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Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology Volume 29(2) FSpring / printemps 2003 Content and Community Redux: Instructor and Student Interpretations of Online Communication in a Graduate Seminar
Mary E. Dykes Richard A. Schwier Authors Mary E. Dykes, M.Ed., is an instructional designer in the Main Library at the University of Saskatchewan Richard A. Schwier, Ed.D., is a professor of Educational Communications and Technology at the University of Saskatchewan
The experiences of an instructor and teaching assistant who employed online communication strategies in a graduate seminar are examined in this paper. This paper expands on the findings reported in an earlier article on virtual learning communities founded on social constructivist pedagogy (Schwier & Balbar, 2002). We examine how the instructors constructed and refined structured discussions of content with synchronous and asynchronous communication at the graduate level. The instructors offer several observations and principles that are organized into categories that illustrate the source, message, channel and receiver in the communication system. The critical reflections of the instructors are compared with data from interviews with students about learning experienced in the online discussions (Dykes, 2003). Findings include the realization that instructors may fundamentally misinterpret or overlook important elements of communication, but that students are robust learners who can transcend the limitations of the medium and the instructor if given the authority in a social constructivist learning environment.
Nous étudions dans cet article l'expérience d'un chargé de cours et d'un aide enseignant ayant utilisé des stratégies de communications en ligne dans le cadre d'un séminaire d'études supérieures. Cet article développe les conclusions d'un article antérieur sur les communautés d'apprentissage virtuelles fondées sur une pédagogie socioconstructiviste (Schwier & Balbar, 2002). Nous examinons la façon dont les chargés de cours ont organisé et perfectionné, au niveau des études supérieures, des discussions structurées d'un contenu par le biais de communications synchrones et asynchrones. Les chargés de cours ont formulé des observations, ainsi que des principes, qui ont été regroupés en catégories reflétant la source, le message, le canal et le récepteur du système de communication. Les réflexions critiques des chargés de cours sont comparées à des données provenant d'entrevues avec des étudiants sur leur expérience d'apprentissage au moyen de discussions en ligne (Dykes, 2003). Parmi les conclusions, la mise en évidence du fait que les chargés de cours peuvent interpréter de façon fondamentalement erronée ou négliger des éléments importants de la communication, mais que les étudiants sont des apprenants énergiques qui peuvent dépasser les limitations du médium, voire du chargé de cours, si on leur en donne l'autorité dans un environnement d'apprentissage socioconstructiviste.
The purpose of this paper is to document the experiences of two instructors (a professor and a teaching assistant) as they attempted to deliberately foster the development of a virtual learning community by using synchronous and asynchronous online events in a graduate seminar and to compare their reflections with what the students reported about their learning in online discussions. We believe that beyond the considerable rhetoric currently afforded virtual learning communities, there is value in sharing the common, everyday experiences and observations drawn from reflective practice (Burge, Laroque&Boak, 2000; Marland, 1997), and that there is a strong possibility that instructors and students are interpreting online experiences differently. The notion of how to define, build and nurture virtual learning communities and communities of practice has received a great deal of attention in recent years in contexts as diverse as business and education (c.f., Earnshaw, 2001; Kisielnicki, 2002; Nichani, 2002; Renninger&Shumar, 2002; Schwier, 2001; Wenger, 1998; Werry&Mowbray, 2001). Students in online academic courses hold
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membership in a community of sorts, but for some students, interaction with and support from peers is not important (Conrad, 2002). On the other hand, the use of collaborative exercises in the online environment is strongly recommended to promote learning (Harasim, Starr, Teles&Turoff, 1995; Paloff&Pratt, 1999). For example, student-led discussion groups are an effective learning exercise for new online learners (Cartwright, 2000; Schwier&Balbar, 2002) because they invite participants to engage with content in a community of learners. It is part of the instructor's role to create and foster community among students if the instructor believes learning is enhanced through interaction with participants as well as content (Parchoma, 2003). Research on general instructional strategies for online learning are grounded in social constructivist pedagogy (Berge, 1999; Collison, Elbaum, Haavind&Tinker, 2000; Salmon, 2000; Schrum&Berge, 1997; Stephanson, 2001). Social construction of knowledge cannot develop without discussion. New knowledge is generated through a social process, involving interaction with instructors, peers, and the environment. Knowledge cannot be separated from the cultural and social context in which it was formed. Online discussion supports social constructivist learning by allowing learners to express their existing knowledge and interact with others to negotiate, co-create and expand knowledge (Collison et al., 2000; Salmon, 2000). We follow the online communication experiences of a group of students and the instructors in educational communications and technology as they participated in a seminar on the foundations of educational technology. Specifically, we wanted to catalog the experiences and reflect on several lessons learned about how online communication strategies could be used to enhance the learning environment. In addition, we wanted to consider whether a balance between content and community could be achieved with a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online events. Several sources of data inform the ideas presented in this paper. Our observations were drawn from the reflections of the instructor and the teaching assistant in the seminar, and from a review of logs for all of the asynchronous and synchronous activities. The logs effectively covered the entire year and provide verbatim records of each online event. Following the completion of the course, and after marks were posted, student volunteers and the instructor were asked to participate in a study by Dykes, and these data were used to confirm, challenge or qualify the observations of the instructors. Among other things, students were asked to describe what they learned by acting as online discussion leaders and as discussion participants, and to compare their impressions of learning during discussion sessions to their impressions of learning after reviewing their discussion logs. But we don't suggest that we followed a rigorous research protocol. In this paper, we are offering our observations based on our experiences and informed by other sources of data, but we invite the reader to confront our ideas critically.
This was the second year in which the instructors experimented with online communication activities to substitute for significant portions of the course. During the 2000-2001 academic year, a group of seven graduate students, a teaching assistant and an instructor used synchronous communication (chat) and asynchronous communication (bulletin board) in a theory course in Educational Communications and Technology for an eight-month period. The results of that experience were reported by Schwier and Balbar (2002). In summary, despite severe cautions in distance education literature about using synchronous online communication in instruction (Freitas, Myers,&Avtgis, 1998; Haefner, 2000; Murphy&Collins, 1997), synchronous online communication was found to have significant pedagogical benefits. Synchronous online communication contributed dramatically to the continuity and convenience of the class, and promoted a strong sense of community. At the same time, it was viewed as less effective than asynchronous communication for dealing with content and issues deeply, and it introduced a number of pedagogical and intellectual limitations. Asynchronous activities, on the other hand, seemed to allow for more depth and reflection about issues, but lacked some of the community-nurturing benefits of the chat sessions. One conclusion was that synchronous and asynchronous strategies were suitable for different types of learning (Mason, 1998), and what the instructors experienced was a balancing act between content and community in the group. A combination of synchronous and asynchronous experiences seems to be necessary to promote the kind of engagement and depth required in a graduate seminar. But from this single experience, the instructors weren't able to draw any conclusions about where the fulcrum for balancing content and community should be positioned in order to promote the balance we sought. So in the second year they introduced a systematic approach to the online events in the course, and provided for an equal number of synchronous and asynchronous events.
Three factors dramatically changed the learning environment from that experienced in the 2000/01 delivery of this course: 1. Enrollment increased significantly (from seven to thirteen). The classroom setting no longer included the entire student group in every session. Two-way videoconferencing was used for several sessions with approximately half of the students. 2. Online discussions shifted from mainly synchronous to a balance of asynchronous and synchronous events. 3. Two chat sessions were offered for each synchronous event, and students could choose which session to attend.
The classroom participants included twelve graduate students, one person auditing the course, and the instructor (n = 14). The regular online discussion participants included these people plus the teaching assistant moderator, and the teaching assistant from the previous year (n = 16). Eight of the twelve students and the instructor participated in a case study of learning experienced in student led online discussions (Dykes, 2003). Students were interviewed after course delivery about learning experienced in their roles as discussion leader and discussion participant and how the method of communication, bulletin or chat, facilitated or hindered learning in either role. The eight participants included four students from the institution that offered the course. Three of these students were beginning their M.Ed.
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programs and one of the three had some experience with online communities. The fourth student was in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program and had extensive experience with online learning. The remaining four students in the study came from a sister institution. All of these students were finishing their M.Ed. programs. One student had previous experience with the design of online discussions but this was his first experience as a student in online learning.
The course schedule included seven classes where students and the instructor met for a full day, for approximately seven hours of instruction and discussion. The entire class met three times on the campus of the home institution; four sessions were delivered via videoconference from the home institution to a sister institution with the group divided between the two locations. An eighth session included videotaped lectures and accompanying resource material delivered by the instructor.
Online Discussion Setting
The online discussions included both synchronous and asynchronous formats. The normal pattern for online discussion of each topic was to post to bulletin (asynchronous) in the first week, then meet in a chat room (synchronous) the second week to discuss themes that emerged from the bulletin. The instructors found after the first discussion that the entire group of 16 participants was too large to conduct an effective academic discussion in synchronous format, so two sessions were scheduled for the remaining chat sessions, and students were permitted to select the session that fit their schedules. In six sessions the instructor or teaching assistant selected the topic for discussion, the resource reading for the topic, and prepared the introduction for bulletin discussion and questions for chat. Students led six two-week discussion sessions. The students selected the topic and reading (approved in advance of discussion by the instructors) and prepared the introductory questions for bulletin and chat in cooperation with the teaching assistant. In each twoweek session there were two student moderators. Eight students led discussion independently; four students collaborated to present the same topic in two discussion periods. The eight students who participated in the study included the four team moderators plus four students who moderated individually.
In this section we outline the methodology and supporting literature for the case study conducted after the course was delivered (Dykes, 2003). Previous research into learning in online discussions has used quantitative research methods for analyzing and classifying individual text messages to measure or assess student participation, interaction, and levels of thinking (Bullen, 1997; HowellRichardson&Mellar, 1966; Ruberg, Moore&Taylor, 1996). Other studies based on qualitative methodology (Burge, 1994; Burge, Laroque&Boak, 2000; Kanuka&Anderson, 1998; Stacey, 1999) use data from interviews with students and instructors to describe and analyze learning. Kanuka and Anderson (1998) describe student postings as a potentially incomplete indication of learning. "It should be noted that individual participants might be processing information internally in a reflective manner but not sharing these thoughts with other participants" (p. 69). The interview as a data-gathering instrument might encourage students to describe examples of learning moments with more detail than a survey or questionnaire. Students were invited to participate in the study after the delivery of the course and final marks had been submitted. They were aware that the instructor would be informed of the results of their interviews for the purpose of improving the online discussion exercises for the next iteration of the course, but they were assured that the participants would be anonymous, and that the instructor would not be privy to original data. Students were asked to comment on the process of adapting to discussions in the online environment, learning experienced in the roles of discussion moderator and participant, learning experienced in asynchronous and synchronous discussion as moderator and participant, learning experienced in a review of discussion logs. They were also asked if the roles adopted by the instructor and the teaching assistant in discussions helped or hindered learning. In his interview, the instructor described the expected outcomes of the discussion exercise and gave his reaction to the student experiences of learning. The reflections of the instructors in this paper are intended to provide examples of practical theory (Marland, 1997) within social constructivist pedagogy. Burge, Laroque and Boak (2000) encourage instructors and researchers to include reflective descriptions of practice and strategies used in online instruction. "We believe that it is time now to encourage the writing of intrapersonally reflective and frank records of our experience with Web-Based practice" (p. 82).
Observations Drawn From the Experience
The experiences of the first application of online discussions in this course reported by Schwier and Balbar analysed synchronous and asynchronous interactions as they affect content and community. In our analysis of the revised online discussion structure adapted by the instructors in this offering of the course, we continue with the theme of content and community, but we classify our observations using the framework of classic elements of communication: source, message, channel and receiver. By using this lens for our analysis, we see interesting shifts of perception in the roles of source/instructor, receiver/student and new relationships between content and community. This approach is used for convenience to organize our discussion, and we do not mean to suggest that it is easy or always advisable to categorize ideas in this way. Certainly, all of the elements interact to influence any particular event, and it would be folly to suggest that we can de-contextualize any of the elements in what was a dynamic communication system. We also acknowledge that roles shift, and for example, students may at various times be a source, channel, message or receiver.
By source, we refer to the instructor and teaching assistant in the course, who met weekly to generate ideas, shape on-ramp
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messages, and discuss the progress of the course. For most online events, the teaching assistant prepared or edited initial messages on a topic, and also acted as a touchstone for members of the class as they prepared for their own session moderating a discussion. The points listed below describe the areas of responsibility and authority as well as the initial approach adapted by the instructor and teaching assistant. We will revisit some of these points later when we analyse the experience from 2001/02. Approaches, Strategies and Observations by the Instructor and Teaching Assistant The instructor emphasized that it was important to balance authority and encouragement. The instructor needs to be aware that in order for dialogue to flow freely and for a community to develop, there is a need to temper the natural compulsion to control the classto hold too firm a grip on the direction of the course. In this course, the instructor and the teaching assistant decided to use the instructor's voice to encourage dialogue without appearing prescriptive or directive, particularly in the topics early in the course. With this in mind, the teaching assistant performed a role that would have been difficult for the instructor to fulfill without compromising his goals for the classroom learning environment. The instructor and the teaching assistant adopted different responsibilities as instruction and discussion shifted between classroom setting and online environment. The online environment was intended as a place where students would interact with students, so the teaching assistant was more prominent than the instructor in that setting. Even with the instructor acting as a spectator, there was a natural tendency to solicit his opinions. As leader of discussion, or coordinator of student moderators, the assistant was a gatekeeperbetween the instructor and students, and the gatekeeper could act to limit, expand or qualify messages passed between other actors in the communication system. The assistant's role shifted between discussion leader in early sessions and a resource person the students could call upon when they prepared their own sessions. The instructor and teaching assistant wanted to make sure that the strength of the instructor's voice didn't drown out other voices or dominate discussions. They were aware that students might look to the instructor as the voice of authority, and we wanted to persuade participants to engage each other in conversation. As a result, the instructor remained relatively quiet in early chats, and primarily asked or redirected questions, and the teaching assistant took primary responsibility for moderating online chats. After a few sessions, the instructor was able to increase his involvement in the discussions, and by the mid-point of the class, could participate fully in discussions without disrupting the flow of conversation. The negotiation of content between instructor and student was another important area where the instructor felt the need to carefully balance authority and encouragement. Even when using a social constructivist approach to content, the instructor must validate the topic and/or content of discussions. The instructor, while not controlling discussion, needs to endure that: subjects dealt with are appropriate for the course; students possess enough prior learning in a topic to participate in discussion; and discussion provides an opportunity for intellectual growth and new understanding rather than a forum to revisit familiar and comfortable themes. The instructor suggested that it was his responsibility to pick the venue for discussion. Some issues lend themselves more to online communication than do others, and the instructor needs to be a savvy leader who can tell the difference. We will discuss the nature of messages in another section, but the point here is that the instructor must know what will work well as an online topic, and this is really no different than knowing what will work well in a classroom. The instructor found that he needed to have a high level of commitment to and energy for teaching in this context, perhaps even more than with conventional teaching. Online learning environments are time consuming to create and nurture. They are more taxing than traditional learning environments because they require instructors to attend to students in new ways, and to be more accessible to students. The instructor found that the online course required more of his time, and he had to manage it more effectively than with a traditional course. Online instructors can be reached easily at any time. If a student sends an email or an instant message, they expect a reply and many expect the reply in short order. It is important for an instructor to set expectations for communication with students. If emails will be answered within 24 hours, say so. If you want to reserve Wednesdays for research and reading, let your students know that they should only contact you with urgent messages. It is also useful, given the glut of email, to ask students to use the subject lines of their messages skillfully. We typically ask students to identify the course number in the subject line, and this allows us to identify course related messages more quickly. Observations of Students About the Source What did the students have to say about the instructor's role as observer in discussion sessions? Three students who were beginning their programs had quite different opinions. One learner who had some experience with online communities accepted that the discussion was a place for learners to interact. Another preferred to have the instructor's perspective first on issues in order to better prepare her statements that differed from his view. A third did not state a preference. Five advanced students were equally split in their opinions. Three accepted the observer role. One advanced student described in her interview the rationale for the role adopted by the instructor, "You tend to gravitate towards his opinion and his questions." (Murphy) For this reason, Murphy preferred the instructor to act as an observer and retain the discussion forum as a place where students interacted. Two advanced students who had experience with online learning wanted the instructor to participate in discussion. One student wanted the instructor to describe how different learning environments addressed the same issue; the other wanted the instructor's direct input in order to advance learning. All eight students did not revise their initial opinion on the instructor's role, holding their viewpoints throughout course delivery. In one instance, the instructor's and teaching assistant's voices did affect both content and community. After the first discussion session with the entire group of 16 participants in one chat room, the instructors split the group and in introducing the second topic added information about etiquette for online academic communities. Five of eight students involved in the case study reported that they interpreted the message to mean they had in some way violated protocol. One student interpreted the message to mean that debate with other students or critiques of their ideas were inappropriate, "so we can't challenge people, we can't argue here" (Laura). In general, students reported that they were cautious and less assertive in their postings throughout the rest of the course. The
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change in tone of discussions was not obvious to the instructors at the time. They did not detect less engagement with content and were unaware of the damage in relations between learner and instructor as a result of the late issue of a formal statement on discussion etiquette. With that in mind, the instructor still must monitor professional etiquettein the group. Students are often participating in an online learning community for the first time, and the instructor needs set standards of behaviour and model them for the students. For example, students who are very familiar with using email or chat for social interaction may bring its casual style of conversation into online learning discussions. While this may contribute to the sense of community, the discourse may not be appropriate for an academic discussion. For example, in the relative isolation and privacy of an online environment, students may choose to ridicule authors whose ideas are challenging or unconventional. The instructor may need to remind students to attack ideas vigorously, but to avoid making personal attacks. We did, however, learn that this type of intervention can be interpreted as heavy-handed and that etiquette policies should be announced in advance of the first student postings. If students consider comments of the instructor as criticism rather than as advice, this type of intrusion may serve to confine expression on other topics later in the course. Students' views of the teaching assistant's role varied. Early discussion sessions were led by the teaching assistant where she attempted to model the one-to-many communication style of online discussion. She did not respond to every posting in asynchronous discussion and did not discourage the development of tangential discussion threads during chat. Two students commented that they found it reassuring for the discussion leader to use one-to-one communication to acknowledge every bulletin posting. Her role as resource person for student moderators was largely invisible to discussion participants. The feedback on the introduction to topics and suggestions for questions to raise in chat were not shared with the group and the group was not aware of how much or how little the teaching assistant helped each person. Most students commented favorably on the support the teaching assistant provided. One student understood that she was to act independently during her session rather than work collaboratively with the assistant in preparing her topic and during chat.
Under the topic of "message" we will discuss the content of online discussion in synchronous and asynchronous formats. At the beginning of the year, the instructor and teaching assistant selected topics and the teaching assistant moderated the discussion. Each session lasted two weeks with the introduction to the topic followed by asynchronous discussion occurring the first week and synchronous discussion, the second week. Early in the term the students in the course selected a two-week period for sessions they would introduce and moderate as a course assignment. We mentioned in the description of the context for the class in 2001/02 that there was higher enrollment than the previous year and the entire group could not discuss effectively in synchronous format. There were two moderators during each two-week period. Moderators were given the option to cooperate and present the same topic, however, this occurred only twice. All of the other twoweek periods had two discussion topics. The student participants selected one of the two topics to post comments in the bulletin, but they were free to join either chat session. This degree of flexibility suited the students' schedules and workloads, but it caused a lack of content coherence. The content for the online discussions is described below. The sequencing of this list follows roughly the schedule for the discussion of each topic during the term. Selection of Topic Each discussion was based on a course reading or other resource approved by the instructor. Week 1. Introduction: The topic, i.e., reading, was introduced to the group by the moderator along with a series of questions. The introduction was sent by email and also posted as the first message in the bulletin category with the topic name (see Figure 1). Many student moderators responded to all bulletin postings on their topic. Some comments were in the form of questions about experience; some comments were `thanks' for contributing new ideas and sharing `best practices.' Week 2. Discussion in synchronous format: Students were expected to review the bulletin posting for the chat session they planned to attend. Early in the year, the moderator extracted themes from the responses to the introduction and posted an introduction containing additional questions for chat. This added extra work for the class and was dropped mid way through the term (without any disagreement, we observed). During synchronous discussion the moderator often felt like the chairperson at a meeting rather than the leader of discussion. All of the participants posed questions to each other along the lines of requesting elaboration for a comment, or posing an alternate viewpoint and requesting a reaction of one person or the whole group. Other Types of Message Content Summarising topic discussions. Both the teaching assistant and the instructor gave each student moderator individual feedback on the discussion of their topic. This information was not shared with the group. It was not a regular practice for either the teaching assistant or the instructor, or for the student moderator to prepare a summary of discussion for the group, although this might have been a useful addition. Respecting and addressing cultural diversity. In this offering of the course, there were three international students enrolled in the course. The group had a unique opportunity of hear first hand about cultural differences in the teaching/learning environment in other countries. Many of the topics reflected a western attitude to culture and teaching; students were invited to respond to any question on their own experience and to relate questions to their own culture. Two of the international students participated in the case study. One student had studied and taught in Europe before coming to
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Canada and had excellent communication skills. He was already familiar with the pedagogical approach of Western culture. The other student was in her first year of graduate studies outside her home country. She had some trouble communicating in chat and relied on discussion logs to improve her understanding of issues. She was also more comfortable with a learning environment mostly directed by the instructor. Anglin, Chapter 7, Johnsen and Taylor "Instructional Technology and Unforeseen Value Conflicts" POSTINGS DUE BY: TUESDAY OCT. 9. These authors invite us to look at both instruction and instructional technology (IT) from a critical perspective. We're asking you to keep your comments brief (est. 100-150 words), and you can certainly use point form or any other form of expression you want. We know there is a lot to say on these issues but try to keep your comments to those points you consider most important. Remember, you will be reading up to 16 postings! QUESTIONS 1. STRUCTURE AND RESPONSIBILITY FOR LEARNING Refer to the quote on page 95: "What would happen if students were asked whether they thought they were responsible for their education, or that education was something that happens to them? Or, to put the question another way: Do they think education is something they do or something that is done to them?" Most everyone who has spent time in the classroom agrees that structure is necessary for classroom learning. Many suggest that the act of introducing instructional technology imposes structure on a learning environment; however, if you agree with the article, this can reduce the student's responsibility in the learning process. What do you think? How can structure (and instructional technology) be introduced without interfering with the learner's responsibility for learning? As we build constructivist learning environments that emphasize learner empowerment, what is the appropriate balance between structure and responsibility? What role does technology have to play in this? Does the type of technology influence this ecology? How do ideas such as power and control influence how we go about integrating technology in the classroom? 2. DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES If you have any experience teaching in other cultures, do these same questions or problems appear? Figure 1. Example of an onramp message for an online discussion. Analysing the online experience.It is important early in the course for all participants in online discussion to identify positive experiences and suggest ways to build on them. Each individual must find his or her own comfort level with disclosing information about experiences, and the group must find its own comfort level with the asynchronous and synchronous formats. Students discussed the online discussions in one face-to-face session. The discussion primarily focused on the moderator role and how students prepared for their sessions. Asynchronous discussion was relatively easy for moderators to manage. Synchronous discussion was a much greater challenge where student moderators had to relate the ideas raised in the bulletin to chat, and connect the issues raised in chat to the general theme of the discussion. Although students knew moderating chat was a hectic experience, they were often unprepared for the emotional reaction this experience produced. Many were overwhelmed at the fast pace of real time dialogue, but in spite of this, two students would have welcomed the opportunity to do it again if time permitted. The final exam included an optional question for students to summarize their discussion session. Two students who chose to answer this question revealed in their interview that they were made more aware of a gradual increase during course delivery of learning through discussion and the gradual development of the group as a community of learners. They were also able to assess the positive or negative aspects of their own sessions more effectively.
By channel, we refer to the influence of the medium on communication among participants. The channel, in this case, included both synchronous communication (chat) and asynchronous communication (bulletin board) within a WebCT template. McLuhan was right; the medium really is the "massage" (McLuhan, 1964). There is a pressing need to be aware of the abrupt, raw nature of communication via this medium. Online communication has few filters, and most users are not highly skilled writers. In addition, the medium does not allow for non-verbal cues that we use to modify meaning in interpersonal communication. Jokes, sarcasm and skepticism can be misinterpreted and can cause problems in the group. The use of stage directions, such as <devilish grin> may help compensate for missing non-verbal cues. If an instructor feels that a particular topic or issue is volatile, or that the group is particularly high-spirited, it may be advisable to agree on a protocol, or identify a trigger word to indicate that something was unintentionally offensive. During course delivery there were relatively few and only minimal problems with the technology. Participants used a wide variety of
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connections from diverse locations, ranging from high speed cable connections in the same building as the Web server, to 28.8 MHz dialup modems in Florida and The Hague, Netherlands. Several participants and the instructor connected from cyber cafes, and in all cases, the system seemed to be robust. There is little doubt that frustrations with technology would have been very disruptive to the experience, but this group was fortunate that few problems were encountered. At the same time, it should be noted that because this was a graduate seminar in educational technology, the instructors were working with a group that was relatively sophisticated and experienced with technology. They not only knew how to fix minor problems, they were also very tolerant of failures in the technology. Synchronous Discussion Online communication, particularly synchronous communication, provides a very compressed experience for participants. After the first chat session, one of the students likened the experience to walking into a crowded wine and cheese reception, where everyone was shouting to talk to people on the other side of the room. The chat sessions are by their nature non-sequential. Two people may be carrying on a conversation, while two others carry on a different conversation, and all of the "speech" appears in the fields of vision of all of the participants. Just as one learns to filter out ambient sound in a verbal conversation with someone else in a crowded room, so did the students need to learn how to filter out the ambient textual conversations that constantly interrupted their own. To help the process, the instructors broke the group of fifteen participants into two sessions lasting half an hour each. But they did allow people to attend the sessions they preferred and did not assign them to groups. The result was a fluctuating population in each "chat" room, but for the most part, a more pacific and reflective learning environment. Online learning environments, and particularly synchronous communication events, favour those students who have excellent typing skills. Synchronous communication requires students to "speak" through a keyboard, and obviously, those who have difficulty with typing have a serious communication liability. The instructors in both years of this seminar noticed that there were some students who were reluctant typists in chat sessions, and there is little doubt that their lack of typing skills inhibited their participation. This is another good reason to balance synchronous and asynchronous communication events. Asynchronous assignments allow students time to carefully reflect on their contributions, but it also allows them time to struggle with the keyboard, if necessary. The logs of synchronous communication would probably appear chaotic, and the conversations superficial to someone outside of the community. And, indeed the students reported that the first few chat sessions were confused and disconnected from the topic at hand. All students in the case study declared that they were unable to contribute comments on the topic under discussion at the most appropriate time in the conversation. Five of the eight students in the case study, when in the participant role, remembered interjecting their own questions about a topic in order to receive immediate feedback on a query. If interactive discussion, not simply responding to questions about a reading, is expected in synchronous discussion, then it is important to set some rules (e.g., no. of responses per topic) and agree on guidelines for the tone of discussion. Online debate, through the availability of logs, has more permanence than oral debate. Students' assessments of their learning as participants (i.e., not as discussion leaders) through synchronous discussion ranged from insignificant to high. Two of the eight students learned little from chat. One of these found the abridged style of dialogue in chat did not suit his preferred method of communicating ideas. In several cases he withheld contributions because the group had gone on to discuss a new aspect of the topic. As a result, he did not receive feedback from the group on his idea. Although seven of eight students said they learned more content from asynchronous discussion, five students also valued the interaction in chat. Kathleen was the only student who placed learning through chat higher than through bulletin discussions. Penny valued participating in chat in order to receive immediate feedback on her ideas. Synchronous discussion was described by the remaining four students as promoting creative thinking. These students found new ideas about topics raised in chat and they made new connections between ideas during chat. A relaxed approach to synchronous discussion does not automatically mean the session lacks the opportunity to learn from others. Students were more aware of learning during chat sessions than through reading chat logs. A review of chat logs did not reinforce insights that occurred during chat or reveal new connections between ideas. One student found reading logs helped him understand comments made by other students but this did not increase his understanding of the topic. The instructors observed the process of community building on a personal level through synchronous discussion during course delivery. For example, students described significant events and projects in their teaching. Two of the three international students introduced questions about different practice in the teaching environments in their cultures. One international student described to the group how to sign off chat in her language. The interviews with students after the course ended revealed a different process of community building around content that was not obvious to the instructors during course delivery. Three students who were at the end of their programs disclosed their preference to discuss issues with students at the same level of learning. While they did not ignore the ideas of other students in discussion, they more often tended to pursue to a greater degree the ideas of their subgroup. The instructor was asked to comment on this development during his interview. He did not believe there were no learning opportunities for advanced students when interacting with novice students. My guess is that a lot of people start to feel comfortable and act like they have a good handle on things prematurely, before they really play out the implications. Now one of the ways around that is, … to try to talk to somebody from a different context who isn't up to speed on the idea - somebody who has not yet internalized it - and try to help them come to an understanding by explaining your understanding of it. And have them challenge your understanding of it. (Ed) The instructor was prepared to endure some discomfort in novice learners or impatience in advanced learners as long as they focused their actions on learning from each other. He believed that a student group with diverse prior experiences and knowledge is a positive element that adds richness to discussion and that benefits learners at all levels, and that incongruity of experience is an inevitable artifact of a social constructivist learning environment.
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Asynchronous Discussion Asynchronous communication did allow for the depth the instructors and students found missing in synchronous communication, but it did not invite a high degree of interaction among participants. We found that participants posted thoughtful and intelligent commentaries to the bulletin boards on topics, but seldom did excellent postings result in a stream of responses and a genuine discussion. This is partly because of the effort required to respond to something in writing, we think. But it is also possible that the lack of responses was due to the reluctance of participants to "argue" in public, and put arguments in writing. There is the possibility that such discussions would seem rude or aggressive _ a disruption to the community that was developing (see observations of students about source). Of course, one typical method of stimulating this type of dialogue is to require students to respond to each other's postings, but the instructors didn't want to impose that type of requirement on the group-preferring instead to allow conversation to wax or wane naturally. The selection of the venue for discussion can be a dynamic process. Some topics initially selected for online discussion were instead covered or expanded in the classroom, face-to-face environment. During synchronous discussion if a tangent was deemed to be an important, but tangential, topic, the instructors suggested it be moved into the bulletin board during the chat session. These experiences underline the need for the instructor to be a "savvy leader," as stated earlier, during the content development stage. The instructor must also be alert during online discussion to detect content that should be addressed more fully in a different venue. But ultimately, we suspect that face-to-face environments may be better for some topics than any type of online discussion. Critical evaluation or deconstruction may be better suited to face-to-face discussions than to online discussions, for example, because it requires a type of dynamic engagement that is difficult to replicate through a keyboard. Of course, full video conferencing may compensate for some or most inadequacies faced by traditional online communication today, but it is not yet a practical alternative for many students and institutions. Seven of the eight students in the study placed learning as a participant (i.e. not discussion leader) in discussion higher through bulletin than in chat discussions. Four students downloaded and saved discussion postings for future reference.
By receiver, we refer to the students, the most important single factor in a learning environment built on social constructivist values. The instructors introduced online communication elements in order to provide some experience for our students with these types of learning environments. They also wanted to provide additional flexibility and continuity in the course, which previously only met once monthly for marathon weekend sessions. They worried that a virtual community might not emerge _ that students would be isolated by the experience as much as enlivened by it. Instructors were also concerned that the quality of learning might diminish. Their fears were unfounded and we suspect that the characteristics of the learners transcended the limitations of the medium. In the opinion of the instructors, the course was populated by highly motivated, intelligent and experienced scholars. There is little doubt that the characteristics of the learners contributed most dramatically to the successful outcome of the online learning experiences. A casual observation was that, in general, overall student performance exceeded the expectations of the instructors, especially in the asynchronous postings. The instructors typically asked students to post brief, focused observations about readings. They, in response, posted thoughtful, lengthy mini-essays on topics. Instructors had to impose word limits on postings to confine the responses, not to inhibit the discussion, but because students were expected to read and think about all of the postings. Twelve essays would have been too much for students to manage every other week for eight months. During the period of student-led discussions several sessions had two choices of topic. In only two sessions did both moderators collaborate to present the same topic. Three students strictly followed the initial guidelines for participation in discussion by regularly posting one comment to bulletin and attending the chat session for that topic. Two of these voiced a distinct preference for one topic per discussion period. The other five students participated in both topics to varying degrees. Three students occasionally posted bulletin comments for both discussion topics. Four students occasionally observed the chat sessions for some of the alternate topics. All eight students occasionally read resource material and bulletin postings and chat logs for alternate topics to be aware of concepts and issues covered by the entire group. The most interesting finding in the study on learning through online discussions was that students reported little or no additional learning about the topic they moderated, but significant learning in topics where they were participants. Two students expanded their understanding of practice but not their understanding of the theoretical framework on which the practice was founded. Team moderating afforded some learning of content through collaboration. Normally in a two-week discussion period there were two topics and two moderators. In two discussion periods the moderators decided to collaborate and present the same topic. The four students who were team moderators reported learning about the topic as a result of collaboration with the team partner but no additional learning through the discussion. All of the novice learners elected to moderate with a partner; two novice learners collaborated in one session, and a novice and an advanced learner collaborated in the other session. Since there was not enough time during course delivery for students to moderate more than once, students could not compare learning in the moderator role through team moderating with individual moderating. Instructors noticed a natural inclination for students to hover around topics that were comfortable or familiar (e.g., constructivism in the classroom) or to return to important principles such as goals of education. While this is not a surprise (they reported noticing the same tendency in the classroom), it is more difficult for moderators to shift discussion in new directions. Asynchronous communication is serial (sequential through a single channel), not parallel (simultaneous assault of multiple senses), and it doesn't naturally invite the shifts and flow that are necessary to exchange ideas dynamically and deeply. Because the group met in face-to-face sessions, participants could identify instances where personalities shone through the medium. Exuberant students were as effusive in virtual environments as they were in class; shy students often lurked or offered tentative
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comments. It isn't reasonable to speculate about whether this would have been the same case in a totally virtual context, but it poses an interesting question for research. There were some difficulties with language experienced by the students from other countries, but it was more pronounced in synchronous settings than in asynchronous postings. Asynchronous postings allowed international students to ponder and craft their responses in English, and the comparatively formal style of writing resembled writing a term paper more than having a conversation-a style of expression in English with which they were more comfortable. Chat sessions, on the other hand, required much more fluency and dexterity with the language, given its conversational style and the casual, colloquial nature of language used. The instructors did not ask the group to alter its style or shape messages for those who might have difficulty. They suspected it would mitigate the naturalness of the environment. But group participants reported, on occasion, mediating a conversation by sending a private message to international students to explain something and the members of the group often made an explicit effort to include the other students. The students were also willing to ask for clarification, especially as their comfort with the group and the medium increased during the year. The availability of chat logs also allowed international students to review at leisure chat discussion that went by too swiftly in real time. Cultural differences may be embedded in some online methods. This approach to online learning was built on a model of collaboration and social constructivism, and this type of learning emphasizes participation by all members of the group. By its nature, constructivist methods of learning were challenging for students from China and Korea, and they indicated that this approach was very different from the prescriptive teaching methods used in other countries. All students found the instructors' descriptions of their roles as discussion moderator and participant as well as the consistent structure of the discussions to be more beneficial than were varied or loosely structured discussions or ambiguous roles. Vrasidas and McIsaac (1999) report similar positive reactions from students to instructor control and decisions in discussion exercises.
Replacing portions of a course with online communication strategiesadds flexibility and also increases the workload and accessibility of the instructor. The flexibility it afforded was appreciated by the students and the instructors alike. But there is little question that the workload for instructors increased dramatically. It takes a great deal of time to prepare discussion materials or negotiate topics with students. It also takes a great deal of time to review postings and prepare for online chats. Because of this continual preparation/review/chat cycle, it seemed to the instructors that there was never a break from the class. While this is a benefit in terms of maintaining contact, it is a very different cadence from the normal operation of a graduate seminar. The waltz of a face to face seminar typically glides though a sequence of three steps guided by the instructor: preparation-class meeting-break from the classpreparation-class meeting-break from the class; whereas the mixed mode class resembles a Macarena of complex twists: preparation for class-class meeting-preparation for online postings-postings-review of postings-preparation for chat-conduct the chat. The instructor has also developed the opinion that havingteaching assistance is not a luxury in the delivery of an online course. A teaching assistant not only looks after aspects of the course, thus making the additional workload possible, she can also provides a second perspective on the conduct of the course. Everything from deciding topics for online discussions to anticipating problems some students may be having are improved by having a second set of eyes in the course. Building online communities can result in moments of great exhilaration and moments of high anxiety. It seemed as though the level of comfort one achieves in a classroom setting was never quite achieved in the online events. The fear that the technology might fail, or that students wouldn't carry the discussion, was always lurking. But there were equal moments of exhilaration, as when the group engaged each other in a vibrant discussion or when bulletin board postings explored an academic idea vigorously. The instructors continue to seek a balance between the energy, creativity, and dynamic interaction observed in chat sessions with the reflections and opportunity to describe at length one's praxis in bulletin board postings. The case study revealed two instances where the instructors' analysis of the development of a learning community did not correspond with student views. The instructors misread student reaction to the timing of the etiquette message and they did not detect the development of increased interaction between members of the advanced learners in chat. However, there was strong evidence of social community in the group. Students and instructors shared information about cultural issues and other events in their lives in chat. The students developed their own urban legend complete with symbol for discussions. It may have been this sense of community that allowed the students' honest criticisms to surface during the interviews. It appears to be important to prepare students to expect the inevitable gaffes and failures associated with using technology, and to understand that the group will need to transcend some of the inherent limitations of the medium. Because instructors are in a weaker position to salvage a class session if something goes wrong, the group needs to know that they are expected to tolerate-or even repair-the problem. For example, if the WebCT server is off-line on the evening of a scheduled chat, the group may need to quickly reschedule a session. The structure of the online discussion exercise is also important. The instructors suspected that all students should discuss the same content (rather than breaking into different topic groups) to improve the level of learning, and this was confirmed in the study. While each chat session on a topic will take its own path, it is important that the entire group critique the same material. This means that the instructor must restrict choice in the learning environment. The study indicates that team moderating affords increased opportunities for learning, and especially for novice learners. It is important to return to central observation from this study. The face-to-face sessions in the class were critically important to the development of community in the class, and there is every reason to suspect that many of these findings were mediated by the simple fact that the group met on several occasions. Even the virtual face-to-face sessions (two-way videoconferencing) had a strong influence on developing a sense of community among the students and instructors. While it may be possible to build virtual learning communities in entirely online environments, we suspect it would be much more difficult to accomplish than it was in a mixed mode
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