Thursday, May 28, 2009

4.4: A review of social learning theory and Web-Based Learning Environments

The latest American Journal of Distance Education features an article by Hill et al called "Social Learning Theory and Web-Based Learning Environments: A Review of Research and Discussion of Implications" (23:2, 88-103). The article concerns itself with formal, rather than informal settings (great to see the distinction being made in literature) and seems to assume engagement leading to community rather than the "must develop community first" emphasis that underlies other perspectives outlined in the E-Primer.

The paper follows a very useful structure relating to key variables, and their application:

  • Provide opportunities for creating and sharing in-depth messages
  • Enable support by more knowledgeable others
  • Encourage interaction by the instructor and peers
Group and class size
  • Monitor group size to enable support from more knowledgeable others (i.e., peers)
  • Monitor class size to enable consistent and engaged interaction
  • Encourage effective use of postings and other resources
  • Provide strategies to identify, interpret, and utilize resources

Culture and Community
  • Facilitate online interactions so they meet the needs of learners from a variety of cultures
  • Provide multiple formats for communication to meet differing cultural needs
  • Facilitate connection-building in small and large groups
  • Support collaborative activities

Learner Characteristics
Epistemological beliefs
  • Take into consideration reflective thinking abilities
  • Gain an understanding of epistemological beliefs of students to guide design
Individual learning styles
  • Gain an understanding of learning styles to guide design
  • Enable different levels of interaction to accommodate individual learning styles
  • Enable choice in interactions to minimize social anxiety
  • Promote self-regulated learning
  • Incorporate authentic activities
  • Send messages regularly to motivate learners

This is, in my view, an excellent overview of issues and a good structure for considering online discussion.

Mention is made of Angeli et al's (2000) 'starter' and 'wrapper' technique, one not mentioned in the E-Primer but one worthy of note here. The 'starter' is a nominated student who frames a discussion based on a particular reading, setting the scene for the online discussion to follow. The 'wrapper' is another student who provides an effective summary of the conversation once the exercise is completed. The 'starter' and 'wrapper' tend to respond deeply themselves, and as the technique is used across a course the overall level of interaction also increases. We use this technique successfully in one course at Laidlaw College, where a student will take on the role of both 'starter' and 'wrapper' for one particular topic of the overall course.

Another key lesson from the paper concerns the dangers of being too prescriptive when designing online discourse opportunities, which can stifle new ideas and rob motivation. There is a real tension here, one mentioned in section 4.1.1 of the E-Primer. The problem is that setting up an online topic that is too loose can result in a perception that the instructor is distant, and the conversation itself too unstructured. This tension also applies to the actual role of the online instructor, as stated in the E-Primer (p.43):
There is a tension, a balance, a restrained enthusiasm required for success in online instruction. Evidence suggests that instructors should err on the side of enthusiastic participation rather than absenteeism.

Modelling is also identified in the Hill et al article as a key success factor, and is mentioned in sections 4.5.3 and 4.5.4.

Overall the paper reinforces the accuracy of E-Primer 4, though the link to student's own epistemological beliefs and learning styles (see also previous entry) are both avenues worthy of further consideration.

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Social Learning