1 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 1 Culture of Online Education Joy Godin Georgia College & State University
2 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 2 Abstract As online learning rapidly becomes increasingly more popular, the understanding of the culture of learning online among educators is essential to effective delivery in distance education. This study investigates the cultural aspects of online education that may influence learning. The research questions that guided the study are: (1) What are some of the cultural characteristics of online learning? (2) How do the cultural aspects of online learning compare to those of traditional face-to-face learning? (3) How can teachers use the online culture to enhance learning? Online classroom observations and interview techniques were used to gather data. The findings suggest that the online environment is one of flexibility and self-direction. Instructors serve as facilitators of learning and should incorporate techniques that encourage community and promote engagement among students. Employing adult learning strategies and allowing students to include experiential learning and reflective practices will help to enhance learning among online students. Introduction Online education programs are rapidly becoming more popular in higher education institutes. The Sloan Consortium, in their 2010 annual report of online education, revealed that in 2009 student enrollment in online courses went up by nearly one million students from the previous year; this represented a 21% growth rate (Allen and Seaman, 2010). Because of this increasing demand for online courses, it is important that online instructors are aware of the paradigm shift or the change in the instructional culture of learning in this technology driven online environment (Travis and Price, 2005; Desai, Hart, and Richards, 2008). The focus of this study will be to look at some of the cultural characteristics of learning online, compare them with
3 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 3 those of the traditional face-to-face classroom, and examine how instructors can use the cultural changes to enhance learning in the online classroom. Conceptual Framework Literature in the area of culture and online instruction is sparse as researchers are just beginning to identify the need for understanding the unique instructional culture in the field of online education. Research supporting four areas of interest that relate to culture in online learning is discussed in this section. The categories explored are students perceptions of high quality online learning programs, technology use for transforming education, the paradigm shift required for teaching online, and andragogical principles applied to online learning. The discussion will begin with the students perceptions of high quality online learning. Students Perceptions of High Quality Online Learning Programs Francis Uwagie-Ero (2007) identified the characteristics of quality that students perceive as desirable for academic success in online education. The students in the study identified characteristics that were categorized by the roles of the student, instructor and administration involved in the distance education program. Student s Role The study identified the characteristics of quality that learners perceived as important for students, which included the following (all but the second and third items relate directly to students): Strong self-discipline Convenient courses and programs
4 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 4 Accommodation of career experiences Motivation Commitment to independent learning Access to high speed Internet Typing ability Ability to use the Internet comfortably The Instructor s Role The study also identified what students believed were important faculty characteristics, including the following: Understanding and flexibility Encouragement Clear expectations and due dates for assignments Assurance that online courses are of the same quality as face to face ones Helpfulness Sufficient time to complete assignments Regular feedback on and assistance with assignments The Administration s Role The third category of characteristics identified by the students was the role of the administration of the online program: Administrative and technical support system
5 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 5 Accommodation of the need to support family, including sick children or parents, while in school Self-paced learning programs Extra support on a case-by-case basis Hiring of caring and understanding faculty and administrators, who interact well with students The study concluded that students who perceived that they had positive quality experiences, positive individual motivation, and a positive learning environment were more likely to complete the online course or program. Uwagie-Ero (2007) suggested that these factors might help improve retention among online students. Teaching Online Requires a Paradigm Shift Desai, Hart, and Richards (2008) discussed how online instructors could enhance their instructional design by identifying the principles and skills needed for high quality distance education. They think that technology is the catalyst for a cultural change in the educational system. Technology has changed the way students gather information, they argue, and students are often more technologically savvy than the institutions that support them. The authors point to the fact that online learning can be asynchronous or synchronous, and that the Internet offers vast learning resources. Online learning programs are sometimes rigidly structured, and may lack the flexibility to offer self-guided study, which would allow students to exploit their abilities to learn from the Internet. For more on technology and its role in shaping instructional culture see Saltmarsh, Sutherland-Smith, and Kitto (2008).
6 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 6 Desai, Hart and Richards mention two further characteristics necessary to facilitate positive cultural change in online learning. One is assessment, which would be essential to ensure that students stay on track in a self-paced environment. The authors do admit that the availability of effective assessment tools is limited. The other is providing resources to build online communities. The tools available in course managements systems, such as chat rooms, bulletin boards, , and newsgroups, can encourage cooperation among students and help create learning communities. Interacting and collaborating in such communities can result in deeper understanding of course material (2008). Andragogical Principles applied to the Online Learning Environment Researchers contend that the online learning environment is one that is typically preferred by adult learners (Desai et. al., 2008; Cunningham, 2010; Merriam, Caffarella, & Baugartner, 2007). Thorough knowledge of adult learning principles and models can aid online instructors in successful teaching. Malcolm Knowles is credited with formulating the adult learning theory of andragogy (Knowles, Holton, and Swanson, 2005; Merriam et. al, 2007). The researchers describe andragogy as the art and science of helping adults learn (p. 61). Ajay Bedi (2004) describes Malcolm Knowles six principles to andragogical learning, that he claims to have used as guidelines for taking an andragogical approach to teaching: 1. Instructors establish an effective learning climate. 2. Learners are involved in the mutual planning of curriculum and teaching content. 3. Learners are involved in their own needs assessment.
7 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 7 4. Learners are encouraged to formulate their own learning objectives and to devise their own resources and strategies to meet these objectives. 5. Learners are offered support to carry out their learning plans. 6. Learners are assisted in the evaluation of their learning. One of Knowles primary assumptions is that, as learners age, they become more selfdirected (Merriam et. al, 2007). Cunningham (2010) describes the importance of online professors creating extremely detailed course design materials for self-directed learners. Additionally, he reports that self-directed learners want immediate feedback, and that instructors should try to communicate using asynchronous technologies that create a learning climate similar to that of a face-to-face environment. Cunningham contends that asynchronous communications result in higher quality discussions as more time permits higher-level thinking of both the instructor and the student. He also notes that seeing how learning applies in their own lives motivates self-directed learners. Motivation for Study Online instructors may find it challenging to overcome some of the barriers that arise in the online environment. Understanding the shift in the instructional culture of teaching and learning online, instructors improve their teaching. Research Questions Research Goals The primary research goal of this study is to discover the cultural aspects of online education that may influence learning.
8 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 8 Research Questions 1. What are some of the cultural characteristics of online learning? 2. How do the cultural aspects of online learning compare to those of traditional face-toface learning? 3. How can teachers use the online culture to enhance learning? Research Environment The research environment is an online learning program that provides core courses for students who are enrolled in affiliated universities or colleges in the system. The program studied is ecore, a purely online program of the University System of Georgia that offers the majority of core courses required for graduation. Research Methods The research methods in this study included online class observations, teacher interviews, and an administrator interview. The following will describe each of the methods. Class observations Two online ecore courses were observed in this study: American Literature II (ENGL 2132) and American Government (POLS 1101). Instructors in both courses use the Blackboard Learning System s Georgia View as the course management platform. The ecore instructors employ asynchronous teaching strategies such as discussion board postings and assignment postings as well as notes, videos, and reading assignments. The ecore program supports synchronous teaching strategies, such as virtual meetings; however, synchronous activities were not used in the two classes observed. The researcher periodically observed the course activities
9 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 9 and correspondences between instructors and students, and reviewed all assignments and learning activities in the course throughout one semester. Teacher interviews Interviews were conducted with the instructors of both courses. Each was presented via with the following questions: 1. How did you get involved with teaching online? 2. Tell me about your teaching experiences. What was it like going from face-to-face to teaching online? 3. What do you like about teaching online? 4. What are the challenges of teaching online? 5. What are some of the differences in the learning environment in online learning as compared to face-to-face learning? 6. How do the differences improve or challenge learning? 7. Are students encouraged to use their own life experiences as they learn online in your class? 8. How does self-directed learning play a role in online learning? 9. Your class in delivered in an asynchronous manner. What are your thoughts on synchronous (ie live virtual classroom session such as a Wimba meeting) learning in the online environment? 10. How would you describe the classroom culture in an online environment as compared to the face-to-face traditional classroom environment?
10 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 10 Administrator interviews Dr. Melanie Clay, the Associate Dean of USG ecore, was interviewed live one-on-one using an electronic web meeting platform, Wimba Live Classroom. Dr. Clay was asked the following questions during the interview: 1. How did you get involved with ecore? 2. Tell me about your teaching experiences. What was it like going from face-to-face to online? 3. What do you like about online learning from a student perspective? 4. What do you like about online learning from an instructor s perspective? 5. What are some of the differences in the learning environment in online learning vs. f2f learning? 6. How do the differences improve or challenge learning? 7. What are the characteristics of successful online students? 8. Are students encouraged to use their own life experiences as they learn online? 9. How does self-directed learning play a role in online learning? 10. While observing the two ecore classes I have noticed that delivery is entirely asynchronous. What are your thoughts on synchronous vs. asynchronous learning? 11. How do you believe learning should be evaluated in ecore classes?
11 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION I noticed that both instructors I am observing give students an opportunity to introduce themselves and tell a little about themselves. What do you think about this? 13. How are teaching and learning strategies different for online instructors and f2f instructors? 14. What impact has online learning had on how students learn? The interview question responses from both of the instructors and the administrator were coded for common themes and then used to address the research questions of this study. The findings are reported in the results section of this paper. Validity Issues The instructors and courses that were observed in this study were recommended by the Dean of ecore as good examples of teaching and learning online. The administrator and instructors willingly volunteered to answer interview questions and provided thoughtful responses to the questions. All classroom observations were made online and were not intrusive in any way to learning activities of the class. Results The purpose of this study was to explore the cultural aspects of online education that impact learning. The results of this study are presented separately for each research question. Research Question 1 Question 1 asked: What are some of the cultural characteristics of online learning?
12 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 12 The cultural characteristics of learning identified in the study were divided into two separate categories, student learning characteristics and faculty teaching characteristics. The following discussion will provide the details for each category. Student Learning Characteristics Students in online education program appreciate the flexibility of learning online. Dr. Melanie Clay, the Dean of ecore, completed her doctoral work entirely online. Dr. Clay stated I like being a student in the online environment far, far better than a face-to-face environment because I can work at my own pace which is usually much faster. She also mentioned that in the online environment there was much less wasted time. The online learning environment requires a more self-directed learning style. Dr. Clay explained that students are in charge of their own learning. The online Political Science instructor wrote that students have to be more organized and self-disciplined. All of the interviewees believed that students have to read more in an online environment. The course observations demonstrated self-directed learning as students read and completed reflective writing tasks in a multitude of assignments in both courses observed. As Cunningham (2010) has stated, self-directed learning is key to successful online distance education. The anonymity of online education gives students with disabilities or physical abnormalities an equal playing field according to Dr. Clay. Students show fewer inhibitions about what they say in the online environment since they do not have to say it in person, face-toface. Likewise, many students are comfortable with the communication technologies since they are similar to those they use recreationally in social networking and blogging sites (Saltmarsh et. al., 2008). Furthermore, online education may facilitate more participation in learning for
13 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 13 students who move at a slower pace or have anxiety about speaking in front of their peers in a classroom (Warschauer 1995, Satar and Özdener 2008). Faculty Teaching Characteristics The instructors and administrator mentioned that flexibility for the instructor was also a positive characteristic in online learning. The Political Science instructor reported having more time to reflect on the student s comments and respond. The lack of a time constraint gives instructors the opportunity to provide better feedback to students and incorporate current events as they happen as opposed to waiting until the next class meeting. The American Literature ecore instructor reported that it is very important that the instructor set the tone of the course. He felt that the faculty member s responses to students should be positive and encouraging. Positive interaction will result in better engagement among students. This concept of a positive environment is supported in the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (North American Council for Online Learning, 2006) which states that teachers should create a warm and inviting atmosphere that promotes the development of a sense of community among participants (p. 4). In the online environment instructors serve as facilitators of learning instead of teachers disseminating knowledge. In both classes observed the instructor would present an assignment and the students led discussions reflecting on the goals of the assignments and their experiences as they completed the assignments. In some cases there were close to 200 discussion postings for an individual assigned reading. The instructor commented on many responses and students openly and thoughtfully replied to each other s postings. Students questions and responses
14 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 14 determine the direction of the course; therefore, students are more in charge of their own learning explained Dr. Clay. Research Question 2 Question 2 asked: How do the cultural aspects of online learning compare to those of traditional face-to-face learning? One of the biggest challenges that each of the ecore instructors identified in the online environment is engaging students. However, Dr. Clay did point out that not all face-to-face instructors are engaging. The challenge in the online environment is to make sure that students are actively interacting with one another. One advantage Dr. Clay mentioned to the online classroom is that there is no back of the classroom. One instructor mentioned that he had to put his thoughts more clearly in language as opposed to drawing on the board. He also stated that he doesn t tell as many stories. The lack of face-to-face interaction was also mentioned. The instructors did not get to know their students as well. However, in both of the observed classes, the students seemed to interact very well online with the instructors and each other. Building of community is a challenge in the online environment. Dr. Clay commented that students do not participate in the small talk that they normally do in the traditional face-to-face classroom. Research Question 3 Question 3 asked: How can teachers use the online culture to enhance learning? The first suggestion to instructors in online course is to become a student in an online class. Dr. Clay claims that this is the most important thing for an online instructor to do. Her statement is supported in the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (North American
15 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 15 Council for Online Learning, 2006) that explains that teachers should take online courses and apply the experiences as a student to develop and implement successful strategies for online teaching. Teachers of online courses should adjust their teaching strategies to serve as facilitators, allowing students to direct their own learning. With this approach, students are able to learn independently, with the instructor serving as the course guide, Dr. Clay explained. Online learning provides teachers with a variety of assessment techniques including online discussions that can improve student engagement and can give students of varying learning styles opportunities to learn in different ways. Instructors in online learning should define clear expectations for the entire course when classes begin. In both of the ecore classes observed, instructors organized their course content into learning modules and each learning module listed objectives to be covered and a list of tasks or expectations of the students for that module. Each assignment had detailed instructions and resources available to complete the assignment. All of the learning materials were presented to the students at the beginning of the course. Online students require very detailed instructions and an abundance of learning materials to be successful. Knowles et al. (2005) describe how educational theorists believe that rich and accessible resources are critical to effective learning. For instance, the American Government professor provided links to four American documents including the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution while the American Literature professor gave students a very detailed listing of literary terms in the format of a glossary. These are just a couple of the many examples of the learning materials provided to the online students.
16 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 16 Activities that give students the opportunity to apply their own life experiences are beneficial in the online environment. An example of this was observed in the American Government course. The professor asked students to explore experiences in their daily routine and to reflect on how these experiences relate to government agencies. Students were asked to post their reflective responses to a discussion board to share with the class. The online environment gives students the opportunity to participate in more reflective learning. Discussion board postings encourage students to think about their experiences and reflect in a way they may not have in the traditional face-to-face environment. Students also learn from the reflections and discussions of their classmates. In the online environment the instructor can take advantage of the lack of a time constraint. The Political Science instructor mentioned that she could bring current events into the class as they occur instead of waiting until the next class meeting when they may not be as relevant. Instructors have more time to think about their discussions and the opportunity to provide more thought-provoking feedback in the online environment. Conclusion As the demand for online courses steadily increases, instructors face the challenge of adapting to the new learning environment and employing practices that will engage students and improve learning. This study identified several cultural characteristics to learning online that may help instructors become effective online facilitators in the technology driven classroom. Understanding the characteristics of online learners is the first step to successful instruction. Online students tend to be self-directed and thrive on the flexibility offered in distance education. Instructors of online learning serve as facilitators of instruction allowing the students to guide
17 CULTURE OF ONLINE EDUCATION 17 learning. The instructors should create a pleasant, open environment that encourages interaction and community building among students as student engagement is one of the biggest challenges in online education. Employing experiential learning activities followed by reflective practice is important to online student understanding. Recognizing the challenges and benefits of online education and employing practices that encourage student learning are essential to success in the online environment.
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