Apologies in advance if I end up being long winded here. This is a subject I’ve spent a lot of time pondering, so this post will be a bit of an outlet. The article I have chosen to review is “Compulsory participation in online discussions: is this constructivism or normalisation of learning?’ by Shalni Gulati, published in Innovations in Education and Teaching International, from Routledge (2008). I chose to look at this because while I was going through the Ally reading, the sections on constructivism interested me greatly. I have been in a lot of distance courses in my educational career and have almost always found the peer-to-peer interaction somehow lacking, so this article seemed like a perfect complement to what was on my mind this week.
To give you all a brief overview of the article, the author is setting out to evaluate (then contemporary) approaches to online learning and see whether course design and supporting theory were adhering to a constructivist paradigm, which the author, like Ally and Siemens, acknowledges as important for online instruction.
The picture of online learning that Gulati gives is very similar to the structure of the class we are all enrolled in. Basically, the normal approach is that the “course designer identifies topics, structures texts and provides website links for the learners to access and download’ and a class “often requires completion of individual or group tasks, with the intention to promote online discussions’ with an “emphasis on inclusion of asynchronous online discussions’ (Gulati, 2008, 184). Even if it is probably very deliberately vague, this should sound familiar to us all. I am not trying to stir the pot; I am legitimately interested in this topic and this seems like the best possible way to start a conversation regarding something that I have been thinking about for a long time.
Gulati is seeking to answer three questions that I’ll paraphrase for you:
1.) Is that structure really constructivist?
2.) Does this encourage complex discussion or conformity to what students think instructors want?
3.) What role does power play (student-student and student-instructor) in discussions? (2008, 185-186)
In short, the article’s findings (note: this is a literature review, not a research study) indicate that forced participation in discussions favors certain learners over others and that, generally, many students participate only to earn their points for discussion and do not engage except at a very shallow level (Gulati, 2008, 187-188). Some students are natural lurkers, some are power-commenters, and some are merely “present’ in the discussion for the sake of earning points. The conclusion the article comes to is that “compulsory participation in discussions may be a useful tool for engagement in some learning situations, but using it…requires greater awareness of power differences’ in the context of student-student and student-instructor interactions (Gulati, 2008, 188). Basically, most students do not benefit from compulsory discussions. That said, like anything in education, it’s very much a “you get out what you put in’ situation.
I find the findings of the article somewhat unsurprising. Mandatory participation in discussions are sometimes unpleasant in face-to-face courses. I’m just going to be honest and say that I don’t always have something to say in response to a student other than “neat!’ That’s only sometimes the case, but feeling as though you must contribute to everything can be exhausting. I’ll give an example from another course I’m in this semester. We had to post introductions online. There are ~20 students in that class. Maybe I’m going to sound heartless and antisocial, but I don’t care about whether or not my classmates like hunting, who their spouses are, or why they decided to get into teaching. I suppose it builds community, but it does so artificially. I’ve been in other courses where sharing things on Diigo or Google+ have been required course elements, but they were required fairly infrequently. We would then have a Hangout meeting after, say, four weeks, and I would be sitting there in the meeting wondering who all those people were. I knew them by their usernames on Diigo, but even then I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to their names, I was focused on what they were tagging. It wasn’t fostering any sense of community, it was more like reading an anonymous RSS feed. If there’s more than, say, 10 people in an online course then they all start to blur together and I no longer see them as people. They’re just names on the screen. Sometimes I don’t put in 100% of myself into interacting with twenty people, because that can be exhausting even if it’s infrequent, so I don’t get much out of that. The article indicates that others feel the same.
Therein lies one of the major flaws of this article. Gulati focuses on larger groups of learners, none of which are in the single-digits. Our class here has an incredibly small number of people and I already know everybody by name. When I took Digital Storytelling a few years ago, there were people on the Twitter feed who I was unfamiliar with by the end of the second month! I think mandatory discussions can work. So far, I’ve enjoyed reading people’s posts in this class. I have to admit though that when I logged in to submit this review I was a little overwhelmed that suddenly there were four new posts to read and respond to. That isn’t a lot. It really is a very small amount compared to traditional classes. That said, online interaction will always be a significantly greater effort than face-to-face interaction. That isn’t a fault of course designers. Writing out careful responses, responses that are out in the open to be picked apart and criticized, responses that need to be detailed enough to convey a point effectively because you can’t engage in rapid conversation, is laborious. Sometimes people avoid this by “tuning out.’ I imagine we’ve all done it.
I hope someday to design online classes. I think they’re very interesting. Though I’m not in the “the internet is going to replace traditional learning’ camp, I think that for certain things, they are superior to classes in classrooms. They are, essentially, formalized autodidacticism, curated by an expert, where you can occasionally interact with other people on the same track as you. It can be very intimidating to interact with people when you feel as though you are not on the same level as them. I’ve never been in that situation but this article makes a good point about power dynamics. The articles we read last week about novices and experts apply doubly to online classes with mandatory written interactions. It can be frightening for a novice to engage with experts; it can be really frightening for a novice to give experts a piece of writing that they need to engage with. In the future, I am sure that my courses will involve cohort interaction, but I am not sure what form they will take. Twitter? WordPress? A BBS forum (I wish!)? Hangouts? Skype? They all have their drawbacks and positives. Gulati did not specify exactly what kind of mandatory interactions were in place in the courses being evaluated. Some of those things did not even exist when this article was written.
As I’ve said, my own experiences with mandatory interactions have been mixed. Mostly negative, I would say, because it seems as though they’re often treated by the instructor as an afterthought. Sometimes they’re colored by what I think the professor wants me to say, and sometimes by fear of the kind of nitpicking and vitriol that I’m accustomed to associating with online interactions. Even now, I’m rereading my review in the hope that I didn’t offend Owen or make any of you think you’re just “faceless names’ to me. This class is small. It’s different. Would the posts not have been significantly more difficult to respond to if we had 15 students? Right now we are only required to respond to a small number of posts. I have been in larger classes where that was the case and some posts would end up with no comments. I would like to see a follow up study to this article that evaluated the same issues, but used different size groups to gauge how interactions change between cohort sizes.
I hope the link between this article, my discussion, and constructivism has been fairly clear. If a discussion is not authentic and is merely taking place because it has to, students aren’t really constructing their own meaning. Contextualization can be artificial, observation can be lax, processing can be minimal. If you’re participating in a discussion because you have to, not because you have something to add to it, then you aren’t really learning. Constructivists see learning as an active and individual process that is learner centered. If discussions aren’t organic, that is, if the instructor is mandating exactly what they’re about, how constructivist can they be? So far, and looking ahead, our posts are largely individualized. We have topics, sure, but they’re very broad. There is a lot of room for making things student-centered. Last week we had a post about aquariums and fish fungus! I am interested in hearing what your experiences are with mandatory interactions. Reading this article made me glad to know I am not an antisocial outlier and that other people have mixed feelings towards them. I certainly feel as though class size matters, and our group is so small that it must be unusual. This is certainly a topic for follow up in the future; you can expect some of my future article reviews to be pulled from Gulati’s references.
Gulati, S. (2008). Compulsory participation in online discussions: is this constructivism or normalisation of learning?. Innovations In Education & Teaching International, 45(2), 183-192.