During this module I chose to read about learning communities as the extra chapter I had to read (Hill, 2012). This chapter resonates with my own beliefs about learning in that learning is a social endeavor. This is interesting because I didn’t always have this opinion. I went through K-12 in the 1970’s, high school in the early 1980’s, and college in the late 1980’s. Education then was not a social endeavor. I had my notes, textbooks, and a desk in my room where I memorized content for hours on my own. In fact, there were times classmates wanted to get together to “study together” and I refused because I didn’t learn that way. I had to struggle with the material myself to make meaning out of it.
In medical school in the early 1990’s we had a few group learning events. Gross anatomy is traditionally a group event with four to six students assigned to a cadaver but I never liked trying to learn anatomy with others around. I enjoyed the social aspect of cavorting with my tank mates but didn’t feel I learned much from and with them. It was not until my graduate studies in public health (from 1996-1998) that I began to see the benefits of team based learning. Harvard School of Public Health was focused on project-based learning. I was shocked that I never took a single test in any class. We developed artifacts while solving authentic problems. Moreover, we did these projects as a small group. It was an epiphany. I never realized how much I could learn from hearing and debating someone else’s opinion or approach to a problem.
Fast forward to the last few years. I have become a strong believer (and user) of message boards, blogs, and Twitter for education. I enjoy the social nature of learning from others in a dynamic way. I had never tied any learning theory to my use of these tools until this module. When I was forced to redesign a previously taught face-to-face course into an online course I had a couple of challenges that are relevant to this reflection. I needed to design ways for students to have a social presence and ways for me to have a social presence.
While reading the learning communities chapter (Hill, 2012), I especially became interested in social presence theory. I have taken a couple of Coursera MOOCs and never felt any connection to any of my tens of thousands of “classmates”. It was a struggle to find the motivation to finish those courses. When I read about social presence I understood where my feelings of isolation came from. There are multiple definitions of social presence but Picciano’s (2002) definition summarized how I felt: “a student’s sense of being and belonging in a course.” I never felt that.
My medical school has directed learning communities. Students are broken up into groups of six, called ICM groups, that stay together for the first two years of medical school. I felt I could improve perceived social presence by having ICM groups work together to answer the more difficult, applied questions in each module of my online course. I hypothesized that the level of understanding required for these tasks was beyond the cognitive capacity of many of the individual students but within the collective cognitive capacity of the group. I also required that a new leader be chosen for each module such that every student in the ICM group would lead at least one group discussion. I hoped that working together would improve social presence. It might have but it was a failure nonetheless. According to end of the course surveys, all they did was have the group leader do all the work and turn it in for the group. They never had discussions as a group. I have no way to query them further to see why they did this but I suspect three main reasons. First, they are metacognitively too immature or unskilled to understand the benefits of team learning. Second, they are given too many tasks in all their courses and they have to decide how best to spend their limited out of class time. Finally, they commonly work together in their ICM groups and are thus not typical online learners. They see their ICM group mates on a daily basis and didn’t need the interaction so as not to feel isolated in my course.
In this same course I also required students to post two responses per semester on Edmodo.com to threaded module discussions. These discussions were designed to extend their knowledge to concepts that were just beyond what the course materials covered. About one quarter of the students took it seriously and responded with thoughtful comments and challenged each other’s comments. They also used each other’s names when responding thus demonstrating some social presence. The remaining three quarters of the class didn’t respond at all. I was forced to drop this component of the course so that three quarters of the class didn’t fail the course (I required all components of the course to be passed and they were equally weighted). When asked why the majority of students didn’t participate in the Edmodo.com threaded discussions the main responses where that they didn’t feel it added to the course content and was just busy work and that it was an inconvenience to log into another site. Of note, our in-house developed CMS has no discussion board functionality.
Finally, I fostered teacher social presence in several ways. I made a welcome video filmed in my home office wearing casual clothing. I met with students face-to-face for an hour during every module to answer questions and review the most difficult topics. I promptly answered emails, usually within minutes of receiving them. Finally, I used Yahoo Messenger for virtual office hours. Though I didn’t use a validated scale to measure social presence, students indicated they felt a strong teacher presence in the course.
One of the things I have gained from this module is a sense of grounding of my design to learning theory and theories of educational technology. Why my designed failed in the sense that the students refused to participate properly at least I can feel comfort that my design had a basis in theory.
Hill, J. R. (2012). Learning communities: Theoretical foundations for making connections. In D. Jonassesn & S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments. New York: Routledge.
Picciano, A. G. (2002). Beyond student perceptions: Issues of interaction, presence, and performance in an online course. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 6(1), 21-40.