I find this weeks questions very intriguing as I have heard a variety of suggestions from different sources on how to stimulate online interactions between students and between instructors and students. This is particularly important for our online course since interprofessionalism is dependent on collaboration and active communication.
The main challenge I have had with online interactions is with the level of engagement of the students. I have taught some online courses and have followed the criteria outlined in the Bates article (p.7):
- appropriate technology
- clear guidelines on student online behaviour
- student orientation and preparation
- clear goals
- choice of appropriate topics
- setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion
- defining clearly learner roles and expectations
- monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly
- regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’
- ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.
What continues to be a challenge is when students are disengaged. In my experience, I have attributed this to the following:
- student’s lack of exposure or experience in online courses or interactions; they are unfamiliar with the process, lack technology skills or do not ask for help in a timely matter
- student’s busy schedule or lack of organizational skills; not connecting to the site as often as they should
- online interactions are not assessed; “optional” = not important
- lack of interactions from others in the course; “why should I be the only one contributing?”
- student is disengaged in the course or group; this may be influenced by the individual (introverted or does not value info) or group dynamics
- student does not see the value in what they may be able to contribute or feel a similar post has already been made
- lack of moderation by instructor
The students in my program come from a variety of different backgrounds, demographics and life experiences. I have foreign trained dentists, dental assistants and students right out of high school. Some have worked in the dental field for many years and others have not. Some have experienced barriers in accessing dental care and others have not. When students share their personal experiences, they not only validate with the information I am sharing but also connect personally to it. This can help other students fully appreciate the importance of the information even though they may not have experienced it themselves. The other major advantage of students sharing information is that they may create connections with other students who have similar experiences or it can create a “collaborative learning environment” that Bates discusses in his article (p.1).
Within our online course, Lori and I have taken advantage of the interactive tools available in Brightspace (LMS used by Saskatchewan Polytechnic). Bates states, “with online collaboration learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse” (p.9). Brightspace has a variety of communication tools such as blogs, chats, email, group discussions, surveys, news posts and virtual classrooms. We could have used more of these discussion tools but because of the length of the course, chose to offer just a few of them. We were guided by our approach using the National Interprofessional Competency Framework and Bate’s criteria above. In our introduction, we have set out guidelines on student conduct as indicated in our Saskatchewan Polytechnic policies; we have emphasized our goals and clearly defined the learner’s roles and what is expected of them. In the first module, we have students introducing themselves using any media platform they prefer (video, audio, text). We also use discussion forums where students will post their responses to the specific problem based case study we have created. The purpose of the case study is to stimulate interprofessional interactions between nursing and dental hygiene students. The students must work together to navigate through the issues the patient is experiencing that is specific to each of their professions. Bates suggests that problem-based or inquiry based approaches may work in these subject domains (p.10). Lori and I will be monitoring student engagement and encouraging participation from those who are less active. There will be an articulation between discussion topics and our assessment rubric. Since this is an interprofessional activity, active collaboration is key for meaningful learning to occur. Having an instructor presence is important to ensure meaningful discussions are sustained. If our course was longer, we could offer segments of information to the students over a period of weeks so that they would have to react to new pieces of information as it became available. In our assessments of the students interactions we could also encourage them to ask questions, make comments or relate to the information on a personal level. This would also allow discussions to be supportive and relevant. Instructors can also pose questions in response to some of the posts to ensure discussions remain active.
Online engagement is dependent on so many variables. The articles we reviewed over this past week offer great suggestions. What is critically important is the design and implementation of the online course. Every student may experience different barriers in actively participating in the course and the instructor must consider this when developing the online content. This does put a lot of pressure on instructors especially if students are not self-directed or engaged. Students need support from many sources and the instructor plays a vital role for ensuring interactions are meaningful, supportive and relevant.