I am currently attending an eight week long online course from the British Council on e-moderating, a prerequisite for becoming a blended instructor for one of their projects here in India. I have experience with teaching courses online although I haven’t ever used Moodle which is the platform both for the course I’m attending and any possible future blended courses I will teach through the BC. A non-assessed requirement of the course is to maintain weekly reflections and you’re allowed to do this in a range of formats including posting on your own blog. As I’ve been neglecting my blog of late, it’s only appropriate that I reflect here rather than elsewhere.
The course design has a little bit of a redundancy in that it requires participants to submit a Report of Work which asks you to report on specific assessment criteria providing evidence through URLs, screenshots etc. Despite the name, what it really works out to be is a sort of assessed reflection format. I don’t want to repeat myself so instead I’m going to choose one aspect that I touched on in my Report of Work and explore it further.
We know there is such a thing as very little participation, and its impact on classroom dynamics and learning. But, what’s the impact of too much participation? And in the context of an online learning environment? Online learning environments supposedly support inhibited or weaker learners who might shy away from contributing much in a face to face learning environment unless they are working in pairs. However, even in pairs, there is the possibility of being dominated by a stronger learner. In theory, an online discussion forum levels the playing field a bit. There’s no question of turn-taking. You can take your time to formulate a contribution. It doesn’t matter much if you repeat ideas that have already been mentioned or it at least doesn’t seem as obvious as it would in a live conversation. And yet, I don’t believe that the effect of logging in and finding that the discussion forum is full of lengthy posts by just a couple of participants, is motivating.
Through this week, I contributed more than the average course participant (but by no means the most active) whether in discussion forums, synchronous chats and Wikis. I am left wondering whether I or any of the other more active course participants inadvertently disengaged our peers through misplaced effusiveness. While introductions are easy to contribute and comment on (“wow, you love gardening, me too!”), tasks that are associated with content pieces are more challenging to do so. When the cognitive load is already fairly high, it’s easy to get disheartened when it looks like the online party’s gotten started without you. So, you respond laconically to achieve the bare minimum criteria that’s expected of you. Tick in the box, yes. Genuine learning, no.
I’m concerned about what that might mean for my learners when I find myself moderating an online course. I wouldn’t want to put a damper on the zeal of the ‘enthu-cutlets’ as we call them in Indian English but merely (and privately) encouraging the more reticent participants or the ones with a pattern of perfunctory responses may not take care of the affective barrier of participants whose names are plastered over every forum, wiki, and activity and here’s the thing, those names and often verbose messages associated with them are omnipresent and everlasting each time anyone logs into the course.
A possible solution is to consciously partner more active participants with less active ones in tasks that compel the former to elicit and hear out the latter’s perspectives. Another solution could focus on building participants metacognition about interpersonal dynamics in online courses. I observed that I had a bias to having a ‘conversation’ with more active participants who had meatier responses in forums. In the coming week, each time I write a response in the discussion forum, I’m also going to try to respond to someone I would not normally engage in an asynchronous dialogue. The tricky bit is building this kind of awareness in learners.
Image attribution: LT – Presentations – Audience Participation by Matt Cornock | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0