Since our Australopithecine ancestors learned to shape stones into tools ~3.3 million years ago, hominid relationships and knowledge creation have been mediated by, negotiated through, and expressed in technological innovations, a meandering but cumulative line — from rock to rocket, from Lucy to Musk — that may help us create a new Levant in the orange dust of Mars, in an evolutionary leap that takes us away from home, to where our reliance on technology will be absolute. “Without technology, we are not human” (McGreal, 2017). Without humans, and our imperative for social interaction, technology would not exist.
While Russell’s (1999) meta-analysis revealed “no significant difference” in learning outcomes when comparing face-to-face and distance education (DE) contexts (absent pedagogical change), critical differences emerge when technology-enabled pedagogical changes are considered. Interactive online technologies afford pedagogical potential that correlates to improved learning outcomes in DE and blended learning contexts.
In this paper, I explore the pedagogical potential afforded by one interactive technology tool – online discussion forums – for enhanced social presence and learner-centredness, towards improved learning outcomes. Two pedagogical strategies – scaffolding, and forum management – are considered within DE and blended learning. Scope is limited to higher education and professional training contexts.
A general search for distance education (DE) literature will find an abundance of research comparing DE to traditional face-to-face (f2f) learning contexts, positioning f2f as the benchmark, and presuming quality to be lacking in DE (Berridge, Penney, & Wells, 2012). However, in his seminal meta-analysis, Russell (1999) definitively observed “no significant difference” in learning outcomes between mode and media (technology), when media alone is changed (Veletsianos, 2014).
Since Vygotsky introduced his theory of constructivism almost a century ago, the idea of social interaction has permeated education discourse and practice (Constructivism (philosophy of education), 2017). Vygotsy’s central premise, that we learn via cognitive constructions stemming from interaction (Qiu, Hewitt, & Brett, 2014) inspired myriad theories and frameworks to guide pedagogy, including the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which explains interaction within technology-mediated DE contexts (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2010). The CoI framework encompasses three mutually-constituting presences – teacher, social, and cognitive – and elevates content to a role as interactive agent (Garrison, et al., 2010).
Referencing Russell, Veletsianos (2014) writes: “[W]hat impacts learning is not the technology. What impacts learning are changes in… pedagogical practices supported by the introduction of new technologies” (para. 8). However, new means for interaction afforded by technology may expand pedagogical potential from a constructivist perspective, rendering pedagogy-technology a closer and more dependent partnership. The current trend towards blended learning within traditional f2f contexts offers corollary to the view that technology contributes to pedagogical change that affects positive differences in learning.
Limiting my scope to higher education and professional training, in this paper I consider how technological affordances may enhance pedagogy in online contexts towards improved learning. I examine the changing pedagogy-technology partnership by exploring online discussion forums, a staple tool in DE that is now commonly utilized in blended learning contexts. I focus on two aspects of online discussion forums that afford enhanced pedagogy: Strategic scaffolding and forum management, which together facilitate a shift from teacher- to learner-centredness, and from content- to process focus, by transforming configurations of teacher, social and cognitive presence within online learning contexts, in contrast to f2f contexts (Garrison, et al., 2010; Gros, Garcia, & Escofet, 2012).
Throughout my analysis, I remain mindful of bias stemming from my positive experiences in DE as an adult learner, and from my professional work in educational development and academic technology integration.
Of the three presences delineated within the CoI framework, social presence is predictive of both student satisfaction and learning outcomes (Annand, 2011; Garrison, et al., 2010; Richardson, Maeda, Ly, & Caskurlu, 2017). Cho and Cho (2016) found teacher-learner and learner-learner interaction explains students’ perceived learning and satisfaction, and predicts perceptions of social presence in online environments.
With respect to pedagogical strategies emphasizing social presence, the key is instructional design that fosters social learning (Feng, Xie, & Liu, 2017; Qui, et al., 2014; Richardson, et al., 2017; Veletsianos, 2014; Zimmerman, 2012). While Zimmerman (2012) observed that focus on learner-content interaction correlates to improved learning outcomes in DE, “it is not cognitive density but collaborative learning and interaction that is related to the quality of learning” (Feng, et al., 2017, p. 165; Lee, 2014; Garrison et al., 2010).
Collaborative discourse has been a pillar for fostering social presence in f2f contexts, but was largely elusive for DE prior to teleconferencing. With the Internet, new possibilities have arisen, among them online discussion forums, which offer unique affordances for pedagogy that embeds the three CoI presences (Qui, et al., 2014). Scaffolding strategies, for instance, may be implemented in new ways, creating teacher presence that effectively supports/determines both social and cognitive presence. (Cho & Cho, 2016; Feng, et al., 2017; Garrison, et al., 2010; Lee, 2014).
Scaffolding can foster both interaction and skills in collaborative discourse (Cho & Cho, 2016; Feng, et al., 2017; Qui, et al., 2014). Looking at DE courses (not discussion forums, specifically), Feng et al. (2017) describe how varying the intensity of scaffolding for overall social presence – mediated through teacher presence, and with differential emphasis on social, teacher, and cognitive presence during initial, mid- and final phases of a course, respectively – enables this scaffolding to be gradually withdrawn (Cho & Cho, 2016; Lee, 2014; Gros, et al. 2012). In online discussion forums, strategic teacher presence may involve on-boarding digital literacy, providing tasks and structure, posting guiding questions, providing timely (group and individual) feedback, keeping discussions on track, adapting instruction informed by formative assessment, and fading scaffolding once students/groups achieve self-direction in discourse (Berridge, et al., 2012; Gros, et al.; 2012; Liebenberg, Chetty, & Prinsloo, 2012; Qui, et al., 2014).
Exploring group configuration in DE online discussion forums, Qui et al. (2014) found that larger classes separated into smaller groups was optimal for maximizing diversity of ideas, encouraging participation and active learning, quality vs. quantity of posts, fostering group cohesion and social presence, and providing opportunities for translating knowledge from the groups to the class aggregate (Akcaoglu & Lee, 2016; Cleveland-Innes & Campbell, 2012; Zimmerman, 2012). Group configuration also impacts teacher capacity for managing the forum, a factor influencing both teacher and social presence, with potential for fostering a shift from an instructional to a learner-centred approach (LaVoie, et al., 2010; Cho & Cho, 2016; Qui, et al., 2014). Qui et al. (2014) observed that more quality vs. quantity of posts impacts teacher workload, improving capacity for the tasks relating to teacher presence described above, plus simultaneous tracking of multiple discussion threads and/or multiple group discussions. These are tasks uniquely afforded by online discussion forum technological infrastructure, and are either impossible or significantly limited within f2f contexts (Qui, et al., 2014). Automated moderation (e.g. computer algorithms) can assist in some of these tasks, such as identifying when a group discussion veers off track, cuing the teacher when support and scaffolding is needed (LaVoie, et al., 2010). LaVoie et al. (2010) observed a positive correlation between quality of discussion forum posts in response to teacher presence supported by an automated peer moderator.
With teachers positioned “behind the scenes” in online forums (Qui, et al., 2014, p. 299), teacher-learner and learner-learner relationships transform as learners share responsibility for leadership in collaborative discourse, some become content experts in concert with the teacher. Through role fluidity, students experience competence and mastery, fostering deep learning and intrinsic motivation, which translates into improved learning outcomes compared to f2f contexts (Garrison & Cleveland-Innes, 2005; LaVoie, et al., 2010; Olivier, 2016; Qui, et al., 2014; Ryan & Deci, 2000). Among adult learners in a blended learning context, LaVoie et al. (2010) observed more peer scaffolding among learners who participated in an online discussion forum compared to learners who did not. LaVoie et al. suggest that deeper learner-content engagement and deeper cognition for online forum participants may be the reason.
Improved learning outcomes relating to technology-enhanced pedagogy for interaction that supports social presence, teacher presence, and cognitive presence, may provide an impetus for more blended learning, incorporating a diversity of online tools beyond discussion forums.
Since our Australopithecine ancestors learned to shape stones into tools ~3.3 million years ago (Stone tool, 2017), hominid relationships and knowledge creation have been mediated by, negotiated through, and expressed in technological innovations, a meandering but cumulative line — from rock to rocket, from Lucy to Musk — that may help us create a new Levant in the orange dust of Mars, in an evolutionary leap that takes us away from home, to where our reliance on technology will be absolute. “Without technology, we are not human” (McGreal, 2017). Without humans, and our imperative for social interaction, technology would not exist.
The advance of computers and Internet technology has occurred simultaneously with a shift in education, across all levels and contexts, towards constructivism. Through a backwards lens, the research synthesized in Russell’s (1999) “no significant difference” meta-analysis seems to have compared the wrong variable in assessing quality in DE vs. f2f learning contexts. The critical variable is differences in pedagogy within each context, and differences in the affordances that technology may offer for actualizing pedagogical potential matched to each context. In other words, pedagogy shapes technology, relative to learning context.
Veletsianos correctly asserts that pedagogy, not technology, makes the difference. This is perhaps best illustrated by the low rates of active/interactive participation by learners within massively open online courses (MOOCs) (Anders, 2015), consistent with Feng et al.’s (2017) observation that teacher presence is imperative for scaffolding social presence. It is teacher presence that is typically limited in MOOCs (Anders, 2015).
As described above, online discussion forums foster a shift from content focus to process focus, and it is here that a difference between DE and blended learning may be observed, (Gros, et al., 2012). Gros et al. (2012) describe that technology integration in blended learning still emphasize a teacher-centred instructional approach (focusing on content), compared to DE’s learning-centred approach (focusing on process) that better facilitates social presence and constructivist learning. Again, this illustrates that pedagogy, not technology, makes the difference.
Regardless of which learning context, adaptive scaffolding (opposed to static scaffolding) emerges as a best practice, a pedagogical strategy that may be better actualized through interactive technology such as online discussion forums. A meta-analysis by Richardson et al. (2017) revealed that online technology enables instructional design with more strategic integration of teacher, social, and cognitive presence.
The literature review herein considered one tool – online discussion forums – and its affordances for social presence. Other technology tools that may enhance social presence include audio-lectures and video feedback, as well as hyper-linking pathways through content (characteristic of the networked learning that connectivism envisions) (Berridge, et al., 2012; Laaser & Toloza, 2017; Siemens, 2004; Thomas, West, & Borup, 2017). Artificial intelligence (AI) is another technological advance likely to expand pedagogical potential within online learning contexts. As with the automated forum moderators described above, AI could facilitate new forms of interaction and presences, supplementing those encompassed within the CoI framework, that provide for better constructivist learning (O’Reilly, 2017).
In this paper, I considered the affordances of one online tool for actualizing enhanced pedagogical potential in DE and blended learning contexts. Exploring pedagogical potential as a variable relating to other interactive technologies in these contexts is suggested for future research. The literature synthesized herein focused on higher education and professional training contexts; Future research may explore this question in K-12 and other learning contexts.
Russell (1999) definitively observed “no significant difference” in learning outcomes among research studies comparing f2f and DE contexts, in the absence of pedagogical changes (Veletsianos, 2014). However, considering examples of pedagogical change within online learning contexts, some critical differences emerge: Interactive technology affords enhanced pedagogical potential that is impossible or limited in f2f contexts, and that correlates to improved learning outcomes in DE and blended learning contexts. For DE, in particular, online technologies have made an obvious “significant difference” by making social interaction possible and practical.
Online discussion forums are one tool through which technology-enabled pedagogical potential may be actualized, affording strategic scaffolding and forum management, which together can shift pedagogical approach from teacher- to learner-centredness and from content- to process focus, enhancing social presence in online contexts compared to f2f. (Garrison, et al., 2010; Gros, et al., 2012).
In this paper, I explored technology-enabled pedagogical potential in DE and blended learning for higher education and professional training contexts. Future research may target pedagogical variables afforded by tools beyond online discussion forums, and in other learning contexts.
 Widely referred to as “social constructivism” (Constructivism (philosophy of education), 2017; Lev Vygotsky, 2017).
 In this paper, “online learning” refers collectively to DE and blended learning contexts.
 Expanding on Moore’s theory of transactional distance (Moore, 1989, 1990).
 Cho and Cho (2016; referencing Lee & Choi, 2011) describe that student attrition within online learning contexts stem from instructional issues, i.e. lack of teacher use of scaffolding strategies to promote interaction.
 A pedagogical articulation of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (Cho & Cho, 2016).
 Feng, Xie and Liu (2017) found that social presence initially established through teacher presence (modeling discourse and orienting students to content) is sustained through mid-phase via direct instruction (emphasizing teacher presence), and through final phase emphasizing cognitive presence when teaching presence involves guiding students towards self-defined goals (Cho & Cho, 2016; Lee, 2014; Gros, et al.; 2012).
 An early hominid fossil unearthed in Ethiopia (Lucy (Australopithecus), 2017).
 Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Inc. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) (SpaceX, 2017; Tesla, Inc., 2017).
 “Contextual links” in web developer lexicon.
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