Some advantages and strengths of online discussion:
Online courses: with discussion as a focus
Often use online discussion as the focus technology. To add variety and give opportunities to interact in different ways, adding synchronous video communications, text chat, podcasts etc. are effective strategies. Some important considerations in designing a fully online course are firstly that online environments have fewer social cues available and this makes students more insecure. Also, any particular group will have people with markedly different levels of technical experience, requiring different amounts of support.
Social presence is the amount you feel subjectively that you and others are “there” and present. Initially, the amount of social presence was viewed as being a function of the particular medium (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976), so that the more like face to face, the more social presence there was. More recent research however, suggests that it is a user’s personal perceptions of presence that matters, not just whether traditional context cues (like gesture, facial expression and intonation) are present, and that CMC environments can be social and personal places too (e.g. Gunawardena, 1995; Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997). Social presence includes affective factors like expressing emotions, use of humour, self disclosure, and interactive indicators (so you can see if these are present in your course) including quoting from other entries, continuing a thread, answering questions, complimenting, expressing agreement or appreciation, using “we”, greetings or salutations and so forth.
There has been a lot of research in the last 15-20 years or so into the effects of having social presence in online learning contexts. Researchers have found a link between social presence and a number of factors including student satisfaction (Gunawardena, 1995; Hostetter & Busch, 2006; Russo & Benson, 2005). Students with high social presence were found to be satisfied with the instructor and their own level of perceived learning. Student satisfaction was also found to be strongly related to the perceived presence of other students—so peer social presence is important too. Social presence can also influence online interaction. It is directly related to the amount of learner-learner interaction (Tu, 2000)—meaning that student need to interact with their peers in order to be perceived as being ‘real” and being “there”. Additionally, it is not quantity of these kinds of peer interactions that is critical, but the quality (Tu & McIsaac, 2002). Finally, social presence can affect the level of student learning. Students both perceive that they learn more (Picciano, 2002, Richardson & Swan 2003) and have been found to have learned more by external measures (Russo & Benson, 2005). The detailed nature of the relationship between social presence and learning is still a hot topic of research currently.
A welcome email. It is helpful to send a welcome letter to your students or post it on the online course site at the beginning of the semester. This will make online learners feel welcome and sense the instructor’s virtual presence from the very beginning of the course. It also allows you to set out the information students need to participate in the course and frames the initial expectations. Also, the tone in your writing can set up a positive connection too.
A personalized introduction. This offers a way to connect quickly with students and to model a level of open interaction that then can continue in the course discussions. I use a biographies view where I give a brief background on myself, my research and teaching interests and add a piece on “2 of my strengths”. I also have a personal photo as an image icon that appears in each entry. Students also make biography notes, and I find this view has the most long lasting discussion through the term. You could also add a hyperlink to a home page if you have one, an audio clip, or a video clip to add a human touch to the online classroom.
Make judicious use of email. While many how-to advisors suggest using email extensively. I suggest using it very little. Encourage students to use the questions view to put all their questions in unless it is personal. This helps in a) reducing the number of emails you have to deal with; b) reducing the number of responses you have to write because you answer each question only once and the answer is there for the rest of the class, c) students often answer each others questions, particularly about technical issues and so you have fewer questions to answer! Individual email can be used for answering personal questions, providing individual feedback on assignments (try to do one in the first month), checking on people who have disappeared, and following up with students for special situations. I also send a final email with feedback on the final assignment and comments on their performance on various components of the course. In some LMS’s there is a private note function which we are finding can deal with 99% of all the email situations and has the advantage of keeping all the course-related material within the course conference.
Be clear about the expectations for discussion participation. I post a note that lays out suggestions for how much to participate, what a good note looks like, the level of interactivity, how much time you should be allotting to the course and so forth. For the instructor there is an optimal level of participation, not too much and not too little!! It is important to get involved in the discussion and engaged in the conversation, commenting on students’ posts and guiding their learning, but not so much (i.e. answering each post) that students don’t develop the social cohesiveness with their peers that comes from contributing in a back and forth way. It is good to vary participation structures. I start off having a whole class discussion week, and then move to small group discussions, moderated by pairs of students who develop questions in consultation with me and then facilitate the group discussions. Small groups increase social presence (even though I very the group membership weekly) by letting people interact with a subset of the class at a time, and so get to become familiar with people’s interaction styles.
Use synchronous communication to enhance social presence. Immediacy is a critical element in social presence, and communication in real time often enhances social presence when handled well. Text chat is part of most LMS’s and in KeC we are developing these sorts of tools in various ways.
Web 2.0 tools can provide further interactivity. Wikis and blogs are both motivating. Blogs are individual yet public, so people have an individual space, yet others can comment. Students really like this. Blogs are available for free and hosted off campus, there is a blog in Blackboard, and you can even use a single note, and re-edit (with the new material at the top) and thus simulate a blog, but keep it within the course. I call these learning journals (Brett, Forrester & Fujita, 2009). Some students maintain the blog and keep communicating with me and other students even after the completion of a course. If students already have blogs I ask them to add the URL to the course and continue their reflections in their existing blog.
Using videos or other media. Adding weekly videos that can be either “talking head” summaries or short key idea mini-lectures is a great way to make people feel connected. I use Quicktime (which is good for windows and mac) for talking head videos or Screenflow (Camtasia is anther similar product) to create “talkovers”—where the software records your screen as you show things and move windows and cursors around. Many how-to videoshare made with this type of software. Students consistently mention this as one of their top things to continue in my courses.
I plan the ideas I want to mention but I don’t script them, as the spontaneity is part of what makes them effective, and that help the students feel that I am socially present!