Online Teaching Challenge: Creating an Emotional Connection to Learning, part 2

Editor’s Note: In Tuesday’s post the author wrote about how technology provides access to a vast array of content that has the potential to resonate emotionally with students. In part two of his article focuses on making the most of online discussions.

Even though the content may be emotionally engaging, the discussion it generates may not be.

“One of the biggest barriers to online learning is our inability to respond in the moment, unless we happen to be on live chat or video, which is really rare in most of the online learning world,” says Rick Van Sant, associate professor of education at Ferris State University.

That moment after viewing some emotionally engaging content passes quickly. In a typical online learning environment, students react and post to a discussion board or blog and wait for a response. “I think it’s one of the downsides of asynchronous learning. You lose that opportunity for the teachable moment,” Van Sant says. “There are many positive aspects to online learning, such as thoughtful reflection. One of the things I see, the students who do not often volunteer or engage in on-the-fly discussion in a face-to-face classroom will turn around in an online environment and become significant discussants. Not that they’re lazy in the classroom; they just don’t process information on the fly quite like somebody else.”

Despite the limitations of asynchronous communication, it still can create an emotional connection that supports learning. For example, collaborating on a wiki can be just the thing to motivate and engage students.

“If we’re working on a wiki together and you edit something of mine, chances are there’s a mild emotional expression associated with that—I don’t like the edit, I’m sensitive about the edit, or I’m thrilled with the edit. But it’s personal because I wrote it and you changed it. Can I trust you? That’s an emotional experience. It might be a positive emotional experience. It might be a negative one. Whatever it is, it contains that seed, that very small element of an emotional connection to it: ownership.”

Another obstacle to creating emotionally engaging learning environments is that many online instructors are not technologists. “They’re teachers, they know their subjects, but they don’t necessarily do a good job from a pedagogy standpoint,” Van Sant says.

Many online instructors take a teacher-centered approach to pedagogy, posting PowerPoint presentations, notes, readings, assignments, and tests and quizzes and “tell students to go forth and learn,” Van Sant says. “Really good online teachers have taken up the challenge to learn about the various tools.”

“The classroom must be a learning community. In an online environment, you must be sure you are using the tools to make that happen. And these are the blogs, wikis, Web 2.0 tools and social bookmarks, and the discussion boards. The interactivity creates communities. When that happens, you’ve got far greater potential of engaging that otherwise somewhat unengaged student,” Van Sant says.

Instructors who seek to create learner-centered online courses often read the work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences and think that for every lesson they’ve got to create eight different kinds of assignments to reach the learning style preferences of all their students. But Van Sant assures them they need not go overboard in accommodating all learning styles.

“The goal isn’t to cater to all eight individual multiple intelligences. It’s about providing, over the range of a course, the opportunity for people to learn and express their learning within their strengths and not always have to operate within their deficits. To do that, you need variety. You need redundancy. You need multiplicity. You need different ways of sharing and knowing. … What happens here is working in a much richer environment. It is a challenge for us to understand that in this rich environment we’ve got to become masters of that domain.”

Excerpted from A Learner-Centered, Emotionally Engaging Approach to Online Learning, Online Classroom, June 2009.