Academic Exchange Quarterly      Summer   2008    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  12, Issue  2

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Technical Classes: A Different Breed of Learning

 

Paula San Millan Maurino, Farmingdale State College, NY

Francine Federman,  Farmingdale State College, NY

Lorraine Greenwald,  Farmingdale State College, NY

 

Paula  Maurino, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the School of Business.

Francine Federman, Ph.D., is the Assistant Dean of the School of Business

Lorraine Greenwald, Ph.D., is the Dean of the School of Business

 

Abstract

This study describes the findings of a case study at Farmingdale State College in New York that compared online technical and non-technical classes.  Interviews were held with faculty and triangulated with analysis of “starter” discussion questions, database transcripts, and focus groups.  One of the important findings of the study was that there was a major difference between online technical and non-technical classes.  Technical courses in any discipline were seen as different.  The differences necessitated a different form of interaction and change in teaching strategies.  These findings can be used to develop best practices for technical instructors in virtual and traditional classrooms.

 

Introduction

Threaded discussions have become standard fixtures in distance education.  The technology is there to “talk” online and research has shown that the social and cultural environment created by this “talking” can be beneficial to online students.  It can be useful in decreasing transactional distance problems and can help develop social relationships among students and the teacher.  Social and interpersonal interactions directly foster content and instructional interaction (Liaw and Huang, 2000) and can play a key role in the learning process (Trentin, 2000).  Social presence is also a good predictor of learner satisfaction (Gunawardena and Zittle, 1997). Too much social presence, however, may actually be a detriment to learning (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer, 1999).

 

Fairly high levels of social presence are necessary to support the development of deep and meaningful learning (Rourke, Anderson, Garrison, and Archer, 1999) and this “deep” learning is frequently not achieved or seen in analysis of class transcripts.  Computer mediated communication may serve as more of a support system for other online activities (Guzdial etal., 2002).

 

Educational researchers have analyzed online interaction extensively. The results of countless online class transcripts and databases have been categorized, classified, graphed and summarized. Researchers have critiqued the quality and quantity of student participation within these databases with varying results.  Before a true and valid evaluation can be made of online threaded discussions and other tools, research must start at the beginning. Faculty must be contacted and interviewed to describe just what they are trying to accomplish using these tools. It is only then that the results can be compared to the objectives.

 

This study looked at online threaded discussions from the standpoint of the instructor. What are the purposes, goals and objectives set by online instructors for the utilization of threaded discussions?  Further, does academic discipline or the technical nature of a course affect the instructor’s objectives and goals for online threaded discussions from the standpoint of cognitive presence, social presence and teacher presence?

 

 

Methodology

This project utilized a case study approach at Farmingdale State in Farmingdale, New York.  Thirty-six Farmingdale online faculty met the criteria for interviews in this study. All thirty-six were invited to participate in the project. Thirty were ultimately interviewed. Of the thirty faculty members interviewed, four were adjuncts and twenty-six full time. Teaching experience in the face-to-face traditional classroom ranged from one year to thirty-seven years.  Online teaching experience ranged from one year to nine years.

 

The script for the interviews was tested with a pilot study of private school online instructors. The interviews were taped, transcribed to a Word transcript template, and then transferred to a document that mapped the interview questions to the research questions and objectives.

 

During the interviews, the interviewees were asked to permit the researcher access to the online discussion threads of their classes or to provide a list of “starter” questions utilized by the instructor. The analysis of these “starter” questions and the databases served to provide triangulation for the research study.

 

The starter questions and databases were analyzed simultaneously with the interviews. The face-to-face interviews revealed what the instructor hoped to accomplish. Analysis of the instructor’s “starter” questions or the actual class database transcripts showed if the instructor actually did what he or she set out to do. This comparison served as a form of triangulation.

 

The actual questions from the list provided by the instructor or from the actual database transcripts were analyzed using Engestrom’s (2002) Two Models of Learning and Ngeow and Kong’s (2003) Learning through Discussion Model.

 

Engestrom (2002) described two models of learning. Model A provides tasks that focus on learners finding correct solutions and fixing false ones. Model B provides complex tasks where solution ideas and their justifications will vary. Model B learning is focused on principles of the task and solutions are achieved by comparing, arguing, and debating (Engeström, Engeström and Suntio, 2002).

 

Ngeow and Kong (2003) categorized discussion tasks into four areas: 1. Guided Discussion Task; 2.Inquiry-Based Discussion Task; 3. Reflective Discussion Task; and 4.  Exploratory Discussion Task (Ngeow and Kong, 2003).  Within these four types of discussion tasks are successive stages of instructor direction, student involvement and degree of participation, responsiveness to other students, problem solving and critical thinking skills. Each question posed by the online teacher within the threaded discussion was categorized using both methods and the results entered in a table.  Data from the interviews and the analysis of the starter questions and database transcripts were synthesized and integrated.

 

Three focus groups of online faculty from private colleges in the area were then convened to compare and/or validate the outcomes from the other data gathering techniques.  The data derived from the initial interviews and document observations were used as discussion start up points for the focus group.

 

Further, during the Farmingdale interviews, it was noted that several of the Farmingdale faculty also teach or have taught online at other colleges. Follow up sessions were conducted with five of these faculty members to confirm conclusions about recurring themes and integration with both the previous data and literature review.

 

Research Questions

The main research question was: What are the purposes, goals and objectives set by online instructors for the utilization of threaded discussions?  Five sub questions branched out from the main research question:

1. How do faculty evaluate the success and value of online discussions?

2. Are threaded discussions valued for social or cognitive purposes or both?

3. Do instructor characteristics influence the purposes, goals, and objectives of online threaded discussions?

4. Do student characteristics (age, gender, ability/intelligence, maturity/life and work experience) influence the purposes, goals, and objectives of online threaded discussions?

5. Do academic discipline and the educational level of students affect the purposes and objectives set by the instructor for threaded discussions within online courses?

 

All five sub research questions were paralleled by objectives to be achieved during the investigation.  This paper is concerned with research question number five and one of the objectives set for that sub question:

 

o       Determine how classes perceived as “technical” may affect the instructor’s objectives and goals for online threaded discussions from the standpoint of cognitive presence, social presence and teacher presence.

 

Interview Results

Twenty-seven percent of the instructors described their classes as technical. Fifty percent described their classes as non-technical and twenty-three percent stated that they taught both technical and non-technical online classes.  Technical was described to the instructors as defined in this study as a course that is devoted to learning a specific skill.

 

Forty-seven percent of the instructors (14 out of 30) stated that they considered their online discussions successful. Twenty percent (6 out of 30) stated that their online discussions were not successful. The remaining ten instructors (33%) evaluated their online discussions as less than successful but not quite unsuccessful.

 

Academic discipline and the nature of the course taught were often mentioned as factors that could affect the quality of class discussions. When asked the best courses for online discussions, the typical answers were liberal arts and humanities courses such as literature, philosophy, history and psychology. The worst courses mentioned for discussions were math classes such as calculus and statistics and business/programming classes such as accounting or database. Comments included, “What do you say about fractions?” “What do you talk about in accounting?”

 

Technical Classes

“Technical” classes were seen as unique and different than other classes in the study.  It was the most significant distinction made when discussing online threaded discussions with faculty and when analyzing source documents.

 

The Focus and Objective of the Course

What is it that makes a technical class different?  As stated previously, technical was described to the instructors as defined in this study as a course that is devoted to learning a specific skill.  The learning of this specific skill is the main focus and objective of the entire course.  Students are immersed in “doing” or “making” as opposed to building a general knowledge foundation.  Offline, these classes may not even be taught in a classroom. They may be taught in a laboratory of some type.  Offline, these classes may not even have a class discussion or participation component.  Demonstrations and tutoring may be required and may not be available online.

 

Does moving the technical class online change the nature and focus of the class?  The majority of the instructors seemed to feel that it did, but that they did not necessarily see this as a detriment to the course or learning outcomes.  There was, however, concern.  Were students being moved from active learning to passivity?  There was no agreement about whether talking about a topic or activity is as important as actually being able to perform that activity.

 

Discussion Topics.  What to Talk About?

Technical instructors mentioned the problem of finding appropriate topics to discuss and stated that discussion takes away from the time needed for the real objective of the course – learning to make or do something.   Some instructors used online discussions to look at current trends and events in industry.  Others stated that some students thought of these discussions as “busy work” that takes time away from what they are supposed to be doing.  

 

Student Time Constraints

Some instructors stated that the addition of online threaded discussions to a hands-on course increases the amount of time students must put in to complete the course requirements.  An alternative is to shorten the time allocated to hands-on activities.  Instructors worried that this may unfavorably affect successful achievement of the original objectives and learning outcomes of the course.

 

Time Delay

In a liberal arts course, a delayed response from the instructor of a few days may not be critical.  This may not be the case in a technical class.  If a student is required to complete a project or program at home and runs into a problem, a delay of several days in contacting the instructor and finding the solution may be critical. A minor correction that can be made by a “live” instructor in minutes may require days to correct online.

 

Time Constraints of Instructors

Other faculty concerns related to the time required for instructors of technical courses. If time lags are more important in a technical class, does this mean that the instructor needs to be accessible more often?  Is it fair to require an instructor of a technical course to be more available than a non-technical instructor? 

 

Additional Requirements

Online technical courses may require students to have specific software programs or equipment at home.  Not all students may have this equipment or software.   Students must be able to successfully load and set up this equipment themselves.  Frequently, the instructor must allow additional time at the start of the semester to accommodate this equipment/software installation.  If there is a problem with the installation, the student may not be able to complete or even start the online course.  There may or may not be a school lab available (local student) or other option available (distant student). Further, can the results of the technical activity be transferred back and forth between teacher, student and other students? 

 

Interaction Shift

Current literature, including this study itself, points to the need for and benefit of group and social interaction.  Yet, the instructors pointed out that technical classes may have different needs in this area. 

 

The need for more one-on-one student-to-teacher interaction was reported by most technical instructors. Others stated that some students need more one-on-one interaction and some don’t need any. Some students “just get it” and do not have to talk about it.

Group interaction, if there is any, more often revolves around one student asking others for help.  How does this change the social dynamics of the class?  Are stronger students willing to help and provide scaffolding for the weaker students? 

 

Administrative concerns

Can the administration require teachers of technical classes to have different workload requirements than other teachers?  Can the size of the class be altered based on the nature of the course?  If the course does require changes online, how does that impact the same courses taught in traditional classrooms or labs?  How does that require modification of the curriculum in other classes?

 

Conclusion

What implications does this have for online technical as well as non-technical instructors? Online instructors may need to rethink their learning strategies and methods if they hope to achieve success in the goals they set. Individual learning activities may need to be turned into group or social activities. Online class management systems permit public viewing of all documents. Individual assignments of any type from a programming project to a financial spreadsheet can be shared with the whole class. Breaking up a programming assignment and assigning each student a part of it may promote more social and cognitive learning online than having the student construct the entire program alone.

 

Instead of research papers, or in addition to them, instructors might try role playing or debates on issues and topics relevant to the course. The use of Delphi techniques may work well since it involves developing a consensus among the participants and this can be readily achieved online anonymously. Case studies have been shown to work well and can be applied to many fields outside of business and economics. Social or collaborative activities may also increase interest when the topic is not particularly exciting to students, but still must be covered as a part of the curriculum.

 

Another practical issue mentioned was the amount of time needed for reading and responding to discussion entries. Students do not respond if they are overwhelmed with other class work. Discussions in the classroom do not require additional outside work. Online discussions do. Instructors may need to modify online course activities and grading policies to reflect and account for this time issue. Combining the discussion with another learning activity, particularly a problem based activity, may be a good solution. An online class is not exactly the same as a face-to-face class. The same books, activities and grading policies may not work. 

 

Most instructors appeared to feel that by participating in the discussion they were keeping students from becoming “active” learners. Yet, in a typical undergraduate face-to-face classroom, an instructor would not ask a question and then sit down and let the students run the lesson. Some instructors want to have the comfort of the class participation genre, but they have changed their rules for participation once the course moves online in the name of “active” learning. Instructors need to find a better balance between participating to encourage and challenge, yet still allowing the conversations to be student-driven.

 

Time constraints for faculty are a valid concern. This was mentioned frequently during the interviews and the focus groups. Faculty may want to participate in the discussions, but do not have time to do so. Thus, they will not be able to achieve the goals they have set. Faculty schedules and work load should be modified as needed.

 

Class size may also be an issue. A physical classroom with forty students is not equivalent to a virtual classroom with forty students. A technical class requiring more one-on-one interaction is definitely in a different category.  Online classes can be broken up into groups, but this requires more time and effort on the part of the instructor and makes the time issue even worse.

 

The academic school or discipline did not have a strong effect on the goals set or use of discussions. However, the fact that a course was “technical” in any discipline was considered distinctive. Technical classes have unique problems and may require a different type of online class as well as technological improvements to the virtual classroom.  Technical classes may require different textbooks and learning strategies.

 

Online classes cannot be viewed simply as face-to-face classes moved to the Internet. They are the same in some ways and different in others.

 

References

Engeström, Y., R. Engeström, and A. Suntio, A. (2002) “From paralyzing myths to expansive action: Building computer-supported knowledge work into curriculum from below.” In Computer support for collaborative learning: Foundations for a CSCL community, 318-324. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Gunawardena, C. N., and F. Zittle, (1997) “Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer mediated conferencing environment.” American Journal of Distance Education 11(3): 8 -26.

Guzdial, M., P. Lodovice, M. Realf, T. Morley, and K. Carroll (2002)  When collaboration doesn't work.”  Paper presented at the 5th. International Conference of the Learning Sciences, Seattle.

Liaw, S.and H. Huang (2000) “Enhancing interactivity in Web-based instruction: A review of the literature.” Educational Technology, 40 (3), 41-45.

Ngeow, Karen and Yoon-San Kong (2003) “Learning through discussion:  Designing tasks for critical inquiry and reflective learning.”  The Clearinghouse on Reading, English and Communication Digest #185, Bloomington:  Indiana University School of Education. EDO-CS-03-06.

Rourke, Liam, Terry Anderson, Randy Garrison, and Walter Archer (1999) “Assessing social presence in asynchronous text based computer conferencing.”  Journal of Distance Education 14 (3): 51-70.

Trentin, G. (2000) “The quality interactivity relationship in distance education.” Educational Technology 40 (1): 17-26.