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«The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine how communication preferences, learning preferences, and perceptions about online learning ...»

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three out of 10 preferred to do so face-to face; two out of 10 preferred text-based communications, and one was indifferent. When the professor initiated the conversation, six out of 10 preferred the professor to do so via email, three out of 10 preferred face-toface, and one out of 10 preferred phone. However, when in the actual online course, eight out of participants expected a high level of communication from the instructor. These participants explained how the professor’s interaction in the course was important to increasing students’ participation, improving students’ interest in the subject matter, recreating traditional classroom learning environments, fostering enjoyment in learning, expressing care and concern about her students, and communicating clear expectations so that students can meet the professor’s expectations.

Overall, when students initiated the conversation with the professor, seven out of 10 preferred to do so orally; while two were in writing, and one was indifferent.

However, when professors wanted to initiate the conversation, six participants preferred text-based communication, and four preferred verbal communication. This double standard of sorts is not explained in the literature I reviewed. Nonetheless, a possible explanation of the students’ preference for a verbal initiation of conversation could include the students’ desire for quick feedback to questions and concerns which may go undetected if done via text. Professors’ slow responses to students’ questions are a disadvantage to online learning (Vanderpool, 2009).

The participants’ desire for the professor to contact students via email is more complex to explain. Since participants’ perceptions were that text-based communication was not as interactive as verbal communication, there may be an attempt to keep the teacher at a distance. This may be more comfortable to students who view the teacher as an authority figure. Furthermore, participants may also view written communication as more official, thus allowing them a record of information, which the literature reveals is important to students (Puzziferro & Shelton, 2008).

Nontraditional African American participants’ desire for a high level of communication with the professor within the online course is not as puzzling as their preference for written communication from the professor. Research literature documented the need for a high level of communication among the professor and African American students (Boykin, 1983). In classroom settings, African Americans need teacher immediacy, signs that the teacher shows attentiveness, liking, closeness and engagement;

they also need nonverbal immediacy like smiles, eye contact, and movement around the classroom (Boykin, 1983, as cited in Rovai et al., 2005). Most HBCU professors’ teaching styles include dominating the classroom with challenging, yet nurturing, highly rhetorical communication and using analogies to create realistic situations (Boykin, 1986). In online settings, the signs that the teacher is showing attentiveness like eye contact and movement are not yet possible, though smiles are through emoticons or special textual symbols which connote emotions like :-, which denotes a happy face, or :-, which indicates a sad face.

Because online learning is fairly new, there is no literature that I was able to find which explored the role of written discussion by professors as it relates to communication preferences of African Americans. Boone (2003) noted how highly effective African American educators like Marva Collins use call and response in their classrooms. Many of the participants spoke about their preferences for the professor’s highly interactive communication as it related to traditional classroom settings. Nonetheless, Sheila (PI, 5/13/10) and Angel (PI, 5/10/10) both said that a higher level of participation from the professor on discussion threads and commenting on students’ responses gave them the impression that they were in a classroom setting. Chen (2001a) also echoed students’ voices as he found that distances are often minimized between the teacher and the learner when overall communication is perceived as positive and teachers are accessible.

Five participants also expressed their preference for a highly detailed syllabus, clearly articulated assignments, and quick feedback on assignments. Participants indicated that detailed syllabi, course assignments, and expedient feedback on assignments helped them to meet the teacher’s expectations. After all, African Americans tend to flourish in learning environments which have defined goals and subsequent reinforcement (Ibarra, 2001). In addition, the participants’ desire for a high level of structure in the course may be an attempt for them to reduce the amount of contact that they have with the teacher. According to Moore’s Theory of Transactional Distance (1996), the more structured the class, the more distance there lies between the teacher and students. Thus, if the syllabus is highly detailed and course assignments are clearly explained, the students would have no need to communicate with the teacher to ask questions. This, in turn, could help students avoid slow responses from instructors about questions and submitted assignments which are a major disadvantage of online learning that many participants discussed. Unlike Moore (1996), Chen (2001a) found no significant difference in perceived distance when courses are rigidly structured. In other words, just because the participants wanted rigid structure in the online world literature course, it may not indicate a preference to create distance between the learner and the professor. In fact, this desire may indicate that African American participants want to learn autonomously, something about which Chen (2001a) would concur. In fact, Chen (2001a) believed that students are autonomous learners even if they elect to collaborate with others on assignments.

Research Question 4: How do nontraditional African American students attending a southeastern HBCU describe their learning preferences?

Shorter reading assignments was a learning preference they specifically stated.

Six out of 10 participants expressed their concerns about comprehending and completing lengthy reading assignments. These participants discussed how assigned reading was overwhelming and made it difficult to complete assignments. In order to process information, participants had to determine ways to reduce the content in order to participate in the class. To do so, they had to rely on PowerPoint slides, study guides, and “cheat sheets” provided by the instructor. These shortened versions of the readings helped students to focus on what the instructor felt were key concepts in the reading. The literature also supports African American participants’ dependency on the professor to supply students with specific notes about what should be learned. The literature revealed how African Americans prefer the professor to disseminate knowledge (White, 1992).

While this could be spoken knowledge, it could also be referred to as written knowledge, too.

Furthermore, the literature substantiated the participants’ perceptions about textbased information. While text-based information may be a preference for some White learners, the literature corroborated how reading in print may not be the preferred mode of learning for some African Americans. In fact, Warschauer (2003) discussed how many cultures around the world do not learn as well from print, but rather storytelling, song, chanting, and dance (Warschauer, 2003). Specifically, African American culture is embedded in the oral tradition (Cismas, 2010). Boone (2003) discussed how famous educators like Marva Collins used call and response to produce high performing African American students. With recognition of this knowledge, the literature also recognized how placing heavy emphasis on writing and reading in a course may unjustly put some cultures that have other preferred modes of learning at a disadvantage in online courses (Warschauer, 2003).

Moreover, participants said that they had multiple and overlapping modes of learning. Preferences ranged from visual, auditory, tactile, constructivist, and social but excluded reading and writing. Six out of 10 participants discussed how they also preferred to learn in groups. Participants who preferred working in groups talked about how groups enhanced social connections to other students, augmented learning, helped to reduce individual workloads, and encouraged knowledge about others. The participants’ preference for learning in groups corroborated the literature as it indicated African Americans’ preference for collaborative learning. Learning collectively is also found to be beneficial to African American college students (Carson, 2003; Imel, 2001; Duncan & Barber-Freeman, 2008). According to research literature, African Americans are field dependent learners who prefer to learn in groups (Shealey et al., 2005; White, 1992).

According to Chen (2001a), their preferences for teamwork are reflective of the nature of the global economy and also form of learner autonomy. Only three out of 10 participants indicated a preference for constructing their own knowledge. No doubt, African Americans do construct their own knowledge. In fact, African American students are constructing their own knowledge constantly. Many of the participants’ favorite assignment in the course was constructing a fairy tale, which is a constructivist activity.

Though the construction involved in the activity was implicit, they may not have had the language to reference constructivism as a learning preference. In addition, though research indicated that African Americans prefer to learn through “real life situations” as opposed to abstract information (White, 1992), only one out of 10 participants mentioned a desire for situated learning. The importance situated learning or learning based on real life situations is noted a key factor is educating adult learners (Knowles et al., 1998).

Research Question 5: How easily do nontraditional African American students navigate around the Blackboard platform?

While five out of 10 participants found Blackboard easy to navigate, five also discussed how navigating around Blackboard required tutorials. Participants who found Blackboard’s navigation easy discussed how Blackboard it was an excellent tool to have for class in general. Three other participants noted how blackboard made accessing assignments easy. Those who had trouble with Blackboard state the following reasons for their difficulty: (a) did not know how to enter into the platform; (b) did not know which buttons to push for tests; (c) were not aware of all of Blackboard’s tools; (d) did not know where to find information; and (e) did not have consistent locations for assignments from one online course to another and often found Blackboard to crash and freeze during testing. These findings supported the literature which found that students who are not familiar with technology may experience problems navigating online courses (Vanderpool, 2009). Chen (2001a) also indicated how the user-friendliness and one’s ability to access and submit assignment online were important dimensions in eliminating perceived distance in online learning.

Research Question 6: How do nontraditional African American students perceive online content like quizzes, tests, discussion boards, and assignments?

Students had various perceptions of the online quizzes, tests, discussion boards, and assignments. Though there were no online quizzes, there were two online tests.

Furthermore, participants had a choice of taking their final exam online or on-campus.

Three of the participants mentioned their appreciation for online multiple choice exams.

These participants discussed how online tests helped them avoid stress and memorization as they were able to use their textbooks during testing. One test required students to create a fairytale and post it on the discussion board for other classmates to read. Eight of 10 participants enjoyed this assignment because it allowed them to use their creativity and allowed them to see what other classmates created. The two participants who did not enjoy the assignments did not consider themselves to be creative students. One of the two was taken aback because the details of the assignments were not fully detailed on the syllabus.

Participants also had various perceptions of the discussion board. While four participants completed all discussions, six missed participating in at least one discussion thread. Regardless if they fully participated in all of the discussion threads or not, eight out of 10 participants thought that the discussion board was in need of improvement.

Three of them wanted better quality discussions. They felt that being grouped with similar students in their same maturity level could have contributed to more profound discussions and ones with minimal grammatical errors and more thought. Four of the participants who posted minimally said that they wished that the instructor were more involved in the discussion. Another participant said that discussion boards were mainly busy work that contributed little if any to her learning. In addition, most participants viewed the discussion boards as additional reading. When responding to students, they often indicated their ways of avoiding reading many of the other students’ responses.

Their selection process for responding to participants consisted of replying to the person who was at the top of the thread, finding participants who did not have any responses, looking for students with minimum content, and completing only the bare minimum of what was assigned by the instructor. Two students even indicated that they would not like to participate in the discussion thread at all.

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