Conley, Q., Lutz, H. S., & Padgitt, A. J. (2017). Creating participatory online learning environments: A social learning approach revisited. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 27(1), 5-27.
In the Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Conley, Lutz, and Padgitt (2017) argue that it is not enough for instructors to simply include social media tools in their online learning environments (OLEs), as “opportunity by itself is not enough without intention” (p. 12). Instead, instructors must use sound instructional design practices whenever they integrate social media tools, with the ultimate goal of creating social learning. This, they claim, is a key determinant of success in an OLE.
The authors anticipate that their readers will question (1) the importance of social learning and (2) the utility of social media, and I believe they respond to both of these questions convincingly. First, social interaction in an OLE is important because it can prevent learner isolation, which often leads to frustration and boredom for students (p. 7). Secondly, general research about how people learn supports the importance of social interaction in learning: “learning by nature is a social activity where learners are able to interact in ways that stimulate the learning process” (p. 8). We learn faster and deeper when we interact with others, and learning in a social environment also gives us the opportunity to learn through “observation and modeling” (p. 8). The authors then present a clear and well-reasoned argument that social media (which they define as discussion boards, wikis, blogs/vlogs, instant messaging, and video conferencing) has the potential to approximate the type of social learning that occurs in face-to-face courses, because:
- Social media can “facilitate observation, modeling, and proximity to other learners” (p. 9).
- Social media offers ways for authentic connection with others.
- Social media makes regular, sustained contact practical.
After laying out this strong case for social learning and the utility of social media, the authors then recommend how to use social media in OLEs. They offer 5 instructional approaches, all of which are explained well and logically chosen: (1) planned social interactions, (2) collaborative activities, (3) authentic learning activities, (4) learner self-regulation, and (5) assessment of participation and interactions (p. 12).
While I found all of the authors’ arguments to be convincing and well-written, I think this article has a little bit of an identity problem. Is it a theoretical academic work, grounded in social cognitive learning theory, intended to offer new and original research to the field? Or, it is a practical “policy” piece, designed to persuade and convince instructors to adopt new methods? I think it leans more towards the latter, which is probably why I found it to be such an enjoyable read. If this is the case, though, the authors should provide more practical examples. While the table on page 18 was a good start, I suspect that an instructor would read this study and think, “This is great. But how do I do this in my course? What kinds of assignments, projects, assessments, etc. would work?” Perhaps the authors could have included an appendix with a list of ideas (or even better, actual examples from courses), or included a few examples of “good” rubrics.” More examples would have increased the usefulness of the article to practitioners.
The organization of this article was also a little scattered. I felt as if I was getting new pieces of their argument throughout the paper, instead of understanding it up front and then seeing how the rest of the article supported those conclusions. The flow could have been improved if the authors had drawn more direct connections for their reader.
Despite these shortcomings, there are certainly a few things worth praising. First, I appreciate that the authors chose to focus on categories of tools (discussion boards, blogs, etc.) instead of the tools themselves (Blackboard, Twitter, etc). I have read many articles that date themselves after only a few years because they made an incorrect assumption that the tool that dominated their current time would always be the “go-to” option. By focusing on the types of tools, the authors keep their work relevant for longer in our quickly-changing educational technology landscape.
I also commend the authors for the nuance of their primary argument. They do not just argue that we should use social media tools in OLEs, but that we must also use them effectively. Many studies, and many instructors for that matter, just focus on the use of Web 2.0 tools without giving much thought to how they can be deployed effectively in the unique online environment.
Lastly, I found this article to be valuable because it expresses something that a lot of online instructors need to hear. Many instructors are resistant to adding the social dimension to a course because they are so focused on their content; their lectures; the materials they have developed over the years for their face-to-face courses. They believe that their content is supreme, and while the “social stuff” is “nice to have,” it does not really influence student achievement or the overall effectiveness of the course. This article very persuasively argues that, while you may just be able to stumble successfully into social engagement in a face-to-face class due to shared space and time, in a successful OLE, it is critical to intentionally build social learning into the course if you want it to be successful. The authors’ 5 instructional approaches for the use of social media in OLEs are thoughtful, clear, and useful, and I would not hesitate to share them with faculty.