Social Places in Virtual Spaces: Creating a Social Learning Community in Online Courses

By Bolduc-Simpson, Sheila; Simpson, Mark | Distance Learning, May 1, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Social Places in Virtual Spaces: Creating a Social Learning Community in Online Courses


Bolduc-Simpson, Sheila, Simpson, Mark, Distance Learning


INTRODUCTION

Effective face-to-face (F2F) classroom discussions are those in which learners discover and explore dissonance or inconsistency among themselves. The learners are the ones asking and answering the questions with the instructors serving as guides on the side. Proposed new knowledge is being tested against existing cognitive schema, the learners' personal experiences, or other sources as learners negotiate meaning. Laughter emanates from these noisy discussions and as the semester progresses, friendships are formed.

From the fast-paced spontaneity of F2F discussions, how can instructors make the shift to the written mode of an asynchronous discussion forum (ADF) in their online classes and be successful? Where is the noise, the laughter, and the socializing in an ADF? Can ADFs be structured in a way that learners will feel a sense of belonging to a learning community?

Although Garrison and Cleveland-Innes (2005) explain that there are three main components for meaningful learning to take place in computer mediated discussions - cognitive presence, teacher presence, and social presence - this paper focuses solely on the last. The purpose, then, of this action research study is to examine the role that social presence plays in asynchronous discussion forums in creating a sense of belonging in an online course. The authors suggest ways to increase social presence and interaction in online courses through the use of an informally structured discussion forum. In their case, the forum is titled the Anything Else Cafe. The structure of the Anything Else Cafe simulates, to an extent, what occurs in traditional F2F classrooms. The authors also discuss the limitations of this method. The following question guided the study: Can informally structured asynchronous discussion forums be helpful for students in creating a sense of belonging in a social learning community?

Social presence is defined as "the ability of participants in a community of inquiry to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to the other participants as 'real people'" (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 1999, p. 89). Creating a sense of community in which social interaction can occur is a major concern in the design and delivery of ADFs, not only with instructors but also with students. F2F classroom discussions seem to have the advantage of more personal interaction. In a F2F class, social interaction might take place through formal class discussions, before and after class, or in whispered asides to a nearby student. In an ADF, there are no pre- or postclass chats, nor are there any whispered asides to establish a social presence among the members of the group. Therefore, it is important that within the actual discussion forum similar such social interactions be permitted to take place. The incorporation of social presence in the ADF can promote greater understanding of course material and different points of view. Friendly exchanges of opinion can reflect a strong social presence (Peterson & Caverly, 2006). ADFs that are designed specifically for students to have these social exchanges may offer opportunities for students to feel they are part of a social community.

ONLINE COMMUNITIES AND SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM

Social-constructivist pedagogies are defined by their social interaction. In distance learning, this interaction is always mediated. It is thought to be an integral component of quality distance learning (Garrison, 1997). Being a participant in a community is a vital component of the educational process. In that process of learning, meaning is negotiated in a collaborative and social environment (Barab & Duffy, 2000).

Anderson and Dron (2011) note that there has been much research on the value of creating social presence in both synchronous and asynchronous models of education. However, the more immersive technologies, such as Second Life, can provide the social enhancements that are not available in traditional synchronous and asynchronous forums.

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Social Places in Virtual Spaces: Creating a Social Learning Community in Online Courses
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