Foundational Theory: A New Conceptualization of Relevant Ideas

Foundational Theory: A New Conceptualization of Relevant Ideas

Penelope A. Rush (University of Tasmania, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0968-4.ch001
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Some of the fundamental concepts we use to frame our theories of online education have undergone a meaning shift since the advent of the computer age. As such, online educators need to update their understanding of such concepts in the light of the changes their meanings have undergone. This chapter examines the changes in three such concepts: ‘personalisation', ‘presence', and ‘communication' by examining the shifts in three of the more fundamental concepts upon which they depend: ‘mind', ‘self' and ‘others'. It outlines a framework based on a ‘discontinuous' theory of the latter notions; one in which the presumed continuity between these concepts and online reality is challenged. Thus the chapter works toward a new conceptualisation of the terms of our enquiry that responds directly to the way in which shifts in their presumed or default meanings may have led us astray over the past few decades.
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Introduction And Background

What does the phrase: ‘the humanisation of online teaching environments’ actually mean? The concepts used in the title and remit of this work are familiar enough; terms like ‘presence’, ‘communication’, ‘interactivity’, ‘personalisation’, and ‘humanisation’ will be commonplace for anyone researching online and distance education and learning environments.

In this chapter, online teaching and learning (and ‘online education’) refer to all teaching and learning behaviours mediated by a computer. To a limited extent, some of the points raised apply to self-paced online courses without a (present) instructor delivering the course. In this case, the ‘teacher’ interacting with the students’ refers to the online material itself.

Typically, in the online education literature, terms like ‘presence’ and ‘communication’ are used to frame data or construct theories regarding effective learning online. Researchers in the field typically assume that these terms are clearly defined in their attempts to refine or import them into the context of online education. However, there is reason to doubt that such concepts are still, in fact, as clear as they once were before ubiquitous computer use, hyper-connectivity and digital immersion came to dominate everyday life – a phenomenon appropriately described as ‘onlife’ (see key terms and definitions). This chapter suggests ways to update our understanding of these sorts of ‘core concepts’: concepts on which our theories of online learning often depend.

There is currently little theoretical analysis of such fundamental concepts in the mainstream literature on online education, beyond restating some (often quite venerable) theories explicating their role in framing and understanding empirical research. We might find a nod to social constructivism (Conrad 2014), theories of social presence and transactional distance (Moore 2013); and perhaps occasional references to sociological perspectives such as Turkle’s 2011. This chapter does not mean to criticise such efforts, but hopes instead to revitalise the sort of endeavour they represent. It looks at wider research across a number of fields in order to update our understanding of the key ideas to which online educators typically appeal. The hope is that we can then begin to update the theoretical frameworks and tools by which we understand, interpret, and situate our empirical data and our research. Misunderstanding the terms involved potentially means misunderstanding what’s at stake in online education.

This chapter targets three concepts in the scope of this book: ‘personalisation’, ‘presence’, and ‘communication’, and explores some of the ways in which their meanings have changed, both in themselves but more as a result of changes in the meanings of key concepts on which they depend, crucially the concepts of ‘mind’, ‘self’, and ‘others’. Our understanding of ‘the mind’, ‘the self’ and ‘the others’ we address when teaching online needs to accommodate the changes these notions have undergone since the computer age. If it does not, then at best we risk delivering less effective teaching for online students, but at worst, actively undermining their progress. Broadly, if there has been a shift in the meanings of the fundamental concepts on which the ideas of presence, personalisation and communication depend, then that shift must be properly recognised in order to develop the sort of responsible, careful and thoughtful understanding of online education needed now.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Hyperconnectivity: A term coined by Anabel Quan-Haase and Barry Wellman, intended here to refer to the connection to numerous cources of information across various devices and online affordances (see, for example, Collins Dictionary 2016), but also to refer to the vastness of networks – connecting in ways above and beyond user’s requirements (see, for example, Search Unified Communications 2016).

Continuous: The scenario wherein computers and minds (hence also selves and others) are equated or ‘continuous’ – and so both are properly part of the same overarching concept.

Big Data: Very large data sets. These are used in higher education in a number of ways. Most relevant to this chapter are the ways they are used to anticipate students’ needs, choices, risks, etc.

Discontinuous: The scenario wherein computers and minds (hence also selves and others) are distinct or ‘discontinuous’ – and so each is properly a separate concept.

Onlife: A term coined by Luciano Floridi to express our lived experience of ‘ever-increasing’ pervasiveness of information and communication technologies. For more, see Floridi 2015.

Online Education/Online Teaching and Learning: Intended to refer to computer mediated teaching and learning. ‘Online teaching and learning’ means teaching and learning behaviours mediated by a computer. Though not primarily intended, the terms can also encompass self-paced online courses where no (present) instructor is delivering the course. In this case, the ‘teacher’ with which the students’ interact is the online material itself.

Digital: Meant here to be synonymous with ‘computational’ or ‘online’.

Offline: Intended to refer to face-to-face or physical contexts. Though not primarily intended, can also encompass some forms of distance education, mediated by materials other than computers (e.g. books, telephones, etc.) wherein the presumptions and problems of online connectivity don’t obviously apply.

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