Is online socialisation necessary?

Socialisation is generally considered to be a necessary or at least useful precursor to effective participation in online classes. It forms stage 2 in Gilly Salmon’s widely applied five-stage model. I’ve been thinking about this since I asked her in, I think, 2000 if she thought online classes ran better if the people had met physically beforehand. A lot of educators assume that to be the case. Gilly was adamant that it was better that students who would be working with each other online did not meet up in advance; any negative impressions gained face to face could harm later online interaction.

I’ve never been entirely convinced of this, and have been reflecting on the vital role of socialisation for many of our students after spending a week in August at the OU Residential School in Santiago de Compostela (students pictured here are on a fact-finding mission around the city, where socialising is a by-product of the learning activity). The intense interactions between students and with staff over the week, let alone the huge amount of learning that took place, were clearly very beneficial for the great majority of participants. I had the impression that because contact with other students was so rare, the experience meant much more to them than it would have for campus-based students.

Of course the World has changed hugely since 2000 and most of us are much more comfortable now with online socialising, developing varying degrees of addiction to email, Facebook or Twitter. That socialisation phase may be less necessary for students now much more comfortable with the technologies. Shailey Minocha has been researching education in Second Life and told me this morning that she finds students resent online socialisation activities unless they are clearly connected to the course content or learning outcomes. She reported on a tutor who found the same in face-to-face settings: busy students who have travelled to a tutorial want to get stuck into the content immediately. They’re more inclined to socialise at the end of the class when they feel they’ve got what they wanted out of it.

Perhaps the conclusion from all this is that we’re all so short of time that we don’t necessarily realise how important the social element is to working or studying effectively with others. If we want our students to have opportunities for socialisation so that their relationships are more productive, we have to be clever about the way we design those experiences. Many take up the chance for unstructured social contact with others anyway and benefit immensely from chatting to others in residential schools, tutorials, online forums, videoconferencing and Second Life.

Physical presence may result in better long-term relationships with a positive impact on learning, motivation and progression; some students may be able to achieve the same through online interaction. What is becoming clear is that any socialisation activities perceived as having no direct learning outcomes relevant to the assessment are likely to be considered by students a waste of time!

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