Interactive Learning Environments

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Interactive Learning Environments

ISSN: 1049-4820 (Print) 1744-5191 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/nile20

Read-only participants: a case for student communication in online classes

L. Nagel , A. S. Blignaut & J. C. Cronjé

To cite this article: L. Nagel , A. S. Blignaut & J. C. Cronjé (2009) Read-only participants: a case for student communication in online classes, Interactive Learning Environments, 17:1, 37-51, DOI: 10.1080/10494820701501028

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10494820701501028

Published online: 13 Mar 2009.

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Read-only participants: a case for student communication in online classes

L. Nagela*, A.S. Blignautb and J.C. Cronjéc

aUniversity of Pretoria, South Africa; bNorth-West University, South Africa; cCape Peninsula University of Technology, South Africa

(Received 5 April 2007; final version received 25 May 2007)

The establishment of an online community is widely held as the most important prerequisite for successful course completion and depends on an interaction between a peer group and a facilitator. Beaudoin reasoned that online students sometimes engage and learn even when not taking part in online discussions. The context of this study was an online course on web-based education for a Masters degree in computer-integrated education at the University of Pretoria. We used a mixed methodology approach to investigate how online activity and discussion postings relate to learning and course completion. We also investigated how student collaborative behaviour and integration into the community related to success. Although the quantitative indices measured showed highly significant differences between the stratifications of student performance, there were notable exceptions unexplained by the trends. The class harboured a well-functioning online learning community. We also uncovered the discontent students in the learning community felt for invisible students who were absent without reason from group assignments or who made shallow and insufficient contributions. Student online visibility and participation can take many forms, like read-only participants who skim over or deliberately harvest others’ discussions. Other students can be highly visible without contributing. Students who anticipate limited access due to poor connectivity, high costs or other reasons can manage their log-in time effectively and gain maximum benefit. Absent and seldom contributing students risk forsaking the benefits of the virtual learning community. High quality contributions rather than quantity builds trust among mature students. We suggest how to avoid read-only-participation: communicate the required number of online classroom postings; encourage submission of high quality, thoughtful postings; grade discussions and give formative feedback; award individual grades for group projects and rotate members of groups; augment facilitator communication with Internet-independent media to convey important information. Read-only-participants disrupt the formation of a virtual community of learners and compromise learning.

Keywords: higher education; web-based learning; participation; lurkers; virtual community of learners

Background

As more formal education courses are available online, quality and non-completion remain problems:

While online course enrolments continue to climb, retention and success rates in such courses and programs are frequently reported as typically lower than those delivered in

*Corresponding author. Email: lynette.nagel@up.ac.za

Interactive Learning Environments

Vol. 17, No. 1, March 2009, 37–51

ISSN 1049-4820 print/ISSN 1744-5191 online

� 2009 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/10494820701501028

http://www.informaworld.com

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a traditional classroom format; those of us in roles that support online students have a role in reversing that trend! (Schreck, 2006)

Researchers often measure the success of online learning as students’ perception of learning and course throughput rates. Drop-out rates for online courses range from 20 to 50%, often 10–20% higher than for equivalent contact courses (Bernard, Brauer, Abrami, & Surkes, 2004). Searching for a model to predict student success in online learning, Bernard et al. (2004) found that students’ frame of mind can predict readiness for learning and affect course outcomes, while ‘‘prior achievement is still the best predictor of future achievement’’ (Bernard et al., 2004, p. 44).

Research shows that online participation is necessary to ensure successful course completion (Klemm, 1998; Rovai & Barnum, 2003; Swan, Shea, Fredericksen, Pickett, & Pelz, 2000). Clark and Feldon (2005) concluded that a facilitator who participates and interacts with students prevents them from abandoning their course. Better cognitive outcomes occur when students engage and form a virtual community of learners. The development of a community depends on online interaction with their peers and the facilitator. Learner satisfaction, perseverance, and cognitive outcomes characterize the formation of a virtual learning community. Some contest participation as a prerequisite to learning, claiming students learn sufficiently by observation (Beaudoin, 2002; Sutton, 2001), and lobby for leniency towards lurking or read-only participation. This article responds to Beaudoin’s (2002) article ‘‘Learning or lurking? Tracking the ‘invisible’ online student.’’ He reasoned that students sometimes engage and learn even when not taking part in online discussions with faculty and other students and showed that low profile students:

spend a significant amount of time in learning-related tasks, including logging on, even when not visibly participating, and they feel they are still learning and benefiting from this low-profile approach to their online studies. (p. 147)

We investigated the importance of student online ‘‘visibility’’ apparent in the quantity and quality of participation. We explored as a case study the successful completion of a postgraduate online course by asking the following research questions.

(1) How did online participation relate to learning and successful course completion?

(2) How did participation influence the learning community?

Literature

The debate on online participation

Taking part in discussions

A learning management system (LMS) tracks progress and performance and reveals students who do not log in to their online classroom or who log in without participating. Klemm (1998) blamed classroom-based teaching where students expect entertainment for conditioning them to passive learning. Therefore, they seldom realize the benefits of participating actively in online discussions, naturally

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lurking. Well-facilitated online discussions can be more inclusive than classroom discussions by including introverted students and enabling better quality interaction (Cox, Carr, & Hall, 2004; Prammanee, 2003). Rovai and Barnum (2003) claimed that passive online learning through ‘‘listening’’ without participation produces no measurable increase in knowledge, as they could predict perceived learning through the number of messages posted. Others have also reported that distributed students who participate in dynamic discussions had better course completion rates and that failing students interacted less frequently (Davies & Graff, 2005; Swan et al., 2000). Active online participation also benefits learning.

Improved learning

Deep cognitive learning (Prammanee, 2003) and high levels of interactivity are possible in online discussions, as students can prepare well-considered contributions (Kettner-Polley, 2005). According to Carr, Cox, Eden, and Hanslo (2004), students who focused on building knowledge and collaborative interactions had a superior average performance, as challenging online interactions promote understanding. Interactive learning provides an instructor with insight into student misconceptions, difficulties, conceptual problems, and verbal pitfalls. Asking leading questions elicits insights into what students understand, more than simply telling them the answer. Immediate feedback from their peers and instructors and social interaction built into the online discussions contribute to learning (Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991). Collaborative learning activities contribute to deep learning, critical thinking skills, a shared understanding, and long-term retention (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

Consistency in course design, interaction with course instructors, and active discussion—have been consistently shown to significantly influence the success of online courses. It is posited that the reason for these findings relates to the importance of building community in online courses. (Swan et al., 2000, p. 513)

Community of learners

Interaction is conducive to the emergence of a community of practice (Collins et al., 1991) and a virtual community of learners (Collison, Elbaum, Haavind, & Tinker, 2000). Learning from your peers in a structured way can ameliorate the social isolation online students often experience (Boud, Cohen, & Sampson, 1999). Collaborative learning groups solve problems while sharing and clarifying ideas (Cox et al., 2004). In a collaborative learning environment students develop critical thinking skills and a shared understanding and deep learning, while retaining learning over the long term (Garrison et al., 2001). In a community of practice novices learn from experts by observing authentic tasks and executing progressively more advanced tasks themselves under an expert eye (Johnson, C. S., 2001). Complex tasks can be learnt in a community of practice wherein ‘‘participants actively communicate about and engage in the skills involved in expertise’’ (Collins et al., 1991, p. 16). Frequent, meaningful, valued, and dynamic discussions in an online course lead to the formation of a virtual learning community where students interact and support each other. According to Collison et al. (2000), members of a healthy online community of learners post regularly and collaborate with other participants, as well as teach and moderate the

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online discussions spontaneously. Group cohesion, trust, respect, and belonging further characterize a community of learning (Kreijns, Kirschner, & Jochems, 2003). The formation of a community cannot be taken for granted. Some students do not participate fully.

The case for read-only participation

Legitimate non-participation

Non-participation may initially be legitimate, as peripheral online learners make limited entrances into the community, remaining on the outskirts, observing the activities of more advanced participants and learning from it (Collins et al., 1991). Sutton (2001, p. 223) also reasons that ‘‘direct interaction is not necessary for all students and that those who observe and actively process interactions between others will benefit through the process of vicarious interaction.’’ As students increase their expertise, they move from the periphery to the centre (Carr et al., 2004), with increasing visibility. Beaudoin (2002) found that invisible students sometimes ‘‘spend a significant amount of time in learning-related tasks, including logging on, even when not visibly participating, and they feel they are still learning and benefiting from this low-profile approach to their online studies’’ (p. 147). Williams (2004) advocated using the term read-only participants (ROP) rather than the derogatory lurker for non-participatory students and vicarious interactors. He cautioned that while the ROPing students may be satisfied that their learning needs are met, they do not contribute to the larger community.

Inadvertent non-participation

Students do not actively participate in online discussions because they procrastinate, they feel isolated, or they’re unfamiliar with the technology. They may also miss the course structure or control of discussions and therefore remain unconvinced of the course’s benefits (Miller, Rainer, & Corley, 2003). Patterns of online participation and interaction can vary across cultural groups. In many developing countries the digital divide is increasing, due to an inadequate infrastructure and few Internet subscriptions (Roycroft & Anantho, 2003). The exclusive use of English in non- English speaking cultures, economic development, and available bandwidth also affect student success.

Facilitator participation

Student interaction is not the only factor influencing collaboration, learning, and successful course completion. Students become more involved in an online conference when the facilitator participates as guide, providing extensive critique, feedback, and encouragement (Collison et al., 2000). An effective learning community requires an instructor with integrated social, cognitive, and teaching presence (Cox et al., 2004). Facilitators should teach critical thinking, effective communication, and problem-solving skills (Shavelson & Huang, 2003). The current vogue to embrace a constructivist pedagogy where the instructor withdraws from the online learning environment, allegedly to promote discovery and experimental learning activities, is unsubstantiated (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

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