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This paper considers the process of developing a virtual learning community amongst a diverse group of postgraduate nurses, inexperienced with technology and online learning. Strategies used to promote the creation of the community are described and evidence of the educational and professional benefits is presented using data from students and teacher.
Postgraduate nursing students are homogeneous to some extent. They are predominantly female mature students with an average age of 37 (Division of Nursing, 2001). Most are employed more than 30 hours a week (Honey, 2004) and combine employment, study and other commitments. Diverse aspects are areas of clinical practice and geographical location, making formation of a learning community particularly challenging. The flexibility of online study offers access to nurses working shifts or at a distance, though many are not familiar with online learning as most courses are still campus-based. Twenty-one students enrolled for 'Clinical Scholarship' in 2003 came from various locations around New Zealand.
The goal of a learning community is to advance the collective knowledge and in that way, to support the growth of individual knowledge (Scardamalia & Bereiter (1994) cited in Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999, p. 4).The instructional rationale for creating a learning community within the context of postgraduate nursing courses relates to the current literature. This serves to situate the learning design within a contemporary theoretical framework and to articulate the theoretical concepts within a specific educational setting. A contemporary belief is that learning is best supported when individuals learn to construct knowledge through exposure to models of expert behaviour and interaction with others in a community setting. One example among many from authors who support these social-constructivist principles states:
the defining quality of a learning community is a culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999, p. 4).According to this definition, a learning community has the following characteristics:
In the case described in this paper, characteristics of the learning community also reflect the professional context in which the students work. This aspect of authenticity in the learning environment addresses the challenge identified by Oliver & Herrington (2003), to create technology mediated learning environments that also act as an effective setting for learning within courses. Practitioners with diverse areas of expertise interact to make a complex system of healthcare organisations work, so the benefits of multiple perspectives and shared experience in an educational setting may enhance awareness and understanding in the professional context. The instructional strategy is thus well founded. Evidence of the participants' appreciation of this aspect is presented in later sections of this paper.
Additional educational goals of the post-graduate nursing courses are confidence, independence and professional identity building. In terms of the literature, this roughly corresponds to critical theorists' conceptions of empowerment, autonomy and participation described by Carr & Kemmis (1986), Sarantakos (1993) and others. In the early era of technology-mediated learning (e.g. Laurillard (1988), it was proposed that the instructional goals supported by emerging models of technology-mediated learning could well serve such objectives. In the contemporary context, emerging evidence further supports this assumption. There is also support for the case presented by Lave & Wenger (1991) that what they refer to as "legitimate peripheral participation" is an aspect of learning that is neither immediately obvious nor always measurable, but no less valuable because of this. The type of learning that this describes is that achieved through engagement in social (or professional) practice where formal or incidental learning is an integral feature of the interaction. In other words, it is a key element of the enculturation process that allows individuals to learn and build confidence to act, interact and react within social and professional settings. One objective of the educational setting described in this course is to build the students' confidence in their own professional practice. Another is that they become more fluent users of information and communication technologies for learning. The theme of this conference "beyond the comfort zone" reflects well the reaction of many mature students to their first experience of online learning and interaction. It is therefore important that all aspects of confidence building occur within the learning community where professional skills and understanding are effectively promoted, and where support for development of technical skills is an integral feature.
This session on the online system is great - very easy to use and I am looking forward to using this at home.Some students initially expressed concern about their keyboard skills and wondered if their lack of typing skills might be a barrier to contributing online:
I was really terrified to start with when I found that this course was to have online discussions that one had to participate in. I thought my two finger typing would be a disaster!While a lack of keyboard skills was identified as a barrier to participating early in the semester this was not mentioned later when they had more experience. A small number of students entered the course with prior experience in online learning. Data was not collected on a student's previous experience of online courses, but evidence was found within their transcripts. For example a student indicated during an interview that previous experience with online learning might have been a positive factor for her, saying:
This is the second online course I have done and it has gone better than the other course perhaps because I was new to online learning before.Another student articulated the public and visible nature of online discussion saying:
I had to think carefully before I put my discussion thoughts online. Online makes me feel rather vulnerable as there is not just me and the marker to see my work.There were online contributions from all students and to keep up with the emerging online discussion students stated it was better to log on regularly. One student identified this as a need for self discipline:
The online modality of learning is excellent for those who are skilled in self disciple and is more of a challenge for the likes of me!Whether it was their lack of computer or keyboard skills, or little experience with online learning these students were out of their comfort zone using an online discussion and supporting students, by such methods as clear directions, prompts and the hands-on session, was important for ensuring their continued participation.
My only concern is the discussion. I haven't run an online Discussion before using [this online learning management system]. I know [others] did last year, but they had some hassles, which I would hope to avoid.At the end of the semester, reflecting on the role taken in the online discussion, the teacher commented:
Well when I look at it I think I needed to be more visible in the discussion. I was there but hardly 'spoke'. The discussion was running very well. Just when I was thinking it was getting boring another thread developed. Actually I felt a bit unsure what to contribute and that's really about my own confidence and experience in online discussion.The teacher had experience with teaching groups however, and recognised the roles that students took within the online group:
We had some students who minimally engaged and others who 'spoke up loud and often'. One student took the role of 'leader' at times, and reflecting questions to and fro; and another seemed to summarise every now and then.However, despite being an experienced teacher, comments from the teacher indicated that students could have received better directions about the use of responding functions:
Students didn't use the reply function, but just posted a new message each time, generally speaking. But the topic as a whole still flowed, though it took different turns along the way.Teaching in an online learning community requires a new set of technical and pedagogical skills and it is not uncommon for faculty not to have developed these (Billings, Vaughn, & Dell, 1998; Cragg, Humbert, & Doucette, 2004; Cravener, 1999). The teacher's reflections indicate that prior experience needs to be augmented by specific skills in online management and community building.
It's wonderful seeing them help each other with hints. Someone kept getting timed out; so the answer was to write their response for the discussion in word, then paste it.Further direct support from the teacher was provided by individual email and phone support. Students commented on requiring minimal help, saying, "access has been reliable - I have no problems whatsoever with linking to the learning site". Therefore the IT support appears to be adequate as shown by students referring to problems as hiccups, with comments such as, "any hiccups were easy to rectify".
However, despite the IT support provided, when asked for ideas on how the online discussion/learning could be improved, the suggestion of providing helpful hints was presented: "Technical hints and tips (e.g. the timing out thing)". Students identified frustration around technical issues: "Apart from being timed out (very frustrating) it was quite easy to navigate and times of frustration when the 30 min lockout deleted work". This relates to the online learning management system disconnecting users after being idle for 30 minutes. Students who were taking longer to compose their contribution to the online discussion found this frustrating and this was identified as a barrier to participating online.
Thirteen students (65%) completed their introduction before the on-campus workshop. Students who had not introduced themselves online completed this task during the on-campus workshop. Some, who had introduced themselves very briefly previously, chose to add to their introductions later. The introductions were accessible throughout the semester aiding students to recall their peers and to build a more complete picture of their professional profiles.
...they KNEW each other and had developed respect for each other's personal learning journey before the online discussion. I think that was a factor in the online discussion being so successful. Despite their different clinical practice areas, throughout the country, they had developed into a group.After the on-campus face to face introductions the remaining students showed no hesitation in completing their online introductions and even those who had completed their online introductions added to them. Research suggests students use self disclosure as an important way of building rapport within the online group (Moore & Kearsley, 1996).
The suggested length to contribute for the discussion is 150 words. That's not a lot to write but also ensures students really engage with the material. A lot of effort and thought went into the discussion topics. They're broad, there's no right or wrong answer, and the answers and thinking should help students towards their assessments too. We thought about the why's and wherefores carefully.Grading for each discussion was based on evidence of three components:
I think making it compulsory was good - as marks (grades) show that the teacher values it. It makes it a significant part of the learning equation.As described above, students were asked to contribute a minimum of twice to each online discussion so the expected contribution was 40 postings over the month. The first discussion started slowly on the 9th day of the month, and peaked at 19 contributions on the last day. A total of 61 contributions were made for the first assessed discussion. The second discussion had the most contributions overall (76) and had a fairly even spread over the month, yet still peaked on the final day for submissions. The third assessed discussion had less contributions overall (58) and while these were sporadic over the month, peaked over the last three days. This pattern of postings over the month is shown graphically in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Rate of contribution by date
The postings from students were monitored and students who had not contributed by the last week of the month were sent a personal reminder email. Nine students were sent personal reminder emails for the first discussion, declining dramatically to three for the second discussion and two for the final discussion. Over the three discussions only one student did not contribute to one of the discussions. The teacher described the contribution rate and actions to encourage participation:
There were a couple of students who I needed to chase, people for whom life got too busy, but generally it went well. I sent personal emails and reminded them that there was a week to go. I tried to be non-confrontational and I think I called it a 'nudge'. I mean they could choose not to bother and get 0 for that discussion. One, or maybe two people, I had a separate chat with (email) and suggested they get on early in the discussion ...as that might seem easier than to add when it's already rolling along.There was evidence of students lurking (Nonnecke & Preece, 2001), where they read others contributions, yet may not have responded. This was shown when individual postings had been accessed between 5 and over 60 times and a number of students indicated they had read messages without making contributions. However, participation in learning could still occur, for example:
I did access the discussion quite frequently without actually contributing so I could read other students contributions. This was a good way of stimulating my own thinking.Another student identified herself as a listener rather than a contributor during discussions, whether face to face or online, saying: "I'm more of a listener when it comes to discussions - in this case I was a reader." The online nature of the discussions did not change her basic behaviour, but her preference for passive participation in the online environment required a change from listening to reading. While some contest that assessment drives learning (Cox & Clark, 1998; Hedberg & Corrent-Agostinho, 2000), in this situation assessed discussion drove participation. Participation ensured students were exposed to multiple perspectives and provided students opportunities to share their experience and learning, thereby contributing to the development of a learning community.
On line ...the big long coffee... the (online) contact has been fun and a great way of expanding views on particular points re nursing / scholarship.Feedback from the teacher about the online interaction included:
I've had some emails from students saying how much they liked it and how they appreciated the comments of their peers.Comments from students such as We are good thinkers! and We are a talented group further show that students valued each other. The use of the 'we' illustrates a sense of belonging and of collective identity. The sense of belonging was helpful for motivating students to continue with the course, despite their other commitments.
The contribution of peers was interesting reading as it is always good to hear other's perspectives.Reading others' views created interest and maintained involvement in the online discussion. As the course progressed evidence emerged of shared values and camaraderie amongst students. Respect for the perspectives of others and what that contributed to the learning community had an empowering and unifying effect on the postgraduate nurses best articulated by a student's comment:
...it's so easy to get locked into a particular corner in health care and not really appreciate what's going on elsewhere...thanx to all for sharing thoughts / info / knowledge and of course the passion of nursing ...all the scholarly best !!!
Having such a talented and diverse bunch of participants has enriched so much for me - my thinking, my view points, attitudes, my understanding of Hospital, Community and Maori specific initiatives in nursing, and my belief that nursing is definitely on track for one day 'ruling the world' of health (something I believe in most emphatically).The comments indicate that students identified the authenticity of the online discussions as realistically reflecting the health care scene.
The teacher also commented on the sharing of information, resources and ideas, both within and beyond the course. For example interesting readings students came across were shared and suggestions about approaches to clinical issues were provided.
This is a topic closer to my heart and I feel I can contribute more to this discussion.The teacher recognised subgroups evolving within the student group, often around scopes of practice:
Yes I seem to have a group, or cohort of [name] and they are all over the country. You can tell on the discussion because they add a dimension to each topic, and they seem to keep it going. So yes they participate, and I think the group, cohort thing is probably good for them. Although I can also say that the [other] students have also joined their threads too.
Having five discussion forums provided a number of opportunities for sharing. Learning related to the course was shared through the assessed online discussions. Students' experience and skill with online discussion was shared using the informal "Coffee Group" discussion. Another aspect of sharing occurred with the introductions, as student's career paths, knowledge journeys and aspirations were revealed.
And there was depth there. Not from everyone....maybe I shouldn't have expected it from everyone. But there was definitely deep and reflective learning. You could sense them struggling with clinical issues, considering theory and how it related to their practice and posing solutions and new questions.
This is a big thank you to all you guys. This is my first online discussion group and I have enjoyed it so much. ...Good luck to you all in your future endeavours and when you become Nurse Practitioners, I'll be proud to say that I 'knew you when'. Thanks again and a very merry Xmas.
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|Contact author: Michelle Honey, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing, The University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland, New Zealand. Phone 64 9 373 7599 ext 87308 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please cite as: Honey, M., Gunn, C. & North, N. (2004). Creating a learning community of postgraduate nurses through online discussion. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 413-422). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/honey.html
© <2004 Michelle Honey, Cathy Gunn & Nicola Northbr> The authors assign to ASCILITE and educational non-profit institutions a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to ASCILITE to publish this document on the ASCILITE web site (including any mirror or archival sites that may be developed) and in printed form within the ASCILITE 2004 Conference Proceedings. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the authors.