interactions with the computer system that delivers the course (computer
immediacy). Collectively, these sources constitute instructional immediacy
and Whitten found that learning could be motivated through social incentives
(e.g., approval for good behavior, expressions of interest in the student)
or status incentives that recognize or otherwise enhance learners’ status.
The “immediacy mechanism is enactive if it results from the interaction
between a specific individual learner and one of the other agencies present
in the classroom. Immediacy is vicarious if it operates through the observation
of other learners as they interact” (p. 336).
the communal scaffold gives instructors a “heightened” view, or “birds-eye”
look at the online classroom. Multiple interpersonal connections with individual
learners and groups of learners, whether the result of direct participation
in or indirect (vicarious) observation of social activities (to be described
in detail below), lets instructors isolate individualize needs and customize
communication to address a range of learning styles and socio-cultural
variables. Instructors can “scale the heights” of the classroom on the
support provided by student self-disclosure, personal experience, and interpersonal
reciprocity to determine special needs that may be present among learners.
In this way, the communal scaffold functions as a diagnostic tool that
helps instructors assess learner capabilities and/or disabilities.
that the scaffolding model has been presented in the context of community
building in an online educational environment, the next sections focus
on how to actually build it using various online and offline strategies.
We call these basic communication tools Community Building Activities
(CBAs). They are reliable, easy-to-incorporate strategies with observable
benefits that are common fare in most online learning environments.
Strategies for Communal Scaffolding
Personal discussion folders are gathering
places created within web-based educational platforms where personalized
threaded discussions between participants in online courses may occur.
Instructors are encouraged to begin their online experience by creating
a place for students to create a personal profile or "electronic personality"
1996, pp. 119-120) and build an initial sense of “community” or togetherness
& Ebersole, 2003). These places might be titled "Autobiographies"
or "Introductions." In any case, they are places where inferences or "impressions"
about another learner's personality, traits and values may be formed. Personal
discussion folders let students reduce uncertainty and process social information
about others by asking questions in a primarily textual setting where the
number of communication cues (both verbal and nonverbal) is greatly reduced
& Burgoon, 1992). Students can take advantage of this cue reduction
as well as the asynchronous nature of computer-mediated communication--which
includes the extended time to compose messages and the ability to edit
them before transmission--and create optimal presentations of "self" in
ways that suit them (Walther, 1996).
This occurs not only in socially-oriented online activities, but also in
decision-making groups and business communication. The hyperpersonal communication
perspective was born out of the realization that given the nature of online
interaction, participants over time could actually exceed the level of
affection and emotion of parallel face-to-face interaction (Walther
& Burgoon, 1992, p. 17).
and Dunham's (2001) Information Processing Theory explains the type
of communication that may occur in these personal discussion folders and
how they might help to build social networks among learners. Hancock and
Dunham observe that impression formation occurs in computer-mediated communication
(CMC) in much the same way as it occurs in face-to-face communication.
Results of their study indicated that impressions formed in CMC environments
were less detailed but stronger than those formed as a result of face-to-face
interactions. Impressions may be stronger, according to Pratt
and colleagues (1999), because CMC participants ask more questions
aimed at getting at the "inner self" of the other person than participants
in face-to-face interactions. Thus, online students interacting through
personal discussion folders may eventually develop stronger reactions to
others, even though those reactions are based on a relatively small amount
of information and may take a slightly longer time to form.
refers to the extent to which selected verbal and nonverbal communication
behaviors enhance intimacy in interpersonal communication (Mehrabian,
1969) and "reduce perceived distance between people" (Thweatt
& McCroskey, 1996, p. 198). Several studies demonstrate the power
of instructor immediacy in creating a greater sense of classroom community
among learners. To some degree, each of the online CBAs in this section
is designed to foster a certain level of immediacy among participants in
the online classroom.
Responding to email or threaded discussion
in a timely manner is one way to be immediate. In one study, instructor
immediacy in feedback was the strongest predictor of learning--both affective
and cognitive learning--among students (Baker,
2000). In another study, "students felt that the lack of immediate
feedback in the online portion of the course was discouraging and contributed
to their limited participation in the online discussions" (Vrasidas
& McIsaac, 1999, p. 33). Note that instructor immediacy in response
to student communication may even be experienced "vicariously" as learners
observe it while interacting with other students in group discussions.
Verbal immediacy behaviors such as asking
questions in dialogue or initiating discussion, addressing individual students
by name, using personal examples or talking about experiences outside of
class (Gorham, 1988) may be used by online
instructors in a variety of formats to increase psychological closeness
among learners. Nonverbal immediacy behaviors include tone of voice and
inflection and emoticons. Emoticons are graphic accents or textualized
icons created by a series of standard keyboard characters combined to produce
a picture (e.g., :-) ). Thompsen
and Foulger (1996) found that the use of emoticons reduced reader perception
of anger (i.e., flaming) in email messages. Turkle
(1995) explained that such keystroke combinations replace nonverbal
cues such as physical gestures and facial expressions used in face-to-face
settings to foster immediacy (Andersen,
Andersen & Jensen, 1979), thus placing online communication somewhere
in between traditional written (textual) and oral communication (p. 183).
Indeed, the research has indicated that online communicants compensate
for the lack of such nonverbal cues and physical presence by encoding verbal
intimacy cues in the textual messages to convey affect (e.g., Gunawardena,
& Zittle, 1997).
of the most basic, but often underestimated, online CBAs used to build
connectedness among learners revolves around participation in required
group discussion formats. Threaded dialogue can help to build a foundation
upon which a more elaborate communal structure or social network can be
built. Planned dialogue related to course content introduces students to
one another at a cognitive level. Feeling "safe" to express one's views
is an important part of building community. Safety is further enhanced
by establishing early on in the course rules for appropriate exchanges
within required discussion folders.
is well established that online learners desire both relational and personal
interaction and a learning environment that welcomes alternative or opposing
views (Blum, 1999). Instructors should
therefore be careful to observe their "voices" to make sure that they don't
shut down or silence opportunities for debate by eliminating alternative
ways of viewing the issues at hand. Along the way, instructors must resist
the desire to play "expert" or be perceived as the "final word" on any
issue. Faculty must become comfortable with playing the part of "provocateur"
instead of "academician" (Parker, 1999, p.
16), concentrating more on leading discussion and promoting collaborative
learning and less on lectures and assessment (Young,
it's all right for instructors to critically challenge ideas, it is recommended
that they avoid accusatory language or leading questions that indicate
their biases. Gorham (1988) found that
nonimmediacy behaviors include such items as "criticizes or points out
faults in students' work, actions or comments" (p. 44). Instead, effective
facilitators use concrete and descriptive language in their replies to
students. Effective facilitators also encourage and model personal expression,
whether through nicknames, emoticons, or other types of interpersonal communication
1998; Walther, 1996). Often it
is best to begin a reply to a student's post with a positive comment before
critically addressing other matters. As noted earlier, using the student's
first name is another way to build immediacy and social presence (e.g.,
Gorham, 1988) before providing specific feedback or correction.
synchronous "virtual office hours" or other times for "live chat" related
to course content matters helps instructors to connect with some students
in ways that email or voicemail can not. And even though live chat is still
a textual exchange, it helps to reduce perceived interaction difficulty
and distance associated with time-independent posting and replying (Arbuagh,
2000). Live chats may even be archived and reviewed by others in the
class at a later time.
Moreover, students like the quick response time
that live chat provides. It adds strength to the immediacy that mimics
real-time conversational give-and-take in face-to-face exchanges. And just
as in real-time, face-to-face office sessions, live chats let instructors
model a more informal, personal style of textual interaction. This style,
in turn, may enhance students' perceptions of instructors being expressive/warm
and generally involved--two communication behaviors identified by Guerrero
and Miller (1998) as being positively associated with impressions of
instructor immediacy, instructor competence and course content.
there's a very real sense in which live chat heightens "the degree of salience
of the other person in the interaction" (Short,
Williams & Christie, 1976, p. 65). Put another way, live chat may
enhance an instructor's co-presence with students in ways that asynchronous
discussion can not. Students participating in live chat may perceive the
instructor as "more real" than those who don't participate in such communication.
As one student in one of our classes remarked, "it's like we're really
together even though we’re not."
Some instructors have used audio messages
(as a supplement to text) as e-mail attachments to build student/faculty
relationships and a sense of online community (Woods
& Keeler, 2001). Others include video welcomes, use videocams for
live chat sessions, or send personal video clips as email attachments to
create intimacy. Audio/video elements can introduce additional communication
cues in the online learning process that have been positively associated
with immediacy in face-to-face settings. In this sense, using audio and/or
video allows instructors to address some of the concerns highlighted by
the "cues-filtered-out" perspective, which explains how certain audible
(actual words spoken, tone, accents, paralinguistic cues) and visual channels
(attire, facial expressions, kinesics and psychophysiological responses)
are filtered out in CMC (Kiesler,
Siegel, & McGuire, 1984; Hiltz
& Turoff, 1993).
A variation of the audio/video message
as email attachment is the PowerPoint slide with recorded narration. Some
instructors add personal photographs or other personalized graphics to
the slide. As instructors we've found that our tone of voice can be used
to set the right mood for future communication. It becomes a perceptual
framework through which subsequent communication (whether textual or otherwise)
is filtered. Articulation and clarity have been associated with positive
impressions of instructor competence and course content (Guerrero
& Miller, 1998).
Another way to connect with students and
build social networks is to send personalized email outside of regular
class time or required course discussion. Personalized email might be used
to encourage a student who made a solid contribution in one of the required
discussion fora. Again, as with live chat, personalized email are pro-social
behaviors that help to create the impression that we are expressive/warm
and generally involved in ways that seem almost “extra-textual,” if you
will. As instructors, we use personalized email regularly. The messages
are usually two to three sentences long and include general words of encouragement,
caring or support. Personalized email may even be used to check up on someone
who doesn't appear to be as active in discussion as others. One study demonstrated
that sending as few as three personal emails throughout the semester can
enhance students' sense of online community and overall satisfaction with
the online learning experience (Woods, 2002).
Updates and Feedback
can send weekly updates with a checklist of items that students can use
to guide their time and study. As mentioned above, if instructors include
the update on a PowerPoint slide they can add audio narration with little
effort. Such updates may even increase students' perceptions of high degrees
of faculty interaction. In addition to a few slides that include content
review, many instructors often include slides that keep students looking
ahead to next week's work. As part of regular updates many instructors
even include an occasional humorous cartoon or illustration related to
course content or classroom procedures. Humor has been positively related
to instructor immediacy behaviors and the amount and type of humor has
been demonstrated to influence learning outcomes (Gorham
& Christophel, 1990; Christensen
& Menzel, 1998; Menzel
& Carrell, 1999; Comeaux, 1995).
Instructors may also provide detailed feedback
on assignments to create immediacy and enhance cognitive learning. Richmond,
McCroskey, Kearney, and Plax (1987) found that pro-social behaviors
such as immediate reward and teacher feedback were positively associated
with cognitive learning. Hackman
and Walker (1990) found that "Off-campus students felt as though they
learned more when their instructor provided them with specific feedback
on individual work through comments on papers, oral discussion or some
other means" (p. 202). Instructors may even provide feedback to students
about their participation levels (De
Verneil & Berge, 2000) in ways that enhance intimacy and extend
who are effective at building social networks create a separate private
area for students apart from general class discussion. Some instructors
create a "cyber study room" where previously assigned discussion groups
can meet apart from required discussion formats for informal chat. This
is the same idea as the personal discussion folders mentioned earlier,
but for students only. This is a space that the instructor may not enter
unless invited. Such private areas--apart from the instructor's watchful
eye--allow more opportunities for "hyperpersonal communication" (Walther,
1997) and relationship-building, which further enhance the robustness
of the social network within the online classroom. The Hyperpersonal Communication
perspective recognizes "unique affordances of the medium that allow users
to achieve more favorable impressions and greater levels of intimacy than
those in parallel FtF activities" (p. 348).
Strategies for Communal Scaffolding
efforts to build social networks, when carefully integrated with the learning
objectives of the course, can greatly enhance students' experiences. Known
variously as experiential learning or contextual learning, constructivist
approaches to learning that emphasize practical application and sensory
experience (Gergen, 1995; Salomon
& Perkins, 1998) are increasingly being called upon to enhance
the text-heavy focus in online learning. Offline strategies provide a balance
for students who may become frustrated with what they perceive to be too
much "talk about theories" or just “too much talk” in general, textually
offline strategies provide opportunities for students to engage in experiential
learning while they build relationships with people outside of the classroom
setting. The relationships that are formed with colleagues, professionals
and members of the community have value not only from the perspective of
social networking, but they can be important connections to the kind of
real-world experiences that students need to construct knowledge (Parks-Dolaz,
1990). Students engaged in community projects or working side-by-side
with professionals frequently find the human connection that allows them
to wed theory and practice in ways that didn't make sense before.
Although most understand internships and
apprenticeships, service learning may be less familiar. Service learning
is practical application of knowledge and learning by working on community-based
Petrides & Pratt, 1995). Frequently associated with volunteer service
projects, service learning allows student participants to practice interpersonal
relationships and caring for others. This expression of caring, which is
demonstrated through practical community service, is a return to the activism
of earlier decades, but with a decidedly modern, or should we say postmodern,
sensibility. Students might apply their skills and training to solve a
problem that might otherwise remain unsolved, and in so doing forge friendships
and relationships that enrich their lives (Weiler,
et al., 1998; Root,
et al., 2002).
Trips, Field Trips and On-site Experiences
sense of community can often be enhanced by finding a reason to take an
online class "on the road." By this we mean that instructors can
foster community online by visiting a place or event offline where there
is opportunity for practical application of the classroom theory. For instance,
we recently took a small group of students to a distant city for a day-long
seminar that was being sponsored by a professional organization. The experience
of overcoming a common adversity, in this case meeting at 5:45 am in order
to get to the seminar by 8 am, and the camaraderie experienced during the
2 hour drive (each way) contributed to the development of relationships.
The experience of sharing a meal on the trip home was another opportunity
for relationships to be strengthened. Learning experiences from the road
trip can later be incorporated in a classroom or online discussion. Specific
course discussion areas, for instance, may be created to provide a place
for attendees to discuss the experiences they had "on the road."
A variation of this offline CBA can be
initiated by students who live outside the instructor's geographic region,
which is the usual case for most online students. Students can meet a faculty
member or other students at a conference or professional organization.
We often notify our students when we will be at a conference in their location.
We tell them that we would like to get together for lunch or have them
join us at the conference. Some out-of-state students even take the initiative
to contact us when they will be in our area for a professional or personal
engagement. We go out of our way in those cases to make the F2F meeting
Some programs use this strategy during
the summer prior to the first fall semester of classes. Online students
meet F2F on campus for an intensive two to three week class session in
early August. Individuals are assigned to small groups on the basis of
personality inventories that are administered shortly after enrollment
into the program (Calderwood, 1999).
Students share meals together, attend conferences, work on group assignments,
and attend classes together. Students usually report feeling a strong sense
of community with others following such meetings. Cohort activities greatly
increase retention rates and reports of overall satisfaction with the learning
experience. They also serve as an excellent communal foundation that can
be built upon by instructors in subsequent online courses
& Tisdell, 1996).
Another variation of this strategy is a
cohort or class meeting within an individual class. In one instance we
held a class meeting half way through the semester at a local coffee house.
Students in the immediate area (and some as far as two - three hours away)
attended the meeting. Upon return to our regularly scheduled online activities,
we observed a measurable change in the depth of reflection in posts/replies
to our discussion questions. We had fewer late papers and "absences" as
this may seem simplistic or obvious to some, online instructors and students
often overlook phone calls as a way to overcome the textual dominance of
learning in cyberspace. It is surprising what a personal phone call can
do to enhance a sense of connectedness. In one distance education study,
off-campus students felt as though they learned more when their instructor
used phone calls to express caring and provide specific feedback (Hackman
& Walker, 1990).
the phone might arguably be seen as an "online" strategy (especially in
light of growing voice-over-IP services), since it is more personal, more
familiar, and less technologically complex than computer-mediated communication,
we've chosen to treat it as an "off-line" strategy. Besides, those on the
receiving end, regardless of the originators source, will most always be
using a traditional hand-held unit. And because phones are important social
tools that are part of the American fabric, communication by phone is often
perceived as less task-related than, say, email.
how do we contribute to the kind of communal infrastructure that builds
connectedness and promotes learning in online courses? How do we transform
a dialogue of texts into a community of learners characterized by intimacy
and interconnectedness? Perhaps the starting place is to recognize that
a positive social dynamic requires intentionality--that is, community online
just doesn't happen but is created through the intentional use of a variety
of verbal and nonverbal communication cues. Or perhaps we begin by recognizing
that there are no shortcuts to developing community. In other words, it
takes time, and there is no substitute for time spent in communication
with others--whether online or offline. Of course, time alone is insufficient.
The time spent with classmates and with the instructor must be structured
in such a way that enhances the all-important transfer of intellectual
and emotional capital.
online and offline strategies presented herein are an effort to overcome
some of the inherent challenges that face a learning environment comprised
primarily of threaded textual exchanges. Online and offline community-building
strategies may be used to foster relationships among learners and enhance
students' perception of faculty-student interaction. Perception
of interaction is critical for effective online learning. As Clow
(1999), Phillips and
Peters (1999), Roblyer (1999)
and Hacker and
Wignall (1997) demonstrated, a student's perception of sufficient
interaction with instructors and other students is positively correlated
with his level of satisfaction with the overall online learning experience.
While much of
the recent research has been exploring ways to improve online communication,
it is almost always undertaken with the assumption that online communication
begins at a disadvantage to offline, or face-to-face (F2F), communication.
But as discussed above, online education does more than merely replicate
the F2F classroom experience. For instance, the “grammar” of CMC encourages
online students to create optimal presentations of "self" in any way that
suits them (Walther, 1996). Moreover,
CMC participants ask more questions designed to understand the "inner self"
of the other person than participants in face-to-face interactions (Hancock
& Dunham, 2001; Pratt,
et al., 1999). Thus, even though many traditional verbal and nonverbal
communication cues are filtered-out in the online setting, the very nature
of CMC may foster deeper, more long-term social commitments among learners
online than learners in F2F settings. Future researchers should continue
to explore the ways in which such intense, long-term commitments may be
leveraged to maximize cognitive learning benefits. The ways in which social
dynamics in the online classroom are better than, or at least different
from, social dynamics in F2F educational settings should also be explored.
becoming a more effective “social network-builder” in online courses requires
precise definitions and measurements of “community.” Although several attempts
to more fully define community (e.g., Gergen
1991; Jones, 1995; Shell,
1995; and Pratt, 1996) and measure
it (Rovai & Lucking,
2000; Rovai, 2002, McAlister,
2000) in the online setting have moved us much closer to our goal,
much work is left to be done. Toward this end, more systematic investigation
of students’ experiences with online and offline CBAs may determine, for
instance, which online CBAs are perceived as most effective or what combination
of online and offline strategies produce the greatest benefits in terms
of connectedness and reported sense of community among learners.
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