Learner-Valued Interactions: Research into Practice

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1 Learner-Valued Interactions: Research into Practice Kathryn Ley University of Houston Clear Lake Box 217, UHCL, 2700 Bay Area Blvd. Houston TX 77058, USA Ruth Gannon-Cook De Paul University, Chicago, USA Keywords: Online courses, instructional design Competitive higher education institutions strive to attract, enroll, and retain learners with online courses. Studies have revealed that online learners may select courses for access and convenience although, once enrolled, they value specific course features and conditions (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). Online learners do not value all instructional features and conditions equally nor do all instructional features and conditions help them learn equally well. This paper suggests learner-valued online course features and conditions synthesized from studies in social presence (Wei, Chen, & Kinshuk, 2012), feedback (Espasa, & Meneses, 2010), and learner self-regulation (Ley & Young, 2001). A seminal study that identified learner-valued interactions (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007) when compared with findings from studies in social presence, performance feedback, and learner self-regulation frames online course design that transforms learner-valued features into effective instructional strategies. College and university online course design has to address effective learning strategies but also must address learner-valued course features given an increasingly competitive higher education market place. Higher education is a market place in which institutions compete for students, and academics study the phenomenon as evidenced by the Journal of Marketing in Higher Education. Marketing research findings reflect what most administrators acknowledge: Students are attracted to online courses for a number of reasons including convenience and course availability (Allen, & Seaman, 2010). Most educational organizations now offer online courses to increase enrollments, but must consider political, fiscal, or social forces in order to do so. In the competition for students, most institutions of higher education are offering more online courses and are converting many on-ground courses to online. Many on-ground courses can be adapted to online but it is only with care and attention to learner motivational and instructional requirements that an online course provides an appealing and effective educational experience. Effective online courses especially in highly competitive online programs encourage online course completion and retention. Therefore educators seeking to sustain or increase course and program enrollments are rightfully concerned with the online learner s experience. Instructional effectiveness drives online course design but instructional appeal encourages course participation and successful completion. Online courses that engage students, encourage them to complete a course, and enable them to earn a passing grade, foster online course and program success. Instructional designers and faculty seeking to translate theory and research into practice have an overwhelming plethora of rich and varied of studies investigating a multitude of online course features and conditions. This extensive body of online studies and the theories begs the question, how to design online courses that encourage students to engage in effective learning activities? One answer considers what learners value and then compares these valued features and conditions strongly supported by the findings of online learning research. What online learners value drives the process but instructional effectiveness determines how to design and deliver effective learning support with learner-valued interactions. A seminal study describing what online learners value, surveyed one hundred and seventy online students from two universities and asked them to rank how much they valued 16 instructor activities (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). The top five most-valued instructor interactions were 1) check to assess learner needs, 2) posted discussion board, 3) provide examples, 4) provide timely feedback, and 5) respond to student inquiries. In sum, students valued timely, responsive, instructor interactions. Learner-valued instructor interactions signal to online students that an instructor is present, available, and helpful. Four of the five valued instructor interactions implicitly involve instructors communicating with students; the fifth, provide examples, could be presented through instructor 104

2 communications or in instructional materials. Three of the valued instructor activities involve individual learnerinstructor interactions: check to assess learner needs, provide timely feedback, and respond to student inquiries. Learners value instructor messages on a class discussion board whether responding to a specific learner or initiating the communication. Data supports the conventional wisdom that learners value instructor interaction (Boston, Ice, & Gibson, 2011, Reio & Crim, 2013). Research has indicated that social engagement, establishing communities of learning, a supportive environment that embraces diverse cultures and demonstrates respect for knowledge (whether online or on-ground) are keys to students successful attainment of their learning goals (Bonk, 2006; Darling-Hammond, 2006; Jaschik, 2010; Liu, Magjuka, & Lee, 2008; Patterson, & McFadden, 2009; U.S. Department of Education, 2009). An instructor s social presence can support the keys to a positive learning environment. Social presence may be defined as an individual s ability to demonstrate his/her state of being in a virtual environment and so signal his/her availability for interpersonal transactions" (Kerhwald, 2010, p. 94). Instructor social presence, as measured by student perceptions of his/her interactions with the instructor, has contributed to learner satisfaction (Boston, Ice, & Gibson, 2011; Cui, Lockee, & Meng, 2013). In fact, social presence was one of four extrinsic factors affecting online learner satisfaction in a data-based model of online learner satisfaction (Lin, Lin, & Laffey 2008). In the model, social presence was the extrinsic factor over which instructors had the most control. A structural equation model (Wei et al., 2012) based upon responses from over 500 high school and undergraduate participants responding to a self-report measure indicated that social presence positively influenced learning interaction that in turn influenced learning performance. A case study comparison between the highest-rated instructor and the lowest-rated instructor revealed that instructor interaction frequency between the two courses differed dramatically (Gorsky & Blau, 2009). While frequency of interaction was important, it was not the only determinant of learner-valued interactions. The content of the instructor-student interactions was also important; students wanted more than I agree, good response, or nice job. Learners wanted more insightful instructor feedback. Furthermore instructor interaction frequency appears to have diminishing returns (Dennen, Darabi, & Smith, 2007). Feedback, a fundamental and essential learning component, enables the learner to monitor and evaluate her own learning processes, two of four components in an instructional design model for embedding self-regulation (Ley & Young, 2001). Self-regulation may be defined as one's ability to plan, organize, monitor and evaluate his or her own learning (Ley & Young). The self-regulated learner monitors his or her learning processes and is able to evaluate how effective those learning processes are. Instructor interactions may be most important with poorly self-regulating learners because they are less likely to benefit from online student-content interactions (Bol & Garner, 2011). On the other hand, online courses must be motivating even for the self-regulated students (Howland & Moore, 2002). Instructors who attempt to provide learners with valued instructor interactions inherently match learner s motives, an instructional strategy that also is an instructional motivational strategy (Keller, 2010). Feedback has been significantly related to online learners affective and cognitive learning outcomes as measured by students satisfaction and grades (Espasa, & Meneses, 2010). For some learners more feedback may be required than for others (Howland & Moore). Learners who watched instructor feedback podcasts commented they felt connected to the instructor and some preferred the podcast feedback to print (Bolliger, Supanakorn, & Boggs, 2010). Online instructor communications can simultaneously address learner -valued interactions and self-regulation, feedback, and social presence. A comparison of valued interactions with each of these constructs indicates which learner-valued interactions have potential to promote self-regulation, provide feedback and establish instructor social presence (Table 1). Each of the five most valued instructor interactions should also be vehicles for one or more of proven instructional methods associated with these constructs: reinforcing self-regulation, providing learner feedback, and establishing instructor social presence. The prudent online instructor can leverage learner-valued interactions into useful feedback and self-regulation support that also reinforces the instructor s social presence. Each of the five top learner-valued interactions can be a vehicle for delivering one or more of these effective online instructional methods. A description integrating each interaction with the three instructional methods illustrates possible instructor approaches. 105

3 Table 1. Learner-Valued Instructor Interactions Support Effective Learning Check to Assess Learner Needs Checking learner s is an excellent way to build social presence, provide feedback, support learner selfregulation, and ultimately motivate learners. Instructor responses to learner s reinforce social presence and can also encourage learner self-regulation if the instructor s communication is timely and includes feedback about the learner s academic performance. When an instructor responds may be as important as the response itself. A one to two day time frame is usually considered sufficiently prompt to be perceived as timely by the learner but may be difficult unless coupled with syllabus policies and course features that support response timeliness. logistics can be overwhelming when an instructor has large online course enrollments unless an instructor has syllabus policies which mediate and moderate communications (Ley, in press). Where and when an instructor responds to students affects how well the instructor s response reinforces his positive social presence. One discussion board message viewed by the class promotes social presence among the entire class; one response to an individual learner is a uniquely personal interaction. To convey a positive instructor social presence in an individual requires additional semiotic considerations besides timeliness. It requires the rhetoric of positive social presence, such as, thanking the student for initiating contact, beginning with a personal greeting, and expressing concern for the student s learning. communications that incorporate personal messages reinforce positive social presence. An instructor may find it far easier to respond in a timely fashion if fewer s require attention; replacing with class communications is an option with other benefits as described in the next section. Post To Discussion Board Where and when an instructor responds to a learner's questions are no less important than what the instructor communicates. To convey a positive instructor social presence requires additional semiotic considerations besides timeliness. It requires the rhetoric of positive social presence; thanking the student for initiating contact, beginning with a personal greeting, and expressing concern for the student s learning reinforce an instructor s positive social presence. Whenever appropriate an instructor should attribute a learner s performance to effort since effort attributions correlate positively with academic performance (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2004). Encouraging discussion board or other class communication venues has advantages over for online instructors and students. The very act of posting a message is a learner-valued instructor interaction and promotes social presence. At the beginning of a semester an instructor can post an introductory message on the discussion board. Evidence suggests that audio is especially preferred for online course communications (Bolliger, Supanakorn, & Boggs, 2010). An instructor who answers questions about future assignments and who posts class feedback about past assignments builds social presence. An instructor can post messages reminding students of future assignment due dates or suggest milestones toward completing assignments. Therefore an instructor s class discussion board messages are also an opportunity for instructors to promote their social presence, provide feedback, and promote learner self-regulation. Provide Examples Providing examples is a powerful learner-valued interaction because it is also an effective instructional strategy (Huh, 2013). Learners value examples because it can be very difficult to describe in a few words what the desired outcome should be. Frequently it is much more powerful, effective, and motivating to display an example. Examples 106

4 represent the required performance. Examples symbolize what the instructor is expecting in an assignment. Examples before an assignment illustrate the instructor s expectations. Examples after an assignment provide feedback and may be more appropriate where an example prior to an assignment discourages original critical thinking. Provide Timely Feedback Timely feedback is as essential to learning as it is to providing a learner-valued interactions. Effective feedback does more than just provide knowledge of results. Knowing whether one got the right answer or not is often not sufficient to help the learner correct misconceptions or improve work. Feedback can tell the student where and how the assignment meets or does not meet the assignment criteria or is inconsistent with the instructions. The most detailed level of feedback describes how to correct the work or performance. One of the best ways to provide feedback may also be one of the most efficient. Most instructors soon discover that audio feedback can be produced with far greater detail and faster than with print feedback. An instructor can embed audio comments into written assignments, record audio or video feedback for each learner, or embed print comments in a document. Rhetoric for feedback is also a consideration. Referring consistently to an assignment rather than the student sends a message that it is the assignment and not the student that may need improvement. This rhetoric enables the instructor to help the student instead of implicitly disapproving of the student. Whenever prudent, an instructor should attribute learner s performance to effort since effort attributions correlate positively with academic performance (Cleary & Zimmerman, 2004). Well-done work or performances attributed to effort signals the instructor s confidence in the learner. On the other hand learners who profess to have worked hard should receive feedback about how to improve work since they may be working hard but on the wrong learning activities or study strategies. Feedback on learning processes addresses learner self-regulation by helping learners who may not be able to evaluate their learning processes or identify effective alternatives. Timely feedback can support self-regulation and promote an instructor s social presence. Respond To Student Inquiries The fifth most valued instructor interaction was responding to student inquiries. This instructor interaction specifically refers to a learner receiving a response to questions the learner has posed to the instructor. Responding to inquiries could occur in , on the discussion board, or even by telephone. If on the discussion board or in the message inherently promotes the instructor's online social presence. The nature of the inquiry determines which of the two other functions the response could serve. A learner s question may present an instructor with the opportunity to offer a learner self-regulation support that suggests to the learner how to plan, organize, monitor, and evaluate his own learning. If the student s inquiry is about a test answer or the instructor s evaluation of the students work, the instructor has the opportunity to provide feedback such as is described in the timely feedback section. Conclusion Online instructors have an opportunity to leverage learner-valued interactions into effective learning support. Research results often report the relationship between a single construct and perhaps student perceptions or, in some cases, learning outcomes. By considering how to integrate important learning support with interactions that online learners most value the online instructor makes each message a valued learner interaction that can also build the instructor s positive social presence, provide useful feedback to learners and promote their self-regulation. References Allen, I. E., & Seaman, J. (2010). Learning on demand: Online education in the United States, Retrieved from Bol, L., & Garner, J. K. (2011). Challenges in supporting self-regulation in distance education environments. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23(2-3), doi: /s Bolliger, D. U., Supanakorn, S., & Boggs, C. (2010). Impact of podcasting on student motivation in the online learning environment. Computers & Education, 55(2), Boston, W. E., Ice, P., Gibson, A.M. (2011). Comprehensive assessment of student retention in online learning environments. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 4(1). University of West Georgia, Distance Education retrieved on February 4, 2013 from 107

5 Center for the Study of College Student Retention. (2009). Definitions of student retention. Retrieved from Cleary, T. J., & Zimmerman, B. J. (2004). Self-regulation empowerment program: A school-based program to enhance self-regulated and self-motivated cycles of student learning. Psychology in the Schools, 41(5), Cui, G., Lockee, B., & Meng, C. (2013). Building modern online social presence: A review of social presence theory and its instructional design implications for future trends. Education and Information Technologies, 18(4), doi: /s Darling-Hammond, l. (2006). Constructing 21st-century teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 57, 20, Dennen, V. P., Darabi, A. A., & Smith, L. J. (2007). Instructor learner interaction in online courses: The relative perceived importance of particular instructor actions on performance and satisfaction. Distance Education, 28(1), Espasa, A., & Meneses, J. (2010). Analysing feedback processes in an online teaching and learning environment: an exploratory study. Higher Education, 59(3), 277. doi: /s Gorsky, P., & Blau, I. (2009). Online teaching effectiveness: A tale of two instructors. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3). Retrieved from Howland, J. L., & Moore, J. L. (2002). Student perceptions as distance learners in internet-based courses. Distance Education, 23(2), Huh, Y. (2013) Examples and non-examples. In R. C. Richey (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Terminology of Educational Communications and Technology (pp ). New York: Springer. Jaschik, S. (2010, April 14). Why they take so long. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from Keller, J. M. (2010). Motivational design for learning and performance. New York: Springer. Ley, K. (in press). Faculty development: Features and guidelines to improve online course communications. In A. A. Pina & A. P. Mizell (Eds.) Real-life distance education; Case studies in practice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing. Ley, K., & Young, D. B. (2001). Instructional principles for self-regulation. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49, Patterson, B., & McFadden, C. (2009). Attrition in online and campus degree programs. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(2). Retrieved from Reio, T. G. R., & Crim, S. J. (2013). Social Presence and Student Satisfaction as Predictors of Online Enrollment Intent. The American Journal of Distance Education, 27(2), U.S. Department of Education. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. Washington, D.C. Retrieved from Wei, C. W., Chen, N. S., & Kinshuk. (2012). A model for social presence in online classrooms. Educational Technology Research and Development, 60(3), doi: /s

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