Utilizing peer moderating in online discussions: Addressing the controversy between teacher moderation and non-moderation. The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(1). p 21 -26.

Power of the ‘Profile Pic’ in Online Learning

Meeting someone with a paper bag over his or her head is a disconcerting experience – conversing with this person can be downright alarming. Trying to carry a meaningful conversation through a thick piece of paper is … awkward. The likelihood of creating any kind of relationship with our masked friend is about nil. I draw this parallel to illustrate how learners might feel in an online learning classroom where there is no visual, or even voice representation of fellow students – which I suggest is a serious barrier to learning. In my own experience as a graduate student in online classes using Blackboard as the learning platform, though there was the capability of uploading pics to a profile, this feature was not utilized. Hence, the  connection I made with peers was primarily through discussion forums, and though we used our names, I found it one-dimensional, impersonal. I had a hard time recognizing classmates in subsequent classes. Working in groups too was impersonal, however in the instances a group used Skype, the experience was far more engaging and personal. Though I would be remiss if I didn’t’ state the truth, that for the most part once involved in discussions that were engaging, interesting and even controversial, this ‘identify’ barrier did disappear to an extent, yet I yearned for the visual.

Social Media is ‘Social’ with the Profile Pic
As I’ve written about in previous posts, social presence is a critical aspect of online learning, and if we consider similar online communities, for example Twitter and Facebook, we do find visual representation [profile pic] is part of the social process. Socializing or the act being social, involves and requires an element of self-disclosure or self presentation, before engagement and involvement with others can occur – which rationalizes why Social Media facilitates self-presentation through the oh-so-familiar profile picture.

Social Media Building Blocks
In a recently published paper, Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, the authors suggest a framework for understanding social media platforms. The framework includes seven functional building blocks which are: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups, all of which contribute to making it ‘work’ in the virtual world  (Kietzman et al., 2011). The authors suggest that companies interested in developing a social media community emphasize certain building blocks over others depending upon their objectives. For example, Facebook emphasizes ‘sharing’ and LinkedIn ‘reputation’, however, identity and presence are common to all. The implications for education are significant nonetheless, as discussed below.

Why Learning Needs Identify
I suggest that any online learning community, require participants to use a profile picture or image to satisfy the ‘identify’ element. Social presence is required for learners to feel comfortable to engage in dialogue with their peers and instructor(s), and to participate in actively in learning, which ultimately creates the foundation for the learner to use critical thinking skills, and construct knowledge.

To illustrate the point of how identify is perceived online – humour me and look at the image below. What do you think when viewing this profile image – perhaps as a recommended ‘friend‘ for you to befriend on Facebook?

Exactly – in most cases the perception is (whether correct or not) that individuals with empty or generic profiles such as the one above, does not use Facebook on a regular basis, are not actively engaged, and are not ‘present.  Do you see the connection?  This person has a paper bag over his head (or hers).

Recommendations
I’m an advocate for making learning social – which begins with learners establishing an identify, a personal profile. However, by using the terms social and learning in the same sentence, I am not suggesting that learning be fluffy, without rigor or shy’s away using critical thinking skills. But, in order that learning and education appear relevant to today’s learners, we need to get-with-the program and incorporate social media components that we use everyday into our learning platforms. Suggestions:

  • Moodle has the capability for uploading profile pics – I suggest educators use it. We use Moodle at our workplace, and though we don’t mandate that students upload profile pics, we strongly suggest it. As a result about 75% of students upload an ‘identify’.
  • Same goes for Blackboard – use the profile features!
  • Check out Pearson’s Open Class [still in Beta] which features a Facebook like interface – making it appear relevant and current.
  • Create a Facebook School Group through Facebook’s platform.
  • Encourage use of  Google + Hangouts, Skype, Elluminate Live for collaborative group work.

These are only a few suggestions – there are many other tools to bring online learning to life, create an identify, and make it personal for students in order that deep, authentic learning happens.

Resources
Kietzman et al. 2011. Social media? Get serious! Understanding the functional building blocks of social media, ScienceDirect.com

Do we Need Social Butterflies in Online Learning?, OnlinelearningInsights

Instructor Presence in the Online Class – Key to Learner Success

Part 1 in a 3 part series on the  concept of ‘Presence’ in the Online Classroom.

Instructor presence in the online environment can be elusive as a shadow – it’s one dimensional, monochromatic and takes on various forms depending upon the point of view. Yet, instructor presence in online learning communities is vital to ‘complete learning’ (by complete I mean student engages with content, applies higher order thinking skills, and produces tangible evidence that learning objectives are met). In the virtual environment the instructor needs to be ‘real’, 3 dimensional, have a personality, be the subject matter expert and as if this isn’t enough, help the student achieve the learning goals in this virtual space. A tall order. In this post I’ll share why and how instructor [virtual] presence is critical, essential instructional design components to facilitate presence, and strategies used by instructors that demonstrate presence.

Community of Learning (Garrison)What is Online presence?
The concept of ‘presence’ in the online environment is in itself complex, involving thought, emotion and behaviours (Lehman and Conceicao, 2011). Presence in this context can be divided into categories of social, cognitive and instructor presence as presented in the Community of Inquiry model, which provides a framework for  learning in the online environment (Garrison, 2003). An uncomplicated definition of online presence is, a sense of ‘being there’ or ‘being together with others’. For students to experience this sense of presence online, the technology must become transparent – the web enabled device, the platform, or site is invisible, in other words:

…the student becomes engaged by the content (whether people, text, images or other) and the technology disappears.

Why Instructor presence is Key to Learner Success
Of course there are theoretical reasons which describe why the role of the instructor is crucial to online learning, but this week as I reviewed student feedback from our most recent session of online courses at my workplace, it became apparent just how important the instructor’s role is, by the level of ‘presence’ as perceived by the student. Below is a selection of student comments which illustrate the value of the instructor. Responses are to this question – “What did you like best about the course”:

Dr. ___  insight and instruction is outstanding. As a student who already holds a Master’s degree in Science, I appreciate a good instructor …

…The best thing about the course was Dr. ___. He really made things so that you could understand them…

Dr. ___ was very helpful, but at this point (the middle of week 8), he still has not uploaded grades for any of the course discussion boards, some of which I submitted 7 weeks ago….[this comment reinforces the value of instructor feedback]

A research study in Journal of Interactive Online Learning supports this observation. The study found that the largest single instructor action that students attributed to their success in the online course was the feedback provided by instructors that helped them [students] understand their strengths and weaknesses. The second most important success factor identified was the “instructor’s ability to focus discussions on relevant issues” (Kupczynsk et al., 2010).

Course Design to Support Instructor Presence
Another concept which is interesting is how the instructional design of the course itself supports ‘presence’. Course design can be considered, the silent instructor. When strong design principles are in place, this frees up the online instructor to invest time in connecting with students in the online community and teaching.

“The need for presentation of clear, concise objectives, instructions and general participation guidelines should be a cornerstone of online course development. Both groups in this study expressed significant frustration when these elements were not present and believed that successful engagement with content and activities was dependent on sound instructional design and organization”. (Kupczynsk, 2010).

How the Instructor can establish presence

  1. The professor as a real person: Our instructors create a one to two minute welcome video. Students watch the clip during the first few days of the class. Instructors create a YouTube video clip (can be private), or create a .mov file on their laptop and upload the clip to our Learning Management platform. I love these clips – each are unique as the professor.  Some are filmed in the instructor’s office, outside, or even in a coffee shop. These clips make the professor ‘real’ and set the tone for an open and interactive learning community.
  2. Communicating regularly: Posting a weekly announcement with course updates, web resources, commenting on course discussion boards and/or upcoming assignments also seems to be an effective method by the instructor communicating ‘en masse’. Using humour strategically can also break the ice and make the class fun, with a humourous YouTube clip or comic.
  3. Feedback on assignments. My absolutely favorite method of feedback that I received as a student, was when my professor recorded feedback on an assignment using the  screen cast format, [Jing is one example]. The file was emailed (and posted in the gradebook). The instructor gave specific, personal commentary, and though it was only 3 or 4 minutes in length, it was effective. Another option is Audacity or Screencast.com.
  4. Feedback/input on Class Discussions. [Not surprising] research also suggests that students respond positively when instructors are involved in class discussions, rating this as a strong indicator of presence.

It takes a completely different skill set to instruct online than in the face-to-face environment. Hopefully this post provided some insight and assistance for those instructors teaching online. I’ll be covering social presence and cognitive presence in part 2 and 3 respectively. Click here for part II, Do we need Social Butterflies in Online Learning Communities?

Resources:
Lehman, R. & S.C.C. Conceicao. (2011). Creating a Sense of Presence in Online Teaching.
Jossy Bass Publishing. San Fransisco, CA.

Kupczynski, L., Ice, P., Wiesenmayer, R., & McCluskey, F. (2010). Student perceptions of the relationship between indicators of teaching presence and success in online courses. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 9 (1).

Photo Credit: Professor: University of Maryland, Flickr