Communication Dynamics & Design

Written by James
05
Jan

Unfortunately I don’t have time to really get in-depth with the results of the ad hoc research that preceded my communication dynamics paper at ASCILITE in December (results posted here (and here in .doc) anyone who wants to have a more thorough look please feel free to do so!) but I think I can come to some rough conclusions…

If I can assume that the audience was fairly representative of tertiary education in Australia and New Zealand then it’s probably fair to say that:

1. Moreorless all Aus & NZ tertiary institutions use one or more Online Learning Environments (OLEs)

2. Around two thirds of these instances are WebCT or Blackboard who collectively have a presence in around 70-80-% institutions (often multiple OLEs are used)

3. On the whole teachers are ‘supposed’ to use these OLEs for the distribution of content (25 explicit mentions out of a sample of 44) and online communication (20 explicit mentions)

4. In terms of online communication over 90% of institutions use discussion boards (with around half of that also using email)

5. The aim of using these communication tools is varied, however from the 44 respondents there were explicit mentions of community (14) , deep & higher order learning (12), collaboration (9), greater interaction & participation (9), engagement (6), sharing (6), empowerment (4) and reflection (4). It’s probably fair to say that cognitive presence and social presence are what we are striving for.

6. On the whole people are dissatisfied, when asked ‘How’s that going’ (to their previous answer) 18 responses were negative, 16 unsure or not particularly positive or negative and only 5 positive.

Simply put, I read this as meaning that despite the maturity and 100% adoption of OLEs, the understanding that teachers are to use them for online communication and the ubiquitous adoption of the discussion board, teachers in Tertiary educational institutions in Australia and New Zealand are unsure of or unhappy with (or both) the results.

Why?

Well, you can argue that people are slow to use online technology, which is probably fair enough, but…

That often gets extended to the argument that teaching online is different from teaching face to face and consequently people need a heap of new skills, which IMO doesn’t cut it (good teaching is good teaching, good teachers action research, adapt and develop ALL the time in different contexts).

And much more often that teachers need more training, more PD and more support … which would be valid if we were talking about, say, a new industrial machine / complex administration system or similar, but we’re not. Do most teachers need training in using email? Howabout in browsing the web? Or using a search engine? Or writing a comment on a weblog (go on try below, tell me what you think!)?

Well, OK, that’s not entirely true because, fact is that teachers do need training in using most big co. OLEs (because they’re so complex / unintuitive), and we do need all the Gilly Salmon’s of the world to explain how we might use discussion boards because it’s a hell of a struggle to facilitate any kind of social or cognitive presence with them whatsoever!

And the problem is that we blame ourselves, we try and learn 5-step models, set up comprehensive APD programs and await the student evaluation scores with fear or not at all (as we’ve had to be on the boards night and day for the last semester to get anything happen and are soooo bloody tired). But IT’S NOT OUR FAULT.

The problem, I reckon, is the design of these OLEs and more specifically the design of the discussion boards… not just the ‘type’ of discussion boards that they happen to be but the social, communicative and cognitive design that is inherent within them by the very nature of them being discussion boards. They have been around for a very long time (technology speaking), they are available in every Australian and New Zealand tertiary institution to every teacher and they have been overwhelmingly used as Q&A areas (which, incidentally, is what they’re pretty good for) or not at all. If we are going to start to achieving anything close to what we would like to in online teaching and learning we’re going to have to go back to the board (so to speak) and ask ourselves whether we’re going to get there with the tools we’ve got and if not what are the tools we need?

Communication dynamics: Discussion boards, weblogs and the development of communities of inquiry in online learning environments

  1. This is a topic of particular interest to me, actually. Discussion boards have certainly fallen out of favour at the moment. I was browsing through a social software portal site recently, and was surprised to find no mention of discussion boards at all – a bit of an oversight given that they ARE still an important social tool, even if they aren’t new and groundbreaking any more. They still address some fundamental needs, and there’s easily room for improvement. My intention, in due course, is to take a fresh look at the forum paradigm, and see how we can update a tool that’s gotten itself stuck in a rut.

    Tragically, certain major CMSes don’t give you any room to play with the structure and behaviour of their discussion boards. For example, I can’t even reverse the default order of posts so that most recent messages are at the top. This forces the user to scroll down screenfuls for the latest posts. It may seem like a minor barrier, but throw a handful of these minor barriers in a user’s path and eventually they WILL stop. It’s no wonder people are looking elsewhere for solutions.

  2. Hi Kirsten,

    Good point, although it’s amazing sometimes how well you can manage without something you thouught you couldn’t live without once it’s gone :O)

    Probably one of the biggest gripes I have with major CMS discussion boards is the fact that they don’t implement email / RSS integration.

    Cheers for the comment, James