Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

Tom Preskett’s article, There’s Blended Learning and There’s Blended Learning!, made two points in particular that started me thinking about group dynamics and how this plays out in face-to-face, hybrid, and online classes. First he said that in one model of hybrid courses “The course is explained, participants get to know each other, and bonds are formed.” Then later he commented: “Give a student in 2010 the alternative and F2F wins most of the time.”

I think that forming bonds is one of the necessary elements for success in hybrid and online courses, and this ability to form bonds is related to students’ preference, or not, for face-to-face. In some cases, the course’s success does not depend on whether the students form bonds – an introductory chemistry course of 300 students being lectured to in an auditorium comes to mind.  However, for a course that is conducted seminar-style or in which the goal is for students to work collaboratively, creating bonds can be critical to success.

Online discussions have the potential for being effective seminars and forums for collaborative learning; however, they are not always designed that way. Sometimes, the goal of the course is to effectively impart content in much the way face-to-face lectures do or correspondence courses did in the past. Online courses offer the opportunity for a much deeper and richer engagement with the materials, but the social aspects of group dynamics need to be taken into account for greater effectiveness.

For instance, I took some online courses with a professor whom I really liked, and I felt I got to know her. However, I felt no connection to the other students in the courses. There were several reasons for these feelings about connection. First, the teacher provided videotaped lectures of her courses. There were usually a few students “live” in the classroom, and although the courses were structured to be mostly lecture, the students participated and asked questions. Because I saw and heard the instructor and witnessed the interaction in the class, I felt I got to know the instructor and the other students. However, these “live” students were enrolled in the course a semester or two before so they were not the students who were “in the course” with me.

Also, the instructor set up the online portion so that there were no real discussions. The students were expected to read the material, watch the video, and post a response to questions or comments the instructor posed. There were no firm deadlines for the posts and no expectation that you read and/or respond to the comments of other students. Although I liked this instructor and learned a lot from her courses, and chose to take several courses with her, I never felt connected to the other students.

Did that impact my learning? Yes and no. I learned the content; no doubt about that. However, the give-and-take of discussions around some issues can create a deeper engagement with the materials and the content. That part was definitely missing. I eventually met this professor face-to-face at a conference, and we both felt we knew one another. I asked why she did not set up the online responses as discussions, and her reply was that the students are adults and if they want to discuss the issues, they can. I have to respectfully disagree with her. In my experience as a teacher and as a student, if students are not expected to do it, they won’t. More importantly, I think that in ignoring this aspect of the online forum, she and her students are missing an opportunity to learn from one another in a collaborative environment.

Cox and Cox (2008), in their online article “Developing Interpersonal and Group Dynamics Through Asynchronous Threaded Discussions: The Use of Discussion Board in Collaborative Learning,” point out the importance of collaborative learning and various ways in which the online environment lends itself to a variety of opportunities for creating increased student interaction and learning. The authors conclude that increased social interactions result in students’ developing a stronger sense of learning community. Their research project supports Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory, which asserts that social interaction is necessary for cognitive development.

Therefore, I think Tom’s article highlights the complexity of online learning and the importance of understanding the connection between social interaction and cognition. In his Model 1, students were introduced to the course, the instructor, and one another face-to-face, then the rest of the course was online. Model 2 alternated face-to-face and online meetings. He pinpointed a lack of ample time for students to engage in the online activities as a problem with the second model. On the other hand, the first model allows students to engage collaboratively with people that they feel they know and seems to be the more effective of the two.

I think that Model 1 would be especially important when students are first being introduced to the online learning environment. In my experience, students who are not familiar with online courses require time to acclimate and to learn their way around. Their uncertainty about the mechanics of the process can interfere with their ability to interact effectively with the content and with their classmates. Sometimes a brief face-to-face meeting, or even a phone call, is enough to give them that bit of personal interaction they need to help them feel more confident about their ability to engage not only the content but also their classmates comfortably.

As Cox and  Cox point out, increased social interactions result in a stronger sense of connection which in turn results in increased learning. A well­­-designed online course has the potential to help students form bonds that can create this type of effective learning community.

8 Responses

  1. Lynn, thanks for another thoughtful article with a critical message that is all too often lost in discussions on best practice. Plunking innovation into an existing curriculum is not the end all. In fact, it is only the beginning of a long period of trial and error, of countless ongoing additional innovations, tweaks, and changes to develop a model that actually works for a given teacher with a given group of students in a given learning environment.

    To underscore the complexity of what we do as teachers, we need to point out that these working models are always evolving, even as we’re applying them in current classes. They’re never the same horizontally among different classes and vertically within the same class, day to day. In fact, they need to be adjusted for each class as well as for small groups and individuals.

    In a very real sense, teaching is a lot more complex than brain surgery. The sheer number of critical variables defies attempts to turn teaching into a routine procedure, a science, leaving it in the realm of the arts where intuition still remains the best guide to practice. -Jim S
    (Note: This comment is based on a private email message sent to Lynn a few minutes ago. -js)

  2. Thanks for the link to Cox and Cox (2008) , Lynn. The forum interactions they quote reminded me of the Rotisserie discussions of the Harvard Berkman Center’s Development and the internet course I joined in March 2003.

    254 participants: some of us knew each other via civil society discussion lists about the first World Summit on Information Society that was due in December 2003, maybe a few of those had also met in real life too, but we were mainly strangers to each other.

    Therefore the rotisserie was a particularly useful tool to encourage interaction: the course conveners would post a question, we’d have some days to reply, then the answers got published and we were each randomly assigned someone else’s answer to comment on by the rotisserie software. We could also comment on other answers if we wanted. Etc.: the rotisserie could be set up for several “turns”.

    See “About the Rotisserie” in About H2O (H2O being the name of the course platform developed by Harvard, of which the rotisserie was a component). Maybe one reason it worked so well was that the idea of an underwater roasting spit was fun. However, its main attraction was that it neutrally involved all participants in interaction.

    In some F2F conditions, you can sit everyone in a circle, pick a sheet of paper in the waste basket, roll it into a ball, then throw it to someone who has to reply to a question and throw the ball to someone else who answers and so forth. But you can’t really do that with 254 participants, and anyway, there is a subjective element in throwing the paper ball. Still, in a blended course, the paper ball could be used in the F2F part as an introduction to the online rotisserie activities, perhaps,

    Re social interaction and cognitive development: when Anne-Nelly Perret-Clermont did the experiments she described in “Social interaction and cognitive development in children” (1980), she had 2 groups of children who had not acquired the notion of quantity conservation. The children in one group would then have a 1-to-1 interaction with a “conservant” child, those of the other group, with another “non conservant” child.

    Then the children of both groups got tested for conservation again. More children of the group who had interacted with conservant peers became conservant themselves than in the other group – with one baffling exception: a kid in the second group had not only become conservant, but was quite articulate in explaining why the quantity remained the same. When asked by the experimenter how he’d reached this new perception, he said “Oh, X [a conservant child] explained it to me with marbles during break some days ago” (quoting from memory).

    The Rotisserie, which both imposes random interaction and allows elective interaction, seems a good way to foster that kind of unforeseen learning in an online or blended course.

  3. Claude,

    I like the idea of the rotisseries, especially with large groups. I also like it as a metaphor for this type of interaction.

  4. [...] Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses « Educational Technology and Change Jou… Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses http://j.mp/fZUkZJ #cscl (tags: via:packrati.us cscl) [...]

  5. [...] the most effective online learning and teaching experience, they must acknowledge the importance of community engagement in the online [...]

  6. […] need a sense of community in order to succeed, especially in online courses (c.f., Zimmerman, L. “Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses.” Educational Technology and Change. 2 January […]

  7. […] Becker, D., & Haugen, S. (2004). Wireless Instruction: A New Dimension in Course Delivery. Management Accounting Quarterly, 6(1), 41–46. Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://etcjournal.com/2011/01/02/7050/ […]

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