I vividly remember my first foray into a large online forum. I was a class teacher at the time: teaching French and Spanish in a sixth form college. I had only just purchased my own laptop and was excited about the potentialities of teaching languages using IT. My first experience of a large online forum came about thanks to the Association of Language Learning. Their online forum was designed to be used by all members as a way of networking and flagging up and sharing good practice and teaching resources. I still remember breaking out in a sweat as I tentatively made my first posting; very much aware of the fact that I may be talking to hundreds if not thousands of people! I found seeing my own posts online to be both satisfying and cringe making – did I really say that in response to that……
Working full time in a distance learning environment as I have for some considerable time now, you tend to forget how much those who aren’t used to this environment may agonise over a single post. Of course, times have changed since my first online foray; many students of varying ages already have experience of talking online via Facebook, Twitter and other social apps. They already have experience of creating an online persona: of articulating their own personalities online. Yet this is not always of benefit when transferring the type of interactions used on e.g. Facebook, to a more formal academic forum.
In a recent paper written in collaboration with Jo Haycock a very experienced Associate Lecturer working at The Open University UK, we explored what elements of online participation enhance learner identity and sense of agency, and how student to student contact online helps or hinders this. Identity has been strongly linked to learning by many researchers (Baxter, 2012; Davies & Thomas, 2004; Erikson, 1968; Henderson & Bradey, 2008; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and a strong and articulate online identity is often associated with an individual’s perceptions and capacity to feel good online (Turkle, 1993). Sherry Turkle was one of the first to investigate how it felt to engage in online interactions in her well known book Life on The Screen: Identity in the age of the internet and Gilly Salmon took her work much further in her early studies of online forums (Salmon, 2002).
With the advent of MOOCS (Massive Online Courses) and recent articles which have shown that increasing numbers of students are choosing online offerings (Newton, 2013), such as a the one describing a recent survey by The Guardian (Ward & Shaw, 2014), which,
‘Suggests that parents are now open to cheaper alternatives to the conventional full-time university route: a majority (57%) said internet-based courses in which students watch lectures online are a good idea.’
we felt it was a good time to consider how being online makes you feel and how this may impact on your studying staying power. Our review of the current research into online large forums revealed some of the fascinating insights that have already come out of a number of recent studies . As you can see from list below, they all link strongly to student resilience and perceptions’
- Learners adopt the cultures and practices of the community (Soden and Halliday (2000)
- Effective interactions involve full engagement with the posts of others (2000)
- Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
- Although vital for online integration, student to student communication has lower percieved value than student to tutor communication (Loizidou-Hatzitheodolulou et al, 2001)
- Moderator contribution and rate has an impact on motivation and integration (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003).
- Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
- Communicative learners feel responsibility for group processes but are not necessarily the best learners (Hammond,1999)
- Familiarity with online forum participation aids swifter integration with other online forums (Zembylas,2008)
- Peer Facilitation can encourage deeper levels of participation and concomitant feelings of integration (Hew and Chueng,2008)
- Successful creation of online presence aids retention and participation in online forums (Ardichvili et al ,2003.Angelaki et al,2013).
- Effective conflict resolution, either by students or tutors aids integration (and the converse)
(Baxter & Haycock, 2013)
The list above shows that for students, online forums are not just about the cognitive but are very much influenced by the affective dimensions of learning too. For example; although one study revealed that student to student interaction has lower perceived value than student to tutor interaction, Hew and Cheung’s study indicated that peer facilitation (students helping other students), actually encouraged deeper levels of participation and feelings of belonging to the academic community (Hew & Cheung, 2008). A number of studies including our own, revealed that feelings were very important: if a student felt alienated or foolish or if they didn’t feel that the person they were online was a true representation of their personality, they tended either not to engage with forums or in a worst case scenario;they withdrew from study.
In many ways this reminded me of when I was teaching languages, particularly with my adult learners who tended to learn a language for communicative purposes rather than to gain a qualification. The parallel was apparent with those learners who felt they couldn’t be themselves in the foreign language: that they couldn’t articulate who they fundamentally were in the foreign language, and, as a result they dropped out of class. Later research in this area supported this, and found that those that felt comfortable in their self-representation in the foreign language, often went on to use the language as a means to employment (Baxter, 2004)
Our research indicated that the tutor or moderator can have a substantial impact on student feelings about online participation in large forums: they can mediate conflict and engage in a type of ‘engueulade’ which can actually strengthen the tutor student relationship. In addition, our research supported a number of other studies which outlined the need for tutors and forum moderators to address student expectations of forum engagement right from the very outset. On the module under scrutiny, students were offered a number of forums: some with a social purpose (largely unmoderated), some with a clear academic function. Students often seemed to become confused by this; expecting levels of tutor moderation in the social forum which were only offered within the academic focused version. This type of misunderstanding proved highly detrimental to the students’ future engagement and in some cases impacted negatively on their experience of the course itself.
If identity is core to learning and learning to identity, it is vital that research into this facet of online learning is considered when designing online learning environments. To negate it is to risk losing many who would otherwise profit from this way of learning.
Baxter, J. (2004). Investigation into motivational factors behind using a second language as a means to gaining employment. Retrieved from http:/www.cilt.org.uk/research/statistics/labourmarket/accessed 060906
Baxter, J. (2012). The impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers:the role of resistance discourse European Journal of Open,Distance and E-Learning 1(2).
Baxter, J., & Haycock, J. (2013). Roles and student identities in online large course forums: implications for practice. International REview of Open and Distance Learning 15(1).
Davies, A., & Thomas, R. (2004). 6 Gendered identities and micro-political resistance in public service organizations. Identity politics at work: resisting gender, gendering resistance, 10, 105.
Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
Henderson, M., & Bradey, S. (2008). Shaping online teaching practices: the influence of professional and academic identities. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 25(2), 85-92.
Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2008). Attracting student participation in asynchronous online discussions: A case study of peer facilitation. Computers & Education, 51(3), 1111-1124.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate periperal participation. Cambridge Cambridge University Press
Newton, D. (2013). Online students and teachers are no different from the rest of academia The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog+education/online-learning
Salmon, G. (2002). Moderating: The Key to Teaching and Learning Online. London Routledge.
Turkle, S. (1993). Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.
Ward, L., & Shaw, C. (2014). University education : at £9000 per year, parents begin to question its value, The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/feb/26/university-education-parents-question-value
 Engagement in argument offers a level of mutual respect that was not present before the argument took place. (Adamson Taylor1999 Culture Shock)