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.

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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.

Topic of Inquiry

Research main topic of inquiry

How is social presence perceived by students in online classes? What does social presence look like in online classes for undergraduate students? What is the relationship of the perceptions of social presence and student satisfaction in online classes?

Subtopic(s) of inquiry

  • What does social presence mean to students?
  • Is the value of social presence in classes different for students versus faculty?
  • How important is social presence to undergraduate students in online classes?

Peer Review

Some of the feedback didn’t make sense to me. I think that the purpose of the assignment is not the same for all students in the class. So, some of the feedback had me wondering how that was related to the assignment. This also makes me think the assignment purpose is not clear to me as well. It’s like coaching a hockey team when you only know the rules for soccer. There is some cross over but generally there a sense of confusion between the two parties. For example, I said multiple times that I wanted to know if the current definitions of social presence are the same for students today. Then I had feedback saying there was no clear research topic. That is literally what I am researching. There was someone else that said they wanted to see more of the Lit Review, but I thought that was the next stage of this. I was under the impression that we were just really focusing on our learning theory and how that informs or shapes the research and where we are headed. So, it isn’t a matter of agree or disagree for me; this is just confusion.
My opinion really hasn’t changed on my theory. I don’t have any enhancements to fix since I haven’t completed the work. What has changed is that I thought I understood the assignment and where we are going with it, but now I know that I don’t know what the purpose of this work is. Is this a Lit Review or an understanding of how we view learning and the theory that is out there to support it? I don’t understand how this paper is any different from a proposal. What is a lit review? Is it an actual paper or more like an annotated bibliography?  I don’t know how this all goes together. Surely these are not separate assignments that are unrelated. The terminology we are using is unclear. I come from a different academic background, and so I am still confused it seems on what all of these terms mean which leads me to a lot of doubt on what I am doing.

 

There were some good questions to think about when planning my research methods. That was super useful.

#LearningIsSocial

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.

 

The idea that the social interaction/interpersonal connection is the missing piece for online learning is a 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. The combination of these things provides a solid foundation for my own personal theory of learning (PLT). As I continue to research, I expect that my PLT will evolve into a more strongly founded and articulated representation of both theory and practice.

 

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. 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.” I have created a new folder in Mendeley for this research.

 

References

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.

 

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.

 

To Be or Not To Be?

Since I feel that generally I am an open person, I think I would be willing to try to accept different theoretical models used for instructional design, especially ones that have similarities to my own model. I know I have a lot to learn about teaching and learning, so I think that would help me at least be willing to try.

 

But I also know that I often think that I am right about most things. I have been trained to think independently of others and one side effect is the secret knowledge that I’m always right lingers regardless of the outcome of decisions made. This ultimately might sabotage whatever research I would be analyzing.

 

So, I guess my way to approach is to talk about it. If I am the support person, then I would be willing to have continual conversations to sort of, recalibrate my way of thinking to the theoretical model we are using. While I tend to think I am often right, I also feel like I am willing to change my mind given logical reasons or new information to reshape what I already know. So, while I typically think on the day to day that I have it figured out, I am still willing to grow and change based on new knowledge.

 

It’s because of this that I would be willing to figure out new paradigms to work under. If I really think about it, I am pretty good at playing the devil’s advocate in other environments. I could use those compartmentalization skills combined with my imagination to wear the hat of a different theoretical model.