If You're not Incorporating Social Elements in Your Online Courses, You’re Missing A Fundamental Engagement and Learning Opportunity
While Online Learning has created opportunity for many students who would otherwise find it highly impractical to pursue their education further, one of the down sides of this type of learning is limited social interaction. Social networking constructs can play a powerful role in helping to fill the social gap that exists where regular face-to-face interaction is absent. Building a sense of community and increasing social presence can be an excellent aid keeping distance learners engaged and encourage their success.
The Building Community and Interaction Online page on GWU’s University Teaching & Learning Center Page gets us thinking about the value of a sense of community in the online learning environment (The George Washington University):
“Online education can be so much more than the self-paced, “correspondence course” that you might first envision. Central to this idea is the need to create a community of learners in your online course. A strong online community keeps students engaged with the content, pushes them to think critically and articulate their ideas, and provides a supportive environment in which to do that. Arguably, the interaction in an online course can create a much stronger intellectual community than a traditional in-person class where some students can sit anonymously in the back of the room while the instructor lectures.”
Creating the Circumstances for Social Interaction and Community Building
So how can you go about creating this sense of community? Do you simply create avenues and assignments requiring social discourse amongst the class as a whole, or take a more structured approach?
The Learning Solutions Magazine article, Building An Online Learning Community, offers several examples of how some instructors have approached this (Wilcoxon).
- At the beginning of each cohort, Michelle Everson assigns students in her online Statistics course to asynchronous discussion groups of five students each. Students work within their group all semester using their own discussion board. When assigning members, she looks at the class roster and tries to include a mix of different majors or areas of study within each group, to provide a mix of perspectives. Each group works on eight small-group assignments during the course, and for each assignment they have a topic to discuss and questions to answer based on that topic. For example, student groups get a description of an experiment and must critique it and come up with a better design.
- Instructor Joel Mencena uses case examples throughout the semester to bring course concepts to life in his online Operations Management course. Mencena creates discussion boards for each example, asking students to critique the decisions in the case or post their own decisions. They also argue for their perspective, share their experiences from similar circumstances, and cite research findings that support their positions. When he found that the full group of 30 students makes for chaotic discourse and uneven participation, he divided the full group in half, each with its own discussion board. The process seemed improved and he is better able to monitor the discussions. To better expose to individual perspectives, Joel remixes the groups once or twice during the semester.
So we see in these cases that it can be useful to subdivide groups and mix things up to strike a good combination of manageable discourse and varied perspectives.
Partnering students can also offer a social element. In a recent design update for the Flipped Classroom Online Workshop I offer three times a year, I built in a partnering opportunity specifically to strengthen and leverage the social learning opportunity. Workshop participants were asked to critique their partners drafts of a flipped lesson plan, and they found it to be a helpful and engaging approach. As one participating teacher explained, “We play off of each others strengths. We have bounced ideas off of each other … as far as partners in general, I enjoy having the extra eyes, brains and ideas”.
Enabling Social Learning
Another strong reason for requiring the creation of social discourse opportunities and communities of interaction in the online learning is to set the stage for social learning. Albert Bandura posited that social contexts can help to reinforce how learners pay attention, how they retain information, and how they are motivated to learn (Wheeler). While social presence in an online learning environment is clearly not as rich an experience as socializing with physical presence, it still offers opportunity for “social learning” to occur.
Another clear advantage of socializing across the Internet is that it can be less intimidating that face-to-face contact, allowing shy students to express themselves more comfortably. Students who might normally shy away of putting their hands up and sharing their thoughts in the traditional classroom may be more open to it when using online social discussion tools and similar constructs.
Creating a Stronger Sense of Instructor Presence
It is important for online educators to strive to provide a sense of their presence in the online classroom. Students are already disadvantaged by the limited interaction inherent in distance learning versus the physical classroom, so any efforts teachers can make to be available and lend a sense of presence will help to overcome that challenge. Social mechanisms like discussion forums, online groups, scheduled chats, even sets of images and video, can increase a teachers actual or implied ‘presence’ within the online classroom. This article from Faculty Focus offers Eight Ways to Increase Social Presence in Your Online Classes (Hong Wang).
While there may not be a wealth of formal studies and data providing quantifiable benefits from an increased social presence and sense of community in online learning, there are studies that support the concept. Here are a few such examples:
- Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments: Learner Experiences and Activities (Veletsianos and Navarrete)
- Cultivating Social Presence in the Online Learning Classroom: A Literature Review with Recommendations for Practice (Scollins-Mantha)
- The Role of Community in Online Learning Success (Sadera, Roberston and Song)
In conclusion, if you are an online teacher, hopefully this article encourages you to consider, or build on, your use of social constructs in your online courses. Create opportunities for students to communicate with each other, work in groups, have open dialogue, and develop a sense of community. And make sure you are present as the teacher and that students know you welcome social discourse among the entire group as a part of the learning experience.
Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
5 Important Things I’ve Learned About Learning in 5 Years of Living EmergingEdTech
7 Essential Techniques to Increase Engagement and Enhance Online Learning Outcomes
Do Social Media Benefit College Students by Engaging Them in the Course Material?
Hong Wang, PhD. “Eight Ways to Increase Social Presence in Your Online Classes.” 18 February 2010. Faculty Focus. <http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/eight-ways-to-increase-social-presence-in-your-online-classes/#sthash.v5XHLPHU.dpuf>.
Sadera, William A., et al. “The Role of Community in Online Learning Success.” June 2009. Merlot Journal of Online Teaching and Learning. <http://jolt.merlot.org/vol5no2/sadera_0609.pdf>.
Scollins-Mantha, Brandi. “Cultivating Social Presence in the Online Learning Classroom:.” March 2008. International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning. <http://www.itdl.org/journal/mar_08/article02.htm>.
The George Washington University. “Building Community and Interaction Online.” n.d. University Teaching and Learning Center. 12 October 2014. <http://tlc.provost.gwu.edu/building-community-and-interaction-online>.
Veletsianos, George and Cesar C. Navarrete. “Online Social Networks as Formal Learning Environments: Learner Experiences and Activities.” January 2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. <http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1078/2077>.
Wheeler, Steve. “http://www.teachthought.com/learning/bandura-social-learning-theory/.” 30 September 2014. TeachThought.com. <http://www.teachthought.com/learning/bandura-social-learning-theory/>.
Wilcoxon, Kevin. “Building An Online Learning Community.” 3 October 2011. Learning Solutions Magazine. <http://www.learningsolutionsmag.com/articles/761/building-an-online-learning-community>.