Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wetware: Evolving Online Learning

by Susan Codone

Wetware and online learning -- how do those terms relate? Wetware, coined by the science fiction writer Rudy Rucker in his 1998 book by the same name, describes the resources of the mind that are analogous to hardware and software.  These are the thinking and reasoning mechanisms we bring to our studies, and are what online learners rely on to synthesize the hardware and software they must work with and the mental effort they must expend to successfully navigate online learning. Wetware is an apt term for what learners bring to online learning, even if it is a little odd.  Note Wikipedia’s definition:

"The term wetware is used to describe the embodiment of the concepts of the physical construct known as the central nervous system (CNS) and the mental construct known as the human mind. It is a two-part abstraction drawn from the computer-related idea of hardware or software."

Academic resources for both online learning and online teaching are widely available.  In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reports that between 1996 and 2008 over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning were published.  Undoubtedly, more were also published on online teaching.  The population for online learning has been growing, too; the Sloan Consortium reports that as of Fall 2006, 20% of higher education students were enrolled in at least one online course (3.5 million students) – a 9.7% growth rate.  Four years later in 2010, those numbers must be dramatically higher.

Yet one key issue that many studies and reports on online learning overlook is the actual condition of the consumer of online learning – the wetware.  Students are physically counted, surveyed, and evaluated to be sure, but their essential status as a combination information-seeker, risk-taker, and open-minded  learner has not been fully explored.  While we spend much time talking about the hardware and software of online learning, we often forget the significance of the wetware.  

Online learning is changing because the technology and the wetware of online students is changing.  The diagram below shows a delta in four major characteristics of online learning that each confer new conditions on the online learner.
Increased Sophistication of Tools and the Changing Nature of Student Engagement

When I began teaching online courses in 2000, my university used webpages to host written instructor lectures with links to PowerPoint presentations narrated by the professor.  Learning management systems had yet to build a comprehensive presence. We used a free online chat tool for class discussions, but because that was seen as unusual, we didn't require students to attend - relying more on passive threaded discussions for student input.

In 2002 I began working at another university that used early versions of WebCT as a rudimentary course management system, mainly as a content repository.  We also used its text chat feature as a way to hold a weekly class discussion.  Each week, we held a directed chat in which we discussed certain questions and scenarios that we provided to the students in advance.  Students couldn’t see each other, or hear each other talk, but they could read the text threads in the chat discussion.  Elsewhere in WebCT, we usually posted a table with student pictures and bios so that they could visualize each other.

Now, in 2010, we use Blackboard for its content repository feature, but we’ve migrated to Webex, an online conferencing program, for class discussions.  Now students can simultaneously talk to the professor and each other, and they can also see and talk to each other via the transmission of webcam video.  The interactivity of the course has improved significantly, and the opportunity for students to know and recognize each other has also increased.

Shufang Shi, an assistant professor of Childhood and Early Education at the State University of New York Cortland, writes in E-Conferencing for Instructors: What Works (Educause Quarterly, 2006) that professors use online conferencing tools for voice communication, sharing browsers, polling, application sharing, a whiteboard, presentation and document sharing, and recording and archiving meetings.  For these services, subscription prices for universities have stayed affordable, and the only requirements for students are an Internet connection, earphones, a microphone, and a webcam – or sometimes just an Internet connection and a phone.

The question is whether online learning in 2010 is changing because of this technology and the students using it.  Will students, formerly comfortable being less inhibited in more anonymous online environments of text chat and discussion boards, adapt well to Internet communication that demands voice and video?  Will they now become more inhibited since barriers to disclosure have fallen?  Will their wetware change as they adapt to this new interaction?

Jane Cole and Jeffrey Kritzer in Strategies for Success:  Teaching Online Courses (Rural Special Education Quarterly, 2009) suggest that students feel more comfortable participating in electronic discussion boards because they can be more anonymous in their postings.  Kyong Jee-Kim and Curtis J. Bonk, writing in The Future of Online Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (Educause Quarterly, November 2006)  predict that collaboration, case study learning, and problem-based learning will likely become the preferred methods for online teachers – greatly increasing the degree of student interpersonal engagement in online courses.

As technology and teaching style continue to evolve and converge, will the degree of student engagement change?  Will student inhibitions affect their level of involvement and disclosure even though the technology offers more openness?  Will they accept a more demanding interpersonal role that requires increased disclosure and overt collaboration with others?  Will the wetware students bring to online learning evolve along with the technology to make them more active consumers?

Psychology and Active Learning

Psychology applies to wetware, too.  Using well-accepted tenets of psychology can help maximize the learning potential of online content. Cole & Kritzer (2009) note that there are specific strategies professors can use to psychologically increase student chances for success in online courses -- discussion boards, scaffolding, and modules.  Scaffolding occurs when instructors stretch out an assignment and break it into parts, so that students can get feedback on small pieces of the project and use that to assemble the final project – kind of like a long paper or proposal submitted intermittently in parts for grading.  For online learning, when instructor feedback is markedly different than the classroom, scaffolding can be a source of structured learning and encouragement for students as they build their assignments in steps rather than all at once.
Using modules means grouping content together in small units and having students complete each unit separately, slowly converging the knowledge as they make their way through the course.  In my university, we “module-ize” online instruction in Blackboard by assigning “weekly” content that must be completed consecutively.  

 Cognitively, this helps students schedule their work throughout the online semester and gives them a visual representation of the calendar.  All content for each week is included in each weekly module and is thus united around a single set of objectives for each week.  Again, it gives the students’ “wetware” a structure on which to work, thus helping information processing and ultimately, long-term learning -- to make a psychological and cognitive imprint.

Emerging Social Knowledge and Media

What is it about college students and adults that leads them to post party pictures on Facebook and boast of 1,000 or more friends, yet also causes them to clam up in an online discussion about history?  Why are their inhibitions different in social media than educational technology and online learning?  What can social knowledge and media offer to online learning to help students participate more fully?

A search in Academic Search Complete with the keywords “online learning” and “social media” reveals just one article, and it’s from Helsinki, Finland.  Miikka Salavuo, writing in the Journal of Music, Technology, and Education (2008), suggests that learning management systems are bad because they are hierarchical and allow instructors to simply copy course structure and content to the Internet. In Social Media as an Opportunity for Pedagogical Change in Music Education, she recommends that social networking platforms like FaceBook, Elgg, MySpace, and Ning be used as an alternate to LMS’s because they offer increased participation, presence, and ownership, as well as the ability for students to use the expertise of others, create lasting connections, and network widely.  She also believes students need to be actively involved in creating socially-based communities of practice.

Clearly, more research needs to be done regarding the disparity of student inhibitions and participation in LMS-driven online courses and social media.  We have much to learn from the evolving social knowledge efforts currently pursued by Google, Wikipedia, and others, and from the social media outlets that so easily draw participants to open their lives to others.  The wetware of social media participants doesn’t change when they enroll in an online course, but students typically respond differently, somehow, and it would help us to know why.  Making online courses that appeal to students' cognitive, psychological, and social interests -- their wetware -- would doubtless lead to richer and more lasting learning.

Online learning is changing.  The wetware students bring to online environments is influenced by constantly changing technology, psychology, and social media experiences.  As professors who teach online courses, we should consider these issues as we plan and deliver courses to students who cognitively are prepared for much, much more than what we traditionally offer.  We need to tap that potential!


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