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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: