As an online educator, I am a strong proponent of teaching students basic interaction and collaboration skills. As is the case with teamwork, we expect them to perform but are guilty of assuming that they have the required know-how. Can you recall one of your teachers explaining the attributes of a functional team, the importance of team members’ respective roles, the do’s and don’ts of good communication, the weight of common goals, the value of a contribution and so on? I don’t and have yet to find someone who had that privilege. We all have horror stories about teamwork; to me, the “horrific” part is that we don’t act as agents of change so we perpetuate the same patterns and students lack motivation when they have to collaborate with others.
The same apply to sought-after skills in online learning. It is fairly safe to say that a majority of online students, no matter what their age, simply don’t know what a vibrant online community is and how to achieve it. They attended school in teacher-led classes and are conditioned to be rather passive learners.
My suggestion would be that the very first class addresses these issues either by modeling an active learning class with mentors or at least by watching archives of courses where students fully participate. It is also highly important that students understand the value of dialogue and collaboration. We need to empower them so they know that they’re expected to react to teammates comments, answer peer questions, raise their own questions, negotiate meaning and collectively construct new knowledge. They have to feel that they are part of a dynamic process that has nothing to do with the knowledge-transmission patterns that they are used to. If we succeed in giving them the right online learning tools they are more likely to have a positive experience and know success.
I wrote this with online learning in synchronous mode in mind but rereading it, I think that it can also apply to online learning in asynchronous mode where the development of a vibrant community is even a greater challenge.