Facilitating active social presence and meaningful interactions in online learning

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  • Facilitating active social presence and meaningfulinteractions in online learning

    Jared Keengwe & Emmanuel Adjei-Boateng &Watsatree Diteeyont

    Published online: 18 April 2012# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

    Abstract Online learning has minimized many barriers and constraints that arecommon in traditional learning environments. However, due to the absence of face-to-face contacts, students and instructors are usually faced with the lack of activesocial presence and meaningful interactions in online learning. This article explores areview of the literature on social presence and various types of interactions in onlinelearning environments in the context of a class project. The findings suggest need foronline instructors to explore effective ways to design and facilitate active socialpresence and meaningful interactions in online learning.

    Keywords Interactions . Online learning . Students . Instructors . Technology . Socialpresence

    1 Introduction

    Online education has opened the frontiers of college education, making it possible fornontraditional students, who are occupied with work and family responsibilities, andpeople who live far away from college campuses to have access to higher education(Mayne and Wu 2011). In addition, the flexible options afforded by online coursesthat allow learners to access classes anytime and anywhereis a perfect match to the

    Educ Inf Technol (2013) 18:597607DOI 10.1007/s10639-012-9197-9

    J. Keengwe (*) : E. Adjei-BoatengUniversity of North Dakota, Teaching and Learning Stop #7189, Grand Forks, ND 58202, USAe-mail: jared.keengwe@email.und.edu

    E. Adjei-Boatenge-mail: emmanuel.adjeiboaten@my.und.edu

    W. DiteeyontDepartment of Education Technology, University of North Colorado, McKee 518, BOX 124, Greeley,CO 80639, USA

    W. Diteeyonte-mail: watsatree.diteeyont@unco.edu

  • needs of 21st century learners who have busy lifestyles (Leonard and Guha 2001).The online platforms are frequently used as an alternative environment for individ-uals to meet and engage in a variety of activities, like attending courses online(Lyons et al. 2012, p. 181).

    Over the past decade, online courses and programs have seen steady growth andincreased popularity (Mayne and Wu 2011). This growth could be attributed toaffordability and accessibility of computers and Internet technologies for manylearners (Dobbs et al. 2009). However, Huang et al. (2010) warn that although theinternet technology has made it possible for people to collaborate effectively withoutstaying physically together, they have led to the unintended consequence of increas-ing isolation among people with respect to their academic peers (p.79).

    A primary issue that confronts both students and faculty in online learningenvironments is the lack of social presence and interaction due to the absence offace-to-face contacts that is readily available in traditional classroom environments(Mayne and Wu 2011). Wang and Woo (2007) found interactivity and communica-tion to be among five main differences between online and face-to-face classroomdiscussion. While they found discussion in face-to-face classroom to be more inter-active and multidirectional, it was seen to be restricted and one-way among the onlinegroup. The authors concluded that it was difficult to have two-way interactions in anonline environment, especially when participants have limited time.

    The role of online instructors is not direct teaching of course materials to students,but rather to facilitate learning and enable peer interaction to flourish (Thompson andKu 2006). Additionally, educators should have the ability to facilitate interactions inonline learning environments. For instance, Makri and Kynigos (2007) applied Weblog in mathematics course to ensure reflection, discourse and social presence. Huanget al. (2010) suggest the application of blogs in learning as well as sharing ofknowledge through blogs. Therefore, the instructors ability to maintain the socialpresence, facilitate and maintain meaningful interactions, and ensure active engage-ment of students becomes crucial in online learning environments (Mayne and Wu2011).

    Technology-based interactions could support and enhance teaching and learningonline. Simonson (2000) noted, The more interaction there is in distance class, thebetter (p. 278). Interactions and collaboration are important elements in onlinelearning environments. A critical component of online learning is the interactionof the individual and learning activities between divergent perspectives andshared knowledge building (Puntambekar 2006). Communicative interaction isalso a central concern to quality teaching and learning in web-based distance educa-tion (Bing and Ai-Ping 2008). However, social network tools, such as wikis, face-book, and blogs are now used to create and cement online social connections (Huanget al. 2010). Further, many studies suggest Web 2.0 trends for new learning modelframeworks and devices that can facilitate successful interactive and collaborativeonline learning.

    Wang and Woo (2007) reported the use of Blackboard and Weblog as asynchro-nous online discussion and interactive tool. The Web log for instance supportsstudents discussion in asynchronous leaning environment because it allows studentsto create their self-reported journal, and permits them to add comments to othersreport. Asynchronous online discussions affords students have ample time to make

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  • reference to other supporting resources, which helps both in their lesson process andenhances their learning community (Wang and Woo 2007). Interactions and collab-oration in online environment also enable students to have access to relevant knowl-edge from broader scope of resources (Yang and Chen 2008). Mobile bloggingsystem provides an authentic learning atmosphere and is able to solve the coordina-tion issue in a collaborative learning environment (Huang et al. 2009). Finally,besides facilitating students active engagement in a lesson, collaboration amongonline students enhances their academic performance (Kelly et al. 2010).

    2 Theoretical framework

    Three theoretical constructs are defined to provide a theoretical construct of the classproject examines in this article. The three significant theoretical constructs areinteractivity, social context, and technology (Tu and Corry 2003). Interactivity withinonline learning setting refers to interactions of learners and instructors. It asserts anincorporation and engagement of learners inside active collaboration activities. Asocial context refers to a conception of a learner-centered collaboration activities andsocial learning community. Therefore, a successful online collaborative learningcommunity is one in which members connect and engage intellectually, mentally,socioculturally, and interactively in order to achieve their common learning goals viaelectronic communication technologies (Tu and Corry 2003).

    There is evidence to suggest the potential of educational technology to support andenhance knowledge development and knowledge management within online collab-orative learning environments. For instance, technology tools help learners to elab-orate on what they are thinking and to engage in meaningful learning (Jonassen2000). Specifically, learners can use technology as intellectual partners to: articulatewhat they know; reflect on what they have learned; support the internal negotiation ofmeaning making; construct personal representations of meaning; and support inten-tional, mindful thinking (Jonassen 2000).

    Interactivity provides a way to motivate and stimulate online learners. There arethree distinctive interactions that exist in online learning environments: Student-to-content, student-to-interface, and student-to-instructor interactions (Thompson andKu 2006). Additionally, the quality of interactions will depend on the choice andapplication of technology tools. Students can work together, achieve and share theirunderstanding, and also co-create knowledge within web-mediated environments.Technology provides a shared working space that is easy for instructors to exchangeinformation with students (Ciges 2001). However, the quality of communication iscritical to enhance meaningful interactions between instructors and students in onlinelearning (Woods 2002). Technologies that support learners engagement with contentand learner-teacher interactions are more likely to provide a successful online learn-ing experience.

    Two-way Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) that is central to onlineinteractive learning refers to communication tools such as electronic mails, bulletinboards, and real-time discussion boards. These tools are essential for establishinginteractions, communications, and relationships between students and teachers. Evenso, Tu (2005) argues that CMC has the potential to enhance and inhibit online

    Educ Inf Technol (2013) 18:597607 599

  • interaction. Rhode (2009) reiterates that no matter how one defines interaction,based on recent research it is clear that when the level of interaction is inadequateor nonexistent, learners often feel isolated and an overall degradation of the learningexperience can take place (p. 2).

    3 Method

    3.1 Research questions

    The study was guided by four research questions:

    1. What interactions exist between students and instructors in online learningenvironments?

    2. What challenges do students and instructors face in online learningenvironments?

    3. How do online communicational tools influence interactions between studentsand instructors in online learning environments?

    4. What attitudes do students and instructors harbor toward online learningactivities?

    3.2 Participants

    The participants of the study were students and instructors of an undergraduate onlinecourse at a public Midwestern University. The course had multiple sections and wasfacilitated by three instructors. All the instructors were familiar with the onlinefeatures and instructional functions of the online course. Majority of the studentswere also familiar with basic functions of the Blackboard Learning site such asuploading/downloading files, sending electronic mail (Email), or posting messagesthrough a discussion board.

    3.3 Class project

    A group project was a major assignment in this course. The group project goal was toenhance students to learn, research, and practice how to integrate new technologicalsystems such as Blogs, Wiki, Google, or smart boards into their future K-12 class-rooms successfully. The group project also provided students with opportunities torecognize how to work with their peers in online learning environments. The primarycourse objective was to encourage students to learn how to integrate various instruc-tional delivery systems, applications of computing, hypermedia and multimedia, ortelecommunications technologies in their teaching effectively.

    3.4 Student surveys

    The student survey was created and posted in the website, www.surveymonkey.com.The survey contained 10 short-ended questions that emphasized the significanttheoretical constructs: Online interactivity, social context, and technology. The

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  • surveys explored student background information, their course interests and level oftechnological skills. The survey results were used to establish appropriate topics thatcorresponded with the needs and skills of students.

    3.5 Procedure

    The instructors identified and posted on the discussion board information of groupmembers and group projects. Each group was comprised of 23 students and requiredto complete and submit their projects within 4 weeks. Students were asked tocomplete surveys through the link that was posted on the announcement page ofthe online course. The invitation contained the link with directions, consent informa-tion, and rationale for completing the survey. The survey would take approximately1015 min to complete. Participation was voluntary and students were not required toprovide any personal information such as their names or contact information in thesurveys. The survey results were recorded and stored in safe place.

    3.6 Instructor interviews

    The instructor interviews were set up separately with the professor and teachingassistants after the deadline of the student group assignments. The instructors wereprovided with questions to review before the researchers interviewed them. Theinterviews explored the attitudes of instructors and interactions between studentsand instructors within the online course. The interviews were recorded by digitalrecorders and kept in protected digital storage devices.

    3.7 Observations

    The researchers observed discussion boards and electronic mails from students andinstructors in the course to find out the interactions between students and instructors.For the discussion boards, the researchers asked permission from the instructors toaccess the online and make observations, and collect student and instructor commentsand feedbacks from the discussion boards every week. The collected data wasconverted into digital formats and stored in protected digital storage devices. Forthe electronic mails, the researchers requested instructors to forward to researchersemail accounts copies of all electronic mails that students send to them during the4 weeks that they were working on the group projects. The data from electronic mailswere collected and stored in protected digital storage devices as well. The researcherswere the only people that accessed and reviewed the data from the two sources.

    4 Findings

    4.1 Response to question: What interactions exist between students and instructors inonline learning environments?

    Discussion board was the center of information of student group projects. It was theplace that the instructors provided the significant information about group projects for

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  • students such as the direction of assignment, rubrics, topic and lists of student groupmembers. The discussion board was also the location that instructors posted grouplinks for students in order to be the place that allowed the students to discuss, shareinformation, and contact with their team members and the instructors. The instructorsdid not require the students to use the group link to discuss their project. However, itwas only the option for the students to use for interactions.

    During the 4 weeks, the results from observations showed that the students did notoften use the discussion board or group links to share or contact their team membersand instructors. In one course section, the discussion board was silent. There were nocomments or postings from students through the group links. The researchers foundout that the discussion board only contained the information about the group projectsand there was no evidence that represented interactions between the students andinstructors. In one section of the online course, the researchers found out that therewas only one...


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