Research into the design, delivery, support, and administration of Online Distance Learning (ODL) programmes in higher education is developing but still nascent with theories and discourses from many areas of traditional education being examined and developed to address the particular affordances of online education. Whilst debate continues about the procurement of and best application of educational technologies and systems, one aspect of the debate seems clear, that the technology and content alone is not “e-learning.” Directing someone to an online repository does not mean learning will necessarily take place. Whilst the technology and the content are essential, both are important only insofar as the affordances they provide for learning to take place. Using empirical evidence, this chapter argues that the actions of the tutor are therefore pivotal in an educational environment where the learning process is directed at more than simply accessing information.
Research into the design, delivery, support and administration of online programmes in higher education is developing but still nascent (Haythornthwaite and Andrews, 2007), with theories and discourses from many areas of traditional (face-to-face and distance) education being examined and developed to address the particular affordances of online education (Thompson, 2007). New frameworks and theories continue to develop, bringing with them fresh terminology and ways of thinking that may ultimately illuminate what is still, to an extent, a new, transformative frontier in higher education. Whilst debate continues about the procurement and best application of educational technologies and systems, the debate makes it clear that technology and content alone is not ‘e-learning’. Handing a learner a CD or directing them to an online repository does not mean learning will necessarily take place. Whilst the technology and the content are essential, in the same way as buildings and libraries are essential in campus-based education, both are important only insofar as they support they provide for learning to take place. As recognised by Haythornthwaite and Andrews, 2007: 18):
E-learning is not a computer system. You cannot buy it off the shelf and plug it in. You cannot hand it to network administrators and be done with the job. To have an e-learning system means having people talking, writing, teaching and learning with each other online, via computer based systems (Haythornthwaite and Andrews, 2007).
Many recognise this and there is consequently a good deal of interest in the place of online ‘interaction’ in the current literature, with discussions about ‘community’ and ‘relationships’ often at the forefront of these discussions. Many recognise that for learning to ‘work’ in the relatively lean (i.e. physically dislocated) online world, attention needs to be paid to developing and supporting interaction between the participants and it is clear that the most commonly used tools to support this interaction are CMCs (computer mediated conferences) or OADs (online asynchronous discussions), or more simply, “discussion forums” (Wever et al, 2005, Picciano, 2002, Fahy, 2001).
Arguably the research focus into CMCs currently revolves around four key areas: whether and how CMCs support social presence, whether CMCs can support ‘higher order’ learning, whether learning can be described as ‘collaborative’, and the role and the effect of the tutor in CMCs. It is in this last category that this project is located, not least because it has been claimed that there is a lack of research on online tutor behaviour (Hopkins et al, 2008, Mazzolini and Maddison 2002), but also because whilst there are numerous ‘how to’ online teaching guides, many of them are based on the experience of teachers, rather than students. As such, this chapter considers the research question:
How does tutor behaviour in asynchronous discussion forums impact on students?
We will look at both cognitive and affective influences as defined by the participants of this research. Evidence is presented from a mixed methods research project including a survey, and follow up qualitative interviews with students registered on any of three eMA programmes in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, the University of York.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Social Constructivism: A learning theory (attributed to Vygotsky) that suggests that human beings create ‘meaning’ from an educational experience by learning with others.
Higher Order Learning: From Bloom’s taxomony, higher order learning refers to the top three levels of the taxonomy (analysing, evaluating and creating), as opposed to the bottom three: remembering, understanding and applying.
Cognitive: Pertaining to learning processes.
Transactional Distance: Moore’s theory, first described in 1973 and developed further since, that it is not the geographical distance between a teacher and student that impacts on learning outcomes, but the cognitive distance. He suggests that individual feedback and dialogue can narrow the gap. Moore first wrote about his theory in a time that preceded online education but the theory is, the authors would argue, as relevant today.
Cognitive Presence: Attributed to Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001) , cognitive presence refers to the ability of the individual to demonstrate reflection and learning in text-based communication system.
Affective: Pertaining to emotional processes.
CMC: Computer mediated conference.
AOD: Asynchronous online discussion.
Social Presence: This refers to the degree to which an individual is perceived as ‘real’ in an online environment ( Garrison and Anderson, 2003 ).