Search This Blog

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Welcome back

Once again, it has been some time since I last blogged.  After taking the summer off from all things educational (although I did learn to appreciate Grand Marnier), I will begin my last course toward my degree in adult education.  The course is a full credit so it will run from September through to April and it focuses on literacy in the new media.  Consequently, I will be blogging on a more regular basis as it is a requirement for the course.  But that doesn’t start until Monday – I have a weekend of fishing, cigars and, you guessed it, Grand Marnier, before returning to more studious endeavours.  In the meantime I reviewed my previous posts and realized that there is a bit of story left untold. 

I last blogged while taking a course in evaluating learning. In one of those entries, I spoke about some research that I would be doing concerning evaluating online learning.  Well, I completed that research and, despite some difficulty that I had connecting to the work on a professional level, I became more and more interested as a relatively seasoned student in the online world. 

In the last two decades, the evolution of distance education has been greatly influenced by advances in technology. The Internet in particular, has accelerated the development of learning at a distance so that more than ever before, distance education has become increasingly similar to face-to-face learning.  In fact, through online learning environments, distance education has surpassed the traditional face-to-face classroom in terms of accommodating all types of learners from all types of backgrounds, all but eliminating structural and cultural barriers to participation and promoting an ethos of anyone, anytime, anywhere. Nowhere within the virtual classroom is this ethos more evident than in asynchronous discussion forums.

Asynchronous discussion forums are the tool of choice for bringing learners and teachers together online. They allow learners and teachers to enter the classroom at their leisure, create and post comments and questions, and read and respond to the thoughts of others.  However, online asynchronous discussion is not without its limitations.  Learning is widely accepted as a social endeavour and learners and teachers 'interacting' with one another at times of their individual choosing within a faceless, virtual world would appear at first glance to impede the sociality of learning. 

Now I know that we are living in an asynchronous world.  The pace at which information is made available and expected to be processed has increased dramatically.  Distance education, long viewed as a means to deliver information and knowledge across geographic distance, is changing at a rapid pace as well. With the introduction of the Internet, the distance between learners and teachers has shrunk dramatically.  Learners haven’t necessarily been brought closer to the institution; rather the institution itself has been redefined in cyberspace through virtual learning environments.  Classrooms have been equally redefined via the asynchronous discussion forum. 

While online asynchronous forums represent a wealth of largely untapped evaluative potential, the lack of a unifying theory to guide their study means that a vision of their ideal design and use is still unclear. That said, the scholarly research of education in general has established that social presence and the ability to build a learning community are key contributors to the development of quality learning events. So, the question remains:  how best to evaluate social presence within the online asynchronous discussion? 

Certainly, content analysis appears to show promise.  But the prospect of evaluating the content of pages and pages of discussion transcripts sounds like a mind-numbing endeavour, doesn't it?  The resolution to this problem may be found in one of key contributors to it: technology.  Applications are currently being built and refined to make the analysis of online transcripts easier and  more objective. With a click of a button, online discussion can be analyzed and grades can be assigned for not only person's written contributions to the construction of knowledge but also the construction of a learning community.  But, while technology may aid in the analysis of discussion content, I can't help thinking that it may be equally well-used to address the issue of making asynchronous discussion more socially present in the learning dynamic.

Here is a link to a Prezi that I put together as a tool to present some of my research.