In the past, higher education pedagogy has been built largely on the framework of a single knowledgeably expert speaking while others quietly listen and learn. Listening and silence are seen as positive in brick and mortar education, signaling receptivity. A perplexing shift occurs when education moves online. Instead of seen as a posture of receptivity, silence (most often expressed as a lack of written participation) is perceived as apathy and absence. Learners who are silent in brick and mortar classrooms are good listeners. Learners who are silent in online classes are at-risk. Which begs the question, why does this dichotomy occur? Might there be more to online silence than meets the eye?
In this interview, Dr. Leslie Duran, an occupational therapist, and educator from British Columbia, shares recommendations from her dissertation research into the lived experience of online silence for learners who are members of distance learning communities. Dr. Duran’s research provides provocative insights into just what might be happening in spaces or students that seem to go silent online. Also, Dr. Duran offers practical recommendations for teachers and instructors to better support learners in online courses.
Can you give us a short summary of your dissertation research?
The research was a phenomenological study and the main research question was: What are the lived experiences of online silence for learners who are members of distance learning communities? I interviewed twelve graduate-level distance learners in depth about their experiences with online silence. I asked them to describe in detail times when they were being silent online, as well as times they felt silence coming from others during their online studies. The findings that emerged are that silence online is a multifaceted phenomenon that is received and enacted in complex ways.
Silence online feels like one of those “slippery issues” that I think we all have experience with yet might struggle to pinpoint what it is all about. What was your impetus to study this?
I have long been curious about how learning conversations unfold online, and factors that make those dialogues feel especially rich and fulfilling. During my first course in the doctoral program, we got into a fascinating discussion about learners who “lurk” (a term I now try to avoid using because of its negative connotations) and whether or not it was possible to learn without visibly contributing to the online dialogue. I also had experiences online, both as an instructor and as a learner, where I had posted something and kept checking back for a response, but replies never came. These experiences all contributed to me wanting to know more about how silence is received and enacted by distance learners.
In your dissertation you mention the four ‘phenomenological existentials’. Can you speak a bit more as to what each of these are?
Phenomenology is used to explore specific human experiences, such as silence, to learn about what is it like to experience the phenomenon in the very moment that it is happening. The answers will differ from person to person, and there are some fundamental themes that can be used to consider those differences. The “four phenomenological existentials” (van Manen, 1990) are lived body, lived time, lived space, and lived human relationships. When one considers experiences that happen online, themes of lived body and lived space become especially interesting. Participants in my study described using their “fingers to talk” (by typing on a keyboard) and using their “eyes to hear” (by reading questions and responses). They also described how entering the digital space of the online classroom felt very much like entering a real physical environment with a discernable atmosphere – whether it be noisy, welcoming, isolating, energizing, or something else.
Do you currently work in an online teaching/learning space and if so, how has this research changed your own practice?
Yes, and this research has made me much more mindful of my online interactions both in the discussion forums and outside of them. I am very aware of the importance of getting back to learners in a timely way when they have questions, and also to make sure that I am really paying attention to what it is they are asking. Participants in the study described how, if an instructor’s response doesn’t really answer the question that was asked, this has the same impact as receiving no answer at all. The learner feels that they haven’t been heard. I also try not to make assumptions if a learner is not visibly engaged in a certain discussion. I will reach out with a private email, to check in and find out what is going on for that learner at that particular time.
What recommendations do you have for teachers/instructors to better support learners in online courses this new year?
Be aware that the act of posting to a discussion forum can be intimidating to learners and that speaking out online may leave them feeling vulnerable. While instructors might associate this vulnerability with learners who are newer to online learning, it can also be felt by learners who are further along in their studies, as they may feel more pressure to demonstrate their accumulating scholarly knowledge. The learners in this study also appreciated instructors who readily stepped in to deal with conflict when it emerged in the discussion forums. Finally, the learners reacted favourably to instructor posts that had a spontaneous, “real-time” feel to them rather than posts that seemed canned or formulaic.
What recommendations do you have for course developers/instructional designers to better create learning spaces that might support silence as opposed to only rewarding more “noisy” spaces?
“Noise” in online spaces can be perceived both positively and negatively by learners. Noise that supports learning was described by one of the participants as “buzz” – the online dialogue was interesting and engaging, and the topic was of interest to all members in the group. Buzz can be fostered by designing discussions around topics that are timely, are relevant to the learners, and that allow them to apply their life experiences in a meaningful way.
Online noise that is perceived more negatively happens when a learner comes into a discussion forum and feels overwhelmed. This can happen if the discussion threads are not well organized and there is not clear way-finding in the learning management system. One participant likened this experience to coming into a loud cocktail party and not quite knowing how to insert herself into a conversation that was already in progress. Learners need to be able to easily find where they need to go and what they need to do.
Other learners felt that they were just creating noise when they were required to have a discussion about questions that, in their opinion, required just a black-and-white answer (such as the answer to a math calculation). Learners described how in these situations, they would post something just to meet the required number of posts, but that they didn’t feel their post really added any value to the dialogue. So, it is important that questions that are posted to initiate discussions are well suited to a social-constructivist style of learning, and that they encourage expression of multiple points of view.
Another strategy to supporting learning “in silence” is to include assignments that require reflection and self-expression (such as journaling or writing essays) and that can be done individually rather than in groups. It may also be beneficial to offer learners some choice about which discussions they will contribute to, and that they be allowed to follow some of the other discussions without needing to actively post to them.
Van Manen, M. (1990). Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
About the Researcher
Dr. Leslie Duran is an occupational therapist and educator with Island Health and the Director of Rehabilitation Science Online Programs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Her scholarly interests include exploring ways that distance learners interact in digital spaces, and how people of all ages derive meaning from participating in daily life activities. In her leisure time, Leslie enjoys gardening, hiking, playing the cello, kayaking, and collecting vintage sewing patterns. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Her dissertation can be downloaded here: https://dt.athabascau.ca/jspui/handle/10791/240