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Online student interaction – a waste of time?

January 22, 2010 10 comments

Someone tweeted a link today that caught my eye to a recently published paper by Sharon Watson of the Chifley Business School in Melbourne. This paper was presented at the HERDSA 2009 conference at Charles Darwin University, Darwin.

The paper is entitled Distance education students’ attitudes towards increased online interaction: desired change or unwanted imposition?

As an online educator who builds his entire teaching philosophy around the concept of collaborative learning (or social constructivism), I was very interested to see what the paper had to say. I found it very interesting – have a read and see what you think. I had not thought much about whether interaction amongst students online was a bad or unwanted thing before, and perhaps this has something to do with my design background, where open conversation, peer review and critical exchange of ideas is not only encouraged, but a necessity – especially in the education process. It made me wonder if I have been inflicting my views of collaborative learning onto my students, or if I have been taking for granted that open sharing of ideas and knowledge is an essential part of the learning process…

The main conclusion of Watson’s paper was, that a student’s attitude towards online interaction with their peers seemed to be linked with their nationality in the context of the research that was conducted. Both Indian and Australian students made up the bulk of the study, and it seems that there was a marked preference for more interaction from the Indian students, and the Australian on the whole would’ve liked to keep things as they were with little peer interaction. She does also say that the courses were not well designed when it came to including discussion into the course structure, and that the study was done before any redevelopment to ensure changes would be received well by those studying the course.

This surprised me somewhat, because I know a colleague of mine, Ian McArthur, has done significant work with running online courses between Australian and Chinese cultures (through his Collabor8 projects) – and he has found that the Chinese students seem to find it more difficult to contribute effectively to online discussions in comparison to the much more active Australians, due to cultural differences in how they communicate and and how learning is usually conducted (In fact you can see an interesting presentation he has done on this topic here).

This to me suggests that perhaps it is not culture alone that influences preference for collaborative learning and student interaction online. Of course issues such as language, and cultural differences play an important part, but primarily I think we to begin with, the way the courses are designed and taught have to be examined first…

A Learning Community vs Distance Learning – decide what you’re aiming for from the get go!
I have always disliked it when anyone refers to ‘distance learning’ in relation to what I do. To me, the distance learning model is usually designed around the (dare I say antiquated?) concept of a student’s solitary involvement with the course content and perhaps their teacher, and is a completely different premise to what online learning these days really can be.

You just have to look at the abundance of social networking communities, online forums, social bookmarking out there to know that people love to interact and collaborate when it is relevant to them and when they can learn more from the experience to make the time invested worthwhile. Interacting with others online can lead to extremely rich learning experiences – but a student has to feel that interacting with their peers will give them a much higher level of personal satisfaction and a better learning experience for this to work.

I think a teacher has to decide right up front whether they want their online class to be community or a conduit for individual learning. If interaction is desired, then the course has to be designed to encourage this from the ground up.

My point is, that if you have designed an online course using a ‘distance learning’ mentality (students work individually to complete course assignments and get feedback from only their teacher), then of course interaction between students can become superfluous and pointless. Online students often choose to study online because of time constraints with their busy lives, so conversations that lead nowhere or serve no purpose are a road to disaster.

It is crucial that an online teacher establish a community, and engender a culture of collaborative enquiry amongst students from the start. This requires assessment to be designed such that discussion and review are necessary in order to reach the goal. Students should also have a space for unrelated social chat, and be shown what constitutes valuable contributions in a discussion. One of the most valuable uses of interaction in a class I have used is using general discussion (after a lecture usually) to help students build a set of collectively defined criteria about a concept that helps them make sense of the new information. They then take this into their project work, where they can apply it to their approaches in completing the task. Following this students present their work back to their peers, who review it based upon the criteria they established a a larger group earlier on. I have found this type of discussion is purposeful, and also allows students to apply what they have learned in constructive analysis of their fellow students’ work.

I definitely don’t think increased online interaction is a waste of students’ time – but these are of course my personal and therefore biased thoughts on the topic, but I would like to hear what others think. Perhaps I am too focused on collaboration and am running my students ragged – any of my students out there!?

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