Moderating the Effective Co-Creation of Knowledge in Asynchronous Online Conferences

Moderating the Effective Co-Creation of Knowledge in Asynchronous Online Conferences

David Starr-Glass (University of New York in Prague, Czech Republic)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5178-4.ch014
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Asynchronous discussion conferences have become a standard feature of online distance learning. They provide a place for sharing ideas, consolidating understanding, and creating new knowledge about subject matter. In these conferences, the course instructor/facilitator ensures the free flow of communication and the exchange of information. Effective moderation, however, also requires the instructor/facilitator to engage in what might be termed off-stage work: gaining personal knowledge of participants, addressing participation problems and potentials, and developing cultural awareness of participants. The chapter focuses on off-stage work, specifically in online distance learning situations populated by military learners. It explores ways of developing stronger private connections with participants through which relevant information can be shared. It also considers the extent to which military learners possess a distinctive culture that impacts conference participation. The chapter reviews relevant literature, assesses the challenges for the conference moderator, provides strategies for dealing with participation and cultural issues, and suggests ways of improving overall communication and community in online distance learning environments.
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In the last decade, the exponential growth of online distance learning has significantly impacted learners, instructors, and educational institutions alike. Tracking the statistic of 2,800 American institutions of higher learning, Allen and Seaman (2013) reported that in the fall semester of 2002 about 1.6 million students (9.6% of all enrollments) took at least one online distance learning course. Ten years later, in the fall of 2012, that number had risen dramatically to 6.7 million, representing 32% of enrollments. These latest figures are all-time highs in terms of absolute numbers and percentages, indicating that the ten-year annual growth rate for students taking at least one online course was 17.3%: for the same period, annual college enrollment grew by only 2.6%. The result of dramatic online distance learning adoption has impacted students, instructors, and institutions. Most students have learned, or will soon learn, in virtual environments. Instructors now realize that they will likely be called to transition, in part at least, from in-person instruction to online learning. Institutions are similarly challenged to move from seeing distance learning as a cost-reducing, or enrollment-increasing, expedient and to explore its educational value.

Originally, distance learning was viewed as a pragmatic solution for multiple problems: increasing learner diversity, including students distanced from college campuses, and providing educational opportunities for those who were geographically dispersed. Although these remain significant issues, they are no longer the drivers of distance learning growth. In a world where education is increasingly commoditized, learners are now viewed as discerning consumers quick to appreciate the advantages of flexible learning systems. Remoteness from a regional campuses is no longer a primary concern; rather, “for many modern students, the problem or barrier is not geography but time” (Skelton, 2009, p. 1). Aspiring college students, with demanding work schedules and busy social lives, have come to see distance learning as a means “to gain higher education without having to physically attend classes” (Chang & Fisher, 2003, p. 3). Access to valid, affordable, and convenient educational experiences has become the driver of the online distance learning demand curve.

The demand for flexible education would have remained a dream had it not been for advances in technology, particularly the advent of Web 2.0. Spectacular innovation in technology have generated unprecedented learner connectivity and allowed isolated students to work collaboratively. From a technological perspective, physical distance has become essentially irrelevant. However, it is important to appreciate that the “distance” in “distance learning” does not simply refer to spatial displacement; more critically, it refers to the psychological and social separation of those engaged in the learning process. Writing in an earlier generation of distance learning, Michael Moore (1997) noted that one of the consequences of distance was to reduce the perceived quality of dialogue exchange, resulting in what he termed “transactional distance” (McIsaac & Blocher, 1998; Saba & Shearer, 1994). In recent years, advances in technologies have provided unprecedented ways of reducing transactional distance. They have provided a richer sense of social presence, allowing learners to engage socially and cognitively. Web 2.0 and mobile technologies facilitate learner participation in communities of learning and enhance the quality of the learner’s educational experience (Falloon, 2011; Gokool-Ramdoo, 2008).

Technological advances have prompted a reconsideration of pedagogical (or more correctly andragogical) assumptions, although this is a contentious point. Some question the direction of causality in the technological/pedagogical relationship, while others argue about the degree of technological determinism in the process. Whatever the nature of the linkage, however, most distance online practitioners recognize that new technologies have repositioned learner and instructor. Some contend that technological opportunities have in fact changed knowledge production itself. This is reflected in the ways in which developing technologies have been able to support different pedagogical approaches.

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