Conferencing can provide a great community context to promote learning through sharing ideas and information and thereby develop deeper understanding and knowledge growth.
In this context, expertise is distributed in that understanding from many different people comes together through the shared learning environment to increase the overall knowledge of the group. Such interaction creates communities of learners, in which the collective interaction of peer learners encourage students to work actively with ideas. Through written explanations and justifications students thereby develop their own expertise in the subject matter and their skills as online learners.
Design principles for online learning start with the same principles that underlie good instruction generally:
- Relate new learning to existing understanding brought by the students and allow opportunities for integrating new ideas to existing frameworks.
- Learning requires constructive effort on the part of students so offer a variety of instructional activities that allow students to work with ideas in different ways.
- A sense of identity promotes ownership and commitment that increases levels of contribution and interaction. Having students contribute their ideas and engage actively in the course increases motivation and engagement.
- There should be consistency and clarity of expectations between instructional activities and methods of assessment.
In addition, the online environment differs from the face to face and so particular effort has to be directed towards the following ideas.
- Creating a sense of community to compensate for the lack of visual cues and physical proximity in the online environment. This can be done through social areas, such as an informal café or chat area, and through sharing personal information early on. Posting profiles of backgrounds and interests helps students get to know each other and may provide opportunities for more effective group work later.
- Developing instructional activities that are collaborative and encourage peer interaction. Socially, such activities develop a sense of community. Cognitively, engaging in discourse about ideas with peers is also helpful in developing ideas and seeing the weaknesses in arguments, for example, and is a good way to engage actively and therefore process material more deeply.
Clearly Stating Expectations
- Clarity in describing expectations for participation. Students need to know how to access the course (technical info); how much time they are expected to spend participating, and what kinds of contributions they are expected to make (eg. length, frequency, spell-checked, responses to other students).
Students need clear strategies for what to do when they encounter technical problems (who they contact, how long it will take to get a response); questions about the course content (who they contact, how they contact—by email directly or through the online conference in a shared area (preferred because it reduces load for instructor, as many questions overlap).
The Changed Timeframe
- Asynchronous online activity allows time for reflection on responses and the result is usually a deepening of discussion about issues. However, it takes longer to discuss things online than in a face to face environment (a rule of thumb is about 2-3 times as long), so this needs to be taken into account in timing assignments and activities.
- If someone has not logged on for a few days, check on them by email or phone. It does not take long for a student to feel isolated or overwhelmed if they have fallen behind in readings or contributions, and they may need encouragement. A feeling of getting behind is a common reason for students dropping out of online courses.