Vol. 16 : No. 7< >
Promoting Online Interaction in Today’s Colleges and Universities
As a faculty trainer and mentor for teacher candidates at the University of Phoenix (UOP), the author appreciates the anxious feelings that new teachers feel about their first online class. Naturally, the new teachers are working hard to develop their skills to meet the challenges of sharing information in cyberspace. It is important for today’s online instructors to have a clear understanding of their role in the teaching and learning process. The author will focus on teaching practices that promote interaction and foster a positive learning environment.
Meeting Student Learning Needs
The rapid growth of distance education schools should not blind us to the fact that online learning is not for every student or teacher. Their might be a variety of reasons for individuals not wanting to teach or take online classes. For instance, students who have trouble with personal discipline might not feel comfortable working online. Additionally, students and teachers might enjoy the traditional classroom experience more than the online environment (Kearsley, 2002).
It is important to acknowledge that online teaching is both an art and science. Each new class challenges instructors to reflect on their teaching strategies and consider the need to make changes. Instructors must develop relevant curriculum plans that can effectively meet student learning needs for their personal and professional development. Philips (2002) relates, “while much e-learning buzz has focused on the wonders of technology the real challenges associated with e-learning today lie decidedly on the softer side. Whether or not e-learning "takes" is a question that the learners, not the technologists, will ultimately answer (paragraph 3).”
Contemporary online instructors must continually upgrade their courses to help prepare students for current and future jobs and educational opportunities. Nichols (2001) highlights six imperatives for educators in the 21st Century:
Interaction in Online Classes
It is interesting that Nichols (2001) notes the need for more online interaction between the instructors and their students. Ultimately, the primary challenges facing today’s instructors are not technological but involve the issue of social interaction. Obviously, there are a number of vital technological issues that require serious attention. Yet, the larger problems will residue with instructors who are striving to develop dynamic online dialogs and promote meaningful interaction within their classes (Kolluck, 1998).
Research literature on interaction or interactivity has highlighted the complexity of this educational issue. Wager (1994) argues that a practical description of interaction must acknowledge that it involves investigating four educational contexts: learning theory, instructional theory, instructional design, and instructional delivery. Moore (1989) tries to take a more basic approach by stressing that effective online classes will have three types of interaction:
Each type of interaction plays a role in the entire educational process. Historically, traditional classroom environments have stressed the content-centered educational model that relies upon a teacher-centered approach to learning. In contrast, distance education schools emphasize self-directed learning activities that are designed to help students understand the subject matter. It is a learner-centered instructional approach that encourages students to develop autonomy, independence in their study habits and take personal responsibility for their learning (Mason & Kaye, 1990).
Teachers, administrators and instructional designers recognize the value of learner control but raise questions about the ability of students to structure their own learning experiences to meet course objectives. Instructors can allow their students to experiment with some assignments to help them gain confidence in their abilities and promote individualization of course work. Saba (1998) observes that “the success of distance education, to a great degree, will depend on the ability of educational institutions to personalize the teaching and learning process. Students should be given the chance to assess their comfort with the level of structure while learning at a distance and decide to what extent they need direct contact with the instructor (p.1).”
There are a host of benefits to having interactive computer-mediated learning. A major advantage is that students appreciate and enjoy the learning process to a greater degree when they have the opportunity to freely share with their instructor and colleagues. Milheim (1995) cites six major benefits to interactive learning:
Suggestions for Enhancing Online Interaction
Instructors play a key role in setting the “emotional tone” for their computer-mediated interactions. The literature constantly refers to the need for instructors to establish a framework that enables students to be active, on-line participants who share freely with both their peers and instructors. Therefore, educators must cultivate their online communication skills to effectively create a learning climate that is compatible with a diversity of students. Contemporary online students will vary greatly in their level of cognitive maturity and computer skills. Shih & Cifuentes (2001) note that “in addition to learning how to teach online, teachers need to be prepared to address the needs of students from diverse cultures (p. 8).”
A major challenge for today’s online instructors involves creating a consistent level of interaction that fosters academic learning and cultivates a community atmosphere. It will require developing strategies that provide guidance and instruction for individuals and student groups. For instance, the instructor must decide how often to provide specific feedback on student work. At the University of Phoenix, instructors are expected to provide weekly grade reports for their students. The instructor should share their grading policies in their syllabus. It helps students to know how often to expect feedback on their work offer possible insights on how to improve the quality of their work.
Collison, Elbaum, Haavind & Tinker(2000, p. 49) shares eight facilitator tasks that encourage relevant online work and foster interaction:
The eight tasks reveal the need for instructors to take a comprehensive view of interaction by making it a primary objective within the curriculum. Students want intellectually and emotionally engaging dialogs that address their needs.
The author offers several practical suggestions for encouraging interaction in online classes.
Research studies support the practice of having instructors and their students share biographical posts during the first few days of class. An informative biography will highlight both professional and personal data that offers insights into the individual’s life.
It is simple procedure that can humanize the online class by helping students learn more about their teacher and colleagues. Students will use the biographical posts as a way to have a reference point to communicate during the course.
Positive Affirmation of Student Work
Instructors can promote greater online participation by affirming their students’ abilities and knowledge. The teacher can make positive comments about an individuals’ expertise in a public forum such as a newsgroup and through private email messages. The key is to be sincere and share positive comments with every student in the class. Adult learners appreciate being recognized for their accomplishments and online classes offer numerous opportunities for instructors to affirm quality work.
Integrate Stories into the Class Discussions
Online students want classes that stress the human side of learning. The online environment can be lonely at times and students want to get to know their teachers and classmates. The author has found that students really enjoy stories from the teacher’s life because they make the class more personal. It is exciting to observe that stories can vary depending upon the need of the class. In a doctoral research class, it could be a good opportunity for the instructor to share how they arrived at their dissertation topic. The wise instructor will use stories to generate lively discussion within the class. The author has shared the following humorous story during online graduate classes.
At the start of a new semester at the University of Northern Iowa, I seated myself in the
front row in a class of 350 students. The professor began sharing that the course would be extremely difficult and the auditorium became totally quiet. After a few minutes, he paused and stated that if anyone felt uncomfortable with his class requirements, it would be a good time to leave. Just at that moment, I realized that I was in the wrong class. I stood up and started to head for the door and the entire class cheered as they watched me leave the room.
Provide Student’s with Flexibility
Instructors must be careful not to provide excessive structure to their classes that eliminates the potential for students making critical decisions about their assignments. The term flexibility refers to making the learning more relevant to the student’s needs or circumstances. The instructional emphasis is to make the learning experiences more individualized. Collis (1998) observes that “these relate to time flexibility, content flexibility, entry and completion flexibility, instructional-approach flexibility, learning-resource flexibility, technology-use flexibility, interactivity and communication flexibility, course-logistics flexibility, as well as location flexibility (p. 376).”
Online instructors can demonstrate flexibility by encouraging students to adapt their assignments to align with their work responsibilities. Obviously, the student selected work or paper topics should support course learning objectives. Also, teachers can encourage students to help them identify appropriate additional resources to meet diverse learning needs. The principle of student-centered instruction supports the idea of flexibility because students must learn to take charge of their education to become self-directed learners.
Today’s online teachers can promote interaction in their classes by utilizing a diversity of instructional strategies. Teachers set the emotional and intellectual tone for their classes. They must make plans to consistently integrate interaction into their learning activities. Then, their virtual classes will be dynamic places where students enjoy studying with others.
Collis, B. (1998). New didactics for university instruction: Why and how? Computers & Education, 31, pp. 373-393.
Collison, G., Elbaum, Haavind, S., & Tinker, R. (2000). Facilitating online learning. Effective strategies for moderators. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Kearsley, G. (2002). Is online learning for everybody? Educational Technology, 42 (1), pp. 41-44.
Kollock, P. (1998). Design principles for online communities. PC Update 15 (5): 58-60.
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Mason, R. & Kaye, T. (1990). Toward a new paradigm for distance education. In L. M. Harasim (Ed.), Online education: Perspectives on a new environment (pp. 15-30). New York, NY: Praeger.
Milheim, W. D. (1995). Interactivity and computer-based instruction. Journal of Educational Technology Systems, 24 (3), pp. 225-233.
Moore, M. G. (1989). Three types of interaction. In M. G. Moore, MG. & Clark G. C. (Eds.). Readings in principles of distance education (pp. 100-105). University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University.
Nichols, M. (2001). Teaching for Learning. New Zealand: Traininc.co.nz
Philips, V. (2002). Why does corporate e-learning fail? Virtual University Gazette.
Retrieved from the World Wide Web June 1, 2002. Available: http://www.geteducated.com/vugaz.htm
Saba, F. (1998). Enabling the distance learner: A strategy for success. Distance Education Report.
Shih, Y. C. & Cifuentes (2001). One tale of why and how to teach and learn online internationally. TechTrends, 45 (6), pp. 8-13, 46.
Wagner, E. D. (1994). In support of a functional definition of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 8 (2), pp. 6-29.
About the Author