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"Me and my computer": emotional factors in online learning.

ABSTRACT This study focused on nursing student perceptions of sense of community in the online classroom. Using qualitative analysis of data gathered from five student focus groups, themes related to the affective domain in online learning were identified: aloneness, anonymity, nonverbal communication, trepidations, and unknowns. This article provides detailed examples of student experiences under each theme and suggests that greater attention to the affective domain is needed, particularly in asynchronous online learning. Pedagogical strategies that foster a sense of community in online courses between students and faculty enhance cognition through affective engagement of students. Strategies for instructors are given.

Key Words Online Nursing Education--Student Perceptions--Emotional Factors--Affective Learning--Sense of Community

EMOTIONS AFFECT THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE, ENHANCING OR INHIBITING EFFECTIVE LEARNING. Anxiety and isolation can be part of online learning, as well as feelings of confidence, encouragement, and mastery. As online courses proliferate across the globe in all areas of education, evidence is accumulating in support of the educational gains and intellectual challenges of online courses (National Survey of Student Engagement, 2008). But research has predominantly addressed cognition with comparisons to traditional, face-to-face courses with respect to gains in knowledge. Little research has focused on affective factors in online learning.

One area gaining recognition in online education research is the concept of sen. A of community. A sense of community occurs with interaction and deliberation by individuals joined together by shared interests and goals (Westheimer & Kahne, 1993). Community has been shown to be beneficial to student engagement and persistence, course satisfaction, and perceived learning in online courses (Liu, Magjuka, Bonk, & Seung-hee, 2007; Ouzts, 2006; Rovai, 2002).

Sense of community was investigated qualitatively by Gallagher-Lepak, Reilly, and Killion (2009) among online nursing students. Fifteen themes emerged to describe sense of community, characterized as either structural, processual, or emotional factors. This article reports on themes that comprise the emotional factors category.

Background The separation between cognition and affect in learning, known by the early Greeks, remains a topic for modern-day research (Lehman, 2006). But in higher education, the role of emotion has been "largely unexamined and certainly undervalued" (Ingleton, 1999). There are many reasons, including the dominance of cognitive sciences, difficulty defining and measuring emotion in educational research, and cultural bias in Western thinking that prioritize rational discourse (Ingleton; Yorks & Kasl, 2002). Bloom's taxonomy, which involves cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains and has been heavily used in education, was originally created to categorize learning behaviors and assist in the design and assessment of education (Atherton, 2011). For Bloom, the cognitive domain involves intellectual skills such as recall and analysis, while the affective domain involves feeling and emotions such as attitudes, values, and interests. These domains are depicted as separate entities, with cognition the predominant domain of interest. Research has shown that the interdependence of learning and emotion is more complex than previously suggested (Kort, Reilly, & Picard, 2001). Emotions shape the learner's perceptions of particular aspects of a situation and focus on cognitive processes (Lehman; LeDoux, 1996).

Intuitively, it would seem that positive affect (e.g., curiosity, confidence) would be necessary in learning. Indeed, a growing body of research suggests that even mildly positive affect can improve thinking (e.g., memory retrieval, creativity/flexibility in problem solving) (Isen, 2000). But positive emotions are not necessary for all types of thinking tasks (Picard et al., 2004), and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression can interfere with learning by reducing the information that students can take in and process (Goleman, 1995). A typical learning experience involves a continuum of emotion, from fear and frustration to surprise and delight (Kort & Reilly, n.d.). Kapoor, Mota, and Picard (2001) studied the range of emotions relevant to learning and noted patterns such as curiosity and interest in beginning stages, with puzzlement, confusion, and frustration happening as learning proceeds.

Cross-cultural research has shown consistency in facial expressions of fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise, and contempt (Ekman, 1989). In traditional classrooms, expert instructors become astute at recognizing the emotional states of their students through observation of facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and speech. Affect recognition allows them to help students in ways that lead to positive learning experiences (Kort et al., 2001).

For instructors in the online environment, the challenge is to understand affective experiences of online learners and integrate both affective and cognitive aspects of learning into course design. Only a few studies, however, have specifically addressed affective learning in online courses. In a study of students' online experiences, O'Regan (2003) found that frustration about technology was the most pervasive emotion described by participants. Students pointed to problems accessing information, lack of clear directions, and difficulty navigating the system. They experienced anxiety and apprehension about not keeping up with the class, not knowing clearly what to do, and the public and somewhat permanent nature of online communication. They showed a range of emotions, including shame and embarrassment as well as enthusiasm and excitement with the new way of learning.

Affective learning was compared for undergraduates in online and traditional introductory computing courses using self-report measures of engagement and affect (Moneta & Kekkonen-Moneta, 2007). Intrinsic engagement and negative affect were higher in online classes. The authors pointed out a need to identify specific reasons for this phenomenon.

While not predominantly aimed at emotion, various affective experiences of online learning have been identified in other studies. McFadzean and McKenzie (as cited in Hughes, Ventura, & Dando, 2007, p. 18) found that online student anger came from discomfort in learning situations and was expressed by "flaming, aggressive or malicious comments" Conrad (2002) described "wariness about what they [students] committed in writing to course web sites" (p.11). The sense of permanence with online communications caused students in many cases to respond in a slower, more deliberate way. Gibbs (as cited in Rovai, 2002) stated that a lack of connection can result in feelings of loneliness and reduced motivation to learn. Rovai described how community can help learners feel connected through interaction and shared goals. Higher levels of negative affect found in online courses indicate a need for further research to explore student perceptions in online learning environments.

Method DESIGN Telephone focus groups were used to elicit students' descriptions of the online learning environment and their perceptions of community. Participants were registered nurses from across the United States enrolled in online courses as part of an RN-BSN completion program through the Wisconsin state university system. They were recruited through electronic student newsletters and news postings in online nursing courses. To be eligible for the study, participants were required to have completed two or more online courses.

INSTRUMENTS AND PROCEDURE After university institutional review board approval and individual consent forms were obtained, participants completed a questionnaire covering demographic information and opinions about online learning. They also submitted a confidentiality commitment form and permission to be audiotaped. Each participant selected a convenient date and was given a toll-free telephone number to use. Open-ended discussion questions were emailed to participants for review before the focus group discussion. Sample questions asked during the audiotaped focus groups included:

* Give a specific example of a time in an online course in which you felt connected or part of a community.

* Give a specific example of a time in an online course in which you felt quite isolated or anonymous.

* What have you or a peer done to build community in an online course?

* What can be done or has been done by instructors to facilitate a strong sense of community in online courses?

Five telephone focus groups took place over a one-month period with each lasting about 90 minutes. Discussions were recorded and transcribed verbatim. Two group facilitators, knowledgeable in qualitative research and skilled in group dynamics, followed a standard focus group protocol. After a consistent and scripted introduction, the discussion questions were asked of each focus group.

Using a modified version of the LaPelle (2004) technique, data tables from transcripts were created in Microsoft Word. Responses were organized with corresponding columns for: a) de-identified participant code, b) verbatim response, c) sequence number of response in the discussion, and d) theme code for the response, according to audiotaped focus group content. After multiple readings and immersion in the transcripts, the researchers independently categorized participant statements into codes (or themes) and developed a codebook. Code validation was accomplished via cross agreement among the three researchers, with discrepancies in coding resolved through discussion. At a later date, focus group participants reviewed and verified the themes, by email communication, to assure credibility of the findings.

Results Based on the questionnaire completed prior to the focus groups, the 18 participants were mostly female (89 percent). All were white, part-time RN-BSN students; II were employed full-time; and 9 were over the age of 45. Participants had completed between 2 and 12 online courses and resided in eight states. Responses were mixed to the question about student feelings toward online learning. Nine participants endorsed the statement "It's a great way to learn," and 10 endorsed "I see both the benefits and barriers to online learning" (one participant checked both statements).

Focus groups were intentionally kept small (three to five participants per group), consistent with Krueger and Casey's 2009 recommendation for telephone focus groups. Fifteen themes reflecting student perceptions of sense of community in online courses emerged from the focus group data. Themes were organized into structural, processual, and emotional factors. Emotional factors included five themes: aloneness, anonymity, nonverbal communication, trepidations, and unknowns. See the Table on following page for descriptions of these themes.

ALONENESS The statement"me and my computer" characterized the aloneness of the online environment. Aloneness was related to perceived geographic isolation, lack of common student characteristics, and differing levels of nursing or technology skills and/or expertise among virtual classmates. One student stated: "I feel sort of isolated. I think it's because I'm one of the few from the east coast ... I feel like I am out here by myself."

Theme Description

physical aloneness; uncertainty of independent
learning; power with independent learning; lack
of connection to others online; hanging
in the air; geographic isolation

degree of sharing identity or personal factors;
namelessness, invisibility, unidentifiable or unrecognizable online

absence of face-to-face communication cues; no
visible body language in communication online;
inability to express or react to nonverbal communication

timidity; fear of making mistakes; fear due
to lack of experiences; apprehension due to
inexperience in online learning; invasion of
privacy concerns

ambiguity in course objectives or assignments;
syllabi inconsistencies; absent instructor; unclear
or unknown course expectations

Participants described feeling "out of the loop" and isolated in their first online courses. One stated: "The first class was a very isolated type feeling for me." Participants told of not knowing other classmates, who seemed to have previously established relationships: "Everyone else knew each other and I felt a bit isolated or not included, because I really didn't understand what they were talking about." Being offline for extended periods added to the isolation: 'Tve had to do some traveling.... Then I feel sort of isolated because I'm not there for maybe a week."

Some participants actually valued aloneness in learning. One stated, "It just occurred to me that the overall sense of community, in some ways, was stronger being online.... I was home most of the time in my wife's sewing room, which is where the computer is." Another reported: "As I'm learning the material and reading and working on my assignments, I like being by myself to do that. And I'm comfortable with that as well." There was recognition that one was not all alone: "It would make all the work a lot more burdensome if you felt you were all alone, and ... every person was just there for themselves, and not trying to work together. It would be a lot less enjoyable."

Participants spoke of self-discipline and acceptance of personal responsibility as requirements for success. "So I did feel, okay, this is my course and this is what I want to do, and, you know, I'll get my work done." A student stated: "Sometimes that part of it makes me feel like I'm an isolated person doing it, because you're the one that has to be disciplined enough to do the education online."

ANONYMITY Participants relayed varying comfort regarding sharing information. Responses about online anonymity reflected reluctance, and sometimes apprehension, about developing relationships. One participant stated: "I haven't really had any experiences where I felt comfortable calling anybody or just asking for random help, or I haven't made any friends or ... never meet anybody, and you don't know what anybody looks like." Another stated: "I don't know if she [online classmate] had some underlying psychological issues or not. I mean I was nervous. I took my [personal] information off [the online profile]. I thought 'wow'!" Relationships developed at a slower pace, "You know, some personalities do come out, but it just takes a little bit longer."

Some participants felt the opposite, stating that the anonymity of online experiences fostered a greater sharing of information. "People would share.... revelations about domestic abuse and ... health problems. And just different things that added a lot, and I think people felt comfortable. And again maybe that's an advantage of the distance learning. It's a little easier to share that way, you know anonymous maybe." Anonymity, and the lack of preconceptions or bias about the author of comments in course discussions, were valued: "So you sometimes know a lot about a person or you sometimes know a little or nothing about a person. So age or all those things don't enter into it."

Anonymity in online learning created benefits for introverted learners: "I am normally very shy in a live situation. I'm better on the telephone and typewriter. I can be very verbal that way, where I normally, in a class would not be the one to raise a hand." A participant stated: "I think people are more free to participate online because they don't get caught in maybe, being shy as opposed to being in a classroom ... people more anonymous are willing to give more honest, maybe vocal participation."

NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION The lack of nonverbal communication in online learning materialized as a theme in almost every focus group, with both positive and negative connotations. Some students enjoyed online learning because of the lack of nonverbal communication, while others students admitted to finding it hard to learn without nonverbal reinforcement. Some students transcended the lack of nonverbal communication and found "another way to connect" to their instructor and classmates.

Students appreciated the lack of nonverbal distractions found in the traditional classroom: "You are not daydreaming out the window ... or listening to the kid next door snoring or tapping the pencil." Another student relished the lack of face-to-face communication. She felt connected as she learned from what others had written in class without feeling pressure to respond: "So-and-so wrote that comment, and even though I can't picture that face, I still feel the sense of being a part of the class even though I'm not actively participating at the time."

Some students found it hard to learn without nonverbal cues: "Because it's just me and the computer. I see names of classmates, but it's kind of hard not having that face-to-face connection." A student noted the extra effort required in the online learning environment: "It takes a lot of dialog online to get to know someone, more so than face to face." Connecting to classmates, and seeing names without faces, proved difficult, especially in online classes with large enrollments. And fear of missing nonverbal cues from others was paralleled by personal fear, such as not wanting to "feel intimidated by them [classmates] over the computer." Some students felt that the underlying meaning in conversation was lost in the online world, resulting in the need for "another way to connect."

Telephone calls between an online instructor and student were viewed as "extremely helpful" giving "a more clear understanding of the tone and the setup for the class" and setting "my mind at ease." Hearing laughter in a phone conversation adjunct to the online class helped students clarify the "humanness" of those who were previously envisioned as sterile or strict, based solely from online interactions. "But after speaking with her I totally had a different feeling." Students felt telephone calls, though lacking important visual cues, fostered online relationships as "another way to connect."

TREPIDATION Trepidation in online learning was fueled by uncertainties about classmates. For example, participants who were uncertain about taking a course expressed trepidation if they did not know others who were taking the course: "I'm a bit nervous ... when you're in a classroom, it's more controlled, more contained. But when you're online it's a broader community ... you don't really know these people." Participants were uncertain as to what kind of responses would be received from peers in course discussions and were unsure of expectations. Some participants were overwhelmed by the volume of materials required and felt they should have had a better overview, or introductory guidance, to help "walk them through" the material before the class began. One student was "worried about keeping up on the discussions."

Despite the fact that materials could be easily read, students spoke of the need for feedback from the instructor. Some checked their grades and current progress frequently. One participant compared her discussion postings with others; her postings were "not as good as" "about the same as" or "even better" than other postings. One participant described feeling timid: "Where I'll put a posting in and think maybe I didn't do that right, maybe I did that wrong and maybe it wasn't any good" Instructor requirements for a certain number of substantive postings on a regular basis caused some students to be concerned about being perceived as "active" and being graded accordingly.

Some fears relating to the online format had to do with not knowing the system and, as a consequence, having to focus more on format than content. One participant stated: "It was just so new to me that I kind of felt like 'where do I even begin?' and I did feel like 'other people, they're already posting stuff' and just seemed to overall know how to use the online courses and so I kind of felt alone." More than one participant was intimidated by so-called "super achievers" those "who race ahead and get the whole course done [ahead of time]" Difficulty with writing skills, the need to communicate exclusively in writing without the benefit of verbal clarification, was mentioned as having an impact on some students' confidence.

UNKNOWNS Participants described many unknowns about course specifics, instructors, and classmates in the virtual classroom as well as confusing course calendars, unclear syllabi, and types of assignments. Some syllabi had "so much information and there were so many different directions" Participants with more than one course experienced "juggling that syllabus with two others, and not missing an assignment and not getting confused." "Doing teamwork ... was just kind of an uncomfortable thing to do, and I didn't know what the expectations were."

The uniqueness of each online course was overwhelming in the beginning of the semester."Every single class, the first two weeks are a like blur to me, because I'm trying to get in the habit of that class and that different type of instructor." A student stated, "I had no idea what to expect."

Students spoke of lack of feedback as adding to the unknown. Not knowing a grade or what questions students got wrong until near the end of a course made them feel "just kind of out there." Lack of instructor presence online frustrated students: "If it's not important for the instructor to even show up [online] why am I here?" On the other hand, some students stated that the infrequent presence of the instructor in an online course "brought us together and made us work together."

Students stated that communication was "vital to everything in life, and it's no different in the online classroom." Yet some students were hesitant to post personal information in a course with unknown classmates: "I don't want this person looking, hunting me down. You really don't know these people [classmates]. You only know them by what they're posting." On the opposite end, students told how much classmates helped each other: "I didn't expect to be as connected to each other and share as much with each other."

Discussion and Implications Four themes uncovered in this study--aloneness, anonymity, nonverbal communication, and unknowns--were described in both positive and negative terms. Only the theme of trepidation dealt solely with negative affective experiences. Students spoke of being worried about keeping up and being intimidated. Previous survey research found negative affect to be consistently higher in online courses compared to lecture courses (Moneta & Kekkonen-Moneta, 2007). Using a qualitative approach to understand student experiences, this study begins to identify reasons for both the positive and negative emotions encountered in online courses.

Emotion is interwoven into all learning experiences as illustrated in the rich words participants used to describe their frustrations and fear, as well as feelings of connectedness and enjoyment. Instructors need to recognize the emotional processes that students experience in online courses and design strategies to buffer the negative affective experiences that can impair learning.

Many participants expressed feelings of aloneness and isolation ("me and my computer"), but courses can be designed to help students find commonalities with one another. For example, in an RN-BSN completion course, students can be asked to post their area of nursing practice and years of experience as part of the assignment. Multiple synchronous discussions, using a text-based "chat" feature, can help identify/commonalities and encourage collegial relationships among classmates. Peer review of student work before submission to the instructor and small-group collaborative projects are two ocher examples of assignments that foster relationships and decrease feelings of aloneness. Such relationship-building strategies have been shown to enhance learning (Lehman, 2006; Rovai, 2002).

Increased interaction (learner to learner and instructor to learner) within an online course creates a more robust community (Rovai, 2002). As one student stated, "You only know them [other students] by what they're posting," so building interaction is critical. Study participants identified that anonymity in online courses can lead to more in-depth sharing of information and more involvement from introverted learners. Woods and Ebersole (2003) showed positive correlations between immediacy (perceived closeness between communicators) behaviors and affective and cognitive learning. Ways for online learners to increase immediacy include formal and informal discussion boards, email, course chat features, social networks (wikis or Twitter), and telephone contacts.

The dearth of nonverbal communication inherent in online courses can reduce immediacy. Some instructors encourage students to post their pictures, use emoticons (combinations of keyboard letters and symbols to express an emotion in text), or schedule synchronous audio or video meetings (for example, via Skype) between small groups of students and the instructor. Use of first names, personal greetings, and closures in online communication (indicators of immediacy behavior) build and sustain a sense of community and make up for the lack of nonverbal communication online (Swan, 2002).

Many participants told how their first online course engendered feelings of isolation. This is consistent with findings from Moneta and Kekkonen-Moneta (2007) and Yang and Chang (2008). To support first-time students and potentially reduce attrition rates, instructors can ask students to identify whether they are new to online learning and make periodic contact with them in the first several weeks of the semester, providing reassurance and encouragement. A "Tips on Surviving an Online Course" discussion is a strategy that allows experienced students, as well as the instructor, to offer suggestions to newer students. Participants in this study appreciated having explicit expectations and specifics about course content highlighted by instructors in announcements on the course homepage.

Providing content in a way that is new to the learner can tap the affective domain as well. For example, asking students to create a poem about drug properties for a particular medication in a pharmacology course, although initially intimidating, may result in a high level of learning retention.

Instructor affect is yet another area to consider in online learning. Sheppard (2005) affirmed that instructor affect is transferred in text-based online learning environments. Martin (1989) encouraged instructors to model attitudes, values, and emotions that are consistent with desired behavior. Instructors who model curiosity and interest, for example, acknowledge the importance of affective experiences for students and enhance learning. The instructor may comment, for example, "I am delighted by the class interest and energy with this discussion and notice that most of you disagree with ..."

It is not possible, nor desirable, to remove all affect from the online learning process. Medina (2008) described the molecular biology behind emotions that act as "neurological Post-it notes" to enhance memories. Educators can encourage emotional attachment to learning content to ensure that deeply rooted learning occurs (Picard et al., 2004).

Conclusion Affective dimensions of learning are especially important in human service professions such as nursing (Hughes et al., 2007; Martin, 1989). Further studies are needed to build this knowledge base and a repertoire of teaching strategies around the affective domain in online learning. Limitations of the study sample are recognized. This study investigated the perceptions of white women, and future studies, with more men and greater ethnic diversity, are needed. Studies have shown that gender and ethnicity play a role in how students learn (Barkatsas, Kasimatis, & Gialamas, 2008; Baylor, 2005). Research on the affective experiences of online students from other human service disciplines is also needed.

Findings from this qualitative study show a broad range of affective processes experienced by nursing students in the virtual classroom. Emotional factors emerged as a central part of the sense of community among online nursing students. By listening to student experiences, instructors can address both cognitive and affective aspects of learning, bringing richness to online learning beyond "me and my computer."


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About the Authors Janet Resop Reilly, DNP, APRN-BC, is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay Professional Program in Nursing. Susan Gallagher-Lepak, PhD, RN, is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay Professional Program in Nursing. Cheryl Killion, PhD, RN, is an associate professor at the Case Western Reserve University Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Cleveland, Ohio. For more information, contact Dr. Reilly at

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Author:Reilly, Janet Resop; Gallagher-Lepak, Susan; Killion, Cheryl
Publication:Nursing Education Perspectives
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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