High Tech, High Touch, High Context: Social Dimensions of Learning in Online, Hybrid, and Learning Pod Environments

High Tech, High Touch, High Context: Social Dimensions of Learning in Online, Hybrid, and Learning Pod Environments

Matthew Eichler (Texas State University San Marcos, USA), Carrie J. Boden-McGill (Texas State University San Marcos, USA) and Tennille Lasker-Scott (University of Georgia, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6046-5.ch003
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Abstract

In this chapter, the authors explore the challenge of maintaining a “high touch” learning environment in online and hybrid adult graduate degree programs. The literature suggests that although online degree programs are popular, the retention rate in online classes is low, and online courses may not meet the social needs of adult learners. Few interventions thus far have been successful. The authors used learning pods, small, geographically-oriented teams of students working on individual learning projects as self-directed communities of scholars, as an intervention. Student perceptions of learning pods are explored in this chapter, and suggestions for practice based on student feedback are offered.
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Introduction

As the demographics and face of higher education change, colleges and universities must also evolve. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 42% of the over 20 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011 were 25 years old or older. Over 60% of those students were enrolled as part-time students, meaning that a large percentage of the current “face” of higher education belongs to nontraditional students (Snyder & Dillow, 2012). NCES projects similar or higher percentages of nontraditional students participating in higher education through 2021 (Snyder & Dillow, 2012). These students may be re-entry students, older adults, married or single with dependents, and entering the context of higher education with a wealth of life and work experience (Jinkens, 2009). Considering the changing times in higher education, educators have to recognize these experiences to design courses and create learning environments that meet the needs of the majority of the participants.

One way to meet needs of busy, working adults is to offer courses and programs online. According to the eighth annual report on the state of online learning in the United States, in 2010 there was a notable increase in the number of institutions that listed online education as a strategic priority (Allen & Seaman, 2008, 2010). According to Parsad, Lewis, and Tice (2008), between the fall semesters in 2003 and 2007, total university enrollments grew at a rate of 1.5% while online course enrollments grew at 18.9%. During the same time period, online enrollment grew from 11.7% to 21.9% of total enrollment. Parsad, Lewis, and Tice (2008) point out that

In the 2006–07 academic year, 2-year and 4-year institutions reported an estimated 12.2 million enrollments in college-level credit-granting distance education courses. Of these distance education enrollments, 77% were reported in online courses, 12% were reported in hybrid/blended online courses, and 10% were reported in other types of distance education courses (as cited in Brau, Christian, Hill, McNair, Sandoz, & Taylor, 2010, p.1).

Although online classes are common, there remains a debate in the literature regarding the quality of courses delivered online. A common concern is the retention rates in online courses and the college completion rates for students enrolled in online programs. In other criticisms of online learning, students often reported feelings of isolation, intimidation, and neglect in online environments. It appears that few—if any—intervention strategies for online students have proven effective (Ali & Leeds, 2010; Leeds et al., 2013). However, the literature does indicate that hybrid or blended approaches to learning boast retention and completion rates equal to their face-to-face counterparts (Hughes, Ventura, & Dando, 2007; Jaggars & Xu, 2010; Xu & Jaggars, 2011).

Learning pods are a creative approach to confronting the challenges of online student retention and graduation by addressing the social needs of learners. The pods are a small, self-directed community, grouped by geographic location, working together on learning projects. This “high touch” approach humanizes the learning environment for adult and non-traditional online students and compliments the “high tech” approach of exclusively online delivery. In developing the learning pods approach, we consulted and drew upon the literature in the areas of adult learning theory, motivation, communities of practice, novice to expert, mentoring, self-directed learning, and distance education practices.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Learning Pods: A self-directed community, grouped by geographic location, working together on learning projects.

Adult Learner: Typically defined as learners over the age of 25, and are often referred to as nontraditional students.

Blended Approach: Teaching and learning approach that combines face-to-face interactions with online learning opportunities.

Traditional Student: Student who is typically 18 years old and enters the university as an undergraduate immediately following high school.

Non-Traditional Students: Students who may be re-entry students, older adults, married or single with dependents, and entering the context of higher education with a wealth of life and work experience ( Jinkens, 2009 ).

Communities of Practice: Learning that is formed and positioned in a social context that revolves around the mediation of common interests through experience and practice.

Andragogy: Defined as “The art and science of helping adults learn” ( Knowles, 1970 , p. 43). Also referred to as the science of how adults learn.

Self-Directed Learning: Learning that takes place when the learner takes the initiative to identify their individual learning needs, develop strategies and goals, implement those strategies, and evaluate the results.

Novice-to-Expert: Range in adult skill acquisition that includes: “novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert” ( Dreyfus & Dreyfus, 1986 ).

Mentoring: An effective professional development tool to help progress individuals into a desired professional or scholarly placement through the assistance of a peer or a more mature or informed person.

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