Robinson (2009) overviews a startlingly simple yet effective means of increasing social presence in formal education at a distance: recording interviews in MP3 format with experts (a "practicing professional" in Robinson's case), uploading the audio file to a virtual learning environment (VLE), and having the guest facilitate a two-week online discussion relating to the topic discussed.
Simple. And, as the results of Robinson's article in Open Learning (24:2, 127-139), effective.
Robinson proposes the approach as a viable one for a 'virtual residential school', essentially a replacement for block courses. Itis hard to be enthusiastic about this based on the survey results provided in the paper. Although the exercise was optional, the student survey results only permit a "tentative" (p.136) equivalency to a residential experience, and there was a high instance of lurkers. This aside, the pedagogical approach is commendable.
This paper highlights again that distance education need not compromise its place flexibility to be an effective means of education. The approach isn't rocket science, but it works. It's beauty is its simplicity and accessibility.
So, why the link to 4.3.2 (Social presence: the basis of community) and 3.4.6 (Topic design)?
Social presence is linked to community; Robinson (2009, p.128) mentions Hillery's (1955) identification of "locality and a sharing of common interests" as core aspects of community. If the VLE serves as the 'location', and if students are engaging in a discussion of mutual interest, then community can be said to exist. However Robinson also differentiates between 'community' and 'belonging', the latter requiring a psychological connection with the membership of community. This is an excellent differentiation; it is one thing to be 'in' a community, quite another to sense one's belonging to it. With this distinction, it could be said that online tutors ought to consider how to develop a sense of student belonging in a course, rather than establish community (which is rather automatic in Hillery's view). Robinson's article also finishes with a reminder that not all students are 'into' online community; some just want to get their qualification, without any fuss.
Why topic design? Well, the beautiful simplicity of what Robinson has proposed lends itself nicely to a 'supplemental resources' or 'interpersonal communication' approach to instrcutional design.
A timely reminder that simple yet thoughtful use of technology can engage students.
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