Tag Archives: Social Presence

A New Twist to Teaching Online: Considering Learners’ Emotions

girl_thinkingThe idea of considering students’ emotions in context of online or blended learning may seem absurd. There are numerous factors instructors consider when teaching online that would seem to take priority over students’ emotional state. Yet a recently published paper “Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects” reveals that feelings of learners—their emotions can impact learning in online and blended environments, specifically motivation, self-regulation and academic achievement (Rienties & Rivers, 2014).  I share with readers in this post the concept of ’emotional presence’, what it means for instructors teaching online, and how instructors can address learners’ emotions in their online courses.

The idea of emotional presence builds on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The model provides educators and course designers with a framework to address factors unique to learning online within three dimensions: 1) social presence: where students project their personal characteristics within the online community that position them as ‘real’ people, 2) teaching presence: where the instructor directs the learning process such that students’ sense he or she is ‘there’, and 3) cognitive presence where learners construct meaning through sustained dialogue and communication. Developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer, the CoI model continues to evolve and is the subject of several empirical studies (The Community of Inquiry, n.d.) The three dimensions are the focus of the framework, but the idea of learner emotions and the role they play in the online environment is not addressed. Until now. Recent papers and articles address how learners feelings impact their learning online. 

Emotional Presence Defined
Emotional presence may still seem far-fetched. I like how Terry Anderson, one of the founders of the CoI model describes in a recent blog post how he responded when asked why emotions weren’t included in the original model: “The COI model was developed by 3 men from southern Alberta (Canada’s cowboy country) and that REAL men in our limited world didn’t do emotions! (2014).  But Anderson is supportive of emotional presence as a concept, and of his colleague Maria Cleveland-Innes who published a paper with P. Campbell “Emotional Presence, Learning and the Online Learning Environment (2012). In the paper the authors describe emotional presence as underpinning the broader online experience (pg. 8). They define emotional presence as:

Emotional Presence is the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the  instructor.

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Rienties and Rivers added the emotional circle to the original Venn diagram of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

Why Bother with Emotions?
One might wonder why even bother considering how students are feeling. More so in online environment where it seems impossible to address. Yet after reviewing the research there is evidence from a variety of sources that suggests emotions play a powerful role in learners’ engagement and achievement, and that the role of emotions in online learning deserves special consideration (Artino, 2012; Rienties & Rivers, 2014).

How to Build Emotional Presence in an Online Course
In face-to-face (F2F) classes emotional presence happens seamlessly. Teachers detect emotional cues of students due to their physical proximity. I found several studies examining presence behaviors of teachers working with students in the classroom—a phenomenon labeled ‘instructor immediacy‘. Though it’s beyond the scope of the post to go deeper, several studies validate the importance of such cues and the role of emotions in facilitating learning (Andersen, 1979). If we apply these principles to learning environments without physical closeness, in an online course for instance, there needs to be a deliberate effort to include cues that support emotional presence. Cues visible in F2F settings include, smiling, making eye contact, knowing students by name, and demonstrating interest. In online classes, it’s easier-said-than-done. 

The technology and physical distance create a barrier that make is difficult for instructors to read and reach their students. There is no consensus in the research on best practices for addressing emotional presence in online classes effectively. But between the papers there are several suggestions which I summarized below.

  • Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 9.28.22 PM

    The Vibe’ wellbeing word cloud from the University of New England, 2012, (Rienties & Alders, pg. 12)

    Synchronous discussions via chats or video conferences provide instructors opportunity to assess and read learners emotions that may impact their learning progress, such as uncertainty, confusion, even positive emotions, interest and enthusiasm.

  • Wordclouds implemented in Australian Universities display dynamic pictures of students emotions collectively (see image). It serves several purposes: gives the instructor insight into how students are feeling, and validates students feelings by sharing. Useful for certain phases within a course: the beginning when students might be apprehensive, or during a difficult module or week.
  • Analyzing written text and online discourse in discussion forums by looking for key words may provide insight into learners emotions. Such words as I feel “frustrated”, “overwhelmed”, “behind” are a few examples.
  • Examining learners’ online behaviour in terms of the frequency of logging on, clicks and time spent on certain pages within the LMS (caution, this method provides a one-dimensional perspective and may only be useful when considering other factors).

As online learning evolves and allows us to bring quality education to the learner, there are barriers to consider and overcome. Reading student cues and considering their feelings that may affect their progress is one area that we cannot ignore. It’s studies like those mentioned here that brings us closer to delivering personal, quality and meaningful learning to students.


How to Develop a Sense of Presence in Online and F2F Courses with Social Media

Social presence is a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the college online environment. Two effective interventions are recommended: establishing integrated social and learning communities;… (Liu, Gomez & Len, 2009)

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Presence is considered a central concept in online learning. ‘Presence’ in the online course is understood as the ability of people “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’”. (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). One way of examining ‘presence’ online is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that outlines three interdependent dimensions of presence: social, teaching and cognitive. When all three elements interact, it’s then that students are able to experience deep and meaningful learning.

COI_model_adaptedCoI–is breaking through the social barriers that exist because of the transactional distance between students and instructors (Moore, 1993)…. These human qualities, established through personal sharing, help students develop a sense of trust in and connection with an instructor…foundational for cultivating the social presence needed for a healthy and productive [learning].

Other bodies of research suggest presence is a key factor to engagement, another metric for predicting student success in online coursework. Presence in this context also considers student perceptions of instructor involvement as a central factor. High levels of engagement, studies indicate, lead to higher levels of student achievement, greater likelihood of graduation, and deeper satisfaction (Oblinger, 2014, p 14).

Presence and Social Media
But describing presence in an online course is vague, slippery—hard to describe. It’s a challenge for instructors to figure out how to make presence happen. What does one do to create social and teaching presence in an online course? This post outlines examples that describe how faculty and instructors use social media to establish presence—that feeling of connectedness among students in online and F2F courses. What’s described here, social media as a vehicle for presence-development, is different however from using social media as a pedagogical tool, which I wrote about in a previous post, How to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments. Though there is some overlap. One of the aims of using social media platforms in this context is to bridge the distance gap that exists in online education, to overcome the disconnectedness student can feel when studying online.

Presence in F2F classes: Numerous educators have found that social media tools support a sense of community, or connectedness in face-to-face (F2F) courses as well. One faculty member shares his experience in the Prof Hacker column over at The Chronicle, “Twitter adds to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester” (Sample, 2010).

Examples of Instructors Using Social Media
Below are examples of how instructors use social media platforms to create a sense of being ‘there’.  Note: the methods described here facilitate informal learning; to foster a learning community. Social media used in structured (or formal) learning activities is used as a method to bring about targeted learning outcomes as mentioned earlier.

1) Twitter 
The paper “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence” describes how the Twitter platform creates a sense of community among students. In 140 characters or less, learners share ideas and resources, ask and answer questions, collaborate on problems of practice, participate in discussions at conferences, webinars, or lectures.  A hashtag (a.k.a.the pound sign ‘#’) for a class aggregates all ‘Tweets’ (messages) sent on platform when the hashtag is used as a tag for all class-related messages. For example a professor at Trinity College created a tag #eng685 for his face-to-face English class (Sample, 2010). Hashtags are also used to aggregate tweets on specific topics, e.g. #onlinelearning, #highered.

“Twitter’s just-in-time design allowed students and instructors to engage in sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. Participants noted that using Twitter for socializing and learning purposes felt more “natural and immediate” than did using a formal learning management system.” (Dunlap & Lowenthal, n.d.)

Examples of how Twitter is used:

  • To post news and share resources relevant to the class
  • To ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings
  • Professor Sample allows and encourages students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to class discussion but admits, “This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference” (Sample, 2010).
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Screen shot of the Twitter exchanges between students and instructor for F2F class #eng685

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Screen shot of a current course, ‘Indian Epics’, #ou3043, an online course taught by Professor Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma.

2) Pinterest
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board, and holds great potential for education settings. It’s visual, flexible, customizable by using images, and text to create themed boards that can be templates for projects; individual and group—a tool to support instructional activities. Yet Pinterest also has tremendous potential for increasing presence and interactivity. Professor Gibbs is experimenting with Twitter and Pinterest as vehicles for socializing in two of her online courses this semester:

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Screen shot from Professor Gibbs’ course web page for students describing how to socialize in Indian Epics and Myth & Folklore undergraduate online courses.  Retrieved from http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/83588941/socialize

Gibbs shares links to students’ Pinterest boards on a webpage within the course site on the Pinterest Class Directory. Students can comment on one another’s boards, re-pin to their own board and/or ‘like’ a pin. Students do need sign up for a Pinterest account using an email address.

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Screen shot of a student’s Pinterest board ‘Epics of India Portfolio’. Retrieved from http://www.pinterest.com/catherinelesser/epics-of-india-portfolio/

3)  Google+ Hangouts/Video Conferencing
Real-time meetings, seminar discussions even watching panel discussions over video conferencing platforms are excellent methods to create a feeling being there and together. I’ve participated in several online courses (MOOCs & closed, small online courses) where the Google+ Hangout platform (or similar) has been used in a variety of ways that do create feeling of being in a learning community. Even if students can’t engage in the active discussion on the platform, Twitter is frequently used as the back channel for questions and discussion. Sessions are usually recorded, then posted for students that can’t participate live.

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Screen shot of Google Hangout of a seminar discussion around a class reading with five students and professor of a Massive Open Online Course. Other students’ watching live, asked questions and discussed via Twitter.

4) Instagram
searchInstagram is one of the most popular social media platforms used by high school and college students in North America. It’s similar to Twitter, as the platform uses hashtags, though it’s billed as a photo sharing platform. Yet it has more potential than Twitter since character limit for Instagram captions is 2200, considerably more than Twitter’s 140 limit. Instagram comments have a limit of 240 characters.

I’ve not yet come across examples of educators using Instagram to create social presence for courses, though numerous institutions use Instagram as a marketing vehicle. There is considerable potential in online courses for Instagram as a presence-building tool given its popularity with the younger set—it’s just a matter of time.

Technology is shaping culture. Alternatively, one could say that culture is shaping technology. Whichever viewpoint one takes, social media is central to the change, to the shift in how we communicate, socialize and learn. Educators have an opportunity to help students (and ourselves) blur the lines between informal and formal learning—creating life-long learners.


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 web-conferencing tools for groups that also feature document and screen sharing, including Google Meet, Zoom and others. 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).


A group of students in an online hangout.

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.



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.


  • 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

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).

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.

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