Creating Ambient Awareness in Online Learning Environments

Many faculty believe that traditional, face-to-face courses are superior to online courses.   Indeed for many, the possibility that this belief is false is not worthy of consideration.  I am agnostic about this question.  In my teaching, I have experienced profound educational experiences, involving serious intellectual engagement in both face-to-face class sessions and in online environments between class sessions.  Until recently, I haven’t felt any need to choose one over the other since I can do both in a ‘blended’ course.  I’ve never set out to build a blended course; indeed, it’s only been in the last year that I became familiar with the term.  For me, it was just good teaching.

One of the things I’ve tried to get my mind around is that ‘thing’, that feeling or sense of connection that occurs in “good” face-to-face class sessions, that makes people think such class sessions are superior to online courses, and that we haven’t been able to replicate in an online environment.  Last January’s ELI Conference moved me a step closer to answering the question.  In one session I heard the term “ambient awareness” the sensitivity to and awareness of what others are thinking.  The term appears to come from a New York Times article written by Clive Thompson last fall.

Thompson says

It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye. … This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting.

Later that day, I was talking about this topic with Kelvin Thompson, someone with a great deal of online teaching experience, who described this ambient awareness as ‘social presence,’ the connections with and awareness of connections within a group.  This awareness creates a feeling of intimacy and community.  It is, he observed, what you feel in a sports bar in Pittsburgh while watching the Steelers play.

I believe that micro-blogging tools, like Twitter, provide one way of replicating this ‘thing’ (ambient awareness or social presence) in an online course.

As Harold Rheingold describes it:

Twitter is not a community, but it’s an ecology in which communities can emerge. That’s where the banal chit-chat comes in: idle talk about news, weather, and sports is a kind of social glue that can adhere the networks of trust and norms of reciprocity from which community and social capital can grow.

Community is a key element in the ambient awareness that happens in “good” face-to-face class sessions.

Over the last year, I’ve used twitter in my intro courses as a medium for minute papers as I described here.  I’ve found it a unusually rich way of seeing where my students were having difficulties.  It has provided a different channel for connection, a feeling I’ve discovered with my professional twitter network.

In my view,  true learning, deep learning is less about information transmission, and more the result of an interactive experience where students engage with the material and with each other under the direction of the instructor.  A good class “session” then, does not require a place, but rather an interactive, communication network between learners and teachers.  This network can be provided by a physical classroom space, but in principle at least, it should also be possible to create online, particularly with the thoughtful use of tools like twitter.

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3 Responses to Creating Ambient Awareness in Online Learning Environments

  1. Dear Jim,

    I read about you today in Fast Company. My company has been developing text materials and teaching skill-based classes like orchestration and counterpoint online for three years. We’ve also tested teaching software online which tends to be more fact-based.

    We call our classes Alexander University and our work in music is based on my study: How the Great Composers Taught Themselves.

    I’ve also prepared this white paper on our experiences teaching orchestration online.

    My question to you, in this model of giving away the course materials, how are you paying the professors and the author of the materials?

    Peter Alexander

  2. Melissa says:

    I read this post and felt like I could weigh in on the matter; not that my expertise entitle me to have an educated opinion on the issue. So take it, or leave it. Sometime the lay person’s ignorance on matters can give insight.

    I’ve taken both types of courses, and I was skeptical about the amount of learning I could achieve from my online course. I took an online Medieval History class. Maybe I just had a stellar professor, but I can honestly say that I learned more from that online class than I think could’ve had it been in person. I will be taking another online course this spring.

    I think the reason was because we all have so much to learn from each other. Unfortunately, when you are in a class with 15 other people, normally, only a handful of people actively participate. Some more introverted people are less inclined to voice their feedback. My online course was graded heavily on participation. We had to make a minimum 1-2(according to the syllabus and questions raised by the prof) original posts weekly and make a number of reply posts to other students’ original posts. Because of this, i was able to see read the insights of 18 students vs. only getting to hear a handful of students who have the ability to orate.

    I have never learned so much and was pleased with the entire experience.

  3. Pingback: Building Community | Online Learning Initiative

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