Online or distance learning has experienced continued growth and attracted millions of students as both traditional and online colleges and universities extend their reach by offering virtual courses and degrees. It has made education accessible to students who might not otherwise have access to any other options. Educators have had to adapt to this environment and learn how to communicate effectively through written words. The challenge is being able to help students feel connected to their class and their instructor. Traditional methods of instruction have to be adapted simply because instructors are not present and they are not able to have the benefit of visual cues and physical interactions. Some instructors are effective in developing a virtual presence and others find the online platform too difficult to navigate or they feel too distant from their students.
As an educator with extensive online teaching and faculty development experience, I am fully aware of the challenge that instructors face when they try to bridge the virtual distance. One of the inherent problems is that instructors develop a perception of students based upon what they see or what they read. If the students post an introduction at the start of class that does provide initial background information. But over time instructors see what is posted in the discussion boards and submitted in written assignments and those words represent the students, creating a lens through which they perceive them.
As an example, if an instructor sees continued writing mistakes in a student’s posts or papers they may view this student from a negative perspective. This can lead to a deficit-based approach when interacting with the student. The main focus of their interactions and feedback will be focused on correcting those errors and it tends to overshadow positive accomplishments. A student who experiences what they perceive as continued negative interactions may become disengaged from the class. While the intent of the instructor is to guide and teach the student this approach has a potential to alienate the student and create resistance on their part. Because I have seen firsthand the effects of these issues I decided that a new instructional strategy was necessary.
What I found in my research was an organizational developmental technique known as appreciative inquiry and I was immediately struck by its ability to help managers bring out peak performance in their employees. It is an approach that builds from strengths and seeks to affirm and build upon what the employee does best. There have been limited adaptations of appreciative inquiry for educational purposes so I decided to find a way to implement it as an online instructional strategy. My doctoral studies were focused on adult learning, which is based upon a term called andragogy that distinguishes teaching adults from children. The phrase appreciative andragogy was then born as a means of connecting the two concepts.
To test the potential for appreciative andragogy in online classes a research study was conducted. I enlisted online instructors as participants for the study and they tested this strategy in their online classes. This brought appreciative inquiry from an organizational environment into the online classroom. The results of this study have now been published so that other educators may adapt and utilize it in their online classes. Of course implementing appreciative andragogy is not done without challenges. From an educator’s perspective they have to take the time to interact with students and make an attempt to follow the process. It may also be difficult to show appreciation for a student who is not open to interactive communication or does not demonstrate appreciation themselves.
But what appreciative andragogy does is to help educators see their students from a broader perspective and learn more about their strengths so they can build from them. This is not to say that developmental issues should not be addressed but it can be done from a positive perspective and that will help to create a cooperative spirit as instructors and students collaborate together to improve their performance. The study also found that appreciative andragogy had a positive impact on students’ motivation and engagement in the class. The study concluded that appreciative andragogy had an ability to take the distance out of distance learning. Any educator teaching any subject will find this strategy useful.