Hawkins, A., Graham, C. R., & Barbour, M. K. (2012). “Everybody is their own Island”: Teacher disconnection in a virtual school.The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 13(2), 123-144.
The authors note that a factor in the growth of synchronous online learning in the US is recent research that online instruction is as effective as face-to-face learning. Hawkins, Graham and Barbour acknowledge that the online environment requires new teacher roles, responsibilities, and teaching and learning strategies. In their study, teachers had to assume greater managerial and technical roles to solve problems and encourage participation. Constant feedback was central to student motivation. In addition, teachers had the added pressure of facilitating the social environment as well.
The research explored the experiences and perceptions of teachers at Utah’s Electronic High school (EHS). They had access to a wide range of personal development opportunities, including multiple face-to-face workshops and online webinars. A major theme that emerged was disconnection from students. The absence of physical cues and lack of responsiveness meant teachers found it difficult to gauge the level of understanding. It was also difficult to “reach out and engage” the students (p. 133). In addition, teachers at EHS tended to limit social interactions as they saw them as a distraction and not something the students actually want. Somewhat contradictorily, they also often struggled to build a rapport with students, which sometimes led to student disengagement.
Another finding was that teachers felt disconnected from the traditional role of teacher and “more like someone standing on the sidelines ready to offer support when asked” (p. 137). They felt frustration that they connected with the content but not with the individual students. They also felt disconnected from their teaching colleagues as they were less accessible if not a close physical community. They concluded that new ways need to be established for sharing best practice.
This is a well-structured research article written in an international refereed e-journal. The case study was based at secondary level rather than a tertiary environment, which limits the generability of the findings. In addition, there was little distinction between synchronous and non-synchronous environments. Some of the findings were paradoxical or contradictory, in that teachers felt frustrated at the level of contact with individuals yet tended to limit the degree of social interaction. However, there were also some interesting findings around the level of disconnection that teachers feel with online learning that would also be relevant in my tertiary context.
Something that could be useful when implementing an online teaching innovation is the Community of Inquiry (COI) framework to articulate the importance of teacher presence, cognitive presence and social presence. For effective online learning, the quality of teacher-student interactions is measured through clear expectations, group collaboration, productive discourse, and meaningful feedback.