I have a few concerns about Pam Vesely, Lisa Bloom, and John Sherlock’s “Key Elements of Building Online Community: Comparing Faculty and Student Perceptions” (MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 3.3, Sep. 2007). My primary concern is with the authors’ use of the term “modeling community.”
In my mind, the following operational descriptors, under “Students Ranking Order,” don’t define instructor modeling of community building:
- The professor participating in the discussions; she responded in the middle of a posting-that let you know she was really reading the responses.
- The professor constantly answering questions; grading and commenting on papers immediately.
- The Professor communicates frequently by e-mail. She has gone out of her way to offer online chat sessions to help with difficult material.
To model the community building behaviors that instructors want students to emulate, they would have to behave like a student — not a teacher. In other words, they would have to play the role of a student who embodies the community building ideals. In actual interactions, a student behaving like a teacher (see the three examples above) would be a turn-off to her/his peers. The point is that it’s simply not possible for the instructor to become a peer. She will always be seen as the teacher, and students will treat her as such.
The problem becomes obvious in any forum where a teacher’s opinion contradicts or differs from those of students. The students’ opinions will be ignored. The impact is ultimately detrimental to community building. Even when the teacher is in agreement, her views will hold more weight than the students’.
In the three descriptors above, the subtext is that the best community building practice is teacher-centric and top-down. It reinforces the notion that the teacher is the only person whose feedback is valuable. Ironically, this contradicts and works against the idea of community building.
I’m not saying that the teacher should not model community building. I believe she should, but she has to adopt the kinds of behaviors that don’t pit her against students in judgment calls. For example, she could guide discussions so they remain on track, ask for clarification, amplify a point that’s made by a student, commend a student for being candid (which is different from being correct), commend a thread for its vitality — all of which are part of the existing best practice for F2F small group discussions. Students could use these examples to build communities — and they can also maintain the value and credibility of peer-to-peer opinions.
Another concern is the premise that student perception ought to be the unquestioned guide to course design. In my opinion, the students in this study are still stuck in a teacher-centric mode where knowledge flows from top to bottom. The idea of online community building is an opportunity to wean students from this traditional model to one where knowledge flows horizontally, between and among students, and where the teacher’s primary role is to direct, guide, and facilitate.
A third concern is the subtext that F2F is superior to online when it comes to building communities. For example, under “Student’s interest and priority for the class,” we find the descriptor: “I care more about getting to know people in f2f classes. In online courses, I’m more interested in simply learning material. I prefer individual work online.” The implication is that students, despite their previous experience with online classes, still prefer to build communities in traditional F2F classes.
A fourth concern is the survey methodology. Fourteen online instructors invited an average of 3-to-4 students in their graduate classes to participate. (The n for students was 48.) This was in the fall and spring of 2006. According to the authors, “The average number of online courses taken by student respondents was 4 courses with 14 students having taken 6 or more online courses.” Four courses sounds reasonably objective, but the overwhelming number of courses taken by these grad students in their college careers were F2F. I believe it’s safe to say that their orientation was more F2F than online. Furthermore, the fact that instructors selected them may be an indication that they were in a population of students that related well with their teachers. The question remains, are they representative of all online students in 2012?
Finally, I’m concerned about the confusing use of terms. For me, “instructor presence,” instructor feedback, instructor responsiveness, and instructor modeling of community building behavior are different functions — not different labels for the same function, as this study seems to suggest.
Based on this reading, perhaps the greatest challenge to instructor modeling of online community building is to identify the specific behaviors that facilitate as well as harm the effort. As far as possible answers, I’ve mentioned a few above.