Challenges and lessons learned concerning learning in a social context in web-based education

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This paper presents five identified challenges concerning learning in a social context in web-based education and discusses lessons learned on how to reduce these challenges in higher education. The study is primarily based on the authors' own
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  Challenges and lessons learned concerning learning in a social context in web-based education Jessica Lindblom Informatics Research Centre University of Skövde, Sweden Josefine Siewertz Informatics Research Centre i  University of Skövde, Sweden Abstract This paper presents five identified challenges concerning learning in a social context in web-based education and discusses lessons learned on how to reduce these challenges in higher education. The study is primarily based on the authors’ own experiences in conducting web-based education as well as on theories and research on learning and e-learning. Keywords Web-based education; learning in a social context; e-learning; online learning; higher education. Introduction The development of new communication and IT tools (ICT) in today's globalized society has led to new opportunities to communicate across time and space, which in the long run has impact on teaching and learning in higher education. The Economist Intelligence Unit   (Glenn, 2008), for example, argues that the question is not whether or not higher education will be conducted in digital format, but in what ways technology will affect teaching and learning. There exists a great diversity of different concepts for education conducted via ICT, to mention but a few, open learning , distributed learning , online learning , blended learning ,  flexible learning  or web-based education  (see, e.g., Hrastinski, 2009; Mattsson, 2008; Sundgren, 2012). These concepts are usually attributed various meanings in different contexts, but there is not enough space available for detailed discussions about the different concepts here. Our purpose is to briefly demonstrate the diversity of concepts in the field of education via ICT, and hereafter we will use the concept web-based education  as a more general term which refers to higher education that occurs over time and space, between teachers and students, and with the support of ICT. However, we explicitly avoid the concept distance learning , based on arguments put forward by, e.g., Hrastinski (2009) and Mattson (2008). They argue that the concept distance learning is often associated with a more traditional information transfer perspective on education (the acquiring of concepts), following the acquisition metaphor   (Sfard, 1998), which runs the risk of not utilizing the available technical possibilities to connect students, but primarily focuses on the, more or less,  isolated interaction between teacher and student. Instead, we adhere to the constructivist perspective on learning, following the  participating metaphor   (Sfard, 1998), which puts attention on the shared social and cultural aspects of the learning process. More specifically, our view of learning as both a phenomenon and a process has its srcins in the interactionist approach, mainly inspired by Bron and Wilhelmsson’s book  Learning in Higher Education  (Eds./2007). This means, learning is a reciprocal process that is shared between student and teacher, and as presented in Chapter 7, on page 101: " The responsibility for the realization of learning in adult education is shared. It is shared between the learner and the educator. The outcome of the students’ or others’ learning success, depends on the students themselves, the teacher, and the interaction between them ". This quote really captures the heart of the matter when it comes to learning as a phenomena based on our values. But then we have to address the question of responsibilities, and we quote from Chapter 5, on page 70, the following: " The learner is responsible  for his own task to learn. The teacher is responsible for creating a good learning environment  ". However, it should be pointed out that we are not major opponents of the acquisition metaphor, since the combination of both metaphors is common in higher education, and both metaphors have their pros and cons. The  participating metaphor   has sometimes (wrongly) been considered as fuzzy and babbling, lacking coherence and structure. In order to reflect, think critically and synthesize different perspectives, students must have constructed a thorough understanding of central concepts in the current subject area of study (cf. Feisel-Schmitz taxonomy of learning, 1986). Generally speaking, as a teacher you have to be aware of the different metaphors and apply them accurately in the course design so that the students will be able to reach the intended learning outcomes through proper course alignment (Biggs, 1996). As a result of the development of ICT, different digital learning platforms have been developed that enable various forms of social interaction and communication between teachers and students. In addition to the new opportunities that learning platforms and their available tools provide for flexible web-based education, there are also some challenges concerning how to develop social interaction between students as well as between teachers and students in web-based education. According to the scientific literature, there are several implications that social interaction is more difficult to develop in online courses than in campus courses, due to the fact that humans are social beings and that many aspects present in face-to-face (f2f) interaction is actually missing, to various degrees, in web-based education. However, creating and maintaining efficient, effective and creative learning communities is easier said than done in practice. There is a lot of research that addresses several crucial aspects in order to create and enhance well-functioning learning communities, but typically the focus is on group work. We will address the issue of social learning communities from a more individual perspective, but still the learning is considered to occur in  a social context. Based on our experience, group work is a demanding activity in higher education in general, and especially in web-based education. We have encountered different kinds of problem situations and have tested different ways to overcome or, at least, limit the identified problems. The major goal has been to improve the students’ learning environment and learning outcome, but the cost has sometimes been more administrative work as well as increased workload for the teachers (e.g. more assignments to examine). However, we have discussed the pros and cons of our way of working and concluded that the “traditional” way of group work also resulted in an increased workload for teachers, and increased drop- out rates for students. Altogether, the additional communication with students and administration regarding problems related to group assessments resulted in alternative ways of working in a social context in web-based education. It should be pointed out that the majority of our students are enrolled on freestanding and first-cycle courses. Another central issue is the legal aspect. According to the University’s local Degree Ordinance, each student has to be examined on his/her own performance and not on group performance. The aim of this paper is to present five identified challenges concerning learning in a social context in web-based education, and discuss lessons learned on how to reduce these challenges in higher education in general, and online courses in particular. The remainder of this paper is structured as follows. The following section provides some conceptual background on different aspects of learning in a social context in web-based education that will be useful in motivating and framing the work discussed in this paper. The subsequent section presents the method and performance of the study. The next section presents the five identified challenges concerning learning in a social context in web-based education and discusses lessons learned on how to reduce these challenges in higher education. The paper ends with a summary and discussion of the work presented here, as well as addressing some future work, ending with conclusions. Background: Learning in a social context in web-based education The advent of ICT has resulted in a huge body of research over the years regarding different aspects of social learning in web-based education. It is not possible to review all the relevant research here, so we focus our attention on some underlying approaches, theories and concepts that address major characteristics of social interaction and communities of learners. Web-based education is complex and provides a lot of pedagogical, administrative and technical challenges in general, and the social interaction between students and teachers in particular. Based on our adherence to a constructivist perspective on learning, following the  participating metaphor   (Sfard, 1998), we put attention on the shared social and cultural aspects of the learning process. For example, research has shown that students who interact with their peers and teachers often receive higher grades, have reduced dropout rates, experience that they have learned more, are more satisfied  with their education and more inclined to finish their education (Fredericksen et al., 2000; Hiltz et al., 2000, in Hrastinski, 2009). Within the interdisciplinary field of Computer Supported Cooperative Learning (CSCL) the main concern is to explain, study and design learning environments which take place via social interaction using different kinds of interactive technology (cf., e.g., Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers, 2006). CSCL is characterized by the sharing and construction of knowledge among participants using technology as their primary communication tool. The role and relevance of technology as a supporting and mediating artefact is central in CSCL, which dates back to the socio-cultural work by the Russian scholar Lev Vygotsky. Moreover, CSCL’s emphasis on students’ learning in social groups has influenced pedagogics and learning sciences, and the combination of technology and education is considered a fruitful combination in order to enhance learning in a social context, from both individual and group perspectives (Mattson, 2008). Roughly speaking, there is compelling support for the role and relevance of social interaction for learning. However, research on social psychology applied to group work in computer-supported collaborative work (CSCW) reveals that the intended positive outcomes with group work suffer from some drawbacks in the form of poorer performance (Kraut, 2003). Examples of drawbacks are process loss and social loafing. Process loss occurs when group members work less efficient in teams than individually, and it is often the result of coordination and motivational problems. Social loafing is another identified issue that degrades individual motivation in groups, and it refers to the fact that individuals will engage less in a group activity if they suspect a poor outcome, it the task is not personally satisfying or engaging. In other words, social loafers do not contribute to the outcome of the group task as a whole, and instead try to sneak with minor effort. A fundamental issue in web-based education is the distribution over space  and time , and consequently the distribution has impact on the social interaction, the teaching and the course design. The design of web-based courses differs significantly from campus-based education, and consequently it radically changes the teachers’ role and pedagogics (Hrastinski, 2009). Pedagogical digital competence, for example, is a central issue in web-based education that we address in more detail elsewhere (cf. e.g. Lindblom, Alklind Taylor, Rambusch & Svensson, 2011). Moreover, the way learning is affected by synchronous  or asynchronous  interaction is of particular interest, given the fact that the majority of online students, seldom or never, come together in real life (IRL). The use of internet offers a tentative solution to enabling social interaction when located at different places geographically. As a consequence, some efforts have been made in order to create some kind of “virtual learning communities”, as a substitute to meet IRL on campus (Mattsson, 2008). How is (social) learning affected by synchronous  or asynchronous communication through interactive technology? Computer-supported communication provides several possibilities and media channels (such as text, video, audio etc) to social interaction in web-based education, which in the long run might establish “communities of learning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Hrastinski (2009) disentangles different pros and cons with synchronous  and asynchronous  communication in web-based education. Much emphasis in research has been on asynchronous  communication given its flexible nature. It has been argued that the characteristics of asynchronous  communication provide several possibilities for learning; independence from time and place, allowing students’ to decide by themselves when to communicate with other students and teachers. This offers students the possibility not to answer questions immediately, and then having more time for formulating and reflecting on their answers. This also has implications for course design, allowing assignments to be made during longer time-frames, flexibility and explicit social interaction among students. The flexibility in time and space allows other than ordinary student groups to participate in web- based education; students that live far away from campus, are working part-time, or are raising a family. They can then participate according to their own schedule; study on weekends, at nights or during shorter time-spans at daytime. On the other hand, the pros with asynchronous communication can also be considered cons. For example, students might be afraid of posting questions and texts in fora visible to others, since they might suffer from performance anxiety, fear of making a fool of themselves by asking “stupid” questions or having misinterpreted an assignment task in front of their classmates (Hrastinski, 2009). Synchronous  communication requires students to participate in real-time, but not being at the same place. Pros with real-time interaction are the possibilities of direct feedback on questions, to get immediate replies on follow-up questions, and the possibility of social “chatting” with other students beyond the course content, providing a foundation for a “virtual learning community”. The major con with synchronous  communication is the inflexible nature of punctuality in time, since many online students are busy with other tasks besides their studies. It is easier, however, to use synchronous  communication in smaller groups, in students’ own planning and in supervision of group work (Hrastinski, 2009). Generally speaking, asynchronous  and synchronous  communication complements each other, by providing different means for communication among students and teachers in web-based education. Concurrently with the technological development, and the considered advantages of social interaction among students for learning, different aspects of “collaboration” and “participation” have gained increased attention. For example, encouraging student participation and collaboration is considered as the teacher’s most important characteristic in order to succeed in web-based education (Hrastinski, 2009; 2011; Mattson, 2008). There exist a lot of relevant concepts concerning learning in a social context, for example, “collaboration”, “cooperation”, “participation”, “community of practice” and “virtual
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