Sunday, October 01, 2006

Online Community

Day Two (Friday) of the Beyond Boundaries Conference in Grand Forks. Rena Palloff and Keith Pratt provided a keynote titled “Online Learning Communities Revisited.”

I missed the start of the session but I’ve seen them present several times so I’m not so sure that I missed anything new or fresh. They talked about developing a sense of community through five major elements: 1) Interaction/ Communication, 2) Reflection/ Transformative Learning, 3) Technology, 4) Social/ Constructivist Context, and 5) Presence.

So here’s the problem: educators talk about this issue quite a bit and believe that developing a sense of community for online learners is super important. Apparently they’re not listening to the students, because the students DON’T CARE!! If they are listening to the students, then they must be assuming that the STUDENTS ARE WRONG! They (the students) must be wrong, right? Because we can’t be wrong; we’re the teachers, we’re the smart ones, and therefore we know what’s best for them even if they don’t get it.

But what if we’re the ones who are wrong? What if developing a sense of online community really isn’t important. Maybe we should slow down and consider how many communities the typical online student already belongs to. Many of them are adult learners and already have interactive communities with 1) family members, 2) friends and neighbors, 3) co-workers (often at more than one job), 4) maybe church or something like that, 5) personal interests such as sports, or scrap booking, or PTA, or whatever. Most of us have more communities than we can possibly keep up with. Do we really need (or want) one more?

This is what I expect to hear as a resounding retort from other educators: “Educational community should be the most important one – students should get rid of some of the others!”
They will likely make “SOME” time for your online community building, but not much. Stop obsessing over it. And we probably won’t ever make them value it more highly, or as much as we do – so get over it!

In closing, I should provide some evidence about why I maintain that students don’t care (much) about online community. We gather student satisfaction data using the Noel-Levitz Priorities Survey for Online Learners (PSOL). The PSOL results from the past three years have indicated a great deal of indifference to questions about this. Question 7 on the PSOL says: “Student-to-student collaborations are valuable to me.” The national Importance Score from over 15,000 online students in 2005 was 5.09 and it was 5.16 in 2006 (trending upward?) on a 7-point scale. This is by far the lowest Importance score of the 26 items on the PSOL. The next-to-last item on the importance scale both years was question 24. “Tutoring services are readily available for online courses” where the score was 5.51 (2005) and 5.58 (2006). That importance difference (.42) between the lowest score and next lowest score is by far the largest difference of any of the 26 items … in other words, this is far less important to students than the other 25 items on the survey.

Additionally, at LSC we asked the following extra question in each of those years: “I feel a sense of community or belonging through the LSC Virtual Campus.” The importance score was 5.16 (2005) and 5.50 (2006). Again, his was lower than all other questions in importance (except for question 8 above). For comparison purposes, most of the survey items have an importance score of over 6.0. Basically, this data tells me that in the grand scheme of things, online students don’t place much weight on community and student-to-student interaction. But of course they’re wrong about that.

1 comment:

Jim Gaston said...

Thank you for this post. It's a great example of something that I think is intrinsic to human nature - not just among educators. If it's important to me, then it must be important to you (and if not, then there must be something wrong with you). The only way to get around it is to actually listen to our students. The poll results you cited are very interesting.

Keep up the blogging - I appreciate your perspective (even though I'm a Blackboard admin).