Supporting Virtual Communities: Reflection on Module

As we complete the Supporting Virtual Communities module, we are asked to reflect on our learning during the module, by replying to some of a range of prompts given. Two prompts are considered in this report: “The Muddiest Point” and “To the Future”. While they draw on different aspects of the module activities and my own learning, they focus on my main interest in e-learning – namely the facilitation of discussion boards. References marked with an asterisk are ones that are new to me and I have included them in my annotated bibliography.

The Muddiest Point

Why do we interact online?” This was the question posed by White (2002*) who argues that pre-planning of interaction spaces online is important to identify the tools and expectation of what is wanted from an online space. I’m not convinced the large majority of e-tutors (including myself!) know what exactly to do with discussion boards (hence I am doing this module!). It was an issue that arose from one of our scenario activities in the Supporting Virtual Communities (SVC) module, when we were asked to consider the time we spent online for the module. In response to this, I posted the following:

…what do we want the discussion board for? If it’s a support mechanism, well then it’s probably fine to have non-critical messages… But if we want to use them to encourage discussion, and the zone of proximal development et al, … the only way is to link it in with assessment. My worry there is that if you do this, do you discourage discussion at a trivial but useful level. As an example, if you [module tutor] had said, I want anything you post to be backed up by a reference/example from literature. That would no doubt enhance the apparent criticality of the discussion posts, but very much reduce the volume. [25 May 2010]

Learner-learner interaction is an important aspect of distance education, along with learner-content and learner-tutor interactions (Moore, 1993, pp 20 – 22). I have written before (Seery, 2010) about some problems I see arising out of discussion boards, citing the work of Angeli et al (2003) and Kanuka (2005) who examined the contributions to discussion boards by both students and tutors and found that in general the level of discussion was low. However, I tended to lay the blame at the door of technology, or see assessment as a key to encouraging participation. In the discussions in this module, an interesting reference to a subsequent paper by Kanuka (Clarke and Kanuka, 2007*) was highlighted. This identifies three barriers to critical discourse – a confusion or lack of clarity on the nature and purpose of discussion posts; critiques of other posts were considered an attack and time constraints. The work suggests using highly structured activities to encourage critical discussion. The scenario-based activity in the SVC module was structured so that while it required reflective posts, based on a consideration of one’s own approach to scenarios, it also required that we respond to others’ contribution – hence encouraging dialogical interactions (Pena-Shaff and Nicholls, 2004*). Reviewing my posts on the scenario based activity (which was highly structured), I felt I engaged in a meaningful dialogue with others and learned a lot from their contributions to my posts.

Clarke and Kanuka (2007) also found that students in their study found use for the discussion board beyond critical discussion. Like the students in their study, I found that discussion posting and engaging in others postings helped clarify my own thoughts on an issue. I posted this when reflecting on the use of discussion boards:

…With a discussion post, you have to commit to something – clearly (and concisely) outline your case. It’s there, then for all to see, so you tend to read it through others eyes more than you might if it was just a notion in your mind. [5 June 2010]

A thought-provoking response to my post about discussion boards from a classmate argued that discussion boards had a role in aligning module delivery with Salmon’s five-stage model (Salmon, 2002) – in particular that it had a role in the knowledge sharing and construction phases, but perhaps was limited in the in-depth analysis (stage 5) of peer’s work. I think this resonates a lot with what White, Rourke and Kanuka (and indeed Salmon herself) have written about, as discussed in the preceding paragraphs. The pre-planning of what we intend to use discussion boards for, and the subsequent structuring of activities and support around these plans, mean that the potential is there to use them effectively in the later stages of Salmon’s five-stage model.

Finally, the situation I found myself in as a participant on the SVC module was one where I knew my classmates well from other modules and had built a good rapport. I wondered about the importance of this rapport in the determining the nature of the group’s interactions, in a reflective post to the boards:

…for an online module where participants did not know each other, I wonder if some sort of induction/initial exercise would be required to develop this level of trust and awareness of each other – so that they will seriously consider opinions posted in the process of  challenging their own. [5 June 2010]

In Rourke and Kanuka’s study (2007), they describe a participant who at the start of the module explicitly invited other participants “to feel free to critique her work” (p. 119) so that they could all learn, but as the module proceeded, only three of her 97 contributions involved a disagreement with someone else’s post. Another participant who himself did demonstrate critique in his postings also explicitly requested that people change from a “tone of politeness” (p. 120). Reflecting on my own contributions to the discussion boards, I felt comfortable in making comments/disagreements where I wanted to because I knew the class members well from face-to-face discussions, and when they made their contributions, I could almost imagine their non-verbal interactions from the classroom! Therefore I think for a module where participants do not know each other, early structured activities (perhaps organized around induction) prompting responses from participants, perhaps led and demonstrated by the tutor would be useful to break the ice a little on demonstrating how to offer a counter-opinion without the worry of offending other class mates.

To the Future

The question for me now is what can I take from this learning for input into my own practice as a teacher? Considering the range of activities and reflections from the module, I can draw out three themes.

The first builds on the concept of structured activities discussed above. I think there is a great deal of merit in using suitable structured activities, for example in a problem- or context-based scenario. A specific example would be present a scenario involving an analysis in a module I teach which covers a wide range of techniques, asking students to provide a response to how they would approach an analysis, and comment on others responses in a guided peer-review. This concept has been used in the MyExamopedia site (MyExamopedia, nd), which aims to help students structure their exam answers, although I would direct this discussion towards a more general concept of building an awareness of critical analysis, rather than specifically for exam questions (although I recognize that exam question work is a great motivator for students).

The second theme is to use the online interactions and discussion to better prepare learners for in-class activity. Dietz-Uhler and Bishop-Clarke (2001*) describe a study where students were given assigned reading to discuss, with some students having an online discussion prior to the in-class discussion and others who did not. They found that the students who had the online discussion prior to the in-class discussion had a greater range of perspectives and enjoyed the face-to-face activity more than students who just had the face-to-face discussion. I think this method points to a useful aspect of discussion boards – providing learners with a range of learning styles more time and opportunity to discuss issue relevant to their learning than a purely face-to-face session might allow for.

A sub-component of the second theme draws from my experience from my involvement in the group activity in the SVC module. This demonstrated that even very experienced learners can lose direction in a collaborative group project. Reflecting on the activity in my blog, I posted this:

When we give our own students group presentations to do, I am disappointed in cases where a group break a presentation into three parts, each member take a bit to work on and then marry it together at the end just before the presentation, the glue of the uniform theme of Powerpoint still wet. It looks like three pieces and it sounds like three pieces – with little internal reference to each other, and possibly in the worst cases little knowledge of each others’ contribution. But having completed an assignment in this way in our own group, I can see how easily it is done. [24 May 2010]

Students need very detailed guidance and scaffolding if they are to really engage with each other in developing a group project (rather than cooperating to produce a product). The same arguments for encouraging critical discussion would appear to apply here – students need guided structured activities to guide them through the process of group work. I think an online discussion space would prove invaluable in this regard.

Finally, the overall message from several aspects of the SVC module was that online work requires more pre-planning than equivalent in-class activity with the instructor shifting from the role as content provider to facilitator (DeVries and Lim, 2003*). Because interaction by students with the materials is asynchronous and can happen at any time, and the scope of materials is much broader as students can access information on the internet, the tutor cannot hope to be an expert in every aspect of what students may bring up, but move to a position whereby students can be guided through such material. In this regard, online tutoring is generally more demanding on tutors time than in-class work (Mandernach, Dailey-Hebert and Donnelli-Sallee, 2007*).

As I polish off the last of my assignments for the first year of the MSc, I ask now: am I ready to become an e-Teacher? At times there is a bewildering array of information, often conflicting about what works and does not work. In our final debate, the motion “it is straightforward to teach online – if you are a good teacher in the classroom, you can be a good one online too!” I agreed, against initial general consensus, with this motion. When we think of online teaching, we tend to think of the gadgets and tools and swirly diagrams (well maybe not those). At the heart of good face to face teaching is a motivated tutor, who wants to create a dynamic learning environment whereby students can feel free to ask and discuss materials made available in a structured, engaging manner as pre-prepared by the teacher. But the lesson I have taken from this module especially and the year as a whole is, these are at heart the same qualities of a good online teacher too.

References (references marked with an * are included in the annotated bibliography)

Angeli, C., Valanides, N. and Bonk, C.J. (2003) Communication in a web-based conferencing system: the quality of computer-mediated interactions, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34(1), 31 – 43

*DeVries, J. and Lim, G. (2003) Significance of Online Teaching vs. Face-to-Face: Similarities and Difference, E-LEARN 2003, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, November 7-11, 2003.[PDF at]

*Dietz-Uhler, B. and Bishop-Clarke, C. (2001) The use of computer-mediated communication to enhance subsequent face-to-face discussions, Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 269–283.

Kanuka, H. (2005) An exploration into facilitating higher levels of learning in a text-based internet learning environment using diverse instructional strategies, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 8.

Mandernach, B. J., Dailey-Hebert, A. and Donnelli-Sallee, E. (2007) Frequency and Time Investment of Instructors’ Participation in Threaded Discussions in the Online Classroom, Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 6, 1 – 9.

Moore, M. (1993) Three Types of Interaction in Distance Education: New Perspectives, eds. Harry, K.,  Hohn, M. and Keegan, D., London: Routledge.

MyExamopedia (nd) (June 2010).

*Pena-Shaff, J. B. and Nicholls, C. (2004) Analyzing student interactions and meaning construction in computer bulletin board discussions, Computers and Education, 42, 243 – 265.

*Rourke, L. and Kanuka, H. (2007) Barriers to online critical discourse, Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 2, 105–126.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning, RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Seery, M. (2010) Interacting Online – problems arising out of discussion boards, (blog post) (June 2010)

*White, N. (2002) Defining the purpose of your community, (June 2010)

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