I came across this article ” Pedagogical strategies for building community in graduate level distance education courses” By Eileen McElrath and Kate McDowell, assistant professors in library information services. McElrath and McDowell describe the importance of community to learning and present Brown’s 15 step process to community building in online classrooms. These steps are, from 1 to 15, tools, comfort level, self assessment and judgments, similarities, needs met, time allotted, supportive interaction, substantive validation, acquaintances/friends, earning trust and respect, engagement, community conferment, widen circle, long term/personal communication, camaraderie. These steps occur in three stages, making friends online, community conferment or acceptance and camaraderie. They suggest that these processes are facilitated when modeled by instructors and go on to describe strategies which can support this community involvement and shared learning. Supporting the students in developing a sense of community helps to prevent student isolation. It helps to keep the students motivated and interested in the course. It creates a sense of belonging, that members of the group matter to one another, which has been identified as important for academic success. The strategies suggested not only help the students to relate to one another, and gain a sense of community, but they also help the students identify the relevance of the course content to their own personal experiences as well as the experiences of their classmates.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs explains the processes required to reach a state of self actualisation. The basis for this is a sense of safety and security. This is also important for online learning or distance learning. Supportive interaction is an important part of establishing an online community. Students need to learn how to learn online, they need guidance and support to do this. As they are coming to terms with this new way of learning they need reassurance and ‘reminders to be kind to themselves’ during the course. The distress that can be associated with technology failures, which are bound to occur from time to time, can be alleviated by acknowledging this possibility early in the course and having a back up plan for when these issues occur, both for the facilitator and for the students. In a course that I was involved in, Facilitating online learning communities, several of us had established a network on skype, when we had trouble with the elluminate programme, through which we were connecting as a class, we were able to instantly talk to one another and share what information we had about what was happening. Students also started to use the discussion forum in a synchronus way and established another means of communication through this mechanism. This certainly reduced our anxiety and annoyance with the process and helped me realise the importance of back up communication, whether that is another online source or a cell phone network, anything that facilitates communication when things are not going as they should.
McElrath and McDowell suggest creating a course chat section where students can readily ask any questions in an open format, as they would in a face to face class, allowing other students to share in the discussion and offer their suggestions as well as receiving feedback from the lecturer. They go on to suggest some activities where students can share their own experiences in terms of the course content which can relate to the course outcomes and form a basis from which the students can not only share stories but learn the realities associated with the theoretical components of the course. The entire article is well worth a read for anyone involved in distance or online education.
So how to do I see this applying to the work I am doing at present, establishing a midwifery practice course with a blended learning format. Students will be enrolled in this course, which is part of the entire undergraduate programme being developed in a blended format. Students will not just be based around the confines of Polytech but will be in groups, some in Dunedin, some in Invercargill and perhaps also in the Central or north Otago areas. The entire class will come together four times a year for a couple of weeks each time and the groups will meet face to face for half a day a week for tutorial support and some learning. The rest of the course content will be online, most of the theoretical components will be learned at a distance. Although the students have regular small groups with whom they can interact on a regular basis I believe it is important that they also share a sense of identity with the larger class group.
In face to face teaching we often start the session by asking who has experienced this? And start the group discussion from there, moving on to the theory behind the topic. For example with blood pressures I will ask if anyone has had their blood pressure taken. Has anyone found this to be a painful experience, have they had unanswered questions when their blood pressure has been taken. We then use this as a basis to learn the important aspects of taking blood pressure. I think we could do this online through a discussion forum. We could use the responses to establish a basis for learning about estimating and recording blood pressure. This is a constructivist approach to learning and the authors of this article suggest that we should be open about this. Students should understand about constructivism and how this applies to their own learning needs. Most midwifery practice skills would be suited to this approach.
I could write more but it is late and I am tired so may return to this another time.