In my previous post, we explored how the technology that facilitates online education has been useful in helping students build relationships with each other. But with the lack of “social cues” like body language and voice intonation in things like discussion board conversations, it may cause one to wonder just what it is that makes communication work in online learning communities.
It’s important to note that social cues are still present in the online environment, just in different forms. In all aspects of computer mediated communication, people incorporate meaningful nuances into straight text with the use of parenthetical statements, vocal spelling, and creative use of capitalization and punctuation. This kind of “paralanguage” is key in clear communication among classmates.
Responses or non-responses to asynchronous discussion posts can also be perceived as social cues. If a student perceives that others are waiting for her response to a discussion board post, it may translate to a feeling of greater engagement with peers in the course. For others, however, knowing that classmates are waiting for a response may cause anxiety over perceived rudeness or lack of interest.
There are other components unique to asynchronous course discussions that can, it can be asserted, make online learning more beneficial than traditional classroom learning. For example, the perceived anonymity that online communication provides actually encourages people to disclose more information about themselves than they would in a face-to-face setting.
If students feel more comfortable sharing their opinions and experiences with one another, the learning experience is naturally enhanced.
Online courses also have an inherent tendency to stimulate curiosity, as they allow for more reflection and thought about a particular topic/idea under consideration. When online learners are asked a question, especially one they don’t have the answer to, they have the opportunity of turning a potentially frustrating situation into a meaningful learning experience by investigating the question on their own. Forms of active learning, such as discussion boards and chats, are conducive to helping students practically apply the knowledge they acquire in their courses to their assignments.
This is especially true for non-native English speakers. The use of online discussion boards gives ESL students the chance to take a more active role in debates since they not only possess a means of active learning, but also have a mechanism for inclusiveness. “By communicating in an online, text-based format, students have an opportunity to check their vocabulary and sentence structure before posting to the board, a confidence booster for those who are new English speakers or those who are just unsure about word choice or syntax.”
So there you have it. Despite many preconceived notions, the asynchronous forms of communication that exist in online education can be just as, or in many ways, more effective than traditional in-person communications. It all, of course, depends on the willingness of instructors and students to foster an atmosphere of community and curiosity, where students can assess each other and collaborate in the development of perspectives.
What are your experiences with communicating in online courses, or in online settings in general? Do you agree that online learning communities can provide rich educational experiences?
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