Reducing social isolation in online learning
Social distancing has become an overused concept, yet remains a relevant phenomenon globally. The education community has not been spared the impact of the need for social distancing .
Institutions of Higher Learning which have paid scant attention to online learning and teaching dynamics have been unceremoniously thrust into the digital world, leaving both students and teachers disorientated and focused on how to keep learning and teaching of subject matter going without too much consideration of the need to nurture social cognitive skills necessary for a well adjusted online learning experience. As the IMM Graduate School has learnt over the years of online learning and teaching, online learning is more than just pulling your courses from the classroom to the digital space and teaching through webinars and asynchronous learning activities.
Attention should be paid to the social brain, especially for students who have been used to social contact in the education environment. The more informal term ‘social brain’ which in effect refers to social cognition, includes the quality of social interaction with others and the world through cultivating successful relationships. Social cognition includes inferential thinking and predictive thinking and is inextricably linked to other cognitive functions and academic performance. This means that educators need to create a digital learning space where social cognition continues to be nurtured.
The importance of nurturing social cognition
Neglecting to pay attention to the student as a social being in the somewhat alien digital environment (for some), we risk losing students as they become discouraged and struggling with a sense of disconnect, not conducive to meaningful learning and academic achievement.
Lack of social interaction can affect a student’s level of motivation and sense of academic direction.
How is social cognition nurtured in the digital space?
The nurturing of social cognition requires the creation of opportunities in the digital learning space, for social interaction. According to Vygotsky (1978), learning cannot be separated from the social context and social interaction. This is even more crucial as higher education students are mostly the so-called Generation Z or IGen, whose learning styles require theory to be taught in a real world context, in ‘3D’ in other words. Lujan and deCarlo (2018) state, that students have an innate need to relate to others. They have a need to belong to a group. They learn best when they can discuss and discover and when they can communicate multi-modally. They need to construct knowledge by interacting with teachers and with fellow students. Gen Zers are more oriented to Transformational learning and teaching, which simply put, means active learning where educators create opportunities for students to interact with others through collaboratively engaging with learning content, encouraging critical thought, synthesis of information and innovative problem solving. Collaborative activities provide students with opportunities to engage actively with what they are learning. In the digital learning environment this can so easily be lost.
Vygotsky (1978) believed that learning is a collaborative process and referred to the potential learning which will take place, as the ‘zone of proximal development’ and which happens when educators create opportunities for collaborative learning. Students learn from their teacher and each other.
Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000) in Bektashi (2018) state that their model, Community of Inquiry, facilitates an environment for critical thinking, enquiry and discourse among students. The Community of Inquiry module is a theoretical framework, which identified three elements needed for learning. One of these is the social presence which promotes the idea that for learning to take place or knowledge to be constructed requires an environment allowing for interpersonal relationships to thrive and opportunities for communication in a safe environment.
So how do we introduce strategies to nurture social cognition in the digital learning space?
Cooperative and collaborative learning activities in the digital space, are effective means of allowing students to construct knowledge and create meaning of subject content together in a social space. Schilbach (et.al 2013) state that the ‘primary way of knowing’ or constructing knowledge is through social interaction.
Students cooperate on a common project, each having clearly defined responsibilities and objectives contributing to the achievement of a common goal. Can this happen in the digital space? Absolutely! Technology has come a long way with chat boxes, collaborative tools such as Padlet walls, iBrainstorm, a myriad of other apps, social media, and breakout rooms where students can meet and construct knowledge together. These tools are often not considered in teaching online because lecturers and tutors are afraid to venture into the unfamiliar technology territory. In avoiding collaborative learning and teaching and defaulting to the familiar comfortable lecturing to a screen, we hinder social cognitive performance, which includes nurturing critical and deep thinking during knowledge construction.
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