By Henry Kronk November 30, 2017
Since online learning was first pioneered decades ago, educators have raised concerns about the student’s experience.
“In the 1990s,” writes Professor Wen-Li Chyr and a team of researchers, “it was found that students felt physically isolated when they participated in online courses, especially when the instructor could not immediately provide feedback to learners.”
Many things have changed since the ‘90s, especially regarding online education and education technology. Some professors have made incredible commitments to online presence, such as Al Filreis who maintains a massive online open course (MOOC) version of his poetry class at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his team respond to students usually within the hour. Professor Ashok Goel at Georgia Tech created a teaching assistant chatbot for his computer science courses.
But by and large, these efforts are fantastic anomalies. The issues of isolation for online learners remain today. “[S]tudents suffer isolation when they study in an online environment and this situation is often considered to be unavoidable,” Chyr writes.
Chyr and his team published a study earlier this year titled “Exploring the Effects of Online Academic Help-Seeking and Flipped Learning on Improving Students’ Learning.” The study posed an interesting question. Instead of seeking to solve student isolation in an online setting, maybe changing teaching methods can help foster a more connected, collaborative online experience.
The study specifically focused on online academic help-seeking (OAHS) and flipped learning in a college course in Taiwan. OAHS is fairly self-explanatory. It describes actions that students take—or don’t take—to better understand the material with which they are presented. In a traditional setting, a student might involve a TA or the professor. Online, a student might Google a question, refer to the class’s website, check independent forums, or post their question somewhere.
Flipped learning is less straightforward. In a “traditional” course, students will read course material, then go and sit for a lecture in which the professor elucidates that material, and then maybe participate in a discussion toward the end of class. Flipped learning asks students to research and discover the course material on their own. Class time then is spent primarily in discussion, where each student presents what they have learned. Flipped learning has been shown to be a very effective alternative to traditional teaching, especially in an online or blended setting where face-to-face interactions are limited.
According to the authors, most Taiwanese students are not encouraged to pursue either of these self-directed learning strategies. Those enrolled in compulsory education “are taught by didactic, spoon-fed, education. Upon entering college and participating in an online course without teacher’s on-the-spot support, students may not concentrate on learning materials, especially when seduced by potential distractions such as playing online games, surfing shopping websites, … and being addicted to social networks.” In other words, all students struggle with self-directed learning, but Taiwanese students come from a learning environment that does not encourage it in the first place.
The authors learned that every student involved in their experiment owned a smartphone and used it as their primary way to go online. What’s more, while not every student checks in on the course’s website every day, they do go on social media on a daily basis.
The researchers split their students into three groups of study. For the first, they heavily incorporated flipped learning and OAHS by requiring students to self-organize using the popular LINE mobile communications app. For the second, they adopted only flipped learning. The third served as a control.
To summarize, the implementation of OAHS and flipped learning did wonders regarding student engagement and self-efficacy. Furthermore, “the advantages of mobile learning and applications not only facilitate users to study anytime, anywhere, but also to get feedback immediately.”
“Moreover, the researchers in this study measured the effects of innovative adoption of mobile technology and help-seeking on improving students’ learning psychology, such as their involvement, self-efficacy, and self-directed learning, in this online computing course. Therefore, the integration and implementation of OAHS and FL could provide comprehensive implications for educators to design their future online or blended courses and help their students to involve themselves in the course.”