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«Phu Vu University of Nebraska-Kearney Peter J. Fadde Southern Illinois University Abstract This study explores students’ choices of verbal and text ...»

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Journal of Interactive Online Learning Volume 12, Number 2, Summer 2013

www.ncolr.org/jiol ISSN: 1541-4914

 

When to Talk, When to Chat: Student Interactions in Live Virtual Classrooms

Phu Vu

University of Nebraska-Kearney

Peter J. Fadde

Southern Illinois University

Abstract

This study explores students’ choices of verbal and text interaction in a synchronous Live Virtual

Classroom (LVC) environment that mixed onsite and online learners. Data were collected from analysis of recorded LVC sessions and post-course interviews with students in two different offerings of a graduate instructional design course that used Adobe Connect as a live virtual classroom. Students could choose whether to participate onsite in a computer classroom or “live” online using Connect. Over the course of both semesters students increasingly chose to participate online and, overall, students chose to participate online (57%) more than onsite (43%). However, some students—especially international students—preferred to participate onsite even though it was less convenient and also meant that they were more likely to be “called on” for verbal responses. Analysis of LVC recordings and post-course interviews showed that text interaction in which students asked questions or made comments in the LVC chat box during the instructor’s lectures was a preferred mode of interaction for students when they were participating both online and onsite. The emergent pedagogical strategy of integrated text interaction during lecture suggests a benefit of synchronous online learning.

Online learning is increasingly popular in higher education since administrators view it as an effective method to increase enrollment with fairly low cost (Allen & Seaman, 2005; Kim & Curtis, 2006; Maguire, 2005). Online learning also makes college courses available to many learners who would not be able to attend a full-time, on-campus program. However, a sense of isolation due to lack of interactions and resulting low-motivation among asynchronous online learning participants is considered to be a hurdle to effective online learning (Aoun, 2011;

Boulos, Taylor, & Breton, 2005). Synchronous online learning in the form of live virtual classrooms (LVC) has emerged as a way to facilitate interaction in online learning. Also referred to as an electronic meeting or web conferencing, LVC allows learners to interact via synchronous texting and audio or video discussion with the instructor and with other students, potentially reducing feelings of isolation and raisinglearning motivation (Hrastinski, 2008).

The emergence of LVC with new channels of interaction has the potential to open up different pedagogical strategies in comparison with asynchronous online learning and traditional face-to-face classrooms. However, interactions in online learning do not occur automatically but   41     Journal of Interactive Online Learning Vu and Fadde rather need to be incorporated consciously into the instructional design of online classes (Ragan, 1999). This exploratory study examines students’ LVC interactions in two offerings of a graduate course on instructional multimedia in which students could choose, on a class-to-class basis, to meet with the instructor in an on-campus computer lab or to participate online at their own computers. During weekly synchronous class meetings both online and onsite students logged into the LVC, where the majority of class interactions took place.

Because the two offerings of the course studied represented a unique blended learning environment in which students moved freely between onsite and online participation, it is not possible to systematically compare onsite and online participation or to draw conclusions based on learning outcomes. Rather, this study focuses on two aspects of students’ choice of interaction modes during synchronous class sessions. These student choices were studied in an action research context in order to improve the particular course (Mills, 2007) and also to gain insights about preferred interaction modes in LVC. The students’ first choice was whether to attend class onsite or online. During class sessions, then, both onsite and online students could choose to participate verbally or through text in a chat box. The second choice that students made was what available media to use for class interactions. Typical interactions in the course involved students asking or answering questions and also offering comments, prompted or unprompted, during the instructor’s lecture.

Video, audio, and text interactions are all possible in LVC environments, but they come with different degrees of difficulty. The course instructor rejected use of video for student interactions because past experience with LVC showed that use of multiple webcams increased the number of technical issues related to off-campus students’ Internet bandwidth. As a result, students could choose whether to use audio or text channels for interactions.

The question of whether students prefer to interact verbally or in text has implications for the design of LVC offerings in part because granting online students “mic privileges” increases the technology overhead for both students and instructors. There is a cost/benefit consideration, then, in deciding if and when to include audio as well as text channels for student interaction in an LVC. While audio interaction is more difficult than text interaction in the LVC environment, it was easier for students when they were onsite to interact verbally in the traditional way of raising their hand to request speaking privilege. Therefore, this study provides a unique opportunity to investigate students’ choice of interaction mode with less influence of technology limitations.





The role of student interactions in online learning Researchers have long investigated the impact of student interactions on the teaching and learning process. Interactions benefit learners in receiving feedback from the instructor about their performance in course-related activities and also motivating them to engage in active learning (Prammanee, 2003). Successful learning outcomes are also facilitated when group members can share their knowledge effectively in the learning process (Soller, 2004a, 2004b). In the field of online learning, Pittinsky and Chase (2000) emphasized that it is the quality and frequency of interactions between learners and the instructor that affect the instructional value of online learning. White and Weight (2000) asserted that online learning is structured around the dynamics of human communications and features the asynchronous equivalents of traditional class discussions and learners’ interactions. In addition, Thorpe and Godwin (2006) found that interactions in online learning help expand the learning relationships available and also help generate cognitive processes of explanation, reflection and internalization.

  42     Journal of Interactive Online Learning Vu and Fadde On the contrary, other researchers have pointed out that student interactions in online learning do not always contribute to learning outcomes and that learners do not place high value on interactions with other students in online learning. In a study investigating how MBA students perceive student-to-student interaction in an online setting, Kellogg and Smith (2009) reported that 64.5% of the participants did not perceive those interactions as being integral to their learning outcome. In the same vein, Wilkes, Simon and Brooks (2006) concluded that e-learners characterize themselves as different from their face-to-face counterparts and view student interactions, either with the instructor or among peers, as being characteristic of traditional learning and not online learning. Most of the studies cited do not report whether the interactions were synchronous or asynchronous. However, we assume that—unless specifically noted—the learner interactions studied were conducted in the dominant asynchronous mode (Chou, 2002).

Synchronous interactions in online learning The earliest mode of synchronous interactions in academic settings was based on Internet Relay Chat or similar public synchronous communications programs (Archee, 1993; Murphy & Collins, 1997). These synchronous interactions were conducted mainly among learners for recreational, personal and social purposes in the form of text. Synchronous interactions allowed learners to interact with each other and with the instructor in real time, which could increase their learning enthusiasm and establish a sense of social presence (Aoki, 1995). A disadvantage of this type of interaction was that turn taking in synchronous interactions was convoluted since there were no observable kinesthetic or para-verbal clues to signal when a learner joined the conversation or changed the topic (Murphy & Collins, 1997).

By analyzing and comparing asynchronous and synchronous conference transcripts from weekly computer conferences held on WebCT bulletin boards and chat rooms in an upper level undergraduate course, Chou (2002) found that there were more social-emotional interactions among learners in synchronous mode than asynchronous mode. Schwier and Balbar (2002) analyzed the synchronous interactions of seven graduate students in WebCT chat rooms and found that synchronous interactions created connection and a sense of community among learners but were less effective than asynchronous formats in term of the content of the discussion. Hrastinski (2008) found that students in a graduate course had more social and planning interactions and fewer content-related interactions in synchronous online discussions than in asynchronous discussion forums. It seems important, therefore, to discern differences between synchronous and asynchronous communications in online learning.

Synchronous interaction in live virtual classrooms Several studies have presented successful models or effective practices of LVC (Deshpande & Hwang, 2001; Yang & Liu, 2007). Other studies have compared web conference programs or software (Lavolette, Venable, Gose, & Huang, 2010; Schullo, Hilbelink, Venable, & Barron, 2007). However, few publications have investigated LVC design or implementation strategies. One such study was by Pullen (2004) in which he described synchronous Internetdelivered courses, which learners could take onsite or online simultaneously. Based on his teaching practice, Pullen made several observations. Audio was seen as a vital component of LVC for both online and onsite learners. In lecture-based classes, learners seemed to be satisfied with the ability to type their comments or questions as long as the instructor noted them quickly.

In seminar-based classes, learners felt that audio input was much more important. Adding video to audio interactions contributed little to the educational experience for most learners. Finally, a   43     Journal of Interactive Online Learning Vu and Fadde text “chat” was considered to be a useful channel for learners to interact among themselves about trivia.

Pullen also observed that some learners preferred to attend class in person, but found themselves in situations where the expense and time of doing so outweighed the perceived drawbacks of attending online. However, higher quality of audio and graphics and the ability to interact directly with the instructor and among peers, even if limited to text formats, compensated for the perceived disadvantages of attending a synchronous online class. Lastly, the researcher observed that the performance of learners in LVC environments was not significantly different from those who attended an onsite class.

Another LVC study examined why and how instructors used tools in Elluminate Live!

and what perceptions learners and instructors had regarding this synchronous software (Schullo et al., 2007). The results showed that among many tools available, instructors used text chat and Voice Over Internet Protocol audio the most. According to the instructors in the study, Elluminate Live! let them build up connections with and among learners more effectively and raised the potential for communication in online courses while in the learners' opinions the software was of high quality and helped them achieve the lessons easily.

While previous studies suggest that synchronous text interactions can create a sense of community among learners but have limited instructional value, these studies mainly focused on synchronous text interactions in stand-alone chat activities. The study reported here is different in examining pedagogical aspects of synchronous interactions in an LVC, both text and audio, which occur during lecture-based instruction and have instructional as well as social value.

Background of course studied Two sections of a graduate level Multimedia Design course at a Midwestern public university were analyzed for this case study. The first section was offered in Spring semester 2011 with 15 registered graduate students. The second section was in Spring semester 2012 with 13 registered students. Both courses were taught by the same instructor in a computer classroom.

Both used a learning management system (LMS) as well as Adobe Connect Pro as an LVC.

Before each class session, the instructor emailed the Adobe Connect Pro (ACP) class URL, which students could access on site in a computer lab or online at remote locations. In both cases students would log into ACP, which acted as the central meeting place of the class. In most class sessions the instructor lectured with supporting PowerPoint slides that were viewed in ACP on individual computers by both onsite and online learners; the slides were not projected in the classroom.

Both sections of the course also included an asynchronous discussion forum on the LMS for required class discussion in between weekly “live” class sessions. LVC sessions were recorded and URLs for class recordings were posted as web links on the LMS so that students could watch the recording if they missed the class or if they had difficulty understanding the lesson. Figure 1 shows a screenshot from an Adobe Connect Pro session. Windows show the attendees, video of the instructor, a multimedia tutorial being discussed by the class, and a chat box.



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