The Next-Big-Thing in Online Education…Learning in Real Time

This article examines the potential of synchronous communication in online education by analyzing the newest tools and platforms that facilitate real-time group communication, and the pedagogy associated with implementing synchronous communication tools into asynchronous learning environments.

synchronous communication in online courses

synchronous communication

Communicating in real-time from a distance has never been easier. There are numerous new platforms and applications (apps) available free-of-charge that are easy-to-use and facilitate seamless communication between geographically distant people with access to a smart phone or laptop. After reading a WSJ article reviewing several smart phone apps that facilitate real-time communication among small groups seamlessly, I realize that the time is coming where synchronous tools will bring online education to the next level. Over the last two years there’s been a flood of free apps and platforms on the market that break down distance barriers and allow people to communicate from their handheld mobile device, tablet or laptop. One example is group video conferencing. There are now several free web-conferencing tools for groups that also feature document and screen sharing, including Google Hangouts, newly launched appear.in (video conversations for up to 8 people), and meetings.io (also free). These platforms knock down the once insurmountable barriers for video conferencing use in education—barriers of student access, and technology that was cumbersome and expensive.

A key aspect of this is the consideration of approaches to capitalizing on the capacity of video communications to reduce isolation and increase personalization of learning experiences for distance students. Indeed there is now scope for the empowerment of distance learners and an opportunity to offer a much wider choice of strategies intended to enhance and support learning (Smyth & Zanetic, 2007). Indications from the research literature are exciting.(Andrews, Tynan, Smyth &  Vale, 2010)

However, one significant barrier still exists when considering synchronous tools for education settings, and that is pedagogy.  From the same paper as the above paragraph, is this statement that describes the barrier crisply, “from a practitioners point-of-view, the challenge will come from the need to be flexible, adaptive and innovative. In other words, the need is to rapidly develop new understandings of pedagogies to best utilize the person-to-person interactivity of emerging technologies” (Andrews et al, 2010).

hangouts

A group of students in an online hangout using the platform meetings.io

The Great Potential: Synchronous Tools for Online Education
These apps and platforms hold great potential for online education—seamless real-time chats, video discussions that can facilitate peer-to-peer, and educator-to-student(s) exchanges that foster social connections, learning support, feedback or create a space for discussion of concepts and ideas in a way the asynchronous communication cannot. The new technology brings with it numerous possibilities. But though the potential is great, so are the challenges associated with implementation. As with any educational technology tool, the purpose for using the tool has to make sense, has to fit in with the curriculum in a pedagogically sound way that supports learning and achievement of the course objectives.

Although video conferencing has been around for some years, in many cases the use has not been informed by rigorous research leading to sound pedagogical practices. videoconferencing has frequently copied typical lecture style format of didactic lecture style delivery rather than exploring approaches….” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

How-to Implement Educational Technology, i.e. Synchronous Tools
Before getting to highlights of the research addressing synchronous tools in online education, I’ll emphasize what needs to happen prior to implementing educational technology into a learning environment, which essentially is a needs analysis. The first step is asking questions—questions such as, “what educational problem are we trying to solve? what method can we apply that supports the problem? what tool will best work for the application that works within the learning context?“.

To be more specific with regards to implementation of synchronous tools as discussed here, the question might be, “How can a synchronous tool be used to improve the learning outcomes, or solve a learning problem that is not being met within asynchronous online classes?

It’s the answers to these questions that guide the learning design process. The next steps are when the real work of course design begins, developing the learning strategy to meet learning objectives ideally by following a model of learning or instructional design [I write extensively about instructional design. A good post for readers interested in learning more about instructional design is "Start Here": Instructional Design Models for Online Courses].

Learning Challenges Synchronous Tools Can Solve
Synchronous tools are not a given for each online course, it will depend upon a number of factors as determined during the course design process. Though to give readers an idea of the types of situations where synchronous tools may be used, I’ve included excerpts from Kansas State University’s webpage ‘synchronous course delivery‘ from its e-learning faculty modules site.  Note, that it’s not always the instructor that will use synchronous tools, but learning counselors, tutors, small groups of students and others.

“Online real-time may be used for a number of learning purposes. There may be a small window of time when an online class may access a digital lab; a simulation; …an interactive streamed event.

….to introduce learners starting a cohort-based program. … there may be icebreakers to help people connect online….

…for academic and professional advising and counseling. It may be used for group or expert critiques of student designs and e-portfolios.

….for student group work, collaborations, and study sessions. Learners may interact with each other for problem-solving, planning, co-design, or strategy sessions.

If there is not a need for synchronous learning, then it may well be better left alone.e-learning faculty modules, 2012

No Talking Heads
One of the papers I review here from the International Journal of Education Technology, provides sound advice based upon the research, and one worthy of highlighting is that synchronous tools should not be used as a one-way medium, a format where the instructor can deliver information in real-time, but instead be viewed as a vehicle that allows for the exchange of information, for accommodating three or four-way [or more] conversations that build learning, ideas and learners’ motivation. The synchronous communication medium should be reserved only for exchanges that support a course objective or other learning-related function that can’t be accomplished through asynchronous methods.

“In other words students find the talking head presentation to be undesirable. This finding is not a new one (Commeaux, 1995; Schiller & Mitchell, 1993)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

Research Highlights
Below are a selection of highlights from the papers referenced in this post that outline the impact of, and considerations for synchronous methods used in online education.

1) Building Social and Teacher Presence: More than one study suggests that synchronous communication activities support the social needs of online students not typically met in the asynchronous format, “Social support is desirable as a way to foster knowledge work and collaborative learning; it provides an environment where communication is encouraged; e.g., anecdotes and personal experiences encourage trust, which foster receptive and creative learning environment” (Hranstinski, 2008).

Synchronous activities contribute to building of social presence, one of the three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a  frequently referenced model that describes the conditions for optimal online learning experience (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000). When the three dimensions are present, teacher presence, social presence and cognitive presence, the student can experience deep and meaningful learning. Purposefully developed synchronous [and asynchronous] activities can contribute to building social and teaching presence as supported by the research cited here.

2) Group Size: The purpose of a group activity as determined by the course design process, will determine the appropriate group size as well as the best tool or platform to support it.

It is worth noting here that multi-point videoconferencing is most effective with small groups of students (20 to 25 across 3 or 4 sites) as stated by Mason, (1994) cited in Burke, London and Daunt (1997)…” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

Video and hangout platforms each have a limit to the number of individuals participating at once, as do chat platforms, which again reinforces why the instructional strategy created in the course design process is critical. The meetings.io platform for instance allows up to five people per hangout, ideal for a small group discussion, while Google Hangout accommodates up to ten, which may be applicable for a meet-and-greet type session held at the beginning of a course.

Chat platforms, for example whatsapp, might be used effectively for group discussions, i.e. one question related to a course topic, where students contribute initial thoughts and exchange ideas, followed by an asynchronous forum discussion continuing the conversation.

3) Differences in Time Zones: One of the drawbacks of synchronous tools often cited is students living in different time zones, however in closed online courses for credit, this is not as much of an issue as massive courses that cater to a world-wide audience (though even in these instances, there are ways to accommodate learners in different time zones). In my personal experience with synchronous activities in closed, online classes, most students are willing to adjust their schedule to participate in synchronous activities, more so when activities have a clear purpose and appear worthy of students time.

“Students were willing to deal with the problems of time difference in order to take advantage of this opportunity, which, on this occasion, resulted in very early classes. Additionally, they liked the experience of interacting with a wider peer group and of learning from each other’s different knowledge-base and backgrounds.” (Andrews & Klease, 2002)

4 ) Instructor and Student Familiarity with Tool: As with any technology used in online education, familiarity with the technology is essential to establish the foundation for a successful learning outcome. The institution is responsible for providing professional development for faculty and instructors, and working with course designers/instructors to build-in course time for student practice with the tool, and make available resources that support students (and faculty) with the technological issues.

Resources:

References

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.

Three Strategies for Online Credit Courses to Stay Competitive in 2013

Finish line.How will online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates be able to compete in 2013?

The year of 2012 is the year of the MOOC in the higher education sector. MOOC mania has me rather ‘MOOCed’ out by trying to keep up with the latest news and updates, though these massive open online courses are transforming education, despite a handful of details that still need to be worked out. The MOOC influence is so great, not only are schools changing policies on credit equivalency, the Carnegie Foundation the founder of the credit unit, is reconsidering its model.

These changes are significant, and no doubt will affect not just face-to-face courses, but online courses offered for credit. I’m referring to the hundreds of courses offered online by colleges and universities across the US. These courses serve a need for students looking to obtain general education credits [or other] towards a Bachelor’s Degree or certificate. Yet even these online credit courses may be threatened by MOOCs if the trend continues towards the granting of credit for certain xMOOC courses (courses offered through platforms such as Coursera or Udacity).

What can institutions that offer online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates do to compete? The answer is to differentiate—offer an educational experience that goes beyond what the MOOC offers. Below I’ve listed three strategies that can provide a unique and alternative experience to massive open online courses.

1. Limit class sizes for Personalized Learning Experience

Class sizes of up to twenty students is an ideal size for an instructor to facilitate discussion, provide meaningful feedback on assignments and give instruction to individuals and small groups. Up to thirty may be manageable, but beyond that, it becomes a challenge. One premise of MOOCs is the massive component, which usually means students are not able to develop a personal connection or receive individual feedback from the instructor.

By emphasizing personalized learning, students will be able to discern the difference in the learning experience between massive and personalized.

2. Create an Interactive Community with Synchronous Meetings

One significant drawback to online learning [in credit courses] mentioned frequently (by its critics and students)  is the lack of an interactive component as most classes are asynchronous. Though it is possible to create a connected learning community with a strong instructor presence, research shows students frequently cite lack of interaction with, and/or feedback from instructor as a significant drawback.

The solution to this conundrum seems obvious— offer a synchronous component where the instructor at least once a week addresses the entire class perhaps with a short lecture followed by a discussion, or break-out group sessions (possible with some tools such as Elluminate Live).  Instructors can also conduct one-on-one meetings with students for specific instruction or support. Offering synchronous class meetings in the past was challenging because of the lack of accessible tools for real-time meetings. Now there are numerous options that are accessible, offered at little cost to the institution and/or no cost to the student (if going outside the learning management platform) including:

  • zoom.us: Free video conferencing and screen sharing
  • Google + Hangouts: Free with Google + account
  • Go to Meeting: Free trial period, fee based afterwards
  • Big Marker: Free video conferencing and collaboration tools
  • Elluminate Live (which is available through most LMS platforms or independently outside of the LMS)
  • Skype: video calls

The second barrier often mentioned is the issue of students living in different time zones making meeting times challenging. In my experience with synchronous lectures offered in an online credit course I took in grad school, most students were able to make the meeting time. Our class included students all across the US and several in other countries. The session was recorded for later viewing for students unable to make the meeting. I suggest that time zone differences should not be a reason to rule out using synchronous meetings. Most conferencing tools have a recording option allowing the meeting to be posted later for students to view for the first time, or for review.

collaboration3. Build in Collaborative Group Work:

Building community with group work meets the needed social component, where students feel they belong, and are recognized as an individual. Research has found that the psychological distance, or rather lack of community in the online learning environment can result in student isolation, frustration, boredom, overload, and low course completion rates. Conversely, students that feel a social connection, which can be accomplished through group work, achieved deeper learning and higher grades (Young & Bruce, 2011).

Well-constructed group activities that require students to collaborate and not just cooperate (this post reviews the difference), have the opportunity to acquire knowledge through creating a product that represents their learning.  Furthermore, when groups create a product (i.e. slide share presentation) that is openly shared with other class groups, further discourse ensues which can promote deeper learning.

The key to successful group work is small groups, ideally between three and four group members, instructor guidance and sometimes involvement (usually at the beginning phase), and an application(s) that groups can use to meet both synchronously and asynchronously.

Resources developing group work activities:
5 tools for Group Collaboration Online, Online Learning Insights
Strategies for Effective Group Work in the Online Class, Online Learning Insights

Competition?
Are institutions out there promoting courses with this kind of interaction as discussed here? Maybe. But there is a soon-to-be-launched consortium of ten schools Semester Online, that is planning on offering a differentiated online experience. They have  identified a gap between what traditional learning offers and MOOCs offer to students. Semester Onlines’ announcement in November seemed to slip under the radar, it wasn’t picked up by many of the online higher education newsletters. Here is an excerpt from Semester Online’s press release:

“We anticipate worldwide interest and demand for Semester Online courses. With that said our live classroom environments will be limited to 20 students per course section and we will closely monitor all courses to ensure the highest quality academic experience.” Chip Paucek, Co-founder and CEO, 2U Inc.

Closing Thoughts
No doubt 2013 will shape up to be just as tumultuous as 2012. It is an exciting time for education; barriers to learning are coming down like never before. Students are changing too; they want to be able to learn anytime, anywhere, and are seeking value. Any institution offering online courses for credit, is almost obligated to consider differentiating the learning experience by offering personalized learning, interactive learning communities and opportunities for rich learning through group collaboration. It is indeed an exciting and busy time for educators. Cheers to 2013!

Related Resources:
Tools for Synchronous and Asynchronous Classroom Discussion,(2012) ProfHacker
Classroom Community and Student Engagement in Online Courses, (2011), JOLT
Semester Online, Press Release

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

What Students really think about Online Learning…

What do students really think about online learning – do they love it? Hate it? There are numerous research reports, studies and articles about online learning, many of which provide data and statistics on enrollment rates, perceived learning and more, but its the unedited, raw comments of actual students, as I wrote about in my last post that is invaluable to course instructors, designers and online educators. I’ll share in this post not only actual student comments, but conclude with observations for what we as educators can do to support online learning and its students.

Below is a collection of [select] student feedback from anonymous feedback reports from online surveys given at the end of 100% online college courses for credit – its unedited, and telling of how students really feel. I’ve grouped feedback into four categories, 1) interaction/learning community  2) technical  3) course design/structure  and 4) learning environment. Most interesting is that of all the feedback (from 115 students) less than 5%  of comments involved the course instructor.

What you [hopefully] will appreciate, is how the students are honest, share there feelings and are real. To put the feedback in context, here’s a bit of background of where it comes from:

Overview of Program
Below you’ll find the most representative responses from 115  student feedback forms from a possible 236 students (49% response rate). Also note, feedback is from a small program, 15 courses, general education, for credit, with video lectures as the main content delivery method. LMS platform is Moodle. Responses below to open-ended questions, either ‘what did you like ‘least’ about the course, and ‘what did you like best about the course’.

Learning Environment [online versus traditional]…

  • “..the online environment, definitely will be taking courses in person for [next] semesters” [response to 'what you like least...]
  • The online environment, I tried it but I will most definitely be taking courses in person from now on. I have found that I struggle with time management and would benefit from scheduled class meetings.”
  • “it was a little rough at the beginning to understand the instructions. A little more clarity at the beginning would be helpful.”
  • “I would benefit a lot more from scheduled class meetings, personally struggled with time management.”
  • “I liked the course because it was easier to complete all of the work. I was able to do everything on my own time with a deadline at the end of the week. I also liked the weekly discussion boards.”
  • “that i could take it at my own pace”
  • “I really appreciated this course being offered in the online format. It allowed me to fit it into my schedule easily…”

Interaction/learning community…

  • “I hate the class discussions, but I understand its to make it more interactive but I wish they weren’t there. They could just be assignments.”
  • “I loved the personal classroom feel of the videos and the message board posting assignments.”
  • “The lack of ability to interact.”
  • ..Well it is online. So I wish I had more live interaction with students even if was view a Skype class time.”
  • “It was an efficient alternative to taking the class physically.”
  • The group project. I chose this course because I don’t have time, working, school, and running a household to work with other people. I work best alone and was not able to participate much.”

Course Design/Structure…

  • “I would want the flow of the course to be more smooth and logically structured rather than separated by blocks and topics that must be covered. Also, I wish some questions on quizzes were more clear and not misleading.”
  • “Some of the lectures were long, but that’s just me and my attention span.”

Technical…

  • “I wish I could have been able to download the videos so I could watch more of them in the time I had. It would have been nice if I could put them on the mobile device.”
  • “I enjoyed watching the videos at my convenience but I wish I could have downloaded them since the local weather often interfered with my ability to stream the videos.”
  • “…please make more of the videos downloadable for mobile devices like Kindle fire, androids, iPad, etc.”
  • “….online program is good, but honestly and with all respect, not great. I was not able to get any mobile application (iPad) to work ….that is a major setback in that many online students take courses because of the flexibility it offers”

Conclusions

  • Students are demanding ‘mobile‘ learning options – a high percentage of comments were requesting mobile.
  • Time management appears to be a factor for those struggling with online learning.
  • Numerous students mention the flexibility of online learning as a positive factor.
  • Majority of students want interaction and personal connection.
  • Effective course design is needed for clarity of instructions, and ease of navigation within the course environment (being able to find resources, instructions easily).

Related Post:
Click here for previous post, How unfavorable student feedback improves online courses, which provides tips and resources for creating student feedback surveys.

Critical thinking in the Online Classroom

This is part 3 in a 3 part series discussing the concept of ‘presence’ in online learning communities.

I’ve been writing about online presence in this series and though complex, it is best understood by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, a framework of three dimensions that work together to create what I call a complete learning experience (though the  creators of the model call it an ‘educational experience’ where all three coincide (Garrison et al., 2000). In part one, I reviewed instructor presence  and part two, social presence. Though this third dimension is officially labeled ‘cognitive presence‘ I have made reference to critical thinking, as this is what should be happening in the cognitive presence domain, which I’ll elaborate on further in the post. I’ll also provide several examples of what cognitive presence looks like (or sounds like as I’ll be using actual student feedback to illustrate), and for those interested, practical strategies to build and support cognitive presence (critical thinking) in an online learning community.

What is Cognitive Presence?
I thought social presence was the most abstract and elusive, but I was wrong, it’s this dimension, Cognitive Presence that is the hardest to get my head around and put on paper. It’s in this dimension where all the action is – where the student learns - thinks critically – he or she goes through the process of constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking. This model is interesting, as it illustrates how other aspects of presence, social and teaching presence need to exist before critical thinking skills are engaged and deep learning can happen. Though CoI is a model (or theory), I do see how it works in real life learning communities, based upon my analysis of student feedback, engagement levels (measured by LMS activity) and retention numbers of our online student body at my workplace. Granted, some level of learning can happen without either social or teacher presence, yet to create the very best environment for learning online all three dimensions are necessary.

cognitive presence: is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

How does cognitive presence lead to critical thinking?
There are four categories of events within the cognitive dimension that need to happen to stimulate the cognitive processes and critical thinking, 1) triggering event, 2) exploration, 3) integration and 4) resolution. These are nothing new from the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

These events do not need to happen sequentially, they may overlap and run into one another – it might get messy, but all this to illustrate the need for meaningful interaction and discourse that supports the student’s development of higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for developing Critical Thinking
Creating opportunities within the course for these above mentioned events to happen takes planning, it is part of the instructional strategy, the course design. However, It does not have to be complicated, or time-consuming to develop – but intentional and purposeful. Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence.

  • Discussion forums that include meaningful and thought-provoking questions that get students to think and apply the course content. Clear participation guidelines and expectations for students are an important part of the activity. Instructor involvement will be needed to monitor and guide the discussion.
  • Small group activities where students discuss a topic, even a complex one – with the goal of creating something together – for example, a [unified] position statement on a controversial  topic OR an analysis of a problem [in the form of a presentation] that involves applying the course content and drawing upon other resources.
  • Forum structured for a debate – this takes some upfront work – but is worthwhile. For example, the instructor assigns each student one of three points of view on a given [controversial] topic, prompting students to engage in discussion/discourse through an asynchronous discussion forum [or live chat] defending their assigned point of view, even if they do not personally support that point of view. This can be effective, as it encourages students to appreciate diversity, acknowledge others’ perspectives and points of view different from their own.
  • Reflection Activities – having students create a blog for to work on throughout the course is one example, where students discuss and write about what they’ve learned in class. This is effective in promoting thinking, and getting students to internalize content. Other reflection activities could be as simple as students creating a Slideshare presentation, blog post, or forum posting at the end of the course describing the critical things they learned from the class, how the class might have changed his or her thinking and/or how they will apply the new knowledge beyond the class.

A study reported in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2007 on cognitive building activities similar to those mentioned above, determined factors contributing to the activities success:

  1. They were well structured.
  2. They provided clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the students.
  3. They provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions. (Kanuka et al., 2007).

What the students say…
You may be thinking, OK sounds good in theory but does this really work with students? Yes I believe it does – after reading through student responses from our last session in our online program at my workplace I was convinced more than ever, not only of the value of the instructor and his or her presence, but that discussion forums and group activities do develop critical thinking, promote deep thinking and engage students’ higher order thinking skills.  Below I’ve shared feedback from students, which are responses to the question “What did you like best about the course?

I liked how certain questions were asked and then I was allowed to think about them. Then when I came to the conclusion that I was not sure, Dr. ____ then took us to the [course materials] to draw our conclusions…”  [Discussion forums encouraged critical discourse].

“I loved the challenge of this course to compare philosophy [from different viewpoints]…. The choice project was awesome being able to watch films and converse about their philosophical meaning was very fun.”  [Comparing activity forced use of critical thinking]

“Probably the responses required by students after the reading assignments … it made me think deeply and apply my answer not only to the material, but to other [areas] as well.”  [This reflection activity supports analysis and deep thinking].

These are real student comments, though I’ve removed professor names, and references to specific course materials to protect privacy of students.

In this post, I’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done in this presence domain, as there are factors to consider that I’ve not been able to address, for example course topic, delivery platform, course duration, number of students etc. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for supporting and promoting critical thinking within your own online courses.

Resources:
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-10

Kanuka, H., Liam, R. & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260 – 271.

Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

 Part 2 in a 3 part series on Presence in online learning communities.

Does it matter if students are social in an online learning community? Should we be concerned if students lurk in the background, not participate, be a [virtual] wall flower? At first blush you might think so. Isn’t this a benefit of online, letting learners choose their level of participation? I’ll take a stand on this – not OK. It’s not beneficial to learn in a vacuum, though in the ‘virtual’ world this is exactly what can [and does] happen. In one of the MOOC‘s I participated in (for a short stint that is), I remember reading a post of one of the participants who said she much preferred learning online because she could fade into the background, and participate minimally or not at all, and not be called out.

This may be preferred by some, yet much research contradicts – it appears that students want social connection – in fact one study  by Swan and Shih discovered that learners who perceived a strong social presence recorded higher scores of perceived learning, and cited learning from their peers as a benefit (2005). Another study, conducted in an online community [albeit within a social gaming platform as opposed to a learning community], examined the effectiveness of member’s engagement and repeat visits in a group gaming environment. Results revealed that when there was visual representation of group member, in other words a profile picture, the study participants exhibited higher levels of engagement [return visits to the site] and longer participation times. (Gaytan & McEwen,2007). The implications for learning environments are profound, by one [seemingly] simple action, a learner uploading an image of him or her self in the learning platform, a sense of social presence is supported.

What does social Presence look like?
Social presence in the online community is more abstract, intangible than instructor presence [as discussed in my last post], yet social presence, one of the three dimensions of presence required for complete learning is the most difficult to describe and create, and is further complicated because it is out of the instructors control. Social presence is felt by learners, yet is created by the course design and participation of other learners, in contrast to instructor presence which is mainly driven by instructor behaviours and participation. Hence the challenge.

And though social presence is a much discussed topic in literature about online learning, there are numerous [sometimes vague] definitions – the one I believe to be most fitting is:

“the sense where the learner feels part of the community, by demonstrating willingness to engage in communication exchanges,  perceives learners and instructor to be real people, and is able to project him or herself  in the online environment confidently.”

students sitting in health classIn face-to-face environments, there is a stark contrast as to how to gauge, visualize and describe social presence. In the nearby illustration, we see that the learner is present and the instructor can read the body language, make eye contact (or lack there of), identify facial expressions of learners – read the visual cues.

Why is building social presence necessary?
Social presence allows the learner to feel ‘connected’ with an emotional and personal connection to the group in order that they can express themselves socially, and eventually cognitively which ultimately leads to engagement with content and concepts. This is described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, where the 3 presence dimensions are required for meaningful and effective learning to take place.  It is not only this model which emphasizes the social component, Kellar’s ARCS model of motivation design for learning builds on similar principles in the Attention dimension [the 'A' in ARCS].

In years past, when I was in training and development and conducted day long [f2f] seminars, I thought that ‘social presence’ was an extra, the nice-to-have, not the need- to-have.  In this context social presence, was created by the ‘rapport’ building exercises, also known as ice-breaker activities. These activities, in a sense did build social presence, and did help facilitate learning. Also I had the 3-dimensional advantage, where I could recognize when learners were bored [this happened more often than I'd like to admit], lost focus or would need to be drawn out. This is not so easy to do online. In fact, what is most interesting about creating social presence in online learning, is that activities and actions must be considered and planned for within the course design – built into the fabric of the course, and throughout the course. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

How to Create Social Presence Online Community?
There are a few things we have done at my workplace with our online courses to support building social presence

  1. Encourage learners to upload a picture or avatar to his or her profile (we use Moodle). Though we make this voluntary, about 75% of students do so.
  2. Create Orientation Activities just prior to classes starting. In our online program, we give students access to their course home page(s), 4 or 5 days prior to official start date of class, and among other activities we have students participate in introduction forum where they post a bio and introduce themselves and share their interests etc.
  3. Design learning activities which encourage group interaction (ideally small group activities). This will vary from course to course depending upon learning content and objectives, but each course has unique small group activities where groups work on a project together, conduct peer reviews and share work samples, or engage in small group discussion.
  4. Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
  5. Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
  6. Use discussion forums  with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
  7. Post discussion forum etiquette. Create and post guidelines for posting to discussion forums.

Above are only a few suggestions. There are many great resources available on the Web. I’ve included a slide share below which includes some helpful tips, and also refers to the Community of Inquiry model.  Further resources listed below.

Related Posts:
Part I: Instructor Presence in the Online Class: Key to Learner Success, Click here

References:
Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal Of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132.

Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005, October). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9 (3), 115-136.