Many of the discussion threads about the ‘stories from the dark side’, have circled around conflict. Conflicts in expectations, conflicts in communication and internal conflicts. Codes of interaction and defining the rules of engagement have been explored and debated. Amongst many other things, we have examined notions of the online self, of the danger of the gap between word and intention, the role of the tutor and the rights and responsibilities of the student.
One of the most involved discussions came about as a response to ‘The Black Hole’ story and offered an insight into a particular reaction to Hamish’s WebQuest. Yoyu’s response to what I had perceived as a light-hearted task offers a salient learning point. We cannot predict learner responses nor rely on learner engagement. Even with much scaffolding, encouragement and reassurance, online students may still feel disengaged, alienated and discouraged.
The disconnect between Hamish’s intention and Yoyu’s response highlights many of the issues which are explored within transactional distance theory.
Definition of transactional distance from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactional_distance
Interestingly, in Yoyu’s case, dialogue didn’t help, in fact it served to further alienate her from the task and from her peers.
From the online discussion: https://www.moodle.is.ed.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=9810
It is interesting to consider if the medium of the discussion board – the medium which we are using and reflecting on this week – compounded the issues which Yoyu experienced. Yoyu herself questioned the use of the forum in her response to ‘The Black Hole’ story:
From the online discussion: https://www.moodle.is.ed.ac.uk/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=9760
The key advantages of forums, as the Blackmon paper notes, include:
- Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this is particularly useful for our international cohort of students.
- They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted.
- They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction.
The key disadvantages include:
- Their asynschronous nature allows for flexibility in response times: this can cause anxiety. Yoyu highlighted that she felt ‘behind’ in the WebQuest as she came to it two or three days behind some others.
- They allow time for responses to be considered and crafted: this can cause stage-fright – students may feel inhibited about contributing anything other than well-crafted responses in this public and permanent space.
- They enable students to participate in knowledge co-construction, thereby excluding those who don’t feel able to participate or co-create.
It’s interesting to consider if a synchronous communication stream, such as Skype, would have mitigated the issues which Yoyu encountered. If she had been been able to express her concerns immediately and receive instant feedback and reassurance, that may have lessened her feelings of exclusion. Hrastinski (2008) suggests that synchronous e-learning is a more effective communication tool for such ‘getting acquainted’:
Hrastinski, ‘Asynchronous and Synchronous E-learning’, https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/eqm0848.pdf
Perhaps the transactional distance between Yoyu and us, her peers, could have been lessened if we had been working together at the same time: the temporal gaps in the slow form discussion forum certainly appear to have been spaces where Yoyu’s anxiety and uncertainty grew.
Our discussions around the stories from the dark side have, therefore, contained much consensus and some conflict. I have learned a lot from reflecting on the conflicts in the stories and from the conflicts in our own discussion forums. The stories and our reactions to them highlight that it is, indeed, important not to be ‘nice all the time’. ‘Disputational talk’ (Mercer, 2008 – thanks to Renée for the reference), debate and disagreement enhances our learning.