Chong Yaut Lee, Lily
HR Management Unit, School of Business at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
Online learning is drastically altering education and learning patterns worldwide. Online forum is the use of the Internet to access learning materials and to interact with the content, instructor and other learners. A social space is located in three dimensions of online social relationship: group atmosphere, cohesiveness and participation. Using the Kreijns, Kirschner, and Jochems’s (2004) concept of social space, the study presented in this article utilised survey questionnaire and interviews to explore the social relationships amongst fifty undergraduates, who engaged in a four day online forum. The participants, who were of different ages, levels, faculties and nationalities participated in the online discussion as part of their course requirement for the module on employee management in Singapore at the National University of Singapore.
The findings showed that students who perceived a comfortable and warm group atmosphere and experienced a sense of community participated actively in the online discussion. They learned collaboratively as a group, drawing insights and different perspectives to the issues discussed. It was also discovered that the online exchange of students’ practical experiences reinforced their learning, enabling them to have a deeper understanding of the concepts and theories covered in the classroom. However, those who experienced an impersonal and competitive online environment found a lack of cohesiveness, and reduced their level of participation, thereby limiting learning. The findings suggest the necessity to provide support to the students during the online forum. To this end, the moderator should take on the pivotal role of developing a high social space throughout the learning process, thereby ensuring effective online social interactions and group learning.
There is much research evidence to attest that technological innovations, such as e-Learning have the potential to radically change education and learning patterns globally. In fact, the introduction of e-Learning in higher education represents a major transformation in teaching and learning practice, which needs to be carefully managed using appropriate pedagogical strategies (McPherson, 2003). Online forum is the use of the Internet to access learning materials and to interact with the content, instructor and other learners. It is used to obtain support, acquire knowledge, construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience (Bruggen, 2005). Online forum provides the platform to develop independent learners in the ongoing improvement of students’ skills, which will underpin innovation and enterprise in the economy and society (Department for Education and Skills, 2003).
In order to be effective online users, students have to project their personal characteristics and present themselves as “real people” in the text-based interface. There is a general concern that Internet educators and researchers focus primarily on the cognitive learning processes and tasks (Kreijns et al., 2003). Cutler (1996) observed that research findings surrounding computer-mediated communication and learning are almost entirely task-based and concentrates on cost and efficiency. Little consideration is given either to the changes affecting the users or to the social relationship created from the online technologies.
Social space: A concept
Social relationship is not only central for cognitive learning such as critical thinking (Rourke, 2000), but equally important for socio-emotional processes. Kreijns, Kirschner, & Jochems (2004) proposed the concept of a social space, which they define as a network of social relationships amongst the online group members. The web of relationship is embedded in the group structure, norms and values. They argue that a sound social space promotes three dimensions of social relationship. Firstly, a sound social space contributes to a warm online atmosphere within the group (Brandon & Hol-lingshead, 1999; Rourke & Anderson, 2002).
Secondly, a social space is characterised by strong group cohesiveness, together with a sense of community. These feelings of community can intensify the flow of information among the participants while encouraging support, as well as commitment to group goals and cooperation. Learners benefit by experiencing a positive affect, a greater sense of well-being and greater group support in the presence of a sound social space (Rovai, 2001). Lastly, group participation is enhanced when the social space is high. The high participation level establishes, reinforces and maintains the social group interaction, and encourages open critical dialogues in warm social environments that neither hurt nor offend group participants because they know and trust each other (Rourke, 2000). Here, the goal is task-driven or socio-emotional. Learning performance includes factors such as effectiveness and efficiency as it relates to the learning outcomes, and degree of shared understanding.
The online forum provided an avenue for students to engage in thoughtful discussions and resolve differing views. Slightly more than half of the students submitted a minimum of twenty postings during the duration of the online forum, suggesting a fairly high level of commitment and participation. They commented, they were comfortable conversing through the text-based environment, and could sense they were part of an online community. The experienced group atmosphere was warm, and the members were enthusiastic as online learning was engaging and refreshing, for example, “The students are enthusiastic, as everyone tries to contribute”. Another commented, “It’s engaging. Some ideas were refreshing and creative.”
Students who perceived a relaxed, warm and sociable group atmosphere and experienced a sense of cohesiveness, participated enthusiastically in the online discussion. They learned collaboratively as a group, drawing relevant and diverse insights and perspectives to issues pertaining to employment management in Singapore. On the other hand, those who experienced an impersonal and competitive online environment experienced a lack of group cohesiveness, and found group participation difficult and frustrating, hindering their learning.
Also, the cohort of students perceived that the online group was generally cooperative and supportive. They accepted each other ideas when they were interesting and relevant, and learned from one another, drawing invaluable insights to the issues discussed. The experience was satisfying, for example, “It’s satisfying and very different from other learning methods”. Others added that they learned a lot of practical examples when students talked about their related experiences in part-time work and industrial attachments.
An estimate of 20% of the participants perceived the group atmosphere as impersonal. They said that members participated in the online discussion as a task to be completed, and as a competitive activity to score better for the module. This group of students found online participation difficulty and frustrating, even overwhelming, and hindered their learning.
To what extent does online forum provide an effective platform for students to deliberate on relevant issues, smooth out conflicting views and learn? The findings concurred with the findings by Garrison, et al., (2000). Students who perceived a relaxed, warm and sociable group atmosphere and experienced a sense of cohesiveness, participated enthusiastically in the online discussion. They learned collaboratively as a group, drawing relevant and diverse insights and perspectives to issues pertaining to employment management in Singapore. Their commitment and participation in the online forum were amply rewarded with a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction. On the other hand, those who experienced an impersonal and competitive online environment experienced a lack of group cohesiveness, and found group participation difficult and frustrating, hindering their learning. In other words, they felt that online learning was neither effective nor efficient for them as their learning was stifled in the perceived lack of a sound social space, which was usually characterised by warm work relationships, high group cohesiveness, respect, a sense of belonging, satisfaction and a feeling of community.
Longer group interaction builds intimacy and interpersonal relationships. Understandably, positive outcomes were hard to achieve in a short online forum that lasted four days. Therefore, it is recommended that the online discussion should be conducted nearer to the end, rather than at the beginning of the course, where students are almost like strangers to each other. The postponement of the online forum to a later date enables students to have more time for social and class interactions. Research studies propose that interpersonal communication and effectiveness is improved when the interaction time is not restricted (Markus, 1994). In e-learning, social interactions evolve over time, beginning with more formal communication and then developing to closer social relationships by forming impressions of others through text-based interface (Gunawardena, & Zittle, 1997). These socio-emotional processes underlying group dynamics lead to the establishment of a sound social space (Kreijns et al., 2003). Such sound social space is vital as it facilitates, reinforces social interaction and influences the effectiveness of collaborative learning.
About 20% of the students commented that they learned from the practical experiences of other students in part-time work and industrial attachments. This implies that the students are able to reflect and connect their practical experiences with the concepts and theories taught in the classroom. Online forum provides an opportunity for them to reflect on their experiences and theoretical concepts, thereby enabling students to have a deeper understanding the models and theories covered in the module. Additionally, students gained invaluable insights into improving online learning, such as, it requires an open mind and there is to be flexible and adaptable to the different learning environments.
Whilst a sound social space hinges on group cohesiveness and warm group atmosphere, critics noted that online participation is not the only way to engage in group learning. There are users who prefer to keep a distance, and not interact, but log on to read posted messages (Mayes, et al., 2002). To this end, appropriate training and support for moderators and students and the devising of appropriate learning models and approaches for e-Learning initiative are pivotal (McPherson, et al., 2006). Whilst several existing instruments purport to measure the social climate, social intimacy and social presence in online interactions (Rourke and Anderson, 2002; Kreijns, et al., 2003), the search for an accurate and comprehensive measure of social space in online group interaction continues to be an uphill task for researchers.
The present study examined the group atmosphere, cohesiveness and participation level of the online participants, based on the concept of social space (Kreijns, et al., 2004). It was found that students who felt comfortable and experienced a warm group atmosphere and a sense of online community displayed a high level of online participation and in doing so benefited from the online learning. The cohesiveness of the online group granted them opportunity to draw a variety of insights and perspectives to the discussion topics. Their commitment in online forum participation was rewarded with a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction.
The findings suggested that the moderators’ intervention is central. They can lend support to students’ interactions, thereby facilitating the development of a sound social space throughout the learning process. Secondly, moderators or lecturers should be provided with proper training and support on e-Learning and its processes. Thirdly, moderators and administrators must collaborate and devise appropriate learning models and approaches for e-Learning. The identification of an accurate and comprehensive instrument to measure the social space of online group interaction is a prerequisite in the development of a sound social space.