By 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.
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