Roles and identities in online large course forums : implications for practice

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’

  1. Learners adopt the cultures and practices of the community (Soden and Halliday (2000)
  2. Effective interactions involve full engagement with the posts of others (2000)
  3. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  4. Although vital for online integration, student to student communication has lower percieved value than student to tutor communication (Loizidou-Hatzitheodolulou et al, 2001)
  5. Moderator contribution and rate has an impact on motivation and integration (Mazzolini and Maddison, 2003).
  6. Cultural differences may impede full integration (LeBaron, Pulkkinen, and Scollin,2000)
  7. Communicative learners feel responsibility for group processes but are not necessarily the best learners (Hammond,1999)
  8. Familiarity with online forum participation aids swifter integration with other online forums (Zembylas,2008)
  9. Peer Facilitation can encourage deeper levels of participation and concomitant feelings of integration (Hew and Chueng,2008)
  10. Successful creation of online presence aids retention and participation in online forums (Ardichvili et al ,2003.Angelaki et al,2013).
  11. 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’[1] 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.

References.

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


[1] Engagement in argument offers a level of mutual respect that was not present before the argument took place. (Adamson Taylor1999 Culture Shock)

Living online, working online – Part One

Living online working online- part one.

 

The subject for my doctorate in education was the impact of professional learning on the online teaching identities of higher education lecturers. It struck me some years ago during a period during which I was employed as a teacher trainer, that engaging with students online was a very different experience from teaching in a face to face environment. Not only was the teaching experience different, but job satisfaction; feelings of ‘doing a good job’ were also substantially different from those experienced in a face to face environment. Drawing on the work of Gilly Salmon and Sherry Turkle (Jaques & Salmon, 2006; Salmon, 2002; Turkle, 1994, 1999; Turkle & Papert, 1990; Wilson & Peterson, 2002), I set out to explore the ways in which online teachers were working within their online contexts and more particularly what type of development activities enhanced their online identities and role performance (see Baxter, 2011; Baxter, 2012).

The study took three years to complete (Baxter, 2011) and during this time my own online interactions increased considerably as I engaged in blogs, Facebook, Flickr, LinkedIn and other online applications; subsequently rejecting or increasing my use of them over time. My blog during this period juxtaposed my own online identity development with that of the online lecturers in my study, an element which proved to be very helpful in understanding the emotions engendered within online identity formation and sustenance.

The study offered a number of useful insights into the cognitive, affective and situative elements of online teaching, but one particularly useful insight was the link between participants’ social use of the internet and its contribution to their online teaching identities and confidence. This link, which proved far from incidental, revealed that individuals perceived that their online teaching identities developed and grew more rapidly depending upon the extent of their social immersion on the internet: that development for them was seen in much broader terms than the opportunities offered to them within their working contexts.

In terms of teaching, many of those teaching face to face would say the same thing: face to face teaching identities have long been seen as a trajectory, formed from past experiences, biographical in nature and formed via a complex mix of personal and professional interactions (Connelly, 1990; Maclure, 1992; Menter, 2010). But they are also often modelled on others and the online teacher has, unless they have undertaken online study themselves, little to go on in this respect. Many established professional development opportunities for online teaching now take account of this need but, in terms of the development of salient online teaching identities and ability to articulate them in a convincing and authentic manner, there is still much to be learned from the specific ways in which online teachers model behaviours from online interactions in their social as well as professional lives.

As online learning increases and points to future paradigmatic shifts in the ways that learning is conceptualised across the educational spectrum (Clark & Berge, 2012), it becomes ever more pressing to continue to investigate what makes and motivates good online teachers: who are they and what keeps them going? Particularly when the going gets tough.

 

“Online learning now depends more on the ability of educators and trainers to tutor and support learners online than on the technology itself.” Dr. Ian Heywood, 2000 World Open Learning Conference and Exhibition, BirminghamEngland.

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References.

Baxter, J. (Producer). (2011). An investigation into the role of professional learning on the online teaching identities of Higher Education Lecturers CREet : The Faculty of Education and Language Studies. Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/33928/

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).

Clark, T., & Berge, Z. (2012). Virtual Schools Trends and Issues in Distance Education: International Perspectives, 97.

Connelly, M. a. C., J. (1990). Stories of Experience and Narrative Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 19(5 (Jun-Jul 1990)), 2-14.

Jaques, D., & Salmon, G. (2006). Learning in groups: A handbook for face-to-face and online environments: Routledge.

Maclure, M. (1992). Arguing for yourself: Identity as an organising principle in teacher’s jobs and lives. British Educational Research Journal, 19(4), 311-322.

Menter, I. (2010). Teachers – formation, training and identity Creativity Culture and Education Newcastle Upon Tyne: Creativity Culture and Education

Salmon, G. (2002). E-tivities: The key to active online learning: Routledge.

Turkle, S. (1994). Constructions and reconstructions of self in virtual reality: Playing in the MUDs. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(3), 158-167.

Turkle, S. (1999). Cyberspace and identity. Contemporary Sociology, 28(6), 643-648.

Turkle, S., & Papert, S. (1990). Epistemological pluralism: Styles and voices within the computer culture. Signs, 16(1), 128-157.

Wilson, S. M., & Peterson, L. C. (2002). The anthropology of online communities. Annual review of anthropology, 449-467.