Simulating inclusivity, broadening perspectives

Shield, Lesley and Gardner, Christine (2013). Simulating inclusivity, broadening perspectives. In: EDEN 2013 Annual Conference 'The joy of learning', 12-15 Jun 2013, Oslo.


With the growth of synchronous audio- and audiographic tools over the last decade, environments supporting synchronous voice and shared workspaces have gained purchase. The use of synchronous tools can be seen as more ‘inclusive’ allowing participation by those previously excluded by distance and the time involved in travelling to the nearest face-to-face tutorial. However, adult part time learners need flexible study with opportunities to interact at times convenient to them. Online learning activities that rely on synchronous communication could limit inclusivity, with some learners being unable to participate in real-time events.

In this paper, we argue that while synchronous technologies may increase immediacy and, perhaps, ‘presence’ for learners, they can also exclude by their very synchronicity. We present the outcomes of a piece of exploratory action research in which we investigated how a synchronous learning activity might be designed to:

1. promote inclusivity for those unable to participate in real-time.
2. encourage learners to take responsibility for their own learning in a secure and non-threatening environment rather than depending on the tutor.

Within the context of a totally online postgraduate module for existing and new ‘elearning professionals’ who were located around the world we investigated the two questions above. This module employs the audio/videoconferencing tool, Elluminate to offer students synchronous ‘tutorials’. Although these are intended to provide increased opportunities to communicate with fellow learners, there are various constraints on student participation due to the nature of the student body, technical difficulties and the dual effect of live English language-medium tutorials mediated via an often less-than-perfect audio-channel. Thus, a tool that is intended to promote inclusivity may not have the intended effect.

To explore the effect of going beyond the synchronous tutorial to promote inclusivity, we adopted an approach that transformed the ‘traditional, hour-long tutorial structure of ‘presentation, practice, production’ into a simulation globale that took place over several weeks and made use of a range of synchronous and asynchronous tools. Two separate groups of adult, distance learners were invited to work together to collaborate in a redesigned version of an Elluminate-based tutorial that occurred towards the end of the module. The activity was designed to have four phases; each phase used a single tool or combination of tools to achieve the original learning outcomes and the outcomes added for the redesigned activity. Both qualitative and quantitative data were collected both during the activity and after its completion.

While only a small number of invited learners participated in the synchronous part of the redesigned activity, asynchronous activity in the wiki and collaborative group blog was, in contrast, relatively high. This seems to support our hypothesis concerning the necessity to offer alternative pathways through activities for distance learners.
Research evidence suggesting that the adoption of a persona allows learners more freedom to express themselves seems to be borne out in the responses from participants in the current study with learners moving beyond the boundaries of the module-provided materials, researching and sharing resources to reinforce their ideas, thus developing their abilities as independent learners.

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