By Marjorie McIntyre, BSN, MSN, PhD; Carol McDonald, RN, PhD; Margaret Scaia, BScN, MN, PhD (c) and Andrea Monteiro, BSN, MScN, PhD student

Upon undertaking this research, we knew anecdotally that student learning was influenced by peer participation, but anticipated that research-informed knowledge of this influence on student learning would better prepare us to teach in the online environment. Furthermore, we recognized our pedagogical focus, based on years of teaching face to face in classrooms, transferred imperfectly to the online environment. In this study, 30 graduates of the SON online programs participated in unstructured interviews and/ or focus groups. Although we were surprised by the contradictory and paradoxical nature of the accounts among participants, central findings did surface in the hermeneutic analysis. Specifically, time, participation, conflict and skill development were seen to influence the peer dynamics for online learners.

It’s about Time. The topic of time was, perhaps not surprising, prevalent in all of the participant’s experiences of online learning. Most challenging, in the influence of peer dynamics, was the reality that people had different amounts of time to devote to the course work and these differences influenced people’s learning as part of a peer group. Although for the most part, the different time priorities were well understood by class members, when group assignments were due or when people did not come online when they were expected, it became more challenging for members to maintain the good will needed
and often conflicts arose.

Pacing Participation. Classmates talked about peer participation in several ways, including the amount of participation, the kind of participation and the timing of participation. Over-participation, that is moving ahead regardless of where the group was at, was as problematic as under participation where people would not come online in a timely manner, undermining the work and sometimes the grades of the others. Participants noted that in face-to-face classroom experiences, the class schedule provided a structure to pace student participation. Although the asynchronous online learning offers flexibility, courses in which all the course material was available to students in advance, challenged the continuity of peer engagement. Some participants expressed a sense of isolation in online learning and wished for more involvement with peers, whereas others felt a need for clear boundaries on the expectations of participation, as the online courses were part of already busy lives.

Conflict. Nearly every account included instances of conflict between and among the online groups. Some disagreements were couched in different expectations of participation while others, often more serious conflicts, were around differences in beliefs and values. Despite the tensions of the conflicts in the moment, in reflection, participants shared what they had learned from the conflicts and in some cases how it helped them when they confronted these same differences in professional practice or other areas of their lives.

Likely one of the biggest sources of conflict for learners was required participation in group work, particularly when a group grade was involved. Participants faced, what in their view, were underestimated difficulties of connecting with peers across time zones and vast geographies using electronic media.

Developing Skills. Increased skills and confidence writing online, using digital technology and group facilitation contributed to better experiences within and across courses in the program. Participants talked about how their initial use of digital technology to communicate improved to a point where they realized they had the ability to assist others with the technology not only in the online learning environment but also in their place of work. Similarly, participants talked about how the initial intimidation of writing online where classmates could see their writing was quite a different experience than speaking in a classroom. Later, however, participants described the privilege of being able to see the writing of others and to appreciate how their own scholarship was influenced through seeing how others express different perspectives on the same topic. As with the development of technical skills, participants gave examples of how their enriched writing and facilitation skills continued to serve them in professional practice.

Recommendations for Educators: Among the many things that we came to understand in our conversations with graduates of our online programs is the reality that expectations developed in a face-to-face learning environment do not always transfer to the online format. The development of structures that take into account the particular nature of the online format are needed. In this regard we suggest that whenever possible, programs are organized whereby students move together, in a cohort, through courses. To foster the peer contribution to learning, while maintaining the flexibility of asynchronous learning, courses are best designed to structure or pace student participation. Group work is best utilized in forums or discussions that are not graded.

Online students benefit from a period of onsite orientation with a focus on building intellectual and social communities, appraising and upgrading writing skills and, where needed, practicing technological skills that will support their learning. Strategies to intentionally connect students to peers in their geographical locations, areas of practice and even personal interest areas can be easily integrated into onsite orientation sessions. With deliberate focus on the influence of peer dynamics, education in the online format provides opportunities for participants to develop their own intellectual and professional capacities and through mentorship, to provide support and leadership to their peers. Additionally, some participants in this study demonstrated that these skills served them not only in the academic program but transferred to their professional nursing practice.

Marjorie McIntyre and Carol McDonald are Associate Professors at the University of Victoria School of Nursing. Margaret Scaia is a UVic School of Nursing Senior Instructor and interdisciplinary PhD student. Andrea Monteiro is a PhD student at the UVic School of Nursing.

From the 2012 Spring Communiqué — Informatics