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My searches on both the WWW and Proquest revealed little that was directly applicable to adult learning online. There is lots on adult learning generally (both online and print based) and a growing literature base on online education and web based training generally (again, online and print based), but little that linked the two in a meaningful way for people who are actually taking a course online. So what follows are my observations - first as an academic and practitioner in adult education, and second, as a learner and facilitator online since 1995.
I view this course (as I do all of the courses I've facilitated) as
a way to build the theory and practice in learning and facilitating online.
We are pioneers in this area and can contribute a tremendous amount to
future online learners! Through our discussions and your assignments, we
can create a set of valuable resources and "publish them" on the net for
others to see. This is probably one of the most exciting aspects of online
education to me - it is relatively easy to create and share our knowledge
as a class and leave a legacy for others! How often in traditional face
to face classes have we been able to do this in a relatively easy way?
The perspectives on adult learning vary according to the context or discipline in which one operates. Some businesses and industries appear to view adult learning as a commodity that, once mastered, will lead to efficient workers. Some entrepreneurs in the "workshop business" view adult learning as a golden opportunity to make money. Some self-help groups view adult learning as a transformational process that empowers people to live healthier, happier lives. Some futurists view adult learning as central to our transition into the knowledge age. Some psychologists view adult learning as a cognitive process, while still others focus exclusively on behaviours. Some adult educators, myself included, view adult learning as a lifelong process of discovery and have committed their lives to exploring it and facilitating it for others.
If you are interested in exploring adult learning in depth, try
Merriam and Caffarella's book as a start (listed in the bibliography at
the end). It orients you to the literature and is an excellent reference.
Dialogue and discussion with others are central to any type of learning, but most especially for the type of learning concerned with meaning and interpretation. That is why the main activities of this course involve discussion and the assignments involve working with others.
Griffin suggests that if the rational, emotional, relational, physical, and metaphoric capabilities are facilitated, the spiritual will evolve.
My own significant learning experiences have always occurred when more of the "guitar strings" were activated. Knowing about Griffin's framework has allowed me to analyze why a particular learning experience is not meaningful, and what I can do as a learner to make it better.
I would say that Griffin's framework is especially important in an online environment. When I first started as a learner myself in an online course, I was concerned with the emotional and relational aspects of learning. I didn't feel that such a high tech approach could facilitate these dimensions of learning. As in face to face classes, however, it is the design of the course, the learners themselves, and the approach the facilitator takes that make the difference. The tone of an email, together with the use of emoticons, can convey much - both expressions of joy or frustration and anger!
The relational aspects of learning can occur to a certain extent in main list discussions, but it is the small group activities, both synchronous and asynchronous, that facilitated my getting to know someone. I learned much through my email conversations (asynchronous) and webchat sessions (synchronous) with individuals in the course and, as with face to face sessions, I am still in contact with some of these people.
The physical capability of learning was most striking for me as an online learner. I work best very early in the morning. I am awake, alert, and do my best work. Afternoons are my down time and right after dinner is especially low for me. As a face to face learner and facilitator, most of my classes have occurred in the time slots when I'm most tired. It was a real joy to tailor my participation in the online class around the times of day I was most awake and, if need be, not participate at all when I was tired. This is not a luxury we have in face to face classes!
I make use of metaphors a great deal in my learning, especially so when I'm encountering a completely different subject or content. Such is the case with online learning. It was so new to me that I needed to find ways to attach the "new" to an "old" framework. For example, taking an online class for the first time is similar to taking a class for the first time at a university. How much time do we spend trying to find the place to park, the building, the classroom? It's overwhelming and confusing. A first time experience in an online class can be the same. I tried to find metaphors like this for helping me to become used to the online environment.
The spiritual capability of learning is something I've not experienced to a great extent in face to face classes, but one that I've actively sought to develop in myself. There are some Internet users who believe that email communication (and some synchronous chats) are a more direct "experience" with others, a connection to their consciousness or true essence, as opposed to the usual distractions we read into face to face communication.
A lengthy discussion on cyber relationships took place on a list to which I subscribe - the wisdom at work list. While there were certainly those who believed that there is more fiction on the net (that people may create characters and misrepresent themselves), there were also those who felt that the internet was the vehicle that would move our society to a higher level of consciousness and spirituality. As Let Davidson, moderator of the Wisdom at Work list so eloquently stated on April 5, 1996:
I agree that at this point there is no obvious revolution in interpersonal relations . . . yet. But I definitely agree with Susan that something is afoot and that the technology has a tremendous potential to affect the way we relate, in both directions: toward avoidance and escapism, as well as toward greater spiritual intimacy. I think it helps to recognize that cybercommunication is a different form and shouldn't be expected to accomplish what face to face experience yields. It will be very frustrating to expect it to carry the freight of sensuality or physical intimacy.
Electronic communication seems to me to be more suited to conveying consciousness or spirit, and is much closer to the way consciousness operates than it is to physicality. We could say that basically what you see in front of you is consciousness-- code--translated into subtle on-off pulses of light transfigured into virtual pixels on the screen. It is all light taking virtual forms in the same way that all colours are refractions of the same light. In the same way that what we call physical reality is varying speeds and frequencies of light energy. (E=mc2)
It seems e-relating is a more subtle, intermediate technology, somewhere between physical relating and pure mind communication (ESP, clairvoyance, telepathy, etc). I think cyberspace represents a step in the evolution of consciousness which seems to be moving many people beyond strictly egoic bodymind identity to a greater sense of our true identity as spirit, consciousness or light energy, and eliciting our ability to commune with this underlying reality.
Some challenging ideas. Let captures the real essence of Virginia
Griffin's coming together of the five capabilities of learning into the
sixth - the spiritual. This is food for thought for those of us who
have thought (and maybe still do) that high tech cannot be high touch.
I have noticed the same type of group development in online education as I've observed in hundreds of face to face classes. Similar group development occurs in listserves as well. While every class may not go through every phase in the same manner, sequence or to the same degree, there are definite predictable commonalities. In online education, it goes something like this:
Polite Phase (forming)
Why We're Here Phase (forming)
Bid for Power Phase (storming)
Constructive Phase (norming)
Grieving (sometimes when a group ends)
The role the instructor plays during this group development is central to how quickly the group moves through stages (or even skips stages) on their way to a productive learning experience. Instructors who are aware of group development anticipate the stages and use techniques to facilitate a smooth transition. They also learn not to "personalize" notes of frustration or even anger from participants at certain points in the class, as very often becoming used to the online world can be intimidating and alienating for some learners.
Understanding these stages from a learner's perspective is also helpful.
For example, sometimes the "storming" stage can be particularly stormy
and for people like myself, quite distressing. Understanding group
development gives one another perspective from which to view things.
My experience was just the opposite, an observation made by researchers in the computer-mediated communication (CMC) field. As pointed out by Rob Higgins (1991):
Without encompassing the full range of human sensory and expressive capabilities, text-based interaction is often thought to be an impersonal medium devoid of social context cues and nonverbal communication. Experience and research, however, are demonstrating that socioemotional content can be communicated in text. Steinfeld (1986) states that: "Evidence continues to mount showing that CMC will be used for emotional interaction. People seem to work around the nonverbal cue limitations and actively provide their own text-based translations of nonverbal cues" (p. 176). Tracz (1980) bears out this perception in a comment on his experience: "I was pleasantly surprised, nevertheless, that most users of electronic information exchange system (EIES) attempt to incorporate many little expressions to compensate for the lack of face-to-face contact, and on the whole, gentleness prevails." (p. 17). (p. 40-41)
Group methods or cooperative learning are widely written about in both adult and youth education. A common belief is that such approaches to learning are more human and productive than competitive approaches. Also, such approaches are held up as facilitative of the construction of knowledge (see for example Belenkey et al. (1988) and Vygotsky (1978)), a focus of many adult educators, myself included.
Links have been made between cooperative learning and educational computing as pointed out by Higgins (1991)
Those involved with cooperative learning have not missed another growing innovation: educational computing. Johnson and Johnson (1986) discuss the complementary strengths of cooperative learning and computer-assisted instruction (not including Educational CMC). They cite their research involving cooperative, competitive, and individualistic learning in conjunction with the use of educational computer programs featuring drill and practice, simulation and discovery, and word processing (pp. 16-17). Their data confirm the general effects of cooperative learning:
...computer-assisted cooperative learning promoted greater quantity and quality of daily achievement, more successful problem solving, and higher performance on factual recognition, application, and problem-solving test items than did computer- assisted competitive and individualistic learning (p. 15).
Another interesting finding was that the computer-assisted cooperative methods had an especially positive impact on female students in terms of their attitudes toward computers. Conversely, the competitive methods had an especially negative impact on their attitudes toward computers. Competitiveness also reduced the female students' confidence in their ability to work with computers (Johnson & Johnson, 1986, p. 15). (pp. 31- 32)
Concepts from cooperative learning, computer-assisted learning, and CMC are particularly relevant to educational classes being delivered using Internet/WWW technology. Again, Higgins (1991) clarifies the role of synchronous (simultaneous) and asynchronous (flex-time) in cooperative learning:
In the realm of educational computer-mediated communication, there are many studies that cover issues of social psychology and deal with socio-emotional factors, but nothing that addresses the cognitive foundations needed to help establish a theoretical and practical model for computer supported cooperative learning (CSCL). A variety of research efforts and numerous descriptive, or anecdotal reports appear in the literature. Some address issues relating to the use of computer conferencing (CC) (Harsim, 1989; Hiltz et al., 1990; Mason, 1990; Phillips et al., 1988) in asynchronous mode. Others report on the application of synchronous communication via local area networks in the classroom (Foster, 1991; O'Kelly, 1991; Peyton, 1989; Wilton, 1988).
. . .
Those involved with computer conferencing seem particularly resistant to the notion of an important role for synchronous CMC. This is not surprising in view of the fact that the features and capabilities provided by computer conferencing software have not changed significantly over the past 10 years, and appropriate synchronous capabilities have not been readily available. Another reason for lack of attention to the potential of synchronous CMC is that the asynchronous nature of computer conferencing is regarded as one of its most valued attributes in terms of intellectual activity. Levinson (1988) notes, "'Asynchronous' or nonimmediate communication...may produce exchanges of richer intellectual quality than those resulting from immediate face-to-face dialogue" (p. 115).
In an online seminar, Turoff (1989c) took the extreme position and challenged the participants to produce examples to counter his proposition, "that there is no human group problem solving activity that would not be better served by asynchronous communications..." (conference note C1295 CC4). Further, he stated that, "...a pure synchronous system is worthless as far as I am concerned" (conference note C1295 CC16).
Obviously, then, an important debate exists. Synchronous interaction may be a critical feature of peer interaction and an important component in the developing theories of the social construction of knowledge as they pertain to cooperative learning. Asynchronous interaction, on the other hand, may improve group problem solving and lead to richer intellectual quality in the communications. (pp. 6-7)
Higgins research with nursing students working on a nursing case study demonstrated that
...the synchronous mode of text-based CMC are more likely to include verbal elements reflecting important cognitive activities such as problem formulation, interactive arguing, and task management than similar discussions in asynchronous mode.
...greater focus on, and accuracy of outcomes are possible with synchronous text-based CMC than with asynchronous.
...greater mutual facilitation occurs in synchronous text-based CMC than in asynchronous mode. This facilitation is reflected in verbal elements demonstrating attempts to establish interpersonal ease, support, understanding, and encouragement.
... the novel and unique modes of interaction possible through CMC (synchronous and asynchronous) can have a motivating effect for learning activities undertaken in dyad or group situations. (p. 19)
My own experience as a learner in an online class and anecdotal reports
from learners in previous classes I've taught confirm the importance of
synchronous communication in collaborative learning. This course
is designed around these considerations and, thus, group work is considered
essential to the overall success and enjoyment of participants, and synchronous
chats are encouraged as a way to address the human element.
One of the best papers I've read on creating an online learning community is Sally Fox and Don Comstock's Computer Conferencing in a Learning Community. Their "Summary of Processes that Build a Learning Community" provide a number of suggestions and points to ponder for anyone either taking or facilitating a course online. I have tried to build in a number of their strategies.
Another interesting paper is Creating Community Online. The authors of this paper discuss their "learnings" in terms of converting a f2f class to online delivery. Of particular interest, is their rethinking of the instructor's role in a classroom and how instructors may (unknowingly) contribute to learners looking to them for approval, instead of thinking about things themselves. The online environment challenged this perspective.
The following list of tips is based on my experience working with hundreds
of learners in a variety of online settings over the last few years.
I hope you find them useful and encourage you to help me further develop
For some additional tips, check out the guidelines for online groups developed by Royal Roads University. The document itself is not formatted that well, but its content is quite good.
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Brundage, Donald and MacKeracher, Dorothy. (1980) Adult Learning Principles and Their Application to Program Planning. Toronto: The Minister of Education.
Higgins, R. N. (1991) Computer-Mediated Cooperative Learning: Synchronous and Asynchronous Communication Between Students Learning Nursing Diagnosis. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Johnson, D. W. and Johnson R.T. (1986). Computer-assisted Cooperative Learning. Educational Technology, 26(1), 12-18.
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Sure about Adult Learning. Training, pgs. 57-61.