ORLANDO, Fla. -- Students learning online do not want to feel isolated. But they do not necessarily want to see their instructors, chat with classmates, or make friends, either.
That is what online education officials at National-Louis University, a private nonprofit college in Chicago, found when they surveyed online students about they like to see an online instructor do.
In an admittedly limited study of 65 students (mostly from graduate programs) -- presented Thursday to a packed room here at the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning  -- university officials discovered that the students cared mainly that their instructors clearly communicated the expectations and requirements for a class and responded in a timely manner to their questions. They cared less about getting to know their classmates, looking at instructor profiles, having real-time chat sessions, and simulating face-to-face communication with video.
Also, students who had previous experience learning online were more likely to be relatively indifferent toward social intimacy with their instructors and classmates.
The notion that “social presence” might help with retention in online programs has prompted vendors to infuse their online learning platforms with more social media tools, particularly synchronous text- and video-chat features. The co-presenters from National-Louis -- the education professor Kathleen M. Sheridan and the instructional designer Melissa A. Kelly -- were careful to avoid implying that such tools are ineffectual gimmicks. But they did caution the audience against employing them for the wrong reasons.
“Those of us who are designing online courses like to latch onto the new technologies and cool things that we can do,” said Sheridan. “And I think it’s important for us to remember that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning outcomes of the course.”
In an interview after the presentation, Sheridan said she had heard from her own graduate students that synchronous chats can be “annoying” -- especially if they are compulsory. In most cases having those tools does not harm learning, she said, but they might not do anything to help it, either.
But here is the rub: online education encompasses so many types of people and pedagogies that the importance of social media on improving engagement -- and hence retention and learning outcomes -- is bound to vary, says Amy Garrett Dikkers, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Dikkers was at the Sloan conference to give a presentation on how instructors should create more intimate social environments in online courses.
“Part of my responsibility as an instructor is for me to be the social negotiator: to help them feel comfortable, to make them feel part of a community, and to not jump in immediately to the hardcore content of the course, but to think about ways to build the community,” Dikkers said in her talk. Among her recommendations: icebreakers, personal profiles, and other "low-risk" get-to-know-you measures.
Some online students might not care about chatting with classmates or being able to see their instructor’s face, Dikkers said later in an interview. Someone getting an online degree in, say, accounting might care more about logging in, learning the material, and logging out to get a few minutes with his family before going to bed so he can get up for work in the morning.
But if the student is studying human rights education -- like the graduate students Dikkers had studied -- cultivating an environment where students feel comfortable discussing the material at length with their peers probably results in better learning outcomes, she said.
“When I talk to other faculty members about taking our face-to-face courses and transforming them into online courses, there’s mostly hesitation from faculty about those seminar-type, face-to-face settings," Dikkers says. “So it’s about how we can get those three-hour-long conversations that we have on a Tuesday night into that online space.”
Accounting for the variable need for social tools in the classroom may have implications for training online instructors -- a process that has grown more standardized as institutions attempt to prep armies of adjuncts to teach online courses. The key, said Dikkers, will be to teach not only how to emulate the social intimacy of a traditional classroom, butalso how to determine whether they need to.
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