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How to cultivate a social online classroom: Socialize while social distancing

Interaction has always remained a key determinant of successful learning: this is the core idea of the social learning theory

Given the rapid transition towards online, remote learning platforms, educators share a common fear that technology might deprive learning of its social aspect. This is why maintaining interactivity and engagement is considered one of the most desirable goals in online course design [5]. 

So how can instructors humanize online classes, and allow their learners to experience an interactive, motivating learning environment?

This article will shed light upon this burning question via in-depth discussion of ways to stimulate a positive online learning community, by utilizing the social learning theory and technological support. 

What is social learning?

You may be wondering why social learning theory (SLT) is mentioned here, and what it has to do with increasing student interaction and engagement? 

The social learning theory, first established and developed by the Canadian psychologist Albert Bandura [1], is in fact one the most influential learning theories. This framework is believed to bridge the gap between behaviorist and cognitive learning theories as it manages to cover three factors: attention, memory and motivation [8]. 

More recently, social learning practices have been increasingly recognized as a desirable framework for both offline and online learning [5]. 

The reason for the emerging popularity of the SLT lies within its core idea, which encompasses the interdependence between learning and interactions. In other words, knowledge is constantly constructed and shaped while learners engage in different forms of interactions [5] [6]. These interactions may take various forms, ranging from student – student; student – teacher; and student – content [5].

Core concepts 

While interacting with others, a person picks up knowledge via three major channels, namely Observation, Imitation, and Modeling [1]. According to Bandura,  

“Most human behavior is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are formed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.”


Bandura also stressed that effective observational learning requires effective modelling, which should showcase four fundamental elements [1]: 

Attention: The model should be able to capture learners’ attention, leading to observational learning. If the presented content is interesting, captivating and stimulating, people are much more likely to pay attention to it. 

Retention: The model should be memorable to the learner, thus allowing them to retrieve and replicate the knowledge later on. 

Reproduction: Not only should the model attract learners’ attention and provoke memorisation, it should also allow for replication of the behavior demonstrated. 

Motivation: Last but not least, effective modelling fails to occur without proper motivation and encouragement. This means that learners are more inclined to follow the model once there is enough encouragement and initiatives. 

 

By highlighting the key role of observation and modeling, SLT proposes a different learning perspective as opposed to the behaviorist theory. That is, learning can take place without a change in behavior. Furthermore, learners’ mentality is critical to the formation of knowledge, which can be influenced by intrinsic reinforcement. Intrinsic reinforcement takes the form of internal rewards like pride, satisfaction, or a sense of achievement. Though intrinsic reinforcement doesn’t directly culminate in learning, it influences learners’ attention level and their tendency to exhibit a certain behavior [9]. 


Why you need to build a social learning environment 

Since its introduction, SLT has quickly caught on and become one of the most influential theories to date, with applications in several domains, namely psychology, clinical studies, workforce training, and especially education. Social learning perspectives have been proven to be beneficial approaches in teaching and learning, thanks to their ability to:   


1 - Reduce demotivation and attrition 

An interactive, motivating, and engaging classroom is undoubtedly the ultimate goal of any higher education teachers when designing their curriculum. This is where the SLT framework steps in, with its emphasis on the role of interactions and intrinsic reinforcement in the learning process. Indeed, frequent interactions in the classroom significantly increase students’ motivation and engagement, thus facilitating knowledge accumulation [7] [13]. At the same time, intrinsic reinforcements, which take the forms of emotional support and initiatives, stimulate students to remember, follow, and replicate the modelled behavior [1].  


2 - Stimulate peer and collaborative learning 

A social learning environment often involves continuous communication among students and teachers, which are exercised via peer and collaborative learning strategies. While maintaining effective connections with group members and instructors in a group project, learners could significantly benefit from mutual knowledge sharing, emotional support and interdependent learning [2]. All these benefits culminate in a positive learning experience, in which learners proactively pick up knowledge and skills without instructors’ direct involvement. Instead of closely monitoring students, teachers become supporters who provide instructions and help throughout the learning process. In short, learning in an SLT based classroom becomes an ongoing process which extends beyond the lesson time.


3 - Nurture self-efficacy 

Self-efficacy, defined as learners’ confidence in approaching and handling new tasks, is closely associated with increased learning engagement and effective knowledge formation [4]. The social learning environment constantly encourages interactions and communication with peers and teachers; thereby helping learners feel more comfortable and willing to participate in the lesson. Such positive attitudes then lead to students’ increased motivation to pick up knowledge, plus heightened willingness to apply the knowledge [4].

4 techniques to “socialize” your online classrooms

As education now switches towards digital environments, both educators and students can find it challenging to facilitate the social relationships they usually had within the traditional classrooms. Online learners often develop feelings of isolation, and show signs of demotivation and increased attrition [12]. Furthermore, the teaching and learning that takes place asynchronously tends to reduce a sense of belonging, opportunities to express, compete, and receive support from others, which result in negative performance [13].

Inevitably, one might jump to a conclusion that it is impossible to promote social elements within online environments. 

In fact, social learning isn't just about face-to-face interactions. Teachers can always facilitate effective social online learning as long as they know how to harness the endless potential of online pedagogical tools. 

So how exactly can instructors create a meaningful learning community using the technological affordances? 

To help educators answer this question, we would like to share 4 great tips for integrating social learning elements within online classes, based on evidence from empirical research and in-depth case studies. Each of these strategies targets different types of interactions initiated within the social online classroom, namely student-student, student-teacher, and student-content [5].

1 - The more opportunities for peer feedback, the better | Student – Student interaction

Researchers have proven that social interactions can be enhanced through forming and sharing in-depth online messages [14]. Peer feedback, especially in the form of written postings are reported to be effective sources of reference for students [15]. Creating plenty of opportunities for peer and group feedback is therefore a great strategy to initiate student – student interaction, and generate an effective social online learning environment. Some useful peer feedback methods could be assignment grading and comments, peer feedback evaluation, synchronous comments and such. 

Vrij University Amsterdam successfully enables continuous feedback in their online classes, by allowing students to provide comments on their peers and rate the quality of the received feedback. 


2 - Let your students contribute to curriculum design | Student – Content  

One-way classroom interaction, in which teachers are the knowledge providers and students are the receivers has long been criticized as a passive learning approach inr offline or online education. To turn online teaching into a social, two-way process, it is best to adopt the user-generated content strategy [16]. This method involves students as “collaborators in the production and representation of knowledge and meaning”, alongside their teachers [16, p. 1]. Letting learners share their knowledge, skills, and learning assets can effectively promote inclusiveness, mutual interaction, and active learning within the online environment [16, p. 1]. 

There are several ways instructors can initiate a user-generated content lesson, such as letting students outline course criteria and curriculum, creating online forums for study materials sharing, or asking learners to create learning assets (videos, written assignments, recordings). 

3 - Communicate frequently with students | Student – Teacher interaction

Quite often, teachers focus too much on peer to peer interactions while forgetting to strengthen an equally important connection, which occurs between students and teachers. Learners’ motivation and learning attitude are not only facilitated by interactions with classmates, but also directly influenced by their relationship with instructors [6]. This means that students are more likely to engage in the lesson and enjoy what they are learning if teachers manage to establish personal, positive connections [6]. There are several ways in which teachers can harness the technological affordances to promote student – teacher relationships, such as creating online discussion forums, giving continuous feedback, or implementing synchronous study materials (written texts, videos, presentations, visual aids). 

For example, with our Online Discussion tool, teachers can generate a forum for critical debate, and in-depth discussion, at the same time constantly interact with students by distributing feedback and comments. 

4 - Set a cohesive e-tone for your online class | Student – Teacher interaction

Online learning can be much more challenging than face-to-face lessons, in terms of communication efficiency. Lack of visual and auditory cues in asynchronous classrooms (gestures, postures, or tone of voice) often leads to inconsistencies in communication between teachers and students [3]. Educators can tackle this issue and maintain a social online classroom, by utilizing online discussions and interactive study platforms. It is also important that teachers and instructors generate a cohesive e-tone, or establish model responses that demonstrate appropriate attitude within the virtual forums. This can be done by designing clear, specific instructions for students to follow. 

That’s why FeedbackFruits’ pedagogical tools are the perfect solution for creating a social online learning environment. For example, our Online Discussion and Interactive Presentation tool provides a platform where teachers can facilitate and monitor effective communications among their learners. 

HULT International Business School successfully created a social online environment for nearly 80 students with the Interactive Presentation. They used the tool to synchronize multiple choice and open-ended questions with the lecture slides, which significantly enhanced engagement from students of all study levels. 

Conclusion

Moving from the face-to-face lecture hall to the virtual classroom is not an easy transition for both teachers and students, as there seem to be fewer opportunities for interactions and connections. However, we believe that instructors can still manage to create a social online environment, as long as they understand the SLT theory and know how to exploit the technological potential. 

Building and maintaining social interactions in an online classroom can be tough, but it is certainly worth the while. That's why FeedbackFruits is determined to help you establish strong connections with your students during this transition towards online learning, with our innovative pedagogical tools. 

Are you curious about what we can offer to empower your lectures? Contact us and we will be happy to help, or subscribe to our newsletter to receive the juiciest resources about edtech every two weeks!


References 

[1] Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. New York: General Learning Press.

[2] Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological review, 84(2), 191.

[3] Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

[4] Hill, J. R., & M. J. Hannafin. 1997. Cognitive strategies and learning from the World Wide Web. Educational Technology Research and Development 45 (4): 37–64. 

[5] Hill, J. R., Song, L., & West, R. E. (2009). Social learning theory and web-based learning environments: A review of research and discussion of implications. American Journal of Distance Education, 23(2), 88-103. https://doi.org/10.1080/08923640902857713

[6] Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Buckley, J. A., Bridges, B. K., & Hayek, J. C. (2008). What matters to student success: A review of the literature [Report]. National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

[7] Muro, M., & Jeffrey, P. (2008). A critical review of the theory and application of social learning in participatory natural resource management processes. Journal of environmental planning and management, 51(3), 325-344. 

[8] Nabavi, R. T. (2012). Bandura's Social Learning Theory & Social Cognitive Learning Theory.

[9] Pajares, F. 1996. Self-efficacy beliefs in academic settings. Review of Educa- tional Research 66 (4): 543–578. 

[10] Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing social presence in asynchronous, text-based computer conferencing. Journal of Distance Education, 14(3), 51-70.

[11] Spellman-Cann, S., Luong, E., Hendricks, C., & Roberts, V. (2020). Social learning in online environments – Humanizing online teaching and learning. OPENPRESS.USASK.CA – An Open Academic Publishing Platform. https://openpress.usask.ca/humanmooc/chapter/social-learning-in-online-environments/

[12] Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review [Report]. The Higher Education Academy.

[13] King, K. P. 2002. Identifying success in online teacher education and profes- sional development. Internet and Higher Education 5 (3): 231–246.

[14] Petrides, L. A. 2002. Web-based technologies for distributed (or distance) learning: Creating learning-centered educational experiences in the higher education classroom. International Journal of Instructional Media 29 (1): 69–77. 

[15] Neary, M. (2014). Student as producer: Research-engaged teaching frames university-wide curriculum development. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly, 35(2), 28–34.

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