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two readings…

June 21, 2013

lisa hammershaimb

Me and my small group have been doing much research the past several weeks on cohorts, the cohort model in DE, why cohorts are pretty much the best thing ever (except when they’re not….) etc. As part of the process we have all been doing a fair amount of research and journal scouting in hopes of building a framework from which we can present a cohesive, hour-long cohort story. What follows are a couple articles that I read today with their short summaries. It seems that the more I read, the more excited and overwhelmed I get so I’m thinking that if I can discipline myself to write somewhat cogent summaries of what I’ve read perhaps it can help cement the ideas into my mind and help me filter whether these are actually helpful articles, or just articles that seem amazing in my own head.

A Comparison of Online and Face-to-Face Cohorts in a School Library Media Specialist Graduate Program: A Preliminary Study
Shana Pribesh, Gail K. Dickinson and Katherine I. Bucher

I chose this article almost fully because it is about school librarians. My sister is an elementary school library director and she earned her Masters degree in a hybrid program from the University of Illinois LEEP program. I sort of lived first-hand her trials and triumphs, so this article immediately caught my attention because I had some personal connection to the topic.

The basic gist is that there weren’t enough qualified librarians to staff schools in Virginia. So, instead of making potential librarians leave the state or travel to one of the two schools in the state that offered the program (coincidentally both schools were at the far edges of the state) why not bring the program to them through the magic of the DE? Oh, and while we’re at it…why not run the same curriculum in a bricks and mortar as is run online and see what happens? Part of me thinks this was a great idea and the other part of me kind of chafes at the idea because as someone whose name I can’t quite remember at the moment said, you can’t just transfer curric. from bricks and mortar to ALN (asynchronous learning network) and expect it to be a direct match. But anyways, they did it and studied what happened in the petrie dish of soon-to-be librarians.

The results indicated that in overall knowledge both groups were equal, but the F2F cohort had higher scores in the practical “how-to” content, particularly regarding the soft skills of grant writing, budget planning, and overall physical library arrangement. It’s important to note that the DE group was completely asynchronous and only received instructor interaction via discussion postings or targeted inquiry emails. The verdict was that this system would indeed work with a couple modifications so that students were more clear on what is required and how to deal with the assignments that might require a bit more soft skill finesse.

I believe the article was well thought out, well researched and well presented. That said, I am completely skeptical of programs that are totally asynchronous. I think that the cracks between student and instructor can just become too larger and students can fall through much more easily than they can succeed. I don’t know what has happened since this study, but I’d wager that the school has since added some sort of live lecture element or even a hybrid element to overcome the inherently impersonal nature of asynchronous DE.

So, you might be wondering how this could fit into our presentation? I don’t know that it has a direct correlation, but it does show again that cohorts, no matter whether they’re DE or not, can achieve roughly the same results as their F2F counterparts. I know this seems to be constantly stated, but it is important enough that it bears repeating. This article is a case study from when the beginning of the hardcore DE movement and I’d be curious to see what’s happened in the 13 years since it happened. Did the program change in construction? How have the grads performed since this analysis? And, how are the numbers of librarians in Virginia? Have they risen, stayed the same, etc?

Building Sense of Community at a Distance
Alfred Rovai

I chose this article because it talked extensively about creating a sense of community in the distance education classroom. I had previously read a couple articles about why students drop out of school and the main themes that came from those was that students in DE classrooms just tend to over-schedule themselves, get overwhelmed, and then feel too anonymous and socially disconnected to ask for help, thus dropping out is their perceived only option. In my mind, the mighty cohort is the antidote to that, providing a pre-made community that students can embrace and be embraced by. But…why is that such a necessary reality? Why can’t students make it on their own? Isn’t that the golden promise of DE? You can do it all! You can fit school into your own schedule and make your own calendar and do it all yourself! And yet in that “doing it all yourself” it seems that more students are burning out and isolating than finding their wildest dreams actualized.

So…why does DE community matter and in turn, how are DE cohorts kind of the perfect antidote to the inherent isolation of DE?

But first, a couple sobering facts about DE…dropout rates are 10% to 20% higher (Carr, 2000). I’d say that’s even a conservative feature. In my own experience it seems that dropout rates are closer to 30% or even inching to 40%.

Here’s another great quote: “Learning needs along appeared strong enough to attract adults to DE programs, but not to retain them.” Yikes!! So DE has no trouble with it’s attraction rates. We’ve got the dream factor and the yellow brick road right outside our virtual doors and students are more than happy to get swept up in the dance, but what happens when the honeymoon wears off? So, bottom line is that learners need a community in order to learn in a robust manner.

“Learners benefit from community membership by experiencing a greater sense of well being and by having an agreeable set of individuals to call on for support when needed.” (Walker, Wasserman & Wellman, 1994; Wellman & Gulia, 1999). So, lacking the physical structure of a school and all the trappings that, that entails, how can DE create these communities? I think there’s really little hope beyond some sort of cohort model. I think that instructors can do it to some extent but really, if you had to choose between hanging out with the cool kids or the teacher, who would you choose?

The article also named “seven factors that the professional literature suggests are positive correlates to the sense of community.” These are:
1. transactional distance // the psychological and communication space between learners and instructors // structure of the class versus dialogue within the class.
2. social presence // instructors almost need to overcompensate in this arena because the DE classroom lacks the physical non-verbal clues that explain so much of the F2F classroom. You cannot take social presence for granted but must cultivate it.
3. social equality // don’t let one person monopolize or belittle others. This is pretty obvious but again it’s easy in the DE world for one person to rise and everyone else to scatter in their presence.
4. small group activities // intentionally group students together to foster community even if they are initially resistant and want to make their own stuff.
5. group facilitation // Again the instructor needs to be ultra sensitive to guiding and leading the group. It’s tricky to take the pulse of a location neutral entity and yet skilled instructors must do their best.
6. teaching and learning style // every DE student comes in with a slightly different way of learning best. Most students have a bit of the non-traditional learner about them. Again, wise instructors need to have a large enough bag of tricks to reach each student where they are.
7. community size // thousands of students is not ideal. In fact, it’s not even an option. The optimal DE classroom is no larger than the optimal F2F classroom. 10 to 25 students is best. 13-20 students is best in a cohort. Coincidence? I think not.

So in closing, DE content has been proven to be roughly equal but the dropout rate is totally off the charts different. Perhaps it’s not a content issue…perhaps it’s a community issue. The article quoted Tinto a lot and I’ll end with a gem paraphrased from him found in the concluding remarks. “In order to improve persistence in DE programs, schools need to assist students in making the adjustments to learning at a distance by enhancing student satisfaction and commitment. Those students who possess strong feelings of community are more likely to persist than those students who feel alienated and alone.” (Tinto, 1993).
It’s not rocket science, but there is magic in connection amongst others…and it might be the secret to many of the ails that have been plaguing DE since its conception.

Articles cited:
Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping

the students. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39-A41.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student
attrition. (2nd ed.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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