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Blog Posted in avatar   Deborah Popovici's Blog

Strategies for Creating a Social Presence within an Online Adult Learning Environment

By Deborah Popovici
Posted Apr 30, 2012 in Internet
Sunday, April 29, 2012
Joyce and Brown (2009) explained that "faculty who want to extend or further develop relationships with their students may find it easier by accessing the tools used by the students…using tools already familiar with students may mean the difference between instruction and engagement” (par. 19). Such relationship-building appears more successful when employing an increased facility of synchronous communications, the design and inclusion of a forming stage, greater emphasis on the proviso of guidelines for achieving good online communication, and reducing the belief by learners of isolation. Joyce and Brown (2009) further explained that learners fall into two groups: an outsider "who is uncomfortable with the medium being used during the course and is not confident in its use” (par. 26), and an insider who “is comfortable with the medium being used during the course and is confident in its use” (par. 26). As the feeling of community becomes stronger, the feeling of isolation gets weaker. The transition from outsider to insider becomes easier when good communication guidelines are provided to the learners; learner support is paramount in promoting effective online learning (Joyce and Brown, 2009).
Scaffolding “directs the instructor's attention to the need for support in the learning process” (Joyce and Brown, 2009, par. 29), and the media and technologies used for online learning must be included in the support structure, which include learning materials, library resources, and teachers. By systemizing the design of scaffolds useable in many learning environments, a variety of learning concepts such as "goal orientation, adaptability, accessibility, alignment, experiential value, collaboration, constructivism, learning orientation, multiplicity, and granularity" (Joyce and Brown, 2009, par. 31) can be selected, and designed to coincide with the learning situation. The number of social software communication tools are increasing rapidly: podcasts, games, blogs, weblogs, wikis, social networking search engines, social network services, social guides, social bookmarking, social libraries, and peer-to-peer social networks (Joyce and Brown, 2009, par. 34).
Joyce and Brown (2009) presented powerful new strategies for the adult online learner in order to share information, and support a shared community of learning. For example, (1) personal discussion folders (or rooms/forums) are used to more fully discuss a specific topic, and instructors are frequently required to post about 30% of the messages; (2) immediacy, which refers to communications within 24 hours via verbal and nonverbal behaviors that augment interpersonal relationships online; (3) live chat that is less formal and more personal that many students favor; (4) personalized e-mails from the instructor to not-so-active students help to improve a learner's activity; (5) incorporating audio/video versus all text-based content; (6) providing quick feedback and regular updates; (6) use of group discussions; and (7) providing a student-only online communication area. “Social networks (such as Facebook or Twitter) are a powerful foundation from which to develop group identity and cohesion” (Joyce and Brown, 2009, par. 46).
Johnson (2007) supports "learner-learner interaction" (par. 4). However, more recent research indicates that many learners place a high value on the "independent and self-directed nature of online learning, and place less value on learner-learner interactions such as collaborative group work" (par. 5). Due to the paradoxical approaches toward communities of learners, and independent learning, a more in depth understanding and implementation of communities of learners is not necessarily the best approach (Johnson, 2007). "An increased focus on collaboration to promote learner-learner interaction may support strong learning outcomes, but may do so at the risk of detracting from some of the more practical advantages offered by online education" (Johnson, 2007, par. 55).
Rochester Institute of Technology Online Learning (2012) provided valuable insight about adult online learning strategies:
Learners: Adults have years of experience and a wealth of knowledge; Teaching Strategy: Use your adult students as resources for yourself and for other students; use open-ended questions to draw out students' knowledge and experiences; and provide many opportunities for dialogue among students.
Adults have established values, beliefs, and opinions; Strategy: Take time to clarify student expecatations of the course; permit debate and the challenge of ideas; be careful to protect minority opinions within the class.
Adults expect to be treated as adults; Strategy: treat questions and comments with respect; acknowledge contributions students make to the class; do not expect students to necessarily agree with your plan for the course.
Adults need to feel self-directed; Strategy: engage students in designing the learning process; expect students to want more than one medium for learning and to want control over the learning pace and start/stop times.
Adults often have a problem-centered approach to learning; Strategy: show immediately how new knowledge or skills can be applied to current problems or situations; use participatory techniques such as case studies and problem-solving groups.
Adults tend to be less interested in survey types of courses and more interested in straightforward how-to; Strategy: focus on theories and concepts within the context of their applications to relevant problems; orient the course content toward direct applications rather than toward theory.
Adults have increased variation in learning styles (individual differences among people increase with age); Strategy: use a variety of teaching materials and methods to take into account differences in style, time, types, and pace of learning.
Scollins-Mantha (2008) reported that as instructors encourage learners by supporting personal issues, learners' sense of a social presence increases. Some instructors use v-mail that includes a file with the instructor's voice attached to an e-mail. As teaching and learning paradigms continue to evolve, instructors may be more able to customize each adult learner's online experience if instead of perceiving each learner merely as one individual among many that there is also a growing empirical basis that requires instructors to acknowledge that each individual student belongs to a learning community in one form or another. Now may not be the time for instructors to depend on their past teaching experiences but rather to listen to the learners if one really seeks to teach a customized online learning experience.
Examples from Online Learning Experiences
This section does not provide an example that reflects an exposure to strategies used to build a social presence within an online adult learning environment. However, this section does show that an online instructional design, which was meant to represent a best practice, can be ill aligned if not designed appropriately. (Pre-assessing students' language skills, and better matching students within teams would be a strategy to build a good/better social presence that would prevent the issues discussed next.) The learning environment in my current and last programs (the PhD and master's) primarily centered upon learning within an asynchronous, non-collaborative online environment. In programs such as my bachelor's that required collaborative learning, 99% percent of the time team efforts were negatively affected by students unwilling to contribute their fair share. By having the quality of individual assignments potentially impacted by the extra time required of the group projects, the heavier group responsibilities took away from the time available for the individual assignments. In particular, by being burdened with aiding team members with proper academic writing, the resulting fatigue and frustration negatively affected my learning: completing individual assignments more quickly caused a decrease in my writing quality, and cognitive development was short-changed.
After the group experiences with the bachelor's program, I selected programs not requiring collaboration. Even with the potential of working collaboratively with a higher caliber of peers in my second and third degree programs, and the possibility of having a higher quality of learning experience, the negative results from my bachelor's teams seemed a greater risk of being repeated in my later programs. Consequently, if I lost what could have been an improved learning experience than what actually occurred, I do not regret my decision of learning non-collaboratively. Also, since my second and third programs were for degrees in distance education, my learning during these two programs has assured me that any compensations I have had to make have been worth the achieved level of learning.
Scollins-Mantha (2008) wrote that online instructors can provide guidance for teams by assigning roles such as a "moderator, starter, or wrapper" (par. ), which aids learning team members understand where to start, adds comfort, and heightens social presence. Such guidance and other simple elements of guidance were typically not provided to the teams I worked with so I assume that if the university/instructor had rolled out more tools to develop social presence that I may have experienced more team successes. I agree with Scollins-Mantha (2008) who noted that "adding choice to the structure of a group-learning situation could help to accommodate student’s preferences for varying degrees of social presence, increase a student’s comfort and satisfaction with the experience" (par. 45).
Johnson, E.S. (2007). Promoting learner-learner interactions through ecological assessments of the online environment. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3(2). Retrieved from
Joyce, K.M., & Brown, A. (2009, Winter). Enhancing social presence in online learning: Mediation strategies applied to social networking tools. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, XII(IV). Retrieved from
Rochester Institute of Technology Online Learning. (2012). Adult learners. Retrieved from
Scollins-Mantha, B. (2008). Cultivating social presence in the online learning classroom:
A literature review with recommendations for practice. Retrieved from http://itdl. org/Journal/Mar_08/article02.htm

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