This student connectivity based instructional practice anchors the use of readily available technology to manage the learning experience and create multiple opportunities for student engagement. Through the purposeful selection of familiar communication technology applications, a student-to-instructor and student-to-student engagement framework was created to increase the level of student participation and engagement while avoiding student technological learning frustration. This practice was piloted in a two-course Master’s level Educational Research sequence during Summer and Fall semesters in 2012. It was confirmed in the same course sequence during Summer and Fall semesters in 2013. Student feedback provided in module and course evaluations provided substantial support for the use of familiar communication/technology applications and satisfaction with course learning effectiveness.
Instructional technology offers many opportunities to enhance the online learning environment. With each new technological adoption, however, a learning curve is encountered by students and instructors that may offset the perceived benefit and impact the touted usefulness. Students new to online learning may be especially challenged as new technology is coupled with a new learning environment. Based on Knowlton’s (2000) framework, Puziferro & Shelton’s (2008) model for developing online courses, and supported by Bagozzi, Davis & Warchaw’s (1992) Technology Acceptance Model, an interactional communication practice was devised combining the use of multiple communication/technology applications and online teaching effectiveness principles. Aimed at adult learners, the practice was envisioned to counter-effect technology learning frustration by intentionally and deliberately employing simple, existing technology as the most effective way to support the learning experience. A reduction in technological frustration was intended to increase the levels and frequency of engagement, and thus reduce the need for student and instructor management of technology. The focus shifts to instructor-student communication, student satisfaction, learning effectiveness and faculty satisfaction with online teaching and learning. By choosing to leverage familiar technologies, the instructor was able to elevate ease-of-use while demonstrating usefulness through improved and more frequent instructor-student communication and engagement.
According to Heuer & King (2004), the online learning instructor encompasses multiple roles - planner, model, coach, facilitator, and communicator:
"To compensate for the reduced sensory cues, the instructor must be adept at communicating with students, employing the full capabilities of the technology, and responding to individualized learning styles and motivation. The asynchronous nature of online instruction that permits anytime and anywhere computer-mediated communication calls on the instructor to develop strategies to manage 24/7 communications, maintain momentum of the dialogue over time, and foster communities of learners (Heuer & King, 2004, p. 8)."
This shift in instructor perspective means that one must become very intentional about interacting with students as well as providing opportunities for student contact and in turn being responsive to students as they have needs or concerns. The innovation in this practice is found not from a radical new technology piece, but in meeting students where they are, utilizing technology that they are already accustomed to using.
Through a combination of the syllabus communicating expectations, course design utilizing similar structure throughout all modules to ensure comfort of the learner, and regular communication, students are scaffolded through the use of technologies as a means to support learning and communication in the course. Each of the communication elements in the student connectivity based practice are described below. Together, they provide a comprehensive solution to address the communication and engagement needs of online learners while maintaining focus on learning.
Twitter as a research tool - To help students get a sense of current conversations in the education community, students were shown through an instructor video how to use Twitter as a search engine to discover conversations and blog posts related to an area of interest for them. Students may have been familiar with Twitter as a way to communicate or receive information, but often were not familiar with leveraging it for professional learning.
Online office hours – Regular office hours achieved through Skype (although Google Hangout, or an online classroom could be used) allowed students to contact the professor with questions or concerns. Students were reminded of these office hours on a regular basis. Whenever the instructor was online attending to class matters, Skype was on, signaling to students that they were welcome to ask questions or check in.
Grading conferences – With pivotal assignments, scheduling grading conferences with students allowed an opportunity for the instructor to review work with the student, address any questions or concerns from either the instructor or the student, and provide direction to allow the student to move forward. These grading conferences were facilitated through a sign-up on Google Drive and carried out through Skype or phone, but could additionally be facilitated through other internet applications.
Learning Module Evaluations – Built into the online course were module evaluation surveys utilizing Google Forms to gather information about the student experience as the course was being taught. This evaluation allowed an anonymous look into the student experience. Posting regular updates about things learned from the evaluations, as well as making changes to the flow of the course as it unfolded based on feedback, allowed students to know that their voice counts in the quality of the instruction provided.
Text messages – Providing students with instructor cell number allowed students to contact the instructor when they needed an answer quicker than email might allow. As online courses are frequently structured with the expectation that students are on at varying times based on their schedules, the same can be expected of instructors who facilitate online courses. Through the course of this study, students proved to be very respectful and only called or text messaged when the instructor was not available online and they truly needed information to move forward.
Emails – the simple policy of checking and responding to messages in the online course environment several times a work day was employed to help ensure that any questions students had that might impede their learning progress were quickly addressed.
Discussion boards – not only did students post on discussion boards, the instructor regularly posted as well. The instructor utilized this tool as a way to let students know that they are on track, performing well, and/or to pose additional questions to change the focus of the discussion. Further, as common open source technology tools were utilized in ways not as familiar to students (for example, Twitter as a research tool), students had the opportunity to discuss what they learned and reflect on ways that these technology tools could be utilized in their own practice.
A combination of module and course evaluations were used to evaluate the effectiveness of the practice and the corresponding satisfaction with course. The module evaluations served a two-fold purpose: to determine the effectiveness of the practice and to inform the need for course modification on a rolling basis.
In the 2012 pilot, 81% of students provided module evaluations in the first semester, and 55% of students provided information during the second semester. A similar response rate was experienced in the 2013 study, with 85% of students providing module evaluations in the first semester and 60% providing module evaluations during the second. While both sets of module evaluations showed a decreased level of student feedback, quantitative data provided by students remained consistent in the high degree of satisfaction regarding the efficacy of the instructional materials and assignments. Qualitative data additionally pointed to efficacy of using open source and familiar technology:
* I am amazed at how valuable Twitter can be for educational purposes. I plan on using it regularly as a tool for finding ideas to use in my teaching.
* What I “took away” from this module was the effective use of Twitter as a research tool.
I have never thought of using Twitter for research until this course. There were so many different hot topics about education with so many varying opinions. It was interesting to read what people are passionate about in education.
*Thanks to the phone conference I felt very confident as I was submitting both of my requests.
* I REALLY liked having the Skype date. Very helpful!!”
* I felt that it was extremely helpful to have the conference call to make sure we are prepared and could ask questions.
Based on the very favorable results of the module evaluations in the pilot semesters, very few course modifications were made other than a few regarding course organization. Students repeatedly noted in the qualitative data gathered by course and module evaluations that the level of communication and feedback given by the instructor was one of the most important parts of their experience. Students additionally reported that the use of familiar technology was very effective in their learning experience and comfort. Several students offered additional feedback on the student connectivity practice:
*She welcomes us to call, text, or Skype with questions or concerns as we work through our projects, data, or research.
*These various tools for communication make the online experience much more personal.
*...courses are geared to be friendly to the working professional. She always responds to your questions in a timely manner and is willing to work with her students.
Additionally, quantitative results from the course evaluations were compared for the two iterations of this study. The two-course sequence was taught by the same instructor over the same period of time using a consistent instructional delivery method. Course evaluations over the pilot study showed students rating instructor effectiveness at 3.69/4.0 (65% of students responding) in summer 2012 and 3.9/4.0 during Fall 2012 (56% of students responding). Repeating the practice in summer and fall 2013, students rated instructor effectiveness at 3.78/4.0 (53% of students responding) and 3.86/4.0 (56% of students responding) in the two sections of the first course, and 4.0/4.0 in Fall 2013 (30% of students responding). This data leads one to believe that the overall student satisfaction was high in part due to the course design and intentional use of familiar and open source technology applications for course communication.
The results of two semester pilot strongly influenced the repeated use of the practice and resulted in the mainstreamed use across all course sections. Through modeling these tools, documenting student satisfaction and performance in the degree program, and sharing course design and instructor practice, other instructors have gone to this instructor for guidance in setting up their courses, as well as adjusted their teaching by utilizing the technology/communication framework for their courses. Most of the courses in this degree program now utilize much of this framework as a means of supporting students. Further, these practices have been highlighted in online course development workshops offered on campus using this instructor’s courses as a model of effective online course design, and in TalonTips, a publication from Kennesaw State University recognizing excellence in Technology Enhanced Teaching and Learning (http://www.kennesaw.edu/dlc/TalonTips/Volume/TalonTipsVol5Issue1.pdf).
This practice creates a modern approach by going ‘back to the basics’ of technology acceptance. The instructor leverages easy to use, already familiar open source communication technology applications to create a dynamic and highly engaged learning environment. The technology is readily accessible and the practice easily replicated. Student learning effectiveness is enhanced when the focus is placed directly on learning and not the tools used to facilitate learning. Student satisfaction at the course and module level was high, and the practice can be deployed across any discipline. Faculty satisfaction for this study was very high, as the focus on the course was on learning rather than any difficulty from the technology itself, or issues with course organization that created questions regarding the course rather than the content in relation to learning. This practice was scaled to all online faculty by sharing it through workshops and a faculty publication, thus identifying and implementing effective practices.
As these applications are typically open source technologies, there would be no additional equipment needed other than what is typically used to teach online courses.
As these applications are typically open source technologies, there would be no additional expense incurred other than normal operating expenses to teach online courses.
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