Interaction is important regardless of the delivery method of the course. In a blended program and an online program, it is especially important. As Kevin Kelly and Ruth Cox point out in their article, “Techno Expression”1, students may often drop out of an online course if they don’t feel connected to the other students and/or the instructor. In a face-to-face class, interaction begins the minute students walk into the room. In a blended or online class, interaction needs to be built into the course itself by the instructor. It’s far too easy for students to simply “show up” and complete the work without interacting with their classmates unless the instructor has built that into the course material itself.
There’s no doubt that we all understand the basic human need to interact with each other. And we all understand that learning is enhanced by interacting with others. Traditional learning has incorporated three types of interactions: interaction with the instructor, interaction with classmates, and interaction with the material itself. With the arrival of blended and online learning, a fourth type of interaction has entered the mindset of conscious instructors: interaction with the community. I believe this is an important element in interaction that needs to be incorporated in face-to-face classes as well as blended and online classes. This interaction is the key to bringing the learning alive and relevant to the individual students.
I agree with Wilson (2008) that a model of learning can utilize a large range of tools and be under the control of the individual in “an environment where people and tools and communities and resources interact in a very loose kind of way.”2
Since many of the students come from cultures that have traditional teacher-directed environments, one of the most important roles I have as an instructor is to ensure that my students are capable of continuing their learning after they have left my class and even the school. By ensuring that interaction with the community is a part of their program, I open the doors to their realizing how learning is within their grasps outside of classrooms.
Interaction with the community does not mean face-to-face interactions only. This type of interaction can take place online as with the other three types mentioned above. It does require conscious planning of the instructor to identify strategic areas in the course material where interaction with the community will most benefit the learning.
For example, with a traditional face-to-face class of low level adult ESL students, I facilitated an activity that required their conducting interviews with the local businesses. After the necessary scaffolding was provided, students were assigned homework that required their going into the community to ask local business owners a few simple questions. They then brought the information back to the class and presented to their classmates.
This activity could easily be transferred into a blended or online program. Just as I did with the face-to-face class, speakers could be invited to the class (via skype or webinar) where they would answer the same types of questions the students would need to ask for the assignment. After being adequately prepared, students would then go out into their respective communities to ask local business owners the same questions. To report back to the class, students could post blogs about their experience, summarizing what they found and how they felt while conducting the interviews. In this way, students are interacting with their communities and sharing those interactions with their instructor and classmates online. Should the students be a part of online communities, questions and answers can be exchanged via messaging and emails.
With careful planning and foresight, a conscious instructor can facilitate rich, dynamic interactions of all four types: student to student, student to teacher, student to material, and student to community.
1 Education for a Digital World: Advice, Guidelines, and Effective Practice from Around the Globe. Senior Editor: Sandy Hirtz. BCcampus and the Commonwealth of Learning: Vancouver, BC (Chapter 26).
2 Wilson, S. (2008). Patterns of personal learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 16(1), pp.17-34.