The ultimate disorienting dilemma: The online learning community
Chere Campbell Gibson
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Learning online represents, for many, the ultimate disorienting dilemma in higher education. Emerging new roles and responsibilities for members of these online learning communities call into question definitions of teachers, learners, and knowledge. In addition, what it means to learn both as an individual and as a group, and what is means to have learned are also questioned. Past values, beliefs, and assumptions are also challenged for many: all this at a time when there is often a need to master content in addition to mastering a new process of learning. For many learners, learning online represents the beginning of a personal transformation or what Mezirow (1990) calls transformative learning.
Mezirow defines learning as "the process of making a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of an experience which guides subsequent understanding, appreciation and action" (Mezirow, 1990:1). He further suggests that this transformative learning can occur as a result of a disorienting dilemma in a ten-step process. These steps include: (1) a disorienting dilemma; (2) self examination with feelings of guilt or shame; (3) a critical assessment of one's epistemic, sociocultural, or psychic assumptions; and (4) recognition that one's discontent and the process of transformation are shared and that others have negotiated a similar change. Additional steps include: (5) exploration of options to form new roles, relationships, and actions (6) planning a course of action; (7) acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans; (8) provisional trying of new roles; and (9) building of competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships. Lastly step (10) - a reintegration into one's life on the basis of conditions dictated by one's new perspective. (Mezirow 1991:168-69) Learning online provides an opportunity to experience this dilemma and appears to begin a multi-stage process of perspective transformation, a process that is not linear according to Mezirow in spite of the stepwise portrayal.
Using Mezirow's theory, learners' personal reflections on learning online were analyzed in this highly exploratory research study. The learners were adult students registered in an online graduate course focusing on the theory and practice of distance education. For most, this educational experience online represented the first online learning experience. The data source were journals in the form of a paper specifically reflecting on a distance learning experience and written after the first five weeks of the fifteen week course. The majority of the learners reflected on the online learning experience. The phrase 'disorienting dilemma" appeared repeatedly in learners' online reflections and in the journal submissions. It raised the question, to what extent had learners actually engaged in perspective transformation as described by Mezirow (1990)?
The findings suggest that for some learners Mezirow's theory of perspective transformation seems applicable. Many learners did experience some disorientation in the online environment followed by self-examination of their learning abilities and strategies, as well as conceptions of knowledge. By sharing feelings of uneasiness, frustration, confusion and support within the online class environment, recognition that others were negotiating similar changes occurred, Mezirow's fourth stage in the process of perspective transformation.
Exploration of options to form new roles, planning a course of action and acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing one's plans did not appear as three distinct steps as Mezirow describes. Learners did however assume new roles, often due to the design of the course rather than by choice. Assuming new roles and responsibilities constituted our greatest struggle as a group. And paralleling Mezirow's ninth step, some indeed accomplished not only new roles but gained some level of confidence, competence and commitment to these new definitions of what it is to be a learner, a teacher, a collaborative learner, etc. The extent to which learners actually integrated their new perspectives into their lives is difficult to judge. One learner noted "Through the experience of this new learning process I have discovered new ideas and reflections on what learning is all about and how, and when and where learning takes place education/learning takes place within oneself." Perspective transformation? Several years later, this learner believes it certainly was!
Some learners are certainly changed by the online experience. Others remain unchanged while yet others, appear to be left with self-doubt about their flexibility and capabilities as learners. The exploratory research findings also raise many questions. For example, How do we help learners transition expediently to this new environment with its new roles and responsibilities? Should we? What's to be gained by the collective reflection on learning online and by the sharing of hopes, fears, struggles and victories?
IF the experiences of these adult learners in an online environment are somewhat parallel to others' first experience learning online, it appears many will confront new roles and responsibilities for members of these online learning communities. The online environment will call into question definitions of teachers, learners, and knowledge, what it means to learn both as an individual and as a group, and what is means to have learned. Past values, beliefs, and assumptions will be challenged. For many this will represent a disorienting dilemma and provide an opportunity to create new meanings, new perspectives.
To help both learners and teachers transition expediently to this new environment with its new roles and responsibilities, learner support such as logistical 'hints' such as information on learning online and netiquette seem obvious and are commonly provided. In addition, if learners are to successfully negotiate step four in Mezirow's process of transformative learning, a 'place' to discuss the process of learning online, including hopes, fears, struggles, frustrations, and confusion seems essential. A forum or folder to discuss the process of online learning, separate from scholarly discourse on the content, allows learners to not only recognize the struggles of others. It also provides an opportunity to discuss options for new roles, devise action strategies and exchange of knowledge and skills for effective and efficient online learning. Instructors need to be candid about their personal struggles as well. Much can be gained by the collective reflection on teaching and learning online. Content isn't everything!
Learners need an opportunity to try out new roles and build confidence in these new roles. Ensuring that learners are actively engaged in group facilitation, constructivist learning activities and the like is essential if steps nine and ten are to be successfully negotiated.
Overall, it appears that for many learners the online environment poses a disorienting dilemma. Mezirow's model of perspective transformation appears to have some applicability in explaining the steps learners pass through as they struggle with new roles, responsibilities and definitions that emerge within this environment, although more research is suggested. Learners can be supported through the process with limited modifications in the learning environment and sensitivity on the part of the instructor. And not all learners will face the dilemma and/or engage in the process of perspective transformation. Perhaps it is enough to give learners an opportunity to engage in a teaching/learning environment that may stretch them in some ways but not necessarily change them.
Mezirow, J. (1998). On critical reflection. Adult Education Quarterly 48(3), 185-198.
Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Mezirow, J. and Associates. (1990). Fostering critical reflection in adulthood. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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