Online Learners Want Community: But, Are We REALLY Giving it to Them?

Concurrent Session 3

Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Students working in online environments often feel disconnected from the community, and adult students desire connection a great deal. In this presentation, hear and see what adult online learners have to say about many of the common tools instructors and designers use to engage them in community-building and engaging experiences. 


Farah L. Vallera teaches instructional technology and teacher education as a Professor of Practice in Lehigh University's Teaching, Learning, and Technology graduate degree program and is a practicing instructional design consultant in higher education. She is currently serving as a Creative Inquiry Faculty Fellow where she is working to reimagine and redesign existing courses by integrating new (or different) active pedagogies for students to pursue inquiry through new intellectual, creative, and artistic pathways. She received a Ph.D. from Lehigh University in Teaching, Learning, and Technology, where her focus was on using innovative educational technology in the design and dissemination of STEM-integrated agricultural literacy curriculum for elementary students. She also has an M.A. and B.A. in sociology from Lehigh University and Centenary College, respectively. Aside from teaching courses and research in instructional design, design thinking, makerspace development, mobile technology, and blended/flipped learning, she develops multicultural, inclusion, and diversity awareness course materials and enjoys practicing urban agriculture and volunteering as an agricultural educator for diverse audiences. Dr. Vallera has presented on building makerspaces, instructional design strategies for blended/flipped learning, and using augmented and virtual reality in multiple settings at international, nationals, and regional conferences, such as: OLC, NAAEE, NARST, NAITC, ASA, PETE&C, NE-ASTE, and many others. She has several chapters and articles published about building courses and materials using innovative educational technology for multiple audiences and content.

Additional Authors

David Castaneda is an online learning designer and producer dedicated to researching and developing meaningful learning experiences for digital age learners. He began his journey into instructional design at Education Development Center where he worked with various programs interested in education and behavioral change. Through this process he developed skills in educational program design, project management, facilitation, online education, behavioral change, and applying learning theories. He has since directed the creation of media, self-paced modules, college courses, and full out learning management systems and educational websites. He earned a Master of Arts from Drew University Theological School where he combined the wisdom of theology, sociology and education to dive deeper into how people are making meaning in the digital world. He's currently an instructional designer at Moravian College, helping them launch the college into full online programs and a guest lecturer at Drew University. He lives in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania with his wife, daughters, sheltie and green cheeked conure.

Extended Abstract

Dissemination of courses in online environments is increasing throughout the world. There are several benefits to online learning, which include: cost-effectiveness, professional development uses, credit equivalencies, and overall effectiveness in connecting students to opportunities around the world.  Additionally, these environments may allow students to reflect more deeply on materials, participate more meaningfully, interact more effectively, and improve their learning outcomes.  Online learning can take many shapes, where students can participate in fully online environments or in blended formats, either synchronously or asynchronously (or a combination of both), and with any level of interactivity, authenticity, and engagement.  Here, we will define online learning as any virtual format of delivering instruction with the use of a computer and internet connection to access materials synchronously and/or asynchronously.   

 Online environments have evolved a great deal in terms of instructional design over the past several years.  In the “beginning”, students could enter the online environment, read text, view images and media, do activities, get assessed, and move on with their lives.  Learners could pace themselves, receive feedback, and get the remediation they needed to be successful.  Nowadays, students seek more engaging and interactive experiences, as well as community, collaboration, authenticity, and feedback delivered immediately.  Similarly, designing instruction and teaching in online environments is different than in face-to-face situations, as the audience is not always immediately accessible to gauge the effectiveness, engagement, and formative learning outcomes of the materials and instruction. 

Often the best online experiences are those that are motivating, flexible, realistic, supportive, collaborative, and replicate in-person activity.  Unfortunately, many instructors have not received training on how to build online courses, use unfamiliar technologies, or instruct online learners.  Instructors should work with subject matter experts, educational technologists, and instructional designers to develop well-designed materials and courses.  These collaborations can generate more thoughtfully designed materials geared towards the specific needs of the audiences they are serving.

Online Learners

While adults are not the only students taking online courses, they make up a great deal of those learners and their needs should be taken into consideration in the design process.  Each year, U.S. News and World Report conducts a study of college and university enrollments.  Recently, they found that the average online U.S. bachelor’s degree seeking students were working adults, in their early 30s, were returning to school to complete their degree, and were based in the U.S.  Similarly, Education Today identified an increase in racially and ethnically diverse online populations, as well as a rise in the number of students with disabilities participating in online courses.  These increases in diverse student populations call for flexible materials that meet heterogeneous audiences’ needs.

It was not until the 1920s that learning differences between adults and children were acknowledged, and it was even suggested prior to the 1920s that adults were unable to learn at all.  Now, we readily accept that adults learn differently than their younger counterparts.  Andragogy, or the “art and science of helping adults learn” (Knowles, 1980, pg. 43), focuses on the unique needs and learning principles necessary when designing for or instructing adults.  Knowles (1980; 1984) identified five assumptions that distinguished adults from child learners:

  1. Self-concept and self-direction
  2. Motivated internally
  3. Readiness to learn
  4. Real-life experience
  5. Interested in application of learning

Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) added a sixth assumption indicating that adults need to know why they are learning what they are learning and the value of that information.

These assumptions are highly interrelated and make it necessary to design learning materials and environments with adult students’ needs in mind.  Adults, being motivated learners, want to be involved in their learning, the planning of their pathways and instruction, and evaluation and feedback processes.  While these learners want guidance, they are also motivated to learn at their own pace and on their own terms.  Most importantly is students’ desire to be connected, “heard”, and become part of the learning community.

Online learning does not need to be considered less than traditional, face-to-face learning.  As interactive and real-time experiences continue to evolve online, instructors are able to create environments that allow students to be both self-directed and group-oriented.  Designers can meet the needs of adults in such environments and prepare them for applying their new skills outside of the virtual classroom.  Designing for diverse, adult, online learners requires thoughtful planning and implementation.  Online learning is non-linear and can happen in many ways.  It is up to the designers and faculty to align their instruction to their audiences’ needs and give students a reason to learn.  Similarly, students working in online environments often feel disconnected from the community, and adult students desire this connection a great deal.  

In this presentation, hear and see what adult online learners have to say about many of the common tools instructors and designers use to try to engage them in community-building and engaging experiences.  We will demonstrate popular tools, such as discussion boards, student videos and podcasts, instructor videos and podcasts, externally created videos and podcasts, whole-class and small-group synchronous video tools, and many others, while discussing students’ feelings about their pros and cons for use in online environments.  We will provide our suggestions as to how to create community and engagement in both synchronous and asynchronous online environments based on feedback from learners over several years of online instructional practice.  Tools, technologies, and instructional strategies will be discussed and offered to attendees looking to engage their online students more thoughtfully and successfully.