Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The experts below focus on the concept of transactional distance between students and teachers and how to reduce this distance through interesting ways of stimulating student discussion in the online class. They are from Discussion-Based Online Teaching to Enhance Student Learning: Theory,
Practice, and Assessment (Stylus, October 2003), by Tisha Bender (firstname.lastname@example.org), Faculty Development Consultant, Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, Stern School: NYU. Stylus Publishing, LLC, 22883 Quicksilver Drive, Sterling, Virginia, 20166. Copyright ?2003 Stylus Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. http://www.styluspub.com/
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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DISCUSSION-BASED ONLINE TEACHING
Can the Mind Exist Independently from the Body?
Students generally like to have a sense of belonging. When they attend a class on campus, they become familiar both with the room in which the class is held and with the regularity of attendance of the inhabitants in that room. There is, in other words, a sense of predictability in terms of the environment. Feeling included in a group is an important factor for encouraging the true potential for learning to take place.
But is it possible for a class that does not occupy spatial coordinates to still generate a feeling of place? Given that students in an online class are working remotely, often some distance from
each other, does the association of "distance" and "learning" constitute an oxymoron? After all, education is surely about the meeting of minds, not their separation. (page 3)
Distinguishing between the Physical Distance and the Transactional Distance
Michael G. Moore (1984), contemplating the meaning of distance in education, states: "There is now a distance between learner and teacher which is not merely geographic, but educational and psychological as well. It is a distance in the relationship of the two partners in the educational enterprise. It is a 'transactional distance.'"
...Transactional distance is the extent to which the teacher manages to successfully engage the students in their learning. If students are disengaged and not stimulated into being active learners, there can be a vast transactional distance, whether the students are under the teacher's nose or on the other side of the city. But if a teacher, whether online or on campus, can establish meaningful educational opportunities, with the right degree of challenge and relevance, and can give students a feeling of responsibility for their own learning and a commitment to this process, then the transactional gap shrinks and no! one feels remote from each other or from the source of learning. (page 6)
How the Social Dimension Impacts the Transactional Distance
Wegerif (1998) speaks of an important social dimension within online classes that will have a direct impact on transactional distance. In a fascinating study based on interviews with twenty-one
students enrolled in an interactive course at the Open University, Wegerif discovered that the degree of success or failure of students was closely related to whether each student felt like an insider or an outsider. Learning was therefore seen as a social process, as the degree of learning depends on whether there is a feeling of belonging to a community of practice. (page 7)
Establishing the Right Tone
Above all, it is important to convey to the students that your online class is a safe place in which all responses are welcomed and encouraged. Obviously feelings of safety and security (which help to
promote collaborative learning) do not come all at once, and cannot be there just because you tell the students it is a safe place. Instead you, as the instructor, need to instill it. You can do this by setting a warm, enthusiastic tone, and by replying to students, so that they are encouraged to check back to see if anyone responded to their comment.
When students feel recognized and acknowledged by the instructor, which is usually their first priority, they can then start becoming familiar with each other, and it is in this way that
trust gradually starts to build up. In addition, a warm, conversational tone can be combined effectively with a rigorous academic approach, in which there is challenge and discourse, leading
to an extensive exploration of the subject matter...The tone of your conversation is important, as it can either serve to distance you from your students, or bring you into a closer circle. I recommend
that you adopt a conversational style, as this assists in overcoming feelings of coldness or remoteness that working online might otherwise bring.
?Students might never before have experienced asynchronous discussions within an academic framework, so you need to do what you can to help make them not only feel welcomed but also at their peak to do their best work. I particularly recommend that you log on frequently during the early days of class, to acknowledge students by name when commenting on their responses, so that they know you have noticed them and they feel included in the group. It is wise, when commenting on students' initial responses, to ask another question so that the conversation continues. (page 53-54)
Employ the Socratic Method
I do not advocate a purely lecture mode of instruction, in which the implicit assumption is that students, like newborn babies, are empty vessels in need of filling with knowledge. Instead I think
more can be gained online within a highly interactive environment. It is quite amazing how relatively quickly students begin to recognize each other's voice, as everyone's unique personality radiates through their responses. For this to happen, however, students must be informed at the beginning of the semester that they should actively engage in online discussion
...Students appreciate hearing from you frequently within the discussion forum, to know you are completely involved in the collaborative online conversations. Even though you, the instructor, are in the same circle of learning as the students, you still have the prerogative to guide the discussion, introduce new concepts, and steer things along, much as parents do within the family circle. (Dewey, 1938).
Encouragement of active participation from the students, as they contribute to the evolving dialogue, stimulates student learning. As Dewey (1938) states, "I assume that amid all
uncertainties there is one permanent frame of reference; namely the organic connection between education and experience."...If information is seen as being meaningful and relevant, thus
stimulating students to draw on their knowledge and experience, then true learning is taking place.
...As Blankespoor (1996) advises, "The key to reducing or eliminating bias about students is to take a personal interest in every student." (page 62-63)
Ask the Right Questions
Asking the right questions is crucial in stimulating a good discussion. In fact, Berge and Muilenburg (2002) state: "In a constructivist learning environment, the instructor always needs to keep in mind that when facilitating online discussion, asking the right questions is almost always more important than giving the right answers." You should attempt to promote the right conditions for constructive thinking in the online class...This is thinking that (1) constructs knowledge from personal experience and prior learning, and (2) subsumes concept formation, creative problem solving, and shared
social meaning through collaboration among the class group. In so doing, you should attempt to design high-level questions that are as interesting as possible, with topics that are controversial, and
stimulate thought and a variety of ideas.
..Avoid questions that require a yes or no answer or that ask for one specific fact. I once
worked with a history professor who asked questions such as, "When was the Battle of Waterloo?" and then was disappointed that he had very little student participation. So he redesigned his class to
include higher order questions that, given certain facts, asked students to make comparisons, make predictions, suggest causes. This provoked constructive thought and opened the gates for meaningful
discussion. Avoid, too, asking students for their opinion, as this is a lower order of thinking; but if the student is asked to substantiate why he or she feels this way, this would entail
constructive thought. (page 69-70)
...Berge and Muilenburg (2002) feel it is important, if discussion is thriving among the students, for the instructor to step back, and let it happen. Then when things start to wane, the instructor can either weave together different student remarks to summarise what has been said, or "give up the chalk" (Patenaude, 1999), which translated into the online context means letting the students do the weaving of discussion threads....From this more questions can emerge, prompting the students to explore the topic yet more deeply...In this way, the instructor "...nurtures the conference
to accomplish objectives and create a productive experience for all participants" (Rohfield and Hiemstra, 1995). This pivotal stage, which Salmon (2000) calls "Knowledge Construction," is vital for
collaborative learning. (page 71)
How We Show We Are Listening and Caring Online
One of my sons remarked to me how it seemed to him to be so hard to advertise perfume on the television, as the particular fragrance could not be conveyed. This started me thinking, by
analogy, as to how hard it may seem to "listen" online, as listening implies that we can hear, and of course, online, the only sounds are those in our imagination. Not only that, but it seems to me that
listening implies some sort of encouragement on the part of the receiver of information - by a smile, a nod of the head, a leaning forward of the body - to impart to the speaker that the words are
having an impact, and that the talking should continue.
...Once the students feel safe to express themselves initially, it is vital that they feel listened to, as this will encourage them to continue to respond. Listening, Daloz (1999) says, "...is not a
passive process, for the good listener is always alert for things of special significance" (page 205). Although Daloz is referring...to the teacher in the campus classroom, I believe his ideas translate to
the online environment. In addition, it is not only the instructors who need to listen attentively, but also the students, who need to pay attention to each other and their instructor.
...The way to establish trust is for the instructor to be attentive to each student, so all will feel individually noticed. This is so important when working remotely. The optimal way to convey
to students that they are noticed is for the instructor to mention each by name when acknowledging a response. I think it is also beneficial to make each student feel special in some way. Being
closely listened to and receiving supportive feedback can be rare in today's busy world, so by doing this, you provide the potential for the student to flourish. (page 88-90)