Using technology to enhance student interaction

It could be suggested that there are three core components to a distance learning course: content, interaction and assessment. Historically, content and assessment have been managed well from a distance. However, interaction – with other students and educators – has proved problematic and, it could be argued, is the reason why distance learning is often perceived as being anonymous, unsupportedless and generally less than the face-to-face experience. The recent advent of Web 2.0 technologies, such as social networking sites, blogs, wikis and video-sharing sites, has opened the door to new ways of interacting in distance learning courses.

The online forum is probably one of the most established interaction tools used in distance learning – quite often the facility is built in to the virtual learning environment. When used for focused community discussion, this technology is often considered substandard when compared to class discussions, however Swan (2001) highlights the benefits:

  • all students have a voice
  • no one student can dominate the discussion
  • asynchronous discussion allows students time to reflect on their contributions as well as the contributions of others.
  • develops a culture of critical thinking
  • develops students’ writing skills.

‘Blog’ is the abbreviated term for ‘web log’ – an online log. Blogs can be used as a forum for debate. For example, an ethics course might use a blog to post ethical scenarios on which students can make comments. To add an additional layer to this activity it would be interesting to ask students to undertake an online poll relating to the scenario before the online comments start to roll in and after to see if there is a shift in thinking as a result of the comments. Blogs can also be used for journal clubbing, in a similar way to this blog. You might post a link to a journal article and ask students to comment. If you give blog authoring rights to the entire group they could also add their own reading suggestions as posts. In this way, the journal club could become a collaborative exercise. A student could also use a blog to document their reflections on their practice. Blogs enable students to develop their writing skills and often, because they are writing, students post a more thoughful response.

Wikis are merely online resources that are built collaboratively – the most well-known is Wikipedia. Students could individually or in groups be asked to research a particular subject and make a contribution to a wiki for assessment. These contributions could then be opened up to peer review, which might be an additional component of the assessment. Students could also be asked to develop a wiki of useful links or resources. This could be a rolling resource that is built on by students groups on an annual basis.

Podcasts are audio or video files that can be educator or student created, and with a large portion of the population having access to a smart phone that will record audio or video, this could be a growing area in distance learning. Video podcasts might be used to introduce an educator to the course group, put a personal face on case studies, demonstrate a technique. Audio podcasts might be used to provide students with feedback on their work, could be used by students to create an audio diary or could even be used as an audio glossary when learning involves complicated words that are difficult to pronounce, as is the case in health care for example.

Although I have demonstrated a handful of examples of how each of these technologies might be used, it is important to note that the technology must not determine the learning; rather, the technology must serve the learning.

In recent decades we abandoned the idea that students are empty vessels for educators to fill with learning delivered didactically in favour of the idea of educators acting as facilitators of learning. Beldarrain (2006) explores the changing role of the educator in response to the use of these technologies in distance learning and suggests that ‘Besides being a resource manager, the future instructor may have to be more of a “partner in learning” than a facilitator. The instructor must view the students as contributors of knowledge, and thus allow them to participate in the creation of content.’

I would be very interested to hear your thoughts about the changing role of the educator since the introduction of Web 2.0 technologies into distance learning and hope that you will share them via a comment. The examples I have given above for the use of these technologies is not exhaustive and I would encourage you to share how you have used these tools in your learning.



About Cathy Thomas-Varcoe

I have a passion for distance learning and the opportunities it provides for lifelong learning. I have spent the past 11 years focussing on delivering quality distance learning. Drawing on my nursing background, I initially worked for the Royal College of Nursing Institute who ran undergraduate and postgraduate distance learning programmes validated by the University of Manchester and then for The Open University Health and Social Care Faculty. More recently I was a learning solutions consultant for The Open University’s Centre for Learning and Professional Development. In January 2012 I was appointed as the Distance Learning Lead for the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester. I have been involved in courses from concept to delivery, but the bulk of my work has focussed on writing and conceptualising distance learning courses.
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