Wednesday, March 11, 2009

4.*: Student sense of online community: Red herring?

I have sent off the final draft of E-Primer four ("Online discourse") off for editing just tonight. It is by far the longest E-Primer, mainly because of the quantity of literature relating to asynchronous online discourse. It is probably the most thoroughly researched aspect of online learning.

But there are still many open questions.

One of them is, to what extent are social tasks essential for building a sense of online community? Related to it is, how necessary is a sense of online community for effective online learning? Intuitively, online community is a vital aspect of online learning. However studies such as a recent one on AJDE* are challenging this intuition. Using a survey based on work done by other researchers, Cameron et al found that students do not necessarily perceive a link between social tasks and the development of online community, and that only some social tasks are perceived as important. This, from the abstract, seems to tell the underlying story of why this is the case:
Students seemed to focus more on completing a task for a grade than seeing group projects as part of developing community to enhance learning.

What are we to make of this? I think that students in formal education contexts tend to be achievement-oriented, strategic learners. They will do what gets them marks, in a pragmatic pursuit of what assignment tasks indicate to be important. The development of community tends to take place only to the extent to which students perceive it needs to, and this perception is largely determined by assessment. If a group task requires the exchange of potential solutions, then potential solutions will be exchanged. No deeper form of community is necessarily required for the task to be successfully completed.

The authors seem incredulous that this is the case: "Students may view social tasks as superfluous because they do not realize that social tasks are the foundation of successful group formation" (p.28). Yet, there is no mention in the paper of how well students engaged with the task itself. Perhaps the students were right: the social tasks were superfluous, because they added nothing to their requirement to function together in a task-oriented way. The authors state:
We believe that instructors need to develop a structure for online group projects that supports, facilitates, and scaffolds the development of online group processes that reinforce the importance of community building to learning (p.28).

I'm not certain that I agree. Leaving beside the non-often cited differences between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft, researching the fourth E-Primer has demonstrated to me that Cameron et al's findings are not unique. Nor are they necessarily concerning. Students do not always value online community in e-learning contexts, and evidence is actually somewhat mixed as to the extent that 'instructors need to develop' a sense of online community to optimise outcomes in e-learning. I wonder if students are actually more savvy than we give them credit for. The survey findings indicate that making oneself known is more important (88% of students) than is getting to know other group members (63%). Could the difference of 25% be explained by students knowing what assertive, task-based collaboration should really consist of?

* Cameron, B.A., Morgan, K., Williams, K.C. and Kostelecky, K.L. (2009). Group projects: Student perceptions of the relationship between social tasks and a sense of community in online group work. American Journal of Distance Education 23(20-33).

No comments: