Friday, August 1, 2014

Thoughts about Meaningful Interactions in Online Courses

As regular readers of this blog will likely know, I am currently part of a doctoral program in Educational Technology, and my learning in this program is online.

The online design of the program is deliberate. It is convenient for me to be able to study at a distance, to be sure, but I'm also learning--both through the content of my coursework as well as the pedagogies employed--how educational technologies offer alternatives to face-to-face learning environments.

Early in my program, we spent a significant portion of a course reading about, discussing, and reflecting on the No Significant Difference phenomenon: the fact that countless research studies have shown that there is no statistically significant difference in learning outcomes when the media of instruction is varied. The body of research reviewed is comprehensive and compelling; it goes back to the 1920's, and includes correspondence courses, video-based instruction, and--more recently--online courses. The results indicate that while the experience of the course may be different, the learning is "not significantly different."

I confess though, I still get hung up on this point. Because the learning experience is not identical.

Perhaps knowing that I continue to wrestle with this, a friend recently shared an article with me from Inside Higher Ed: "Meaningful Interaction in Online Courses."

The article, written by Nate Sleeter, a doctoral student in history at George Mason, outlines some specific steps instructors can take to increase the level of interaction in online courses. I think his suggestions are very helpful--particularly for those teaching in the humanities, who might otherwise pooh-pooh online courses as a poor facsimile of "real learning." The online setting provides opportunities for interaction that are different than the face-to-face setting. I encourage you to take a few minutes to read the piece, particularly if you are skeptical of online courses.

A typical view of my workspace for my coursework.

Based on my experiences taking online courses, I can say with certainty that online learning is not identical to face-to-face learning.

But, in many ways, it is incredibly similar.

I have developed great friendships with several of my online classmates, just as I have with classmates in face-to-face courses I've taken. I interact with my professors regularly, via email, social media, and video chat. No, we don't sit together in the same room and listen to the same lecture. But instead, we read and view the same things, think about them, write about them, discuss them. We affirm each other, challenge each other, ask questions of each other. We collaborate.

Our professors do not generally lecture. Instead, they design learning activities that require us to dig deeply into the body of research underlying our field, synthesize it, and interact with each other to share what we have learned. They provide us with specific feedback to help us grow, to challenge us, to correct our misconceptions.

I don't have "hallway conversations" with my classmates, of course. But our cohort has developed other ways to interact socially: we use a Google+ group, we have a private channel on TodaysMeet, we have regular Google Hangouts, we follow each other on Twitter. We regularly connect to share ideas, to ask questions, to support each other, to laugh together!

Is it the same as face-to-face learning?

No.

But without this online program, I would not have met this amazing group of educators.

And I can say with certainty that you can have meaningful interactions in online courses.

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