A Review from Medical Science Educator from Dr. Elizabeth McClain

Each month the IAMSE Publications Committee reviews published articles from Medical Science Educator. This month’s review, written by Dr. Elizabeth McClain is taken from the article titled Student Interaction in Small Private Online Courses (doi:10.1007/s40670-017-0380-x) published in Medical Science Educator, Volume 27, (pages 237–242), 2017 by Sabine Uijl, Renée Filius and Olle Ten Cate.

As a medical educator, I felt this article was appropriate for review as many educators have been challenged to transition to online formats this spring due to the global impact of the Corona Virus. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity for disruptive innovation in online learning. Many colleges and universities have experienced mandatory campus closures forcing faculty to transition to remote education. This coupled with mandates for social distancing and shelter at home requirements has increased concerns of social isolation its impact on student learning.

The authors provide a descriptive study investigating the value of social interaction in small private online courses (SPOCs). The study evaluated the interaction among and between learners and instructors in four online courses with under 40 students per class. The online interactions were grouped into 3 categories. 1) The functional/technical category focused on questions about the online learning environment, technical issues or basic course instruction. 2) The content-specific category focused on course topics and the course. 3) The social interactions category included interpersonal interactions or discussions focused on social content.

The authors observed that the highest percentage of posts across all four online classes were categorized by social interaction posts. In addition, more than ninety percent of the social interaction posts were generated by students to another student, or to the whole class. Overall, this peer to peer interaction played a major role in all the online courses. The social nature created involvement and student cohesion, as well as student satisfaction with the online learning format. In our current global pandemic, we need to consider how quickly our student’s lives have shifted from in-person engaged learning to isolated remote learning. The authors’ findings in this study have important relevance to ease this transition for our students. Research has shown that student engagement in peer discussions is an essential component of effective learning.

My takeaway from this study is that learners need a sense of belonging and social engagement to learn effectively. In our present sense of social isolation with COVID-19, we have an opportunity to support the transition for our students in the online learning environment. Considering this study, if we create smaller student online groups and facilitate social student to student discourse without mandating it in the course, it will foster social engagement. This paired with academic engagement will foster essential social connections associated with effective learning environments that can improve our student cohesion and learning outcomes.

Elizabeth K McClain PhD, EdS MPH
Vice Provost and VP Academic Affairs
Professor of Psychology and Public Health
Arkansas Colleges of Health Education
IAMSE Publication Committee