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Thursday, 7 January 2016

Online learning communities: the power of the group

I gave a presentation at the University of Sheffield's Learning and Teaching conference today, and was asked to share it via twitter. I can't upload it to slideshare, as it contains some artwork (see below) which is credited, but which might infringe another artist's copyright! So here are the main points, and just imagine that what you see below is a group of e-learners, and a hapless tutor, trying to help the students to engage in collaborative learning...

What do we know about online dynamics? From my own research, and from the literature, here are some key issues:

a. Online learners experience a lot of anxiety early on- what should I be doing? which part of the website do I go to? why does everyone seem to know more than me? For most students, this tends to settle after 2-3 weeks, when they start getting to know what is expected of them and - crucially - they start engaging with one another and with their learning.

b. Online learners can sometimes feel disinhibited online, and do/say things they wouldn't do in a face to face (F2F) setting, just as people say things via social media they may not say in person. This needs to be sensitively handled, but can be a real opportunity for openness and discussion.

c. Related to this, for some students, online learning shakes things up and makes them ask some fundamental questions about their ways of being-in-the-world. For example, it's not uncommon for students to report that they tend to be quiet and shy in F2F groups, but are much more likely to participate in online ones; the reverse can also be true, with people who are confident/noisy/dominant in a F2F setting finding that they are all at sea in an online group where they don't have the non-verbal feedback from peers to tell them how their input is being received.

d. Online learners can be distracted from their learning by other online things (e.g. social media) or offline events (e.g. being interrupted by family members). So in practical terms, a student is unlikely to sit through a long video in one go, and dividing resources up into chunks is a good idea. Online learners are also likely to be engaging in their studies alongside work and family commitments, which can make it difficult to study for longer periods.

e. The online context tends to flatten hierarchies, meaning that students feel more able to discuss with and challenge their teachers. This can be a challenge, but it's one that tutors and teachers need to rise to, and again this can be used to everyone's advantage.

f. Some students find online interactions difficult, and these may be students who don't really emerge from the initial anxiety described above, but who remain dissatisfied with the kind of connections you can make online. It is worth considering that online learning may not be the ideal solution for some people, and/or that teachers may need to consider changing their approach to take account of people who find it hard to connect online, e.g. it might be possible to add in more audio/video contact, if that is something which seems to help these students connect with others.

I then went on to suggest "7 golden rules" which can help to work effectively to building learning communities online. These have emerged from practice but are supported by my research and the literature I've seen:

1. Break the ice
Be proactive, and think about positive ways of starting the learning process for your students. Paradoxically, this may mean staying away from any content early on, and making sure that you've put the conditions in place for people to start connecting with one another. Don't ask questions which students might find exposing. Go for something more personal, but at the same time safe, such as sharing a bit about yourself and where you live, then asking others to do the same. You could use a simple google map and ask students to pin their location on there, with some brief details about who they are, why they are studying, etc.

2. Model the kind of interactions you want to see
In early interactions, you (unconsciously?) set the boundaries for behaviour in the group, and model ways of relating. Students will pick up on these and are likely to stay within them. You may want to have some explicit groundrules too, though most institutions have these as part of the registration process. Where you see signs of disagreement or conflict, consider carefully how to respond. You may be able to allow group members to work this through, only intervening if it is becoming a barrier to learning in the community. But don't be too worried by negative emotion or conflict - this is learning in itself. You might want to model certain ways of responding, e.g. acknowledging the differences in opinion and suggesting ways of moving forward, such as examining the theory again, or asking for input from other group members. This will often depersonalise the disagreement and draw others into a more healthy dialogue.

3. Keep the learning in the group
If a student asks you a question directly by email or personal message, politely thank them and ask them to repost it in a general, open area so that other students can see it and potentially respond. A question from one person is likely to be relevant to others also. You will be saving yourself a lot of work through not having to answer the same or similar questions lots of times. You will also be modelling to the students that they are part of a learning community, and they can start to take responsibility for their own and others' learning. You may well find that students start answering one another's questions, which is a good sign that they are engaged and have some ownership of their learning.

4. "Little and often" seems to work best
In terms of your pattern of interaction with students online, try to visit often, every day if possible, to get a feel of how they group is functioning. That doesn't have to mean that you post a message every time, but it does mean you can keep taking the temperature of the group, and can be aware of little (or big) signs that all is not well. Don't leave your online work to one chunk of time during the week, as you run the risk of missing an emerging issue at the early stages. You may however need to manage students' expectations of how often you can visit a website, and when and how quickly you can respond.

5. Remember what being online does to otherwise normal people
As mentioned earlier, people get drawn into various behaviours online that they wouldn't do otherwise, such as self-disclosure, flaming, trolling, cyber-bullying. In addition, written communication can easily be misinterpreted, without the benefit of nonverbal communication, and a permanent record of interactions allows rumination, e.g. a student becoming convinced that another student is persecuting them. The lack of visual feedback can make conflict hard to resolve online. Be alive to these behaviours, and get to know what they look like online. You may need to intervene, but you need to be careful about whether this is done publicly or in private.

6. Be a facilitator, not an expert
Given that hierarchies are flattened online, and students feel more able to challenge the orthodoxy (obviously there are pro's and con's to this), it may be useful to let the course materials be the source of authority, and open to challenge, and to act as a facilitator to students' exploration of these. This fits well with a collaborative approach to learning, which is a good fit with online interactions. However, don't abandon your expertise, and students will still value and appreciate your knowledge. Just be aware that students will also learn a lot from one another, as well as the materials and the tutor. Online work with mixed groups opens up the possibilities of valuable cross-cultural learning, from diverse perspectives.

7. Silence may not be golden
Online, silence can mean lots of things, from "I'm confused" to "I'm thinking" to "I can't get online" to "I'm walking the dog". If you have regular contact with students, you will start to pick up when such silences are normal, and when they might be a sign of something amiss. In these instances, it's good practice to check out with a student how they are getting on. Again, there's an important choice on whether to do this publicly or privately.

I concluded the presentation with these thoughts:
  • As tutors/teachers, we need to do the work necessary to create a learning community - it won't happen on its own
  • We should know our pedagogy, because this is fundamental to understanding what students will be doing, and ultimately what the student experience will be
  • We need to get to know our students really well, and paradoxically, this can be easier online, as you may have more direct contact with students, and they may feel more able to discuss difficult or personal things with you due to the online context
  • We should keep a close eye on group dynamics so we can respond appropriately when things don't go well
  • If we do all this, students benefit, as do we as tutors and teachers
I ended with this slide, showing some quotes from my research:

Monday, 16 February 2015

Online space- from going to being

In response to this blog post from Aaron Balick about work that he and others are doing in online depth psychotherapy, here are some thoughts about how the psychology of online space is changing.

I will be showing my age when I describe the first time I gained an understanding of what the internet is, and what it can do. I was at a friend’s house, and he was on “the internet”. To get onto the internet, he had to connect his computer via a modem to his phone line. I remember the distinctive chirping sound of a connection being made, long before the era of tweets. After a minute or so, the chirping ceased, and he was “in”. And while he was “in”, his phone line was engaged (which explained why I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone to arrange to meet up). I was puzzled as to how he could spend hours on end on the internet, this being before I had experienced the strange sensation of several hours at a stretch being obliterated through browsing from one website to another. Online space seemed to rule over time. Apart from the drumming of fingers as you waited for a new website to load up. It seemed easy enough to “get lost” on the web. My friend was attracted by the possibility of getting lost and being found- he was using the web to make new connections and maintain existing ones in the gay community.

Looking back, there was a time when being online felt like a different kind of being. Entering the online space involved a little ritual. You had to sit down (almost always), and decide to go online. You had to request entry, via the modem, and you had to wait to enter. Sometimes entry was denied. Once you were online, being there cut you off from other ways of interacting, such as using the telephone and moving around (these were days before many people had mobile phones). It was a very “headbound” experience, with the occasional mouse-click. But with the physical restraint came the promise of psychological freedom. Sites such as “Second Life” offered to liberate us to be someone different online, with a different persona. It was a step out of time, and away from one’s established identity. There could be interruptions to break the flow- a knock on the door, a failure in the connection- but getting back into the flow was easy. And then once you were done, there was a rapid re-integration into the world of things in physical space. The browser was exited. The phone line was silently released. You would re-emerge from your own headspace, realising your shoulders were feeling stiff. Re-embodied, you would stand and stretch your legs as you went to fetch a drink.

Moving between modes of embodiment is nothing new. Storytellers down the ages have been drawn to physical and psychological journeys involving technology which enables disembodied action, be that the letter, the telephone, the internet. Focusing on rites of passage (without an explicitly technological flavour), the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep outlined the stages of preliminary, liminality and post-liminality. Joseph Campbell saw the same pattern in heroic stories of Departure, Initiation, and Return. These theories tended to be applied to epic journeys, pilgrimages or religious experiences, rather than the online meanderings of people in the 1980s and 1990s, but I can see parallels of these ideas with what was happening to my own e-learning students as they joined the learning community, flourished (or occasionally withered) and then exited at the end of their quest for learning.

Fast forward to 2015, and most of us are the twitch of a thumb away from being online. As we travel through physical space, we know that we are moving in and out of wifi areas, towards and away from hotspots, under a growing cloud of connectivity. There is little or no ritual involved in going online. The journey is effortlessly mundane, and we experience little in the way of discontinuity. We simply have to turn on our devices, or avoid turning them off, to be pursued by social media, and assailed by email. In fact, we now have to make a conscious decision to go offline. So paradoxically, van Gennep’s journey now also applies to our embodied lives, where in order to take a “digital holiday”, we must journey away from electronic connectivity for a period in the analogue hinterland before being reintegrated into the practice of everyday online life, by way of “getting back in touch with ourselves”.

Even as this flip is occurring, the metaphor of time has become dominant over space. Timelines rule social media. Twitter asks you, “What’s happening?” Facebook asks you, “What’s on your mind”? Information is shown trailing back from the present moment. We “follow” other people through their own narration of time. The most recent is the most meaningful, and is being continually refreshed. Speed is of the essence. Websites no longer function quite so much as virtual spaces, more as ways in and out of other data streams. Opportunities for online interactions are seeping into our spare time. For many people, work is becoming more of an activity than a place, something we can do any time and any place, more verb than noun.

The internet is saturated with affordances for connection, and it is these connections, rather than the online space, which have successfully colonised time. As we present ourselves in everyday online life, we learn to count the psychological costs and benefits of this colonisation.

Campbell, J. (1949) The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton University Press).
Van Gennep, A. (1960) The rites of passage (Chicago, University of Chicago Press).

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Psychotherapy 2.0 the title of a newly published book by Karnac about the place "where psychotherapy and technology meet". I have a chapter included here with my erstwhile colleague Prof Digby Tantam, and a section written by Anne Stokes, which examines "training fit for the digital era". The message from Digby and myself is that e-learning is surprisingly well suited (and it was a surprise to us at the outset, back in 2002) to psychotherapy training. We concentrate on the kinds of emotional transactions which e-learning makes possible, or affords (I will come back to the idea of affordances in a later blog post), and in particular, the way that a fairly bog-standard online course set-up (hyperlinked course materials, discussion forums, chatrooms) can allow people to examine personal experience in light of theory, in a way they can't always do in face-to-face learning. We focus on how we used the e-learning programme to prepare people to do their own online teaching- other chapters in the book discuss e-therapy in greater depth. 

Three minute thesis

By way of introducing my research interest, and the topic of my PhD, I recently recorded a video, with the help of a ScHARR colleague Luke Miller, for the University of Sheffield's Three Minute Thesis competition for 2013-14. The idea is that PhD students are given guidance and support on how to create a video summarising their research in less than three minutes. This can go into a University of Sheffield competition, and the winner can go forward to a national competition. Fame and wealth- hitherto unimagined- lie in store. For what it is worth, I have got through the first stage to the Faculty Final later in May. The presentation you can see in the video actually breaks some of the competition rules, and I will be recorded giving the live presentation, with a static backdrop, at the Faculty final. Whilst the idea of marketing myself doesn't sit altogether comfortably with me (he says, in his own blog...), it is useful to be cajoled into thinking how to communicate a large piece of work in short, simple terms.