The design of courses, learning outcomes, and learning activities is a very significant determinant of how socially present participants can be. Activities that focus on summarizing information sources can easily be completed by isolated individuals, whereas structured debates are much more likely to encourage interactions between learners.
Often, however, the design of online courses is out of the hands of the person ultimately responsible for guiding the students through the course, presenting a challenge for faculty who must teach using someone else’s ideas.
Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, and Garrison1, outline several practical activities that faculty can incorporate into their courses, even after the design has been completed by someone else.
- Faculty should provide opportunities for introductions and ongoing social interaction.
Ideally, the faculty should model this and should be encouraged to do so using media that are more ‘immediate’ than plain text. Posting a video introduction to the course content, the course environment, as well as short tutorials on particularly vexing questions or problems in the course content is a great way to encourage a safe and welcoming atmosphere. This is especially effective when the faculty talks about their experience with the subject matter and when students are encouraged to reciprocate.
- Set appropriate norms for online interactions.
It seems that online environments tend to magnify personalities. On one hand, the relative anonymity of the internet seems to bring out the worst in some people who feel emboldened to post hurtful comments. Conversely, the online environment can lead to an almost pathological politeness (especially in Canada 😉 ) where there are no ideas challenged at all. Be clear that comments and posts in discussion forums are to be respectful of all people. It is appropriate for ideas to be criticized, but it is never appropriate for people to be criticized.
- Discuss the nature of online learning and allow learners who are new to the medium to adjust to their expectations (e.g., everything takes longer online compared to f2f).
One way to do this is to create a FAQ page or resource where common questions and misconceptions are addressed.
- Be very clear about how to complete the course.
Logistical information about course activities is critical in online learning because even a small error can cause long delays. When faculty are not physically present to answer questions, it is very important to anticipate and include details such as how to submit assignments, how to contact other course participants or how learners will be assessed.
- Allow appropriate flexibility in how students meet course outcomes.
Clearly, this is more easily done when student choice is factored into the design of learning activities, but it is important to recognize that most learners in online environments are busy adults with careers and family responsibilities outside of school.
Whatever strategies you use, Garrison2 reminds us that social interactions are only a means to the end goal of promoting a safe environment for the processes of critical inquiry.
- Vaughan, N., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Athabasca: AU Press. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120229
- Garrison, D. R. (2011). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.