Networking in the field of online learning, I’ve come across people and organizations who embrace the idea of online teaching, but only for certain “kinds” of learning, believing online learning takes a back seat to face-to-face teaching. I disagree, having experienced an online graduate program that included a Course Management System (CMS), discussion forums, group projects, multimedia elements and meaningful learning experiences. I believe that I have a solid grasp on the critical components needed to be in place for an effective teaching environment as well as any successful online program. Quite simply, individuals can utilize critical thinking skills and have an enriching learning experience completely online. Success refers to the engagement, interactive environment and community building that occurs with students and professors in the virtual environment and how this successfully contributes to effective teaching and learning.
No matter what kind of online implementation, there are three critical elements that every program should incorporate and the first element I’d like to cover is social connectedness or “ambient awareness”. Ambient awareness, a phrase that was coined by Clive Thompson in a NY Times article, described online technologies as allowing users to quickly and easily give or get information and providing the ability to share it with other people. He believes that use of these technologies can create a feeling of intimacy and community. In a Learning Management System (LMS) or CMS, these tools are embedded in the program and occur frequently through discussion forums, posts, emails, group projects, peer reviews and in social “Café” meeting areas. These ambient tools help users to make connections on a variety of levels and assist in creating the feeling of connectedness, as my personal experience was very enriching and interactive. I felt a deeper connection to my fellow classmates than I would have had in a traditional face-to-face classroom environment and it even continues in an alumni online community! My learning in the program was a result of an interactive experience both with the content and classmates as well as established communication network between classmates and professors. This network gave us the ability to reflect, synthesize, integrate and apply our knowledge in a much more productive way than where the professor is just transmitting material in a top down approach.
On the flip side, some educators are reluctant to embrace the online environment because they feel it cannot possibly provide meaningful relationships and feel that online learners may become isolated. This doesn’t make sense when you take into account that in today’s world, most college students are already proficient in using social networking tools and forming relationships online using Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and Second Life. In a report released by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE), it showed that 95% of students ages 18-24 and 68% of older students use social networking tools. The survey found increased student levels of engagement with academic content by those using social media multiple times a day. By mirroring what students are doing in their real life social networks and incorporating ambient tools or the framework of these tools into online learning, it will help to create meaningful experiences that will enhance the program and assist in creating social connectedness and an online community.