Friday, June 21, 2013

Constancy, Immediacy and the Online Moderator

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From my own experiences with online learning, which started about two years ago, I think one difficulty for the online moderator  is the fact that all the material and resources are immediate and constant and the expectations this can create with the students. I know as a student when I log in, I will usually have immediate access to everything about the course. There tends to be, even as unrealistic as it is, this expectation that the moderator should be constant and immediate as well. I think this extends to many areas of our lives because of technology and the desire for an immediate answer or solution to any problems or issues that arise. One obvious advantage to online learning is the ability to access the material and resources anywhere at anytime. If the web server is down, or if it is running extremely slow, you quickly see how much we rely on the constant and immediate access that online learning experiences bring. We have become conditioned to it. So when the immediate and constant resources and materials are not enough, and we need to speak to the moderator, we run into the reality that human beings are still part of the process.  

So the adjustment to this reality is one area that immediately should be addressed in an online learning experience. I think the moderators needs to make it clear when they are online and when you can expect them to return messages or emails, and when will they most likely be unavailable. This immediate clarification (and continuing notifications as the course progresses and the flesh and bones life interrupts)  helps to break down that "illusion" that online courses can create in regard to immediate and constant access to everything within all the elements of online learning. 

So the moderator needs to respond in a realistic and timely matter to concerns that arise. Sometimes, however, these concerns are avoided from the beginning when a moderator is proactive. I think this is one essential characteristic that is required with online learning. Being proactive can avoid confusion and frustration. Moderating online discussions and noticing students who may appear to be having difficulty or students who are significantly absent from the discourse is necessary. Addressing these issues early can possibly avoid further complications later. It is necessary for the moderator to present the expectations for course participation and assignments, but if expectations can be misunderstood by students when they are face to face with a teacher, it only makes sense it may become a greater concern with online learning.  Clear expectations need to be cited and matched with a proactive nature. 

Much of the communication in online learning is through text. We know that emails, text messages and even letters can sometimes be misconstrued and the writer's original purpose or intent gets lost when the communication lacks that face to face component. This is a challenge. I think moderators need to have or need to develop strong writing skills and have the ability to create "voice" in their messages. Communication between a moderator and student have the potential for the quick development of confusion and misunderstandings. Each person may already have preconceived notion of what the other is like. Messages from the moderator that come off as "cold" or "irritated" can leave a very negative impression with a student. If the moderator does not seem approachable, the student may not seek the help or guidance he/she requires. Some moderators see efficiency as important and want to relay only quick and concise messages. There is nothing wrong with this, but the moderator should make a "disclaimer" about this with the students. I think when the moderator explains when they will be available and how long it will typically take for them to respond to a message, they might also want to speak a bit about the nature of their replies. 

Timely feedback is also a necessity in an online learning experience. A student can easily feel isolated in an educational cyberspace. Sometimes a student may wonder how they are doing and whether they are just wasting their time in a course if they think they are struggling or not doing well. The moderator in online courses that require discussion postings and replies should strive to provide students with feedback on how they are doing. One of the first courses I took provided one half of the mark with assessment comments for discussion postings and replies half way through the course. This feedback was extremely helpful. Such feedback can help a student because it can confirm they are on the right track with expectations or it can help them to to regroup and improve their participation for the remainder of the course.  

The lack of timely feedback can be very frustrating. In one course my marks all flooded in the last week of the course. Even if the moderator had provided me with some feedback on my discussions and postings half way through the course, at least I could have had one "guidepost" to help steer me through the rest of the work. Thankfully, I was doing OK in the course, but I can only imagine how I would have felt if all those marks that flooded in the last week had been low. We may like to say the mark does not really matter, but our learning experiences have conditioned us to respond to a marks. If a first mark is low, we can be prompted to "up our game." If it is a higher mark, it can revitalize us to work as hard or harder on future assignments and course requirements. When the moderator has included relevant feedback with these marks, the moderator has provided the student with information they can use that can help them to feel more comfortable and confident as they work on other assignments, etc. 

I think the course requirements and assignment details should be easily accesible to the students. Dividing the work into the weeks it is due with reminders in earlier weeks helps the students to organize their time. Online learning requires a fair amount of self-discipline. Even a proactive moderator cannot compel a student to work. I think anyone who is taking online courses has to already have a strong level of motivation, engagement and interest in the course. However, while the students need to take responsibility for their learning, the moderator needs to ensure the information is organized in an efficient manner and also "chunked" in a way that will prevent overload, so the students do not feel overwhelmed, particularly as they get used to the online environment. 

A frustration I have had with most of my courses thus far is they start usually at the beginning of a week. Thus, the expectations for the first week usually contain a deadline for that Thursday or Friday. I find there is an immediate rush to get things done, and time is of the essence. If students were allowed to access the courses the Friday before they started or even the Saturday, they could get a bit of a jump on the requirements for the first week while also familiarizing themselves with the overall course expectations. Many online learners are not full time students and have many other responsibilities to consider. When a course starts on a Monday with immediate demands (creating groups, writing an introduction) plus the expectation to complete other work by the end of the week, it can be stressful since the student does not have those weekend days on the first week to get work done. 

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