Online community important to learning

In an article in the International Journal of E-Learning (vol7, issue 3), Ni and Aust (2008 )also study the affects of teacher verbal immediacy and a sense of community on undergraduate and graduate students who studied online. They, too, measured student satisfaction and perceived learning as Gallien and Oomen-Early (2008).

Interestingly, the sense of classroom community online seemed to be the only significant factor that affected satisfaction and learning, whereas the presence and verbal immediacy of the instructor helped increase the frequency of online discussion. Conceptually, sense of community can be explained through Moore’s theory of transactional distance promoting three types of interaction: learner-instructor, learner-learner and learner-content. Added to this by other theorists are learner-interface (Hillman, Willis & Gundawardena, 1994) and vicarious interaction (Sutton, 2001) through active observation of others online. In this study, students felt they needed more instructor-learner and learner-learner interaction. Anderson and Garrison (1995) saw the positive affects of community on learning.

More important, a sense of community online requires a feeling of “belonging, trust, and commitment in the interaction between and among students” as well as assuming the obligation to each other and sharing goals; whereas “spirit denotes recognition of community members, the feelings of friendship, cohesion, belonging, and group identity” (p.481). This is a tall order for an online instructor and students alike.

As well, teacher verbal immediacy affected the frequency of online discussion postings by students, and their perceptions of teacher immediacy. Working with another distance education theoretical concept by Holmberg (1960) called the Guided Didactic Conversation theory, this study assumed that feelings of belonging, cooperation and exchange of questions and answers through text-based communication helps motivate learning, and creates what he deems as ‘real’ learning. Additionally, seeing non-verbal immediacy (nodding and smiling) is less likely to be seen online, verbal immediacy actions such as praising and using personal examples can be used to reduce the psychological distance of between teacher and student. As for its less effect on student satisfaction and perceived learning, it might be due to the fact most participants were adults over the age of 30 and are more concerned about the content than the teachers’ interactions. And adult learners tend to take online courses for the chance to collaborate with other online students (Bischoff, 2000).

There is an evolving discussion about online pedagogy. Distinguishing features of online learning are its potential for interaction and collaboration, and the access to vast resources.

As a recommendation, Ny and Aust suggest “teachers should develop communication behaviours that reduce social and psychological distance in the online learning environment” (p.477). It is also important to design online classes to promote interaction and for instructors to facilitate a sense of community. Like, Gallien and Oomen-Early (2008), there is a call for a change in pedagogical practice, and perhaps faculty development.

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