Topic 3: Challenges in online learning and the importance of community: guided instruction and the value of informal conversation

The two compulsory (or strongly recommended) readings for Topic 3 of ONL171 both explicitly deal with challenges in online learning, stressing the importance of community–including aspects that relate to participation and communication–not only for mitigating these challenges, but for enabling learning to occur (Brindley et al., 2009; Capdeferro & Romero, 2012). Ultimately, the most fundamental of these challenges is that of creating “access to a rich learning environment that provides opportunity for interaction and connectedness” (Brindley et al., 2009).  Despite the fact that social media are social, which by implication suggests “an information ecology … organized around friends” (boyd), nevertheless there is a difference between hanging out and goofing around with friends, and deep, sustained learning. Put most simply, despite its many affordances, online learning lacks at least one key advantage of traditional, face-to-face learning: the kind of rich environment made possible by real-time dialogic interaction with knowledgable others who are physically present. Lack of scaffolding and sufficient attention to instructional guidance in an information-rich environment, such as that afforded by online learning initiatives, can lead to frustration and impede learning on account of problems in relation to cognitive load, in particular in the case of instruction to novice and intermediate learners  (Kirschner et al., 2006).

Because of the highly mediated character of online learning, as evident from the absence of direct (or less mediated) access to a knowledgeable other in the form of the instructor, and consequently dependence on peer support (Weller & Anderson, 2013) in which there is no guarantee that one peer is more knowledgable than the others, it is crucial to address the challenges and potential frustrations of online learning experiences by paying attention to good ways in which to foster community. One way of doing so, as described by Garrison (2007), is through the creation and maintenance of three kinds of presence: social, cognitive and teaching.

I plan to write more about the community of inquiry (CoI) framework, from which this set of ideas is derived, in my post for Topic 4. Meanwhile, one key point in relation to this framework concerns the centrality of critical discourse for ensuring that learning occurs. By means of these three kinds of presence, an environment needs to be created that encourages and supports such discourse, which requires a shared goal or group project that needs to move towards a resolution phase (Garrison, 2007, p.66) as well as clear “structure (design) and leadership (facilitation and direction)” (p.67). This is a recognition of how important guided instruction is (and thus “teaching presence”), in particular in online environments; but it is also a recognition of the importance of meaningful interaction that moves beyond dialogue and towards discourse (p.67). For such interaction to occur, the point is that guided instruction within a strong community is required.

In the case of PBL Group 1, it has been interesting to observe how guided instruction by our facilitator has moved us as a group from dialogue and towards the kind of resolution of projects enabled by critical discourse. That said, as my fellow group member Tore Nilsson writes in an interesting post, we should not dismiss the value of apparently aimless “social small talk“: of dialogue that does not move towards critical discourse, in Garrison’s terms. Far from it: as Tore writes, in the case of face-to-face interaction such small talk is fundamental for establishing community, and one would expect the absence    of such informal conversation to be detrimental for establishing social presence, a precondition for a supportive and productive community of inquiry. This is because such informal conversations are essential for creating the kind of “personal but purposeful relationships” (Garrison, 2007, p.64) that are needed for such a community. Interestingly, however, as Tore notes, in the case of our group such small talk did not really occur very much at all, which raises the question as to “what [may] have been the catalyst for this successful online community“. Tore’s question is a fascinating one, and his tentative answer is that it has to do with two factors: the role our facilitator played, and our synchronous online meetings with the visual cues that are part and parcel of such meetings.

My own view is that our facilitator indeed played a role in fostering community and hence learning in our group: this speaks to the importance of guided instruction and sufficient scaffolding. However, though our group definitely managed to establish trust and move toward resolution, more informal small talk and undirected dialogue would have strengthened social presence considerably. Studies have shown that these kinds of conversations in the “backstage of the teaching arena” (Roxå and Mårtensson, 2009) are essential for shaping teachers’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviours in relation to their teaching. It therefore stands to reason that the absence of such conversations will limit learning about (open, online) teaching: the key and overarching aim of ONL 171. A key challenge for us is therefore to think about how such informal conversations can be fostered in the case of online learning.


boyd, d. (2008). Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Capdeferro, N. & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International review of research in open and distance learning, 13(2), 26-44.

Garrison, D. R. (2007). Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(1), 61-72 Apr 2007.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. DOI: 10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks – exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559. DOI: 10.1080/03075070802597200.

Weller, M., & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, 16(1), 53.

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