Modern learners are consumers of knowledge, and as consumers they are accustomed to on-demand gratification. The environment of consumers caters to a real-time fulfillment of needs that has conditioned an expectation of immediate results which distance education systems must now comply with in order to link the learner to the instructor and material in the manner expected by the modern learner. This link builds teacher presence in a distance education environment, which has been previously identified as a major dimension necessary in learning. Twitter® and Facebook® offer solutions which meet the best practices of providing timely feedback and can fulfill this need for teacher presence in an on-demand manner.
Keywords: Distance education, Timely feedback, Instructor feedback, Social media in distance education, Twitter in distance education, Facebook in distance education
Feedback Creates a Link
Desmond Keegan isolated the interaction between the instructor and materials with the learner as the link to learning and examined it further to identify the moment in which learning occurs. He identified this link to be inherently missing from distance education environments and therefore “the intersubjectivity of teacher and learner, in which learning from teaching occurs, has to be artificially re-created” (1996, p. 116). One way to establish this link is with feedback.
Written feedback is a common element of evaluation and assessment, but in a face-to-face learning environment, feedback to a learner can come in the form of a smile, a nod, verbal agreement to a comment, or other social cues. Feedback in this form establishes interpersonal identity and demonstrates the teacher is present with the learner in real-time. This is vital to establish the link in a distance education environment as well. Providing feedback to the learner is part of the teaching presence dimension, one of three major dimensions of the online learning environment (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison & Archer, 2001; Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000; Pelz, 2004).
Real-time feedback must be on the learner’s schedule. In a face-to-face environment, the learner chooses when to comment, question, or answer, but the window of time allowed for this demand for feedback is on the instructor’s schedule as it is within the constraint of the allotted class time. In distance education, the learner still chooses when they will demand feedback, but the time constraint is now the entire duration of the course. To complicate this further, modern society has conditioned us to a fulfillment of needs on-demand, which results in an expectation of real-time fulfillment at any time during the course, 24-hours each day.
There is a great deal of literature discussing feedback methods in distance education, but the three most common methods share the common pitfall of a delayed response. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) offer discussion boards in the style of online blogs and forums, but a subscription to the threads of a discussion board only offers an automated email alert. This leads to the second most common method of feedback, which is email. Both LMS discussion boards and email communication allows the learner to request feedback on their schedule, but these methods do not afford a real-time response without the luck of the instructor being at their email box waiting in anticipation of the feedback request. The third most common method of requesting feedback in a distance environment is by phone. Most instructors only supply their learners with the phone number to their on-campus office, which they only monitor during their brief office hours and when not already tied-up with assisting another student in person or over the phone. As a result, distance education students shy away from leaving messages over the phone. In fact, society in general has moved away from voice messages in favor of abbreviated text messages which feel less intrusive.
Feedback expectations must be met. A study conducted by Athabasca University in Canada on the perceptions of effective instructor feedback polled graduate students who utilized online learning environments. The result of this study confirmed that learners in distance education environments expect a response timeline that is mutually established, meaning that instructor-posted office hours are not sufficient, and that the response timeline established must be met (Getzlaf, Perry, Toffner, Lamarche, & Edwards, 2009). The three most common methods of requesting feedback in distance education fail to meet expectations of the modern learner.
Social Media Meets Demands
Looking at the learner as a consumer of knowledge, modern practices of meeting the real-time demands of consumers can help instructors to deliver feedback on the learner’s schedule. Businesses know that meeting consumer expectations for on-demand needs fulfillment results in winning the sale, which has led to a rapid development in on-demand fulfillment methodologies. An instructor alone is unable to act as a 24-hour call center, but leveraging the power of social is a best practice of businesses which instructors can utilize to keep pace with learner demands.
Preferred Delivery Method
Delivery methods aim to provide a support service environment in which learners “feel at home, where they feel valued, and which they find manageable” (Tait, 2000, p. 289). A delivery method that meets this goal will naturally be preferred by the end-user. Social media harbors the same social environment for interaction among peers which LMS discussion boards aim to achieve with the added benefit of being a preferred platform. Learners and instructors subscribe to discussion board threads on an LMS to receive emails because emails are a preferred delivery method over logging in and continuously refreshing an LMS webpage. Some learners and instructors will take the next step and forward their email account created to manage a single course or institution to their personal email account because it is preferred over the isolated email platform. But email accounts become bogged down with unwanted spam and demands for time and energy which can overly consume the end-user. Social media, however, is perceived as a fun environment and most prefer to spend their time within a social media platform over an email platform. Thus, extending the teacher presence to social media platforms can create a new environment for learners to interact with the instructor and their peers on-demand.
While Twitter has evolved into a business-to-business communication platform, it was built with topic-subscription in mind to allow end-users to subscribe to news and topics which only met their conditions of satisfaction. Twitter’s short character allowance, user tagging, and hashtag filtering were all designed to reduce outside noise and hone in on what was important to the individual needs of the end-user. For instructors and learners, Twitter offers the most opportunities to provide real-time feedback.
Real-time alerts can provide on-demand access. Unlike email alerts, which are typically silenced or removed from computers and smart-phones, Twitter alerts can be reduced to only comply with the needs of a distance learning environment. This allows for real-time notification of comments, questions, and answers which instructors, learners, and peers may all subscribe to. And while an instructor may not be available 24-hours each day, a peer network of a sufficient size has the ability to meet this demand. Unlike an LMS, Twitter is a public environment, which means feedback must remain positive and supportive, but the best practice guideline published by the Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration (DLA) suggests that negative feedback never be given over any delivery method other than the phone (Tobin, 2004), removing the need for negative expression via Twitter. Conversely, the DLA does promote access to commonly asked questions to all students to prevent duplication, which is something Twitter can produce.
Facebook remains the most commonly used social media platform to date, which does give it the risk of being ignored in a similar fashion to email. However, Facebook does afford more private discussions through private messages (PMs) and closed groups. Learners are more likely to have a pre-existing Facebook account than they are to have a pre-existing Twitter account.
PMs can be sent from peer-to-peer or between the instructor and learner. Facebook now has an entirely separate app for their messaging system to allow it to function as an instant messenger between individuals privately in real-time or as a delayed-response message system similar to an email with the added benefit of a real-time alert on a computer or smart-phone isolated from the bombardment of preferred delivery email accounts.
Closed groups operate in the same fashion as a discussion board. Facebook offers public pages for businesses to post information with consumer interactivity benefits, but the closed groups of Facebook keep the public out while offering the same social media benefits of being a preferred delivery method. Instructors and learners may find individuals through the closed group to PM or post updates to the entire group allowing for access to answers of frequently asked questions to be dispersed to the entire class.
Twitter introduced the world to the hashtag which other social media platforms, including Facebook, eventually adopted due to popular demand. Hashtags can direct traffic through the farrago of social media by linking ideas together. An instructor may author a hashtag for the course as a whole then add additional hashtags onto conversation topics as deemed fitting to further filter activity and provide the most effective feedback.
Learners have been conditioned through a consumer-centered, on-demand society to seek feedback on their terms. Instructors no longer have the opportunity to set their own timetable for providing feedback. And although social media is a newer technology in the field of distance education, it meets many of the best practices set forth in providing timely feedback to learners and provides an interpersonal link between the learner, their instructor, and their peers through a preferred delivery method, making it a very valuable resource and a new best practice in modern distance education.
Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.
Garrison, D., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87- 105.
Getzlaf, B., Perry, B., Toffner, G., Lamarche, K., Edwards, M. (2009). Effective instructor feedback: Perceptions of online graduate students. Journal of Educators Online, 6(2), 1-22.
Keegan, D. (1996). Foundations of distance education (3rd ed.). London: Routledge.
Pelz, B. (2004). (My) Three principles of effective online pedagogy. Journal of asynchronous learning networks, 8(3).
Tait, A. (2000). Planning student support for open and distance learning. Open learning: The journal of open, distance and e-learning, 15(3), 287-299.
Tobin, T. (2004). Best practices for administrative evaluation of online faculty. Online journal of distance learning administration, 7(2).