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Re-envisioning asynchronous communication.

Abstract

Facilitating a collaborative community in an online class takes a delicate balance of technology and personal communication. This article explores the use of asynchronous communication tools, including threaded discussions, announcements, and personal emails to create and maintain a high-tech, high-touch online classroom. The resulting course structure both increases student autonomy and enhances instructor efficacy.

Introduction

In fall 2003, I accepted a position that required me to adapt a core professional and technical writing course at the University of Wyoming (UW) to a virtual classroom. As an instructor for the only baccalaureate-degree-granting institution in Wyoming--a large, rural state with significant economic and educational diversity--I was used to serving a broad population with diverse learning styles and needs. Furthermore, I knew that "although the technologies and processes in Web-based instruction provide flexibility for the distance learner, they also can produce specific challenges" (DeTure 21). Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the glut of individual communications and the volume of personal attention my students would require. Since then, I have developed the use of asynchronous communication tools to limit the repetitive, individual communications that overwhelmed me during my early semesters teaching online. Instead of relying on email for mass communication, for example, I now use the course platform's built-in Announcements tool. I also rely heavily on the materials posted on the course website and on students' expertise with online learning in my responses to individual student inquiries. Finally, I continue building infrastructure into my course Home area. I have dubbed the resulting online course, which relies heavily on student-teacher and student-student communication, "high-tech, high-touch."

On the following pages, I discuss the development and application of these techniques. After a brief review of current literature and research into online teaching and learning, I contextualize my discussion by introducing course strategies and objectives. Next, I briefly overview the course platform, and finally, I discuss how I have used asynchronous tools, including threaded discussions, announcements, and email both to facilitate community in the online classroom and to manage my teaching time more efficiently.

Background

In February 2004, the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) issued a position statement identifying numerous best practices for faculty teaching writing and composition in the online environment. According to these guidelines, successful online instruction "encourages contacts between student and faculty, develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, and uses active learning techniques" (Yancey et al., par. 15). Indeed, as Cheng-Chang Pen and Michael Sullivan assert, "communication is always a top priority in an online [teaching] environment" (par. 1). In "College Students' Perceptions of Quality in Distance Education: The Importance of Communication," Madeline Ortiz-Rodriguez et al. affirm this assertion: "Students related quality in communication with the following features: interaction between students and instructors, and between students and students; timely feedback from instructors; and availability and accessibility of teaching assistants, facilitators, professors, help staff, and technical staff" (101). Communication in the online environment, however, is unlike the spontaneous communication that takes place in a physical classroom. Although most course management systems (CMS) include synchronous communication tools, such as chat rooms and white boards, as Alvin Wang and Michael Newlin explain, "most Web-based courses rely primarily on asynchronous communication to deliver course information to students" (par. 1).

Furthermore, the very nature of online communication creates expectations of constant and immediate availability of faculty. Using the ubiquitous MicroSoft Windows slogan, "Where do you want to go today?," as a metaphor for online learning, Laura Brady demonstrates how the virtual learning environment fosters expectations of faculty availability that result in students' dissatisfaction when instructors do not respond immediately to their communications (Brady 35051). Yet, as Kristine Blair and Elizabeth Monske explain, "fully online courses require more upfront planning, more detail in design, and just as many, if not more, contact hours with students than traditional, classroom-based courses" (447). Clearly, despite Xiaoxing Han et al.'s assertion that "course management is a relatively weak area of distance education planning, development and operation" (413), deliberate course management is essential to the success of distance education. In sum, while Liu et al. determined that interaction with online teachers is "one of the most important ways to disseminate distance education information" (45), nonetheless, effective time management is a key concern for online teachers. "Time issues," Liu et al. explain, "indicated not only a need for online instructors to adopt efficient strategies to teach online, but also a need to learn how to strategically unbundle some roles to ease stress" (45).

My early on-line experiences confirmed the breadth of these conundra. Although I spent hours designing a simple and consistent online course, when my course began, I was immediately inundated with emails from students ranging from requests for clarification to appeals to confirm deadlines or affirm that my students were "on the right track." Knowing I would be expected to add a second section of my online course and increase section enrollment in subsequent semesters, I immediately sought methods to minimize this onslaught of personal communication without sacrificing my presence in the classroom. My entry into the cyber-classroom took place with a senior-level English composition course called Technical Writing in the Professions (English 4010). This class, which I also teach in a bricks-and-mortar (B&M) classroom, focuses on practicing and producing professional documents in various genres. For students from many disciplines, English 4010 satisfies a university-wide writing requirement and must therefore be completed successfully before students can graduate.

The course starts by introducing students to a variety of professional and technical writing genres and then builds these genres into a series of collaborative research and writing assignments that develop throughout the semester. The success of these assignments depends on seamless collaboration and effortless communication - ambitious goals, even in the shared physical space of a B&M classroom. In short, much of my job consists of building a safe, interactive community in which students can discover and shape knowledge collaboratively. The foundation of this collaborative community is comprised of threaded discussions, peer critiques, and group projects.

Asynchronous threaded discussions provide the backbone of the course community by enabling students to become acquainted as they construct a working knowledge of disciplinary concepts together. Students and I use threaded discussions to explore our experiences with various technical writing tools and genres, to develop and critique a variety of documents, and to respond to the concepts introduced in the text. Peer critiques comprise a second collaborative course feature. For each major writing assignment, every student critiques at least one classmate's draft. Most students recognize the importance of peer input early in the semester and learn to value the models, both effective and ineffective, that their classmates' drafts provide. Furthermore, as they offer and receive input on draft documents, students become aware of the type of feedback they value most as writers. At the same time, students begin to recognize their own strengths and weaknesses as readers.

I complement threaded discussions and peer critiques with a series of collaborative projects. Early in the semester, for example, small groups of students use a set of established criteria to evaluate and analyze a commercial website's rhetorical characteristics. A second group project asks students to define effective technical descriptions and instructions, again in small groups, and present their definitions in letters to future technical writing students. We carry this assignment--which tasks the class with its first attempt at polished, collaborative writing and can be quite difficult--into the discussion forum to explore the characteristics of successful group-work and its failures. My hope is that this ongoing group-work will prepare my students for a series of collaborative writing and research assignments that culminate in a final research project and analytical report. Although the majority of my online students begin these projects convinced that they will never collaborate effectively, after some initial struggles, most of the students overcome their geographical distribution and produce robust and engaging research. Throughout this process, the students continue to build and draw upon the online community that they began constructing on the first day of class.

The Platform

My course management system, eCollege, is a multi-media-capable interface with extensive intrinsic structure. The default interface includes a Course Home area complete with links to the syllabus and calendar. In addition to the Course Home page, students have access to the following tabs: Email, Chat, Doc Sharing, Dropbox, and Webliography. Before my first online semester began, I augmented this interface to maximize the platform's depth and flexibility without making it excessively complex. I built the course around a weekly schedule; each weekly unit included the following modules:

* a Welcome page with an overview of the week's activities,

* a reading module cross-referencing the course syllabus and weekly schedule,

* threaded discussions integrating concepts from the text into students' realworld experiences,

* notes and peer review modules as applicable, and

* an assignment module containing prompts for each major assignment and links to examples, assessment rubrics, and other pertinent materials.

The High-Tech, High-Touch Classroom

Despite this robust infrastructure, or perhaps because of it, my students still expect the spontaneous reinforcement and information exchange that they have learned to rely on in the physical classroom. In the online environment, however, this expectation translates to a glut of emails and phone calls; when students have questions, instead of going to the online course materials, too often their response is to call or email me for direction. My experience confirms Kwok-chi Ng's assertion that "most students considered that the major function of the online communication tool is to facilitate them to ask their tutor [or in my case, instructor] questions" (199). Instead of asserting themselves in a learner-centered paradigm, many students' first impulses are to position the teacher, me, as the expert in a teacher-centered classroom. This trend became particularly evident during my first semester teaching online, when one of my strongest students complained that she never knew what to expect from one week to the next. When I asked how often she had consulted the course syllabus, this student confessed, to her credit, that she had completely forgotten about the syllabus, even though it had been posted on the course website from the first day of class.

At first, I responded to my students' inquiries individually, occasionally reinforcing my individual emails with a global email clarifying an assignment or activity that had perplexed several students. Early in my first semester online, however, I realized that I would not be able to maintain the personal attention my students expected, so I began exploring ways to anticipate students' questions and to address them in advance. Near mid-term, I began emailing weekly reminders to each student listing ongoing and new assignments, activities, and deadlines. I also used these emails to preview upcoming activities and respond to potential questions. Although my students reported that the email reminders were helpful, in fact, they were creating a new sort of dependency. In lieu of referring to the resources available on the course website, students continued to come directly to me; more often than not, when they had questions, my students waited for their weekly email reminders and then simply clicked "Reply" to ask for clarification. Although my typical response was to gently redirect students to the website for the information they sought, I found it might take several weeks before most students formed the habit of relying on the extensive resources I had provided. Instead of fostering independence, as I had hoped, my reminders encouraged many students to rely on me even more, first for the weekly emails and second for immediate personal attention.

After several semesters of teaching online, I had an epiphany: I was demonstrating eCollege to a colleague who had used a similar CMS as a companion site for her on-campus classes. When my colleague asked me if I used the website's Announcements feature, a light-bulb went off. Indeed, I had used the feature, but minimally. I immediately realized this tool could curtail some of those reflexive emails that had beleaguered me; by simply using the website to initiate information exchange, I suspected students would investigate the site for the information they sought in favor of first locating my email address and then crafting an inquiry to me. This theory has proven true. Although I still receive several of the "I don't understand" emails early in the semester, by directing students to the areas within the course website that address their questions, I find most students quickly become sophisticated and independent online learners. In addition to using weekly Announcements, I created a Course Lounge--a threaded discussion area where veteran and inexperienced online learners exchange questions and support each other without my intervention. Offering all students the opportunity to engage in this mentoring facilitates the sense of community, as it draws on each student's expertise.

Finally, I posted a comprehensive Assignments page in the Course Home area. This page lists every major assignment and includes due dates for drafts, peer critiques, and final documents; links to detailed assignment prompts; and any other pertinent assignment information. The Assignments page is useful not only to students; by providing all the links I need to renew and refresh course materials, it also helps me maintain and update the course website for upcoming semesters. Although my initial experiments with these techniques stemmed from my need to reinscribe my boundaries in the online classroom, I rapidly recognized additional benefits to the structure and techniques I was developing. First, as I minimized one-on-one correspondence with students, I was able to integrate individual student conferences. As students attest, these conferences are more effective tools for communication than personalized emails. Second, with my first set of informal midterm evaluations, I learned that one of the course characteristics my students value most is the frequent instructor feedback they receive; the conferences clearly augment this perception of individual attention. Finally, and most significantly, my new course design encourages students to become self-reliant and independent learners--an important step for juniors and seniors about to enter the workforce.

Conclusion

My experiences in the online environment have confirmed that, as in the physical classroom, "the interactivity available in these [online] approaches promotes active engagement of students in the learning process and leads to improved academic achievement" (Katz 4). The inclusion of these few tools and techniques has facilitated both student-student interactivity and student-teacher interaction and helped to create a truly student-centered learning environment. Furthermore, I am convinced that the integration of these few techniques into my online class design has

* increased student retention by providing information early and consistently,

* decreased student frustration with the online interface and layout,

* decreased student dependency on me as the sole source of knowledge,

* encouraged students' autonomy,

* streamlined the process of updating my course website from one semester to the next, and

* enabled me to use some of the time I have reclaimed to conduct individual conferences with my online students.

Although I am pleased with the evolution of my online classes over the past several semesters, I still encounter a few students every semester who rely heavily on me and express frustration when I am unable to answer their questions immediately. In contrast, some students never ask--I hope these latter students are using the tools I have provided. In future semesters, I will continue building explicit structure into my online course. I have developed a treasure hunt, for example, that asks students to locate course materials and to review the resources that are available for them. I may also quiz students over course materials early in the semester--something I have always resisted--to assure they read the syllabus and other critical information.

I will continue encouraging my online students to maintain frequent contact with me, and with each other. Nevertheless, I have learned that, by exploiting the course tools, I can relieve some of the unique demands of teaching online. Furthermore, using these tools effectively helps shape students into better consumers of online learning while it positions them as responsible and independent members of the workforce they will one day enter.

Works Cited

Brady, Laura. "Fault Lines in the Terrain of Distance Education." Computers and Composition 18 (2001): 348-58.

Blair, Kristine L., and Elizabeth A. Monske. "Cui Bono?: Revisiting the Promises and Perils of Online Learning." Computers and Composition 20 (2003): 441-54.

Cheng-Chang, Pan, and Michael Sullivan. "Promoting Synchronous Interaction in an eLearning Environment." THE Journal, 33.2 (Sep. 2005): 27-30. 20 Mar. 2006. <http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=18404153>.

DeTure, Monica. Cognitive Style and Self-Efficacy: Predicting Student Success in Online Distance Education. American Journal of Distance Education, 18.1 (Mar. 2004): 21-38.

Han, Xiaoxing, et al. "Course Management as a Pedagogical Imperative." Electronic Learning Communities: Current Issues and Best Practices. Ed. Sorel Reisman, John G. Flores, and Denzil Edge. Greenwich CT: Information Age Publishing, 2003. 413-56.

Katz, Y. J. "Attitudes Affecting College Students' Preferences for Distance Learning." Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 18.1 (Mar. 2002): 2-9.

Liu, Xiaojing, et al. "Exploring Four Dimensions of Online Instructor Roles: A Program Level Case Study." Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9.4 (2005): 29-48.

Ng, Kwok-Chi. "Using E-mail to Foster Collaboration in Distance Education." Open Learning, 16.2 (June 2001): 191-200.

Ortiz-Rodriguez, Madeline, et al. "College Students' Perceptions of Quality in Distance Education: The Importance of Communication." The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 6.2 (2005): 97-105.

Wang Alvin Y., and Michael H. Newlin. "Online Lectures: Benefits for the Virtual Classroom." THE Journal, 29.1 (Aug. 2001): p17, 5p. 23 Mar. 2006. <http://search.epnet.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=5087454>

Yancey, Kathleen, et al. "CCCC Position Statement on Teaching, Learning, and Assessing Writing in Digital Environments." Proc. of Conference on College Composition and Communication, February 2004. 23 Mar. 2006. <http://www.ncte.org/groups/cccc/ positions/115775.htm>.

Meg VB Wood, University of Wyoming

Wood, M.A, a lecturer for the University of Wyoming's English department and Outreach School, teaches technical and professional writing online and in the physical classroom.
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Author:Wood, Meg V.B.
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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