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Getting Real with Community College Students

This article examines the need for instructors to be real with a diverse group of community college learners: to meet them on their own level in order to support their learning.


Because of the “open door” policy of two-year colleges, a broad range of learners attend community colleges. Multimedia courseware and computers may accommodate such differences. Powell (1997) suggested that informational technologists (IT) were not considering the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity among learners. This neglect persists in spite of a growing acknowledgment by IT scholars that key learner characteristics, such as prior knowledge, entry behaviors, ability, and motivation—all of which are heavily influenced by the latter’s cultural backgrounds—must be taken into consideration to increase student learning. This inattention to cultural issues is also surprising, given the rapid diversification of learner populations across the country and overseas due to the rising forces of globalization and transnational migration (Subramony, 2004). Too many assume that IT instructional design may be value free and “therefore immune to social and technical criticism” (Schwen, 2003; Subramony, 2004, p. 21). According to Young (2000, as cited in Subramony (2004)), however, minority students have felt alienated by technologies, which they feel do not reflect their values or interests. Closing this gap in perceptions and practices will be a critical part of promoting online distance learning in the community college context.

Learner perspective.

Allen (2003) suggests a move from content-centric to learner-centric design. Learners (their interests and needs) should be kept at the center of instructional design. Some research studies have focused on students’ experiences in a particular online course (Weinberger, 2000; Zukas, 1999). A “whole student” phenomenon has emerged in terms of DE, in which an online instructor does not merely see a text name or avatar but a whole being (Osguthorpe, et al., 2003) and learner needs, guidance, feedback and practice are critical elements (Merrill, 1997, as cited by Myers, 1999). This holistic approach involves the long-term affective development of the online student.

Theorists suggest that the building of emotional intelligence among learners would be a useful ambition—given emotional intelligence’s malleability, emotion’s powerful influence on cognition, the effectiveness of iterative effects on its development, and various instructional design methods to foster socio-emotional competence (Goldsworthy, 2000). A much longer time horizon is needed for the reaching of affective goals such as feelings of self-esteem and an internalized commitment to integrity (Price, 1998).

Constructivism supports the concept that learning is a personal and idiosyncratic experience (Piaget, 1952, cited in Squires, 1999). To deny the social aspect of a student is to close off a learning channel. Based on constructivist ideologies, classrooms are online communities in which learning is socially mediated. A barebones definition by Preece (2000) involves people who interact socially as they satisfy their own needs; a shared purpose as a rationale for the community; policies such as “tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws”, and computer systems as mediators (cited in Cox and Osguthorpe, 2003, p. 45). Theorists argue that it is more difficult for online learners to remain anonymous in a well-designed interactive technology-based training (TBT) (Myers, 1999, p. 51).

Online learning environments should offer “rich situational and activity-practice contexts allowing for interactional and dialectical ‘struggles’ in cognition whether with other individuals, artifacts, ideas, tools, and problems” (Hung, in press a; Hung and Wong, 2000, cited in Hung, 2001, p. 33). Contextualized learning suggests that personal learner experiences should be related to the real world and should possess these characterisitcs:

  • technology should support learning (Hannafin and Land, 1997, cited in Squires, 1999)
  • peer group discussion and work would be prominent in helping students learn (Hoyles, Healey, and Pozzi, 1994; Watson, Moore, and Rhodes, 1993)
  • the instructor would be more of a manager and facilitator of learning than a director (Squires and McDougall, 1994, cited in Squires, 1999)

In this way, the online space becomes Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, in which novices interact with mature practitioners to promote learning (Hung, 1999, cited in Hung, 2001; Hung and Chen, 2000).

Differentiations have been made between online quasi-communities and communities, with the first promoting learning about but not learning to be, according to Hung and Chen (2002).

Instructor roles.

As the instructor in such a community, a college instructor needs to connect learners to the real world with content that “focuses on applicable action/performance relationships; reinforces the relationship of subtasks to target outcomes, and simulates performance environments” (Allen, 2003, p. 18).

According to Tennyson and Nielsen (1998) a holistic interactive learning model must consider learners’ knowledge bases, affective elements and cognitive strategies (both linear and non-linear). The model would also address strategies for higher order cognitive processes such as “problem-solving, decision-making, trouble-shooting and creativity”(Tennyson and Nielsen, 1998, p. 8). This may mean using simulations, real-world case studies, personalized anecdotes and lectures, and using online and “meatspace” resources and assignments to make learning real.

Another critical aspect would be one of personalization, catering to individual learner needs (Stellin, 2000, cited in Hung and Nichani, 2001).

Being real also means that the instructor brings his/her whole person into the online space for patterns of “mutual coherence.”

Henry (1992) conducted a content analysis and determined five categories of interactions that are commonly found in distance learning: participative, social, interactive, cognitive, and metacognitive (Yacci, 2000). This means being present, to listen, to speak, to support, and to care. Being real means sharing personal insights, and engaging with learners on their own turf. It means listening for the personality, values, dreams, history, and cares of each learner, as they post their ideas and works. It means responding to a post instead of leaving it dangling in cyber-ether. It means seeing the people through the screens even if it’s through a mirror darkly.

Works Cited

Allen, M.W. (2003, Nov. – Dec.) “I had no idea: How to build creative e-learning experiences.” Educational Technology. 15 – 20.

Cox, S. and Osguthorpe, R.T. (2003, Sept. – Oct.) “Building an online instructional design community: Origin, development, and the future.” Educational Technology, 44 – 48.

Goldsworthy, R. (2000, Sept. – Oct.) “Designing instruction for emotional intelligence.” Educational Technology, 43 – 48.

Hung, D. (2001, May – June) “Design principles for Web-based learning: Implications from Vygotskian thought.” Educational Technology, 33 – 41.

Hung, D. and Nichani, M. (2001, Mar. – Apr.) “Constructivism and e-learning: Balancing between the individual and social levels of cognition.” Educational Technology, 40 – 44.

Myers, K.L. (1999, Nov. – Dec.) “Is there a place for instructional design in the Information Age?” Educational Technology, 50 – 53.

Price, E.A. (1998, Nov. – Dec.) “Instructional systems design and the affective domain.” Educational Technology, 17 – 28.

Squires, D. (1999, May – June) “Educational software for constructivist learning environments: Subversive use and volatile design.” Educational Technology, 48 - 54.

Subramony, D.P. (2004, Jul. – Aug.) “Instructional technologists’ inattention to issues of cultural diversity among learners.” Educational Technology. 19 – 24.

Yacci, M. (2000, Jul. – Aug.) “Interactivity demystified: A structural definition for distance education and intelligent computer-based instruction.” Educational Technology, 5 – 16.

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Author Name: Shalin Hai-JewJob


Author: Shalin Hai-JewJob

26 June 2005

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