Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Creating Space to Converse



“Someone to tell it to is one of the fundamental needs of human beings.”    ~Miles Franklin
Building relationships in online settings creates a unique set of challenges for both instructors and students. As an Educational Technology and Design (ETAD) graduate student at the University of Saskatchewan, I have completed the majority of my courses as a distant learner, working and learning from home rather than in a traditional face-to-face classroom.
At the beginning of my first online course, I was impressed by the ease and speed in which conversations began to unfold in this “virtual” environment. As early as the first day, the discussion forum filled with multiple threads and replies, creating a space that I came to think of as “the meeting of minds”. And all of this happened in an asynchronous environment where I did not hear my classmates’ voices, nor did I see their faces. But I did get to meet their minds.
As an adult learner, I was intrigued by the processes involved in creating an interactive, engaging online environment in such a short period of time. And I wondered if there certain guidelines for fostering online dialogue could be applied to online learning environments for high school learners.
In a previous course, I had examined the importance of including opportunities for learner discussion and reflection in online courses.  Constructivist theory points to the value of these practices in increasing engagement and in finding meaning in the learning experience. Now, I wanted to delve into the process of building “communities” of learners, specifically, the role of online conversation. Current Issues in Technology, EDCUR 805, allowed me the freedom to explore this personal interest.
The online courses offered in the ETAD program have been designed to encourage interaction among students: interaction with the content; interaction with the instruction; and interaction with our peers. The primary tool for fostering such dialogue was the threaded discussion board. But the instructor in each online course played a critical role in determining how the discussion board would be used throughout.
My final paper for 805, The Role of Conversation in Online Environments, revealed the importance of the instructor’s activities in terms of design and facilitation. This is of particular interest to me as a result of my position as Learning Coach, where part of my responsibility lies in supporting teachers as they develop online courses for students in Grades 4-12.
I have learned much about creating opportunities for online conversations to flourish. If a course is intended to be engaging and interactive, if learners are meant to construct personal meaning through conversation with peers, then role of teacher is critical –
as facilitator,
as moderator,
as connector.

It is not just a matter of “building it and they will come.”

There are a variety of techniques that researchers suggest are beneficial in the online setting in order to encourage discussion, and to create a safe, trusting environment. The following is a list of such techniques and a personal reflection about each:
  • Modeling expected participation in discussion forums: In each class, instructors have initiated discussion threads, and have provided individual feedback to all students. Opening course instructions encouraged other students to offer feedback, and in some cases, this was a required portion of the course. After my first online course, I also made sure to contact each classmate personally, and open the lines of communication, as a way to build stronger relationships.
  • Introducing the “idea of ‘agreeing to disagree’ and model this within the conversations: Opening posts by instructors often referred to the importance of respectful dialogue, and this was modeled throughout.
  • Creating personal connections with students: A less formal discussion forum, known as the Virtual Café, or Coffee Row, was added to my courses with Dirk Morrison as a space for classmates to make personal connections. In this space, classmates interacted more socially, and I was able to “chat” asynchronously with a classmate from Egypt, and one from Columbia. This additional space proved to be a valuable tool for creating social connections.
  • Including a percentage of course marks toward online discussion: In each online course, a percentage of my grade was assigned to the discussion forum, with minimum requirements provided. However, the conversations were generally so engaging that it was easy to go well beyond the minimum standard. We were able to easily connect our teaching experiences with the topics, and more often than not, the dialogue was lively.
  • Using traditional classroom strategies summarizing information:  I, along with a partner (or partners), have been responsible for summarizing a weekly discussion and were tasked with monitoring the weekly threads.
  • Encouraging students to share reflections through the use of various software: Instead of using the traditional format of the discussion board, in 802 week we experimented with posting one of our weekly responses using Voicethread. This web-based site allowed us to choose either audio or video format to share our thoughts. I enjoyed the chance to hear my peer’s voices, and in some cases, see their faces while they shared their ideas.

The online instructor has an important role when creating online spaces for conversation and dialogue. Not only must opportunities for discussion be encouraged, there is a subtle art to online facilitation. One must “show”, but be careful not to “tell”; one must be present without being over-involved, or conversely, under-involved. It is a skill that takes time to hone, but the rewards for instructor and students are plentiful.

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