Academic Exchange Quarterly Fall 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 3
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Where is the Virtual Water Cooler?
Susan C. Londt,
Ball State University, IN
James W. Jones, Ball State University, IN
Suchismita Bhattacharjee, Ball State University, IN
Tarek Mahfouz, Ball
State University, IN
Londt is a research assistant in the Department of Technology and a doctoral student in Adult, Higher and Community Education. Jones, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor and Bhattacharjee, Ph.D., and Mahfouz, Ph.D., are Assistant Professors in the Department of Technology.
Traditional, on-campus faculty often have casual exchanges around the water cooler or coffee pot, using this informal setting to share information, techniques, and experiences. Online faculty, denied this physical setting, have searched for an equivalent common social area, what the authors call a “virtual water cooler.” This paper explores how the virtual water cooler can fulfill the same purposes, allowing online instructors to share teaching concerns and strategies, engage in scholarship, and participate in academic service without the benefit of a physical space.
Traditional, on-campus faculty have multiple opportunities throughout the day to informally meet and interact both socially and professionally. For example, a junior faculty member might mention the difficulty he is having with a particularly disruptive student while getting a cup of water at the cooler. A more senior colleague might suggest an approach that worked for her in a similar situation, and a third member might offer a similar but distinct approach. All three then head back to their offices, refreshed by the break, the dialog, and the informal teaching development.
Now, contrast the above scenario with the one that might be experienced by online instructors. The online faculty member struggles with challenges that many others are currently facing in similar situations, yet there is no physical place where to gather regularly to voice concerns, offer support for other online educators, or even simply vent frustrations. Each works on solutions in isolation as there is no way to casually mention the challenge to colleagues, and they miss the synergy that comes from working in a group - the socialization. They miss the interaction that can happen at the water cooler.
Researchers are beginning to explore the effects of isolation on the virtual faculty member. For example, Dolan (2011) found that adjunct faculty members who taught online shared concerns about communication, institutional recognition, and professional development. Haber and Mills (2008) found that faculty that taught online perceived time and compensation barriers. Hoyle (2010) related, “I found it challenging from an instructor’s perspective to function in the
online environment ….[t]his new venue also came with the challenges of learning how to conduct online classes and understanding my role as a teacher” (p. 38). Schell (2004) found that “Traditional U.S. universities marginalize the value of developing and delivering online courses.
The result is that most faculty members are disinterested in online courses” with the perceptions of negative impacts on promotion and tenure of online faculty (p. 53-54).
At the same time, others are beginning to explore the possibilities and benefits that online teaching, networking, professional development, and collaboration might offer (Berry, Norton, and Byrd, 2008; Conceição, 2006; Connor, 2003). Best online teaching practices are being disseminated in both the academic literature and online forums, wikis, and other outlets (Lewis and Abdul-Hamid, 2006).
This paper describes a variety of developments that are evolving in response to the need for a place where online faculty can informally gather and interact, as well as solutions that are still needed. These spaces and media, referred to collectively as the “virtual water cooler,” provide online faculty opportunities similar to those shared in physical places by traditional, on-campus faculty. The virtual water cooler’s impact on teaching, scholarship and service opportunities is explored so that both online and traditional faculty will have additional sources for the exchange of ideas, teaching methodologies, and mutual support that benefit every faculty member. The differences in face-to-face faculty interaction and online faculty interaction may not be as different as it would first appear.
The university offering courses online not only faces the challenges of a new genre of student but also the intricacies of a new kind of professor – the virtual instructor. While much of the academic literature has focused on the online learner, online educators also have needs and requirements specific to their needs and who they are. A savvy institution recognizes the vast difference between on campus and distance instruction and takes the necessary steps to quickly indoctrinate new on-line instructors with the dual goals of retention and support. Mandernach (2006) described how Park University “saw something unbalanced in throwing them [online instructors] into a class without support and then eight weeks later giving them a summative evaluation.” Park University identified a difference in online instructors needs and worked to find new ways to help them successfully complete an evaluation process. This virtual support was beneficial not only to the online instructor but also the institution, with the result that instructor retention and positive student feedback both increased.
Another challenge specific to online instruction is how to correctly communicate virtually. A hastily written e-mail message broadcast to a large class can have repercussions that are tedious to repair. Ragan (2009) reflected on the problems that an unclear message can cause in a downloadable report on 10 Principles of Effective Online Teaching:
Most experienced online instructors can relay a variety of stories illustrating the frustration of a dialogue with a student that went awry due to a misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the intended message. These “communication lessons” temper the instructor’s next response and, through trial and error, the online instructor improves these messages to remove room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Even then, it is always interesting to experience the misuse or confusion of what appears to be a “perfectly clear” message or instructions. When these messages are intended for delivery to the entire class, the value of clear and concise text is magnified! (pg. 15)
Merriam-Webster defines “netiquette” as “etiquette governing communication on the Internet” and provides an example of word use in the following statement: “Writing an e-mail message in all capital letters is considered a breach of netiquette because it looks like you are shouting.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/netiquette). SHOUTING through electronic communication is as offensive to the reader as the audible version is to a listener. The virtual perpetrator may not realize that the caps lock key is capable of “e-motional” damage. The ability to speak in person and to effectively communicate via text can be two entirely different dialectics and care must be taken in each instance. Students who have grown up with a variety of electronic communication modes, such as “texting,” may be tempted to use e-abbreviations that make no sense to a non-texting online instructor. Knowing some of the lingo may be necessary to decipher some textual messages. For example, an instructor new to online education and communication might be unfamiliar with text language such as BRB (Be Right Back), kk (keyed more quickly than OK), and GTK (Good To Know). It could be helpful for an educator unfamiliar with these text language usages to know what they are and to help instructors establish their preferred communications standards for online courses, whether formal or informal. A repository with a listing of abbreviations could prove to be a powerful tool, not unlike a dictionary, when the meaning conveyed is questionable or unfamiliar.
As suggested by Ragan (2009), another valuable teaching tool in online communication is a database compiled from electronic responses instructors have sent to students’ inquiries that were understood well. The benefit of a collaborative database is compounded as virtual colleagues share successful phrases or terminology that have worked and were interpreted correctly by their online students, reducing misunderstandings in electronic communication.
When online communication is flowing smoothly between faculty and student, this virtual language has benefits not found in a physical classroom setting. Online instructors have the ability to address all of their students simultaneously, in addition, the messages are not limited to the face-to-face time of the traditional classroom. The mass message may be sent at the convenience of the online instructor and read at the convenience of the online student. The time to think and compose responses benefits both online instructor and student. All online communicators have the opportunity to compose their message or reply with the benefit of time. The reply may be edited to give the best impression possible prior to sending it. (Joinson, 2003).
Clear communication for online faculty needs to occur, not only with students, but with the traditional campus community. Virtual college best practices for online instruction can include newsletters, tips of the week and even arranging for airfare for online faculty to occasionally attend meetings on campus to reinforce the idea that online faculty are truly part of the campus community (Dahl, 2005). Communication is important for online instructors and good communication enhances their teaching.
In many ways, scholarship has already entered the virtual age for both traditional and online faculty. A variety of academic journals and publications, including Academic Exchange Quarterly, use online processes for submission, tracking, review, and even publishing in certain cases. As Jones, Murk, and Jones (2010) pointed out, collaboration in scholarly writing is increasing and there are a variety of tools and techniques that allow collaboration virtually as well as the more traditional face-to-face approach.
Social networks also offer opportunities for collaborative scholarship as well as academic camaraderie. One of the most popular social networks, Facebook, was established as a place for college students to socialize but is now widely used by faculty and other professionals as well. Many professional organizations are creating pages for colleagues and cohorts on social networks, with the only requirement to join a page is to click on the “like” button. LinkedIn is a professionally based social network and it also features a group search function where requests may be made to join a specific group linked with a specific cause. Members of Linkedin may create groups, forming their own water cooler location on the web.
Levine (2010) explored various communities of teachers, learners, and others, including Communities of Practice (CoPs), which seem well suited for a virtual social network:
CoPs are sites where newcomers may gain access to the shared practice and membership of the community that keeps the practice alive…The construct of a CoP can be applied to different types and levels of organizations and to groups that do not seem “organizational”….Talking about schools as communities of learners reminds all involved of the importance of valuing and supporting ongoing learning for all levels of staff as well as students. (p. 119)
Similarly, Sherer, Shea, and Kristensen (2003) recommend online communities of practice as professional development portals for both virtual and traditional faculty. Virtual mentors have also gained recognition for their effectiveness and contributions, and virtual faculty lounges developed for development, sharing, collaborating, and feedback (Puzziferro, 2004; Wayne County, 2011)
At the same time, others have raised questions regarding team performance in the virtual environment. Blaskovich (2008) found increased instances of “social loafing—the tendency for individuals to contribute less than full effort to a group” in virtual team collaborations and that “virtual collaboration negatively affects group performance and that social loafing behavior may partially explain this result” (p. 27). While virtual scholarship opportunities might be plentiful, they might not be able to accurately replicate frank, face-to-face discussions about a faculty member’s performance on a team.
As the online faculty community has grown, so has the need for service to be provided virtually. Already, a variety of virtual meeting services and portals exist that could be used in this manner. Portal based packages such as Blackboard or Moodle have the capacity for discussion boards, communities and e-mail that are not limited to student use. Blackboard communities offer both external professional learning communities and password protected space for discussions and virtual meetings in a format with which many faculty members are familiar. Blackboard could accommodate traditional and online faculty serving on the same committee without the necessity of a physical space.
However, despite the addition of virtual communication and virtual meetings, how do online faculty receive credit for participation? Anderson (2010) raised this dichotomy in the delivery method of a service contribution being valued differently: “The irony today is that if the open activity is analog (e.g., participation on a committee), it likely counts toward tenure, but if the open activity is digital (e.g., writing an academic blog), it probably does not” (p.46).
While physical isolation is often part of the virtual educator’s role, it is does not have to be socially and professionally isolating. Virtual water coolers exist in many forms such as blogs, social networking groups, webpages, and online communities. As universities recognize the improvements in retention rates and evaluation when online educators feel connected, they are taking steps to establish formal, ongoing connections with their online faculty. A stop by one of the virtual water coolers may be just as socially and professionally valuable to the online educator as the physical trip down the hall for the traditional instructor. Teaching, scholarship, and service can all be enhanced by educators who stay refreshed and connected at the virtual water cooler.
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