More Reading around the Virtual Classroom Environment

Karaman, S., Aydemir, M., Kucuk, S., & Yildirim, G. (2013). Virtual classroom participants’ views for effective synchronous education process. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 14(1), 290-301. Retrieved from http://tojde.anadolu.edu.tr/tojde50/index.htm

Description:

In this case study, 20 participants associated with a theology degree programme were interviewed about their virtual classroom (VC) experiences. The aim of the study was to identify the key components that make the VC environment and teaching and learning methods effective.

In this study the common features of the VC included file presentation and screen sharing, chat, audio and video conversation, and whiteboard capabilities. All the VC sessions were supported by technical staff, who installed video and audio materials prior to the sessions and supported the instructor throughout the lesson. All sessions were recorded and subsequently published for students by technical staff.

Analysis of the interviews identified four aspects of the VC environment that were essential to success. Different communication formats were important for interaction between instructor and student, especially for motivation and when clarification was required. The lack of technical stability and technical problems diminished effectiveness, and motivation was linked to the amount and immediacy of technical support. Scheduling of classes must suit students and instructors noted that the typical one-hour classes were not long enough. Finally, students were more motivated when different learning materials from those on their Learning Management System were used, and in different formats. Students wanted video summaries and problems to solve.

The other key component to success is teaching method. Active participation, through questioning techniques as well as problem solving, was an effective motivator. However, some participants wanted specific times for questions so as not to disrupt flow. Even though online, the instructor should express enthusiasm through voice and body movements but should not engage students in ways that could be distracting to others. The material should be related to real-life issues and situations wherever possible to increase motivation. The degree to which the students are prepared before the lesson (ie. previewed the reading material) greatly affects engagement in the VC session.

Evaluation:

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with only 20 participants (8 instructors, 10 students and 2 technical staff), which reduces the ability to generalise the findings. Another limitation was that participants all came from one programme. The focus on the VC teaching environment and methods has identified keys concerns for both instructors and students, as well as highlighting the importance of comprehensive and timely technical support. While the article was light on detail, the qualitative interview approach gives me some insight into the thoughts and feelings of those involved in VC instruction.

Reading Around Research Topic (Annotated Bibliography)

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.

Description:

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.

Evaluation:

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.