Enchantment in education
want to play a game? e-learners do...

By Randy J. Hinrichs / May 2001

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"I've looked at life from both sides now." —Joni Mitchell, excerpt from the song "Both Sides Now"

Most people have not experienced e-learning yet or have done so in one role; I have experienced e-learning over a long time span and from a diversity of roles: student, professor, and program director. The insights from each role allowed me to function more effectively in other roles and have led to a unique perspective on what makes online learning successful.

From 1986 to 1993, I directed what was probably the first online master's program offered by a higher education institution. From 1988 to 1991, I was also a student in a doctorate program that was delivered in a large part through an online learning environment. From 1993 to the present time, I have been a full-time professor in a graduate school teaching online and campus courses in the subject area of human-computer interaction (HCI). I have learned many lessons about how to be successful in these roles and view them as a continuum of roles and responsibilities, of participation and effective practice, and of influence and engagement to advance the online learning environment. In most traditional educational settings, learners and teachers are partners in the advancement of scholarship and community; the online world is not different in this way, as I've discovered through my dual experience as an online learner and teacher.

Working in an online learning environment has become a very stable part of my daily life for 15 years, so that many activities and tasks that others are learning and struggling to do online are routine for me. Certainly, computer-mediated tools change and the use of tools evolves and changes, so I am constantly learning as online learning environments advance. However, online learning is ingrained in my academic belief system. Many faculty members and students are new to online education and question the long-term feasibility of online learning and many need assistance to become acclimated to an online learning environment.

To share my experience of being an online learner and an online professor, this article is organized into several main issues. First, some history is given to provide context to the perspectives being shared in this article. Then main perspectives are given to provide focus on several issues that are vital to the success of online learning environments. The main perspectives are organized into the following categories: energy, reaching out, real people, synchronous or asynchronous interaction, tools, structure, convenience and flexibility, checks and balances for quality work, characteristics of an effective online learner, and characteristics of an effective online teacher.

Some History

In order to understand the context of the perspectives I will share, I offer more background on how this experience began. In 1983, Nova University (now Nova Southeastern University) started a graduate level program that would offer information science professionals the opportunity to earn their doctorates by attending weekend cluster meetings and through extensive communication and interaction in a computer-based format. The early day pioneers, including Dr. John Scigliano, developer and Director of the Center for Computer-Based Learning (CBL), a small group of faculty members and national lecturers, and a pilot group of five students, were so excited by the prospect of online communication and learning that this online learning environment evolved quickly [2].

Although mainly a UNIX text-based, command line interface before the advent of the World Wide Web, Nova's online learning environment became a complex and resourceful environment for students to continue their studies and to interact with their peers and their professors during non face-to-face meetings. By 1984, I had joined the group in the CBL (eventually the Center evolved to what is now The School of Computer and Information Sciences), and by 1986, I began to direct the first online master's program. During part of my tenure as a program director, I was also pursuing a doctorate in information systems, a program offered by our Center. The information systems program was offered to working professionals through a combination of weekend campus meetings and participation in our online learning environment.

In this period, (late 1980s) I began teaching in the online master's program. Soon after I completed my doctorate in 1991, I began teaching full-time in the SCIS. My main area of teaching has been Human-Computer Interaction, but I have also taught other subjects in the area of information systems, all taught in traditional and online formats. While I also enjoy teaching in a traditional classroom environment, I find the most interesting and compelling challenge for me is teaching in an online learning environment.

Energy

There is an energy level in an online learning environment, an energy that is the collective effort expended by a group of faculty members and students, and results in a composite of useful resources that individuals or the class at large can extract on demand. This primarily requires commitment by students and the faculty to be highly self-motivated, organized and efficient, as well as creative to serve as resources for each other. This energy can be felt in synchronous and asynchronous forms, but in asynchronous the added benefit is its accessibility at any time and from any place. In online courses, expectations are high for an interactive experience that also frees learners from inconvenient time schedules and travel to campus [1]. Interactivity is the responsibility of all players, not only by a few. The energy provides a charge for building a community of scholars. In its best form, the energy is ongoing and it is always dynamic. I believe this is closely related to what Ben Shneiderman [3] describes as "engagement."

In online settings, collective effort is needed to create a sense of presence or awareness that others, while not physically present, are committed to ongoing and high level interactivity. Course information and subject content must be carefully organized and all stakeholders need to give of themselves. This has to be established first in an online course if students are going to fully benefit from the resources made available in the environment. Also essential is that the present moment in asynchronous environments always has to be felt even though stakeholders are accessing information or participating in activity at different times. Collectively, learners and professors have to help sustain a sense of presence by way of their participation in online activities.

Reaching Out

Some may think that an online learning environment may be suitable for those who are socially shy or who prefer not to be with people. I have discovered that most learning styles can be accommodated in an online environment if there are a variety of assignments and activities that support different manners of learning. However, an online learning environment is not a place for those who would prefer not to deal with people! The ability to interact with others is highly warranted in online learning. Not only do learners and professors have to learn how to use chat or forums tools in an online course, they must master how to have a conversation online! Online learners and professors must learn to be productive conversationalists. We must learn how to make our points heard in constructive and diplomatic ways. Students must not show their frustration by sending nasty messages to professors. Professors must learn how to structure, yet provide a flexible and open environment for effective interactivity.

Professors must learn to deal with student frustrations, while learners must remember to respect professors. In the middle of an online course term, I make it a point to post an "Open Forum" for my students so they can share anything they like with one another—from the challenges of being a master's student to what their favorite movies are, including questions for the professor. I usually find this a highly social and successful experience. Rarely has a student posted anything of a derogatory nature when it is made clear through directives that we can share information as long as that information is useful and respective of others. The bottom line is, in an online community of scholars, we must reach out to each other. We must establish the rules of etiquette and respect, and then we need to diplomatically work through the rough spots of communication.

Real People

The people behind those user IDs are very real. As an online professor, I am not an automated response system spitting out the desired answers to students' questions. Part of my responsibility is to efficiently support learners in their self-discovery of learning course content. Learners must accept some responsibility for self-discovery in graduate level education. Online learners are isolated and want a chance to be visible to their professors. Many online learners are unsure how to effectively contribute to an asynchronous thread. Too much opinion shared in a thread may be perceived as chatter; too much academic discussion with literature integration may be perceived as rhetoric. Online learners want their professors to be accessible and approachable online, even though the need for specific help may be sporadic. Some students require a high level of steady interaction, while others are content with occasional one-to-one (mainly through e-mail) communication with their professors.

The frustration I often hear online teachers complain about is that they put a tremendous amount of effort into preparing materials, online resources, and elaborate messages to students, but online students do not properly follow directions. Some online students are afraid to be challenged and want all of the content to be given to them. Online teachers often feel that they cannot reach their students or establish a teacher-student bond. The students are out there while the professors are in here. This is not necessarily the fault of people. The online communication tools are simply not robust enough yet to allow for natural communication and natural progression of student/teacher dialogue. The tools continue to fall short of our expectations. Industry gives us more functions in online course software, but we want more empowerment as communicators, not as administrators.

Professors and students spend an inordinate amount of time doing administrative tasks in the online learning environment. It is logical to presume that individual students will have unique questions of the professor. The online professor must respond clearly and quickly. Reading and responding to student e-mail becomes a daily chore if there are more than 20 students in an online class. In the beginning of an online course, I could have as many as 30 or more e-mail messages a day after posting announcements and having given the class the necessary information to proceed. E-mail activity dwindles a little until midterm in the course, but at that point, students will require attention that is more individual. This is also typical of the end of the term. I often spend two and a half hours per day responding to student's specific requests. Add about two hours per day in asynchronous forums and the professor's day is half over. This activity extends into weekends as there is no time or day restriction on system access. Being on "24/7" is a good marketing scheme, but online learners and professors burn out quickly under these demands. It is simply not physically or mentally possible to be available at all times—neither is this effective educational practice.

Synchronous or Asynchronous Interaction

Inevitably, every online learner and every online teacher will take a stand on their preference for asynchronous or synchronous communication.

In my early experience, we used mainly synchronous tools such as our own Electronic Classroom [2] (a computer conference facility that enabled simultaneous communication through sharing of blackboard interface), and the archaic UNIX chat type tools such as talk, write, and phone. We thought that bringing live lecture and discussion would help students feel they were part of a traditional class. We used these synchronous tools for several years, but eventually the experience began to create frustration for the students and faculty. Many of our students and visiting professors were not in the same time zones. Many were working professionals with varied schedules. It was difficult to retain good students by removing the flexibility that was promised in a computer-mediated learning environment. We began to reduce our "required" online sessions and slowly adapted to more asynchronous tools that seemed to meet the same objective. We learned that if online simultaneous attendance were mandatory, the quality of the discussion and the feasibility of full participation would dwindle. We learned that asynchronous communication would enhance our peer sharing activities, not reduce them. In addition, the asynchronous conference tools recorded a history of that "energy" that could be accessed at any time and from any place.

My position is that synchronous communication can be essential for certain team building and group consensus activities. But, most communications, if handled effectively, can be managed asynchronously. Even though online course activity may occur asynchronously without the benefit of "real-time" interaction, many activities and tasks are actually being done quickly and efficiently in an asynchronous way so that interaction is essentially extended towards the synchronous. For example, late breaking news in the content area may be posted for immediate review. Immediacy is the key element. Immediacy is about maintaining a continuum of activity and retaining a sense of being current in an online course, both in the moment and across the entire course term. This approach of extending the asynchronous towards the synchronous is both a matter of perceiving what "real-time" actually is and how the tools are used to support near-synchronous work.

The Tools Are Not the Basis for the Work

Too often, I hear faculty members discuss how the online tools they use are inadequate to help them prepare a more "natural" environment for interactivity and participation in course activities. Most online course management tools offer limited support for selecting the appropriate tool to match the appropriate task. I believe this is so because the current emphasis in the industry is on the tools and what they do. Less emphasis is on the work we actually do in an online course and how the tools should support the work that we do. Therefore, there is a big disconnection between the online tools and their functionality, the work we do in an online course, and how we achieve our work. Online learners become easily frustrated by having to learn new tools or functions, but there is little transference between the uses of these tools from one online course to another. Online teachers become frustrated because online tools are often dumped in their lap and they are forced to use tools they neither understand nor know how to efficiently use within the context of their subject area. Too often, the emphasis is on designing the Web page, not on designing a comprehensive and collaborative online learning environment. Current online learning environments fall short of comprehensibility and collaborative management. Many online learning environments are, unfortunately, a string of disconnected single Web-based courses that are arranged as a unit on a main department Web page. We need to define an online learning environment and design our environments based on needs, requirements, pedagogies, activities, resources, and other necessities that are unique to online learning.

Structure is Necessary

There is a misconception that asynchronous learning should be so flexible that learners and professors should be able to do everything in an online course at their own pace.

Self-directed activity is a goal to a certain point, but the misconception begins when learners are not given some structure from which they can plan their activities and make efficient use of their time. Structure and time management are closely related. Structure sets the tone for the order and time frame by which learning outcomes are achieved. Time management facilitates the experience of organized ongoing activity. Online learners must be given the essential materials, objectives, directives and deliverables in visible and comprehensive forms so that learners can adequately prepare themselves to learn the content area. Online professors must make the elements of an online course visible and comprehensive to online students. In online discussions, I find it is best for the professor to structure the timing and context of threaded discussions. Online learners are more apt to prepare themselves for high-level discussions if they are given some directives and expectations for participation. To succeed in an asynchronous environment, learners and professors need to maintain fluid schedules for remaining current in an online course [1].

Convenience and Flexibility

Many students and professors who are new to online learning believe that convenience is the main benefit to online learning. This is not a good foot to get started off on if we wish to build a substantive online culture or a community of scholars. Convenience should not be the main factor for those electing online learning as a primary delivery medium. Flexible engagement affords students and professors to share a continuum of instructional productivity on demand, given that rules and policies are clearly established and that all stakeholders have consensus on what is possible and what is expected. Flexible engagement is essential to quality asynchronous learning, but it also comes at a price. All stakeholders have to understand their roles and responsibilities and be given access to the appropriate technology resources to carry them out. There has to be a common definition of flexibility so that opportunities and boundaries are equally understood. I know of online learners who are now taking more than two graduate level online courses, thinking they will have more time to complete more courses since no classroom "seat time" is required. As a result, many of these online learners have not made steady progress in their courses because they cannot handle the assignment load. These students miscalculate the extent of flexibility given. They also misconstrue convenience for easy work.

Conversely, there is a perception that online professors have it easier than those who teach traditional campus-based classes. Those who are teaching more than two online courses per term and more than 20 students per online class are discovering the time consuming process of creating a sense of presence for their class and managing the administrative and academic chores of online course work. As it was alluded to earlier in this article, online professors with heavy course loads will not easily sustain the energy needed to effectively communicate with and advise students. Burnout and unmanaged stress seems typical of online professors with heavy course loads, thereby putting quality at risk and reducing the professor's chances to grow in the environment.

Checks and Balances for Quality Work

At any given time in an online course, professors need to track how their students are progressing. Online professors are able to determine student performance and follow how students are approaching their work by establishing some minimal checks and balances.

To ensure quality work, particularly in a graduate level online course, and to help keep track of student progress, some checks and balances may include:

  • Establishing online threaded discussions that deal specifically with assignments and projects.
  • Establishing course projects that require problem finding and problem solving, not only the rote memorization of facts and information.
  • Establishing course projects that challenge everyday thinking—to address diverse perspectives on issues.
  • Establishing learning outcomes that translate to and have lasting benefit to real-world practice.

Characteristics of An Effective Online Learner

I recently posted this question as a threaded discussion theme for my students taking an online master's course in instructional delivery systems: What are the characteristics of an effective online learner? The following are sample quotes that shed light on the online learner's perspective:

"No longer is the student waiting for the teacher to teach. Rather the effective learner takes control of his educational program and utilizes the tools provided by the learning institution...."
"Because of our traditional educational backgrounds, many of us simply are not very good at taking responsibility for our learning. I am almost finished [with online master's] and I think that only now I am beginning to get the hang of this. We have to redefine our roles as learners, and the responsibility [to achieve this] is substantial, and, it can be overwhelming. Instead of waiting or expecting the teacher to 'make it happen,' we as learners play a critical role in the success or failure of our learning and the learning environment."
"If a learner expects to be spoon-fed, an OLE is the wrong place for that learner. Perhaps a traditional classroom would be better for him."

Characteristics of An Effective Online Teacher

I also asked the same group of students, what are the characteristics of an effective online teacher? The following are sample quotes on student perspectives on the role of the online teacher:

"Often I have wondered, 'who is behind that curtain delivering assignments and grades?'"

One student posted these questions in response: "How will the professor foster a sense of community in the online environment? Is the professor comfortable working in an online environment?"

"An important characteristic of an online teacher is awareness of the many facets of interaction. I associate interaction with communication. Clear and concise communication is necessary from the initiation of the course. Learners must be informed about where to find course instructions, how to find information resources for research, and how to access the OLE. Frustration and anxiety quickly set in if this information is not communicated in an efficient and effective manner. This limits the potential of the learning experience."

Sustaining Perspectives From Past to Future

The things that seem to be obvious from a traditional setting are not quite so in the online learning environment. The culture may be different, the expectations may be unclear, and the road to success is often nebulous for both online learner and teacher. At first glance, we think we can simply bring traditional practice to the online world and soon we get tangled up in things that do not work as we expect.

On the other hand, the unique practices we begin to experience in the online world open up a whole new adventure for teaching and learning—"if we but know what to do with it," as Emerson once said.

As a student commented in an online class, "I'm still learning to be a more effective online learner," so it is that we are all acclimating as we go. No effective manual is written (yet) to guarantee our success in online learning. Our failures, when they come, are deeply felt. Teachers and learners alike are learning what their roles are and what their limits are in this unique environment. All of this comes together to establish an experience. It is not perfect by any means.

From my own experience as first an online learner then an online professor, I see the patterns for which research is needed in this area. We need solid quantitative and qualitative studies that get to the depth of learner-centered online learning, how the tools and the online environment either help or impede effective interaction between learner and teacher, and how self-motivation and other personality characteristics influence online learning and online behavior. We also need well-grounded theory and substantial evidence to describe what methods we use to teach and learn new information in an online environment, and how learners and teachers perceive the online learning environment to be on a quality level. Online learning environments must be evaluated for the extent to which they serve as the interface between learner and teacher and other online stakeholders.

The future is bright for the development of online learning environments and the process of learning and teaching online. We need more formative designs of online learning environments to bring to the surface the invisible tasks and activities we actually do. Hopefully, OLE designs will soon advance with faster communications technology, wireless and handheld computing, and with the integration of software agents. Innovations in online learning environment interfaces and advancements in online pedagogy should evolve together, and should no longer be handled as separate directions for development.

I've looked at online life "from both sides now." There is much to be accomplished in online graduate level education as there is in other educational levels. This is a challenge I am anxious to continue to pursue. Many perspectives will change based on innovations and advancements in online learning. Some of the heartfelt perspectives may indefinitely remain the same.

References

1. Dringus, L.P. (1999). Towards active online learning: a dramatic shift in perspective for learners. Editorial. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(4), 189-195.

2. Dringus, L.P. and Scigliano, J.A. (in press). From early to current developments in online learning at Nova Southeastern University: reflections on historical milestones. The Internet and Higher Education, Special Issue on The History of Online Learning, 3(1-2).

3. Shneiderman, B. (1993). Education by engagement and construction: experiences in the AT&T teaching theater. Keynote speech given for ED-MEDIA 93, June 1993, Orlando, Florida. [Online]. Available at ftp://ftp.cs.umd.edu/pub/hcil/Reports-Abstracts-Bibliography/93-07html/93-07.html. Accessed February 22, 2001.



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