Technology’s Impacts on Learning Communications

Whether we realize it or not, using technology subtlety changes the processes of learning and how we communicate while learning.  Instinctively, we accept that technology empowers us to reach out at any time, share what we are thinking while we are thinking it, and read what others are thinking at any given moment. At first glance, this seems ideal. However, if we look at how the processes of learning and communication are quietly changed with the use of technology, we should wonder if what is lost in that process has any value.

 

First, technology impacts learning communications by slowing down our response time to others. Regardless of whether it is the instructor or student response time; it is rarely immediate. This is an important factor because in a face to face classroom, many revelations of learning happen in the extemporaneous exchanges that happen in the moment between teacher and student as well as between student and student. These moments of discovery are key to reshaping our understanding and ideas. Technology may prevent these epiphanies from happening at all. Instead, the curiosity that unpins a question may be lost in the time it takes for an emailed response or discussion forum reply. Without that curiosity, often times, the value of the moment is lost. The art of teaching and learning is lost.

 

Second, technology impacts learning communication by giving student response to assignments more time for pre-planned and constructed thoughts. While having deeper and more thoughtful responses is typically best, but what is forgotten is the mess of constructing ideas, and more importantly, the reconstruction of ideas. As a social constructionist, it matters that students are able to observer the messiest version of peer work so as to empower their own messy work. Sometimes students learn more from the work in progress rather than the final product. This is the equivalent of only knowing your friend through Instagram. If you only see the final, created selfie, then you start to think these people never get sick, have a bad day, or are human at all. It is isolating. Online classes already have so much potential to disconnect students from other students, and always having time to have pre-planned and constructed thoughts is part of the problem.

 

A third, and more positive, impact of technology on learning communications is the added ability to construct new knowledge with others almost simultaneously. In a classroom, student collaboration still means everyone taking turns to share out and possibly discuss how the new knowledge reshapes what it already known. It takes time, and ultimately only one speaker can speak at a time. However, with technology like Twitter, multiple responses can happen at the same time. Multiple voices can share out literally at the same time. The benefit of this is that everyone feels heard. There is time for individuals to go back read all responses and continue the thread, and at some point, someone can encapsulate final new thoughts on the topic in an attempt to incorporate the most influential ideas. This is a unique opportunity because it is unique to what technology can do for learning.

 

Technology in and of itself is not bad. Awareness of how it impacts and reshapes learning and learning communications is mandatory if we want our students to continue on experiencing the process of learning.

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Personal Learning Theory

Personal Learning Theory

Introduction

Generally, my personal theory of learning is that learning is social. Learning is a complex process that requires both knowledge and social interaction to help break it down, evaluate the pieces, then put it back together. At the heart of it, we need social interactions to emotionally support what is shaping in our mind. If we limit ourselves to content only, we actually close ourselves off to other perspectives and different interpretations. Without outside contact, we are sometimes left uncertain of achievement, disconnected from course goals, and ultimately self-reliant to a fault.

This perception of learning is definitely connected to the current research in distance learning. According to Kang and Im (2013), “learners who felt they had a higher degree of interaction with their instructors and other peer learners had higher satisfaction and higher perceived learning outcomes than learners to felt they experienced a lower degree of interaction.” While this isn’t speaking directly to actual course outcomes, the perceptions of students regarding their success in class matters as a selling point at minimum for online learning. If students get an ‘A’ but are not happy about how they earned it or are dissatisfied by the experience, then it is less likely they will continue with online classes. Similarly, Gutman (2001) lists as her number five barrier of “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online,” as “Interpersonal Relations” (pg. 54).  Gutman states that “for some [teachers], the lack of direct interpersonal contact with both students and faculty is an issue” (pg. 54). The role of social interaction is not just important for the student experience; it is important for instructors as well. These are just a few of the current voices on social learning. However, the concept has been around for decades. Both Lev Vygotsky (1978) and Albert Bandura (1971) theories on the social aspect of learning are really the foundations of the current research surrounding the topic.

 

Research Problem

The idea that the social interaction/interpersonal connection is the missing piece for online learning is also repeated idea, article after article. Not only is this a topic of ongoing research, but it resonates with my own experience as an online student as well as an online instructor. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s findings from the “Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices,” there is no real difference between the online learning success rate and the traditional face-to-face success rate. The article specifically says that K-12 students “in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction” (pg. xiv). This is because of the ongoing complaint that online learning has a missing piece, the social interaction. In the Horizon Report for Higher Education (2017), it was noted that “higher education continues to move away from traditional, lecture-based lessons toward more hands-on activities, classrooms are starting to resemble real-world work and social environments that foster organic interactions and cross-disciplinary problem-solving.” This shift recognizes the need to create “social environments that foster organic interactions” because those environments mirror the real world. Social interactions are not just ways to create meaningful learning experiences; they also teach us how to function in the real world.

 

Online Learning/Theory Model

As a Social Constructivist, I want to research current definitions of social presence in online learning. Social presence is a gateway to social learning. I want to do a small-scale confirmatory qualitative study on a proximately 10-12 university students who have experience as an online student. Using Patrick Lowenthal and Chareen Snelson’s seven selected definitions of social presence from their article “In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence,” I would like to create an open ended survey to see how students define social presence in online classes today.

As I move forward with research, I will continue to refine my search terms. I have already adjusted my focus from “social learning” to “social presence” in the online classroom. My next steps are to finish compiling relevant studies on the influence of social presence in online learning and to follow that with peer reviewed articles defining how to incorporate or build social presence in online classes. This last part might be too much for this paper though. Despite this, I intend on using the references from class assignments to help guide my choices. So far, many of the class readings have been relevant to this topic, namely: Stodel, Thompson, and MacDonald’s (2006) article,  “Learners’ Perspectives on What is Missing from Online Learning: Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework;” Lowenthal and Snelson’s (2017) article, “In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence;” and Gutman’s (2001) article, “Six Barriers Causing Educators to Resist Teaching Online, and How Institutions Can Break them.” However, after reading Lowenthal & Snelson’s (2017) article, there is a new claim that “social presence might not be essential for a meaningful educational experience.” They go on to specify that certain types of instructional design would benefit from building social presence into the course, but that not all online learning requires social presence. Therefore, I need to expand my research a little more to see what other studies have been done on this front. It also makes me curious about my own research results, if those results would support this new claim.

 

References

Allen, Elaine I., and J. S. (2016). Online Report Card: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 1-62.

Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2007). Online Nation: Five Years of Growth in Online Learning. The Sloan Consortium, 1-31.

Bandura, A. (1971). Social learning theory. Social Learning Theory. New York City: General Learning Press.

Gutman, D. (2001). Six Barriers Causing Teaching Online, Can Break Them. Distance Learning, 9(3).

Kang, M., & Im, T. (2013). Factors of learner-instructor interaction which predict perceived learning outcomes in online learning environment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(3), 292–301.

Lowenthal, P. R., & Snelson, C. (2017). In search of a better understanding of social presence: an investigation into how researchers define social presence. Distance Education, 38(2), 141–159.

New Media Consortium. (2017). Horizon Report – 2017 Higher Education Edition. Horizon Report, 1-60.

Stodel, E. J., & Thompson, T. L. (2006). Interpretations through the Community of Inquiry Framework. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 7(3), 1–15.

U.S. Department of Education. (2010). “Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning,” 1-94.

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in society : the development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.

 

Final Thoughts

There are two main things I have learned in Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA): 1. There is a lot of theory to help refine the process. 2. I don’t have to work alone through the process.

The first part of the course, we were asked to find both research and theory in the literature that used or discussed CMDA. This really helped demonstrate the kind of information that is out there. This seems like a big DUH, but honestly I just don’t know what I don’t know. What I mean is that I really don’t know what kind of information is out there because I am so new to the field.

Once we finally got to actual coding, our class discussions were a reminder that we all need help doing the coding. Part of the help we need is to help avoid as much bias as we can, but also we are all so new to CMDA that collaboration is the only real way we will be able to effectively do the work.

 

CMDA and Qualitative Research

First and foremost, the most important quality of Qualitative Research is that hypotheses come from the research rather than having to come up with my own hypothesis and test it. That was a misconception that I’ve had, that I have to be the expert going in to research. In reality, doing qualitative research allows me to be more of an explorer rather than an expert.

So far in my education, the only real distinction between Qualitative and Quantitative Research is really about the results they produce; however, that limited information does not inform my decision-making when designing a research plan. Also, until now, I have been thinking my research will be predominately multi-strategy, incorporating both. But after this new adjustment, I feel a little off-the-hook for designing more complicated research plans. As of now, in order to help grow my knowledge in the field, I can primarily focus on Qualitative Research, and more specifically Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis.  Outside of knowing coding methods, there is not much I really need to already know before doing research outside of ethical and rigorous research methods. So, I will be in a constant state of discovery when it comes to research, and honestly that is less stressful.

 

After my initial practice with gathering coding, I am confident that I will need help coding in the future. I have always been one to notice small details in the world around me, but that doesn’t mean that I will notice the details in CMDA. Further, I don’t exactly know what kind of information, broad or specific, we should be looking for. I imagine that will come with time. So, I definitely need to know more about this process. I mean, what’s the point of coding information if the code doesn’t make sense? Then, once we gather that information, what do we do with it? Still not sure what the next steps are. Experience will help.

Coding for Knowledge

Emic coding helps to discover new knowledge in the qualitative research process. When you do emic coding, your job is to literally see what pops up in the discourse. You code everything, then look for patterns to see what is happening. It is expected that there is no previously decided questions to answer or agenda. As the coder, you go in with a blank slate so that you can keep your eyes open to all possibilities. Then, you have others do the same. Collaboration can lead to defining new knowledge as well as vet it.

 

However, with technology as a conduit for discourse, you need to keep in mind that this “phenomena” may  not be as authentic behavior as would be experience in a face to face setting. With technology as an affordance, there is more time for participants to respond with more thought out answers. Their behavior can be more covert and hidden. Social media and forums also provide an environment where a participant can create a persona that they project rather than projecting their true selves. This is a problem if we are seeking true and authentic experiences. So, the knowledge we collect could easily be unreliable if the participants are not sharing a their real experience. Therefore , we should always consider the role of technology in the communication being evaluated. We should anticipate what technology prevents from happening as well as what technology helps to create in discourse.

Sometimes Qualitative is Necessary

Before tonight’s discussion, I think I have approached qualitative and quantitative research as basically choices we make in the research design. There’s some personal preference in choosing, but mostly the type of research you’re doing drives the methods you choose. Also, how the research has been done previously plays a part in choosing a research method. But now, it seems more and more obvious that there are times when qualitative research is necessary. There are certain kinds of phenomena that can ultimately only be evaluated through qualitative analysis. That is where CMDA comes in. Sure, you can count how many words of a certain kind were used in the discourse. You can use word count and demographics to draw some surface conclusions, but honestly what’s the point? To gather real meaning from Computer Mediated Discourse Analysis, you must do qualitative work.

CMDA in Research

I think CMDA is an ideal way to evaluate how social presence shows up in computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environments. CMDA might help to see the immediacy of peer to peer or teacher to peer response times. CMDA could also show the level of formality in peer to peer exchanges in online communication. There could also be deeper analysis in the connection between informal language and the level of academic rigor in communication. It also might be interesting to evaluate the relationship between discussion forums that are open chat versus discussion forums that are assignments. No matter what my focus is in future research, CMDA could be an important method to use for research.

Thinking About Research

I think that most things that can be known, can be understood, through experience and observation. Sometimes things just happen. That is not knowledge when you witness it. However, when the same time keeps happening in similar situations, if we notice, we can learn to expect the same results in the future. When we start to recognize this pattern of circumstances, then we can begin to know things because we can begin to trust those things will happen again. So, if we want to understand the world, we need to be willing to experience it and observe what happens.

Research is a deliberate act of experiencing circumstances and observing them. I think the purpose of doing research is to know things on our terms rather than waiting for circumstances to happen on their own. Research creates controlled circumstances intentionally for researchers to experience and witness the results. Researchers then turn their observations into stories or numbers to create a set of data that is knowable. I have a preference for narrative type data but I think numbers can shed new light on to that narrative.

My future research is focused on the effects of social presence on learning in computer supported collaborative learning environments in higher ed. I think the topic can cross over into K-12 and even possibly into corporate training settings.

Online Learning Design

I learned to “design” online as an instructor. I had already spent about a year in a face to face classroom with high school students. High schools tend to require more evidence of planning your practice than colleges, so I already had design in mind before I was met with the challenge of designing for an online class. I also had been an online student for some of my master’s degree, so I had also been exposed to some different versions of online classroom environments. Finally, I learned from failure. My first two terms online, I included in part of my class to get feedback on some of the set up. I tried to create a space where students felt free to comment on how the class was going online. When students made requests for adjustments, I made them. A specific example of that is the layout of class notes. At the time, “lecture” was delivered in the form of teacher notes. I would often take the notes I would use for class and adapt them for students. What I didn’t do was give any emphasis to ideas in the notes. So, per student request, I adapted my notes to include headings and bullet points and more breaks between information to help disseminate the information for students. Ultimately, that process made me a more organized instructor and refined my writing.

So far, I think my best experiences as an instructor and a student were times where there was an online community present within the class. I know building a community can be difficult, but those experiences were the more rounded learning experiences as well as more memorable that I’ve had. As a student, I had an instructor who read our discussion forum posts and keep notes of them. At the end of each week, she would then have an instructor response that would discuss students by name with specific details from their work. She would talk about strengths and the good questions we were asking. She would also highlight areas for expansion and point out students by name who had work worthy of imitation for those who needed extra help. Looking back, I think her process of synthesizing our work and using our name helped build a sense that she was really listening to what we had to say, and that we as a class had things in common. When she used our names, I also brought forward a reminder that there were actually people in the class, not just names on the page. This is a constant challenge for designing an online class where you create a community.

I think designing for community is connected to social learning theory and community of inquiry theory. These theories help shape how discussion is used and created. They influence the value of utilizing peer to peer connections as well as teacher to student interaction since building a community requires interaction and communication. Social learning theory will drive assignment design to incorporate more collaborative opportunities that require teamwork. When I design, these things matter to me. They influence decisions I make. In fact, without incorporating opportunities for students to connect, communicate, and work with each other, I get bored as an instructor because the feel of the class is less engaging.

The Boring Old LMS

Using LMS programs for a structured learning space has so many benefits. First and foremost, it allows an instructor to create a course including assignments, activities, and resources all in one place. After the first set up, the only real maintenance is updates like due dates and adjustments for the current class needs. Content updates don’t really have to happen that often, maybe every five years or so. This stability in content provides the same foundation for all students regardless of instructor. This also reduces the impact of paper copies made for every cycle of the course. Further, having a class in an LMS program provides a record of instructor and student contributions in group discussions as well as a digital record of assignments. No dog can eat that homework, and faculty cannot misplace an online copy of student work. Having this kind of pseudo-permanence also allows instructors to focus on improving teaching methods rather than just updating content. In a face to face class, often equal time is given to preparing for the class with  materials and preparing to present content. There isn’t as much other time for perfecting the methods used to present and teach that content.  Using an LMS would allow for more time on really teaching rather than just preparing because the foundations are already laid out. You don’t have to relay them every cycle like you do for a face to face class.

However, a structure learning space like LMS programs create barriers for social learning. This is probably one of my biggest complaints about current LMS programs. The majority only offer discussion threads as a means to interact. As an instructor this makes it difficult to get a feel for your students or anticipate student needs. So, it makes it far easier to disconnect to the course work and the students. Student struggle as well. Without more social interaction, it is easy to disconnect from the class. Learning becomes just a check list of things to do and class is just an appointment you have. If you have questions, the time it takes to get it answered from an instructor could be long enough to be irrelevant. If you have no way of connecting with classmates then the chance of feeling lost or confused with no support is increased. So, online classes are a threat to social learning.

 

If I could build my own learning environment, I would create an LMS that allows for instructors and students to easily make face to face contact online or at minimum, audio that doesn’t feel like a complicated burden to use. I think there is a time and place for asynchronous only learning environments, but to incorporate social learning theory into LMS design, synchronous meetings need to happen. I don’t think they have to happen all the time, but some kind of regular meeting would enhance the opportunity for social learning. During asynchronous learning, I could imagine using tools like VoiceThread or Recap where students can create together and share together online in different spaces, different times, but also still feel connected because of the voice and audio aspects. Limiting our social interaction to threaded forums is just that: limiting. More importantly, it is boring. Also, incorporating more video on the instructor’s part, would also help increase the teaching environment of an online class. When you meet only online, “instruction” take the form of written notes. Creating theses notes eliminates the art of teaching that would typically include tone, inflection, impromptu tangents, and personality. There needs to be more opportunity for the human experience in online courses if online learning is going to surpass the success rates of face to face learning. Without it, online learning will feel like it is missing “something” and typically that results in the loss of rigor since student and instructor investment has a “missing” component.