Social Presence. Overcompensate.

The standout lestaylor photo on flickr

I’ve been reading much about the impact of social presence in online learning environments. Essentially, I understand the concept to mean that one must feel seen and be seen by others in an environment if collaboration and communication can happen. In a constructivist online learning environment, social presence is absolutely essential for interaction to happen.

What does it take to project social presence in an online environment? Why should we bother? I’ve seen first hand what a failure to establish social presence causes. I unsuccessfully implemented an ongoing, online professional development opportunity for some teachers of adult ESL students. The teachers were hoping to learn how to use social media in their their classrooms. What better way for them to learn than to actually use a CMS that mimics social media, in this case Schoology?

Guess what!? They didn’t trust the environment or the facilitation, so they refused to build their profile pages or blog. Not surprisingly, there was not much collaborative learning. I’ve felt fairly frustrated by the experience for some time. What would I do differently? First, I think I’d start smaller. Several of these teachers were new to even email. Perhaps a listserv would have seemed a smaller step. Though harder to assert social presence in such a medium, research suggests that it’s not impossible (Lowenthal, in press). Second, I think I would do more modeling. I posted once every week to show them how to do it. I think once every day would have been better.

The experience showed me how hard it is for some people to put themselves out there. When I think about my own efforts to establish social presence in my online courses, I often feel like I’m constructing a new identity that is representative of but not exactly who I am. I do this by deciding what photos to post or which information to share. I trust that others in the community will accept these presentations/offerings and somehow that will begin to establish the trust necessary for collaborative learning. It does take some getting used to.

Lowenthal, P. R. (n.d.). The evolution and influence of social presence theory on online learning. Online education and adult learning: New fronties for teaching practices, 1–30.

Collaboration – Stop the Madness!

I just watched this video from RSA Animate about how old models of education fail today’s learners. It’s awesome to see ideas from research spring forth in a wonderfully engaging media format!

Much has been written on the the social/political priorities that have shaped American schooling (Grumet, 1988; Kliebard, 2004; Lortie, 1975). Schooling was rapidly expanded and made mandatory in post-Civil War America to shape a citizenry equipped to work in an Industrial Age. Social efficiency was the unifying value and school was meant to sort and then reinforce one’s position in the new post-agrarian economy. Ken Robinson’s suggestion that this value yet remains, as reflected in the relatively unchanged educational structures, is a shared belief among many educators, and one that I agree with. Though I’m not sure what to think of his ideas about ADHD diagnosis and how that relates to antiquated educational structures, I do agree that there is more to distract learners today. A model that likely felt constricting in an earlier era with fewer demands on time and attention has even less chance of feeling relevant today.

I love his extension of this observation with his reflections on collaboration and learning. When I think about persistence studies of adult learners there is much to suggest that cohort matters. Effective support provided by working in collaboration is important (Seversen et al. 1994); however, even more significant is the potential for learning in a Constructivist approach, where learners actively construct knowledge rather than passively receiving it (Cunningham & Duffy, 1996). Such an approach, whether in a classroom or an online learning environment is not so easily accomplished in what Lortie (1975) calls “egg carton” classrooms.

I’m going to share this video whenever I can!

Grumet. (1988). Pedagogy for patriarchy: the feminization of teaching. In Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching. Boston: University of Massechusetts Press.

Kliebard, H. (2004). The Struggle for the American Curriculum. The Struggle for the American Curriculum (Third.). New York: Routedge/Palmer.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: a sociological study. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Severson, D., Helsing, D., Kegan, R., Broderick, M., & Portnow, K. (1994). The power of a cohort and of collaborative groups. Focus on Basics, 5(B), 15–22.

CMS for Equity

I’ve been working to support both learners and teachers the field of adult basic education better use technology to support learning. My motivation for this work is what I recognize in the disparity in technology use and access between people educated, well-employed people and most ABE learners. We’re living in a tech-rich world where people with means and know-how leverage it to gain access to knowledge, support academic goals, gain employment, and efficiently handle life tasks. Most of our learners don’t use technology is this way, nor do a great number of their teachers.

The status quo further exacerbates inequity stemming from other places. To mitigate this reality, we need to transition our learners to more intuitive use of technology. That means first giving them access to well-developed quality and level-appropriate online learning. When accessed in a supportive environment, this sort of learning will help them develop skills needed to succeed academically, and perhaps begin to turn to online resources in other contexts.

If this is to happen, online learning needs to be very carefully constructed. Although it is possible for most any ABE student to learn online if given proper balance amongst skill, support, and the environment (Silver-Pacquilla and Reder, 2008), I think much more time and resources can be devoted to that learning if the environment is great.

Yang and Cornelius (2005) write that online instructors need to be instructional designers. The work, then, starts with use of a sound Content Management System (CMS), one with intuitively designed affordances provided to enable collaborative e-learning. Here’s a short list of what I’d want in a CMS:

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Flexible and easy to manipulate navigation and page management

Flexible permission and role assignment

Healthy support community and prompt fee-based tech support (if needed)

Generally easy to use:

  • Easily customizable
  • Site set up wizard
  • Drag-n-drop content
  • Image resizing
  • Wysiswyg editor
  • Only very limited coding required, if any at all.
  • Preview

Useful, built-in applications that support collaboration/interaction

  • Blog
  • Chat
  • Discussion
  • Document manager
  • Calendar
  • My page
  • Photo gallery
  • Quiz/test maker
  • Site search
  • Polls
  • Announcements

Without such affordances I can’t image developing an inviting collaborative learning environment. My ability to creatively use them will, of course, matter more. I need to make a space where learners are enticed to stay awhile and return soon – one with clear, well organized pages, minimal text, easy navigation, and the possibility of collaboration.  Tall order!

Silver-Pacquilla, H., & Reder, S. (2008). Investigating the language and literacy skills required for independent online learning. Washington DC.

Yang, Y., Development, W., & Cornelious, L. F. (2005). Preparing instructors for quality online instruction. Online Journal of Distance Learning AdministrationVIII(1), 1–15.

The Great Potential of Online Learning

What impact do you believe online learning will have on education in the future?

I think about the answer to the question above in terms of the potential of online learning to address issues of equity and learning in US public schools. Have you read Disrupting Class by Christensen, Horn, & Johnson (2011)? The book is a both an analysis of why technology use, including online learning, in public education in the US has failed to be transformative, while being a potential solution to the problems of modern public schools. It is also a description of what it would take for this to happen.

Christensen, et al. apply a business model called “disruptive innovation” to the issue of technology use in schools and suggest that technology will never play a role in mitigating problems of equity unless we stop trying to paste it into our current models of education. Instead, they suggest, we need to look at where there is demand (where schools fail to meet service needs) and use technology as an alternative there.  Here are some examples from the book:

  • Students who need to take AP classes in schools where there are not enough students to offer an entire traditional class could learn online
  • Classrooms where there is not enough attention paid to diverse learning styles of students could bring in online opportunities for students to learn through games, project-based learning, and access to media rich resources.

I buy the argument that online learning cannot reach its potential if it is placed, in Christensen’s words, “in competition” with the status quo. It is initially cheaper and much easier to avoid change. I think there is some evidence that disruptive innovation is creeping in.  The gradual increase in MOOCs is one. Students can have access not only to expertise at institutions they could not previously “attend” but also have the opportunity to develop academic and professional networks with like-minded learners. This opens up countless future opportunities of learning.  Second, in 2010 the Obama administration released a National Education Technology Plan, which calls on educators to embrace innovation and empower students to take control of their own learning.  It demands leveraging technology to connect to resources beyond the classroom and to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors (Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology, 2010 – executive summary here[PDF]).

We’re on the right track, but must tread carefully. I think there is a great potential for access to online learning and other technologies that enhance learning to become yet another privilege available to the privileged.  Instead, the potential impact of online learning to enhance education should be fostered where it is truly disruptive innovation – the most underfunded public schools, where our current education models are falling short.

Christensen, C. M., Horn, M. B., & Johnson, C. W. (2011). Disrupting class: how disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns (2nd ed.). McGraw Hill.

Transforming American education: Learning powered by technology. (2010). Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. Washington DC. Retrieved from