Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Amazon can teach us about eLearning

Don't laugh when I tell you.......I read trashy historical romances...not the serious ones that educate and become literature classics....the Mills and Boon bodice rippers sort. And to make things worse, I review them on Amazon...my long term aim is to become an Amazon top 1000 reviewer - I am currently number 3,840. The other thing I love about Amazon is the online communities. Needless to say, I belong to various online communities about romance. The communities have thousands of members and posts, and I go there regularly to see what is being talked about and to join in conversation.

Online community
On a more serious note, I have been reflecting what my experience of being a member of these Amazon online communities teaches me about how to engage students in online discussions. I am sure I am not the only one who has struggled to get students to join discussions in emails groups or online forums. Here's what I've come up with.

1. I like to lurk. However, just because I haven't answered a post doesn't mean I haven't read it, enjoyed it or acted on what I have read.

2. The posts I respond to are the ones that interest me - I don't waste my time on something that has no interest or relevance to me.

3. I like to 'help' people and share my experience and/or resources - my favourite posts are those where readers ask if anyone can help them remember the title of a book - I love to be the one to get there first with the right answer (yes, you're right...I don't have a life!!).

4. I like to receive a reward. By that, I mean I like to be thanked, or have someone acknowledge that they've enjoyed my contribution to the conversation.

5. I love a bit of controversy and heated discussion. There's nothing like an argument about an author or book on Amazon to get the blood flowing.

6. I go there to receive help - maybe a recommendation with what to read next, or I might be the one having trouble remembering the title of a book.

7. I love the way people are so generous with their time - it is very rare that you do not get an answer to a question or comment.

Engaging students online
So if these things are important to me on a recreational online forum, I cannot imagine that things are much different for students on educational online forums. There may be a few differences. For example, you wouldn't want the same level of argument on an educational forum that you sometimes get in Amazon, where conversation can get very heated. And the reward students get may be marks toward an assignment, or formative feedback from the lecturer.

The challenge for us as educators is to design discussions and activities that generate the same level of enthusiasm and motivation that we feel when we engage in non-compulsory online activities.

What motivates you to join in with online discussions? What tips would you pass on either as a teacher or student? What do you think is the secret to a successful online discussion for students?

For those of you who would like to read more about how to design online discussion groups and forums for students, I would strongly recommend the CU Online Handbook published by the University of Denver, and Terry Anderson's Theory and Practice of Online Learning published by the University of Athabasca.

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