I can see clearly now the rain is gone…sorta

Have you ever heard or perhaps even remember that song ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ originally sung and written by Johnny Nash (in 1973)? You can listen above if you’d like to hear it, but to save you some time, I repeat the main lyrics below:

I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright)
Bright (bright) sunshiny day

Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies
Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies…

The Topic 4 weeks began and continued under a few dark clouds as I became incredibly overwhelmed with work during this already black-as-night Nordic November. I had lots of student papers to read through and meticulously comment on in prep for face-to-face feedback meetings during the same period, as well other meetings to prepare for. I again found myself facing the question as to whether it would be best to cut my losses and regretfully bow out of the course, and say my premature goodbyes to the PBL Eleveners (PBL group 11).

But a couple of things kept me chugging on: the first thing was the topic itself, the second was to not let down my peers–the absolutely smashing Eleveners. Personal eurekas concerning Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes, Garrison and Anderson’s Community of Inquiry research abounded!

I already knew something about online and blended learning, but I had last read and researched the theoretical foundation for it a little over 10 years ago. Therefore, I was curious to revisit some theories and learn some new. During this course, I have been well impressed and engaged by the recommended materials, so was satisfied that that curiosity would be satisfied. In addition, based on an incident that was raised in another group, I had a particular question or inquiry to which I wanted to find an answer. I was quite certain that it was a natural outcome to some elements possibly missing, or being unconsciously neglected in the design and implementation phase of a completely online course. The Community of Inquiry Framework (Vaughan, Cleveland-Innes & Garrison, 2013) to which we were introduced at the beginning of the Topic 4 weeks seemed to reflect perfectly what was going on personally and within many PBL groups.

Talking of which, the second motivator was my own PBL group, aka The Eleveners with whom I had enjoyed working with in a truly collaborative sense during the weeks. From the first topic onwards, I had experienced a synergy, andcollaboration as well as a stimulation of skills and ideas which I didn’t think was possible online! Week after week, we worked patiently through the FISh model, repeatedly challenging, but also supporting each other to go beyond our comfort zones as we tackled new topics.

So, where were the dark clouds I mentioned at the beginning? Well, in addition to the incredible burden of work to be done during the same period (student expectations, ONL expectations, personal expectations,…), my still unpredictable (to me) autoimmune disease made it savagely known that my body did not like this situation in the least.

In the beginning of the second and last week of Topic 4, when we were to start adding our bits to our joint presentation space (a Mural page), overnight, my right hand and wrist became so swollen, and hence painful, that for 1 and a half days, I couldn’t type much if at all, except for slowly with one hand, and had lost one night’s sleep due to the severity of the pain. It was simply too difficult to write with both hands, and I didn’t know how long before the strong medication I was forced to take would act (as I’d never had to resort to it before). I was wondering how on earth was I going to contribute in any way to our group presentation? Moreover, although I had read and watched all the recommended materials during the first week, I had been too busy with work to begin reading more on my chosen focus and inquiry: disruptive confrontation or conflict in online learning groups. So, two obstacles still to face. Game over?

Naah…!Thanks to the stable teaching presence in the group, e.g. the planning of our facilitators and each other in the group; the stable and constant social presence we maintained online, and even offline in our WhatsApp group; and the cognitive presence of the materials and our own contributions; we were already a surprisingly solid and cohesive community of inquiry, maintaining a very generous splash of emotional presence throughout all our interactions. We had already successfully negotiated three times the first four stages of Tuckman’s (1965) five-stage model for group dynamics: forming, storming, norming and performing. This solid collaborative community really did work in practice through Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model (2013) time and time again. And when I was stumped and disappointed by my body’s rebellion, and resignedly shared the situation during the first meeting of the second week, my group members immediately stepped in and offered to help in any possible way for us to get to that fifth stage of ‘performing’. This incredible generosity occurred not only online, but was also repeated afterwards through private WhatsApp messages.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going

As Garrison (2017: 80) reminds us referring to the concepts of Tuckman’s (1965) model: “In the middle, or productive stage, there will inevitably be conflicts (storming) and the need for resolution (norming). It is difficult to predict when, and to what degree, the storming and norming process will manifest itself. One should be aware of this difficulty because the process might not surface in an overt and obvious way, but may still have a detrimental effect on open communication and critical discourse.”

I found that in this ‘crucible of fire’ when potential conflict could have arisen due to the tension between our mutual desire to complete the group presentation on a slighty tricky (but interesting) platform in good time, and my unexpected handicap, the team reacted immediately and rallied around. We got our presentation done and out before the week was even up, and although I had to seriously lower my expectations due to time restrictions, the strengths of this personal and professional learning network held up.

Indeed, we were all the more aware of how emotional presence had had a highly significant part to play in us successfully concluding that week’s project. Without the well-planned cognitive presence and teaching presence of the ONL organisers and facilitators, such as their insistence on us using the FISh model (basically an echo of Gilly Salmon’s five-stage model), not to mention the well-selected materials; a social presence carefully constructed by our facilitators to ensure a trusting and strong group cohesion, and encourage a communicative and collaborative style; and finally, an atmosphere that encouraged a frequent discussion of expectations, feelings, and also an atmosphere in which both mutual respect and occasional silliness were constantly displayed (even when all were tired, grumpy (me) and stressed (often me!)); I’m not quite sure I would have learnt so much and remained in this course as long as I have.

I’d like to start to wind down this tome by still mentioning one last feature that has manifested itself often during our group’s interactions and sustained it: a readiness to quickly express gratitude and applaud each other’s strengths, which is why I also chose to read Howells’ (2014) paper referenced below as an antidote to conflict escalating and ruining group interaction and cohesion. There was nothing new, but it nicely confimed what I already knew to be true: displaying thankfulness for and recognition of others’ contributions to a learning situation sets a good foundation for future interactions.

So, now my choice of song becomes clear. It evokes how I now feel: “I can see clearly now the rain is gone, I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind, it’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright, bright sunshiney day!”. But my final word is that I had to add the ‘sorta’ to my title as I have still have to survive this last week and my hand has not yet totally recovered..! Still grateful though for what I have learnt and still have to learn :).

Over and out!

References
  • Garrison, D. R. (2017). E-learning in the 2st Century: A Community of Inquiry Framework for Research and Practice, Third Edition. New York and London: Taylor & Francis, Routledge. 121, 125-127
  • Howells, K. (2014). An exploration of the role of gratitude in enhancing teacher-student relationships. Teaching and Teacher Education 42, 58-67
  • Majeski, R. A., Stover, M. & Valais, T. (2018). The Community of Inquiry and Emotional Presence. Adult Learning Vol 29(2), 53-61
  • Salmon, G (2013). The Five Stage Model. [Homepage] http://www.gillysalmon.com/five-stage-model.html
  • Tuckman, Bruce W. (1965) ‘Developmental sequence in small groups’, Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384-399.
  • Vaughan, N. D., Cleveland-Innes, M., & Garrison, D. R. (2013). Teaching in blended learning environments: Creating and sustaining communities of inquiry. Edmonton: AU Press. Chapter 1 “The Community of Inquiry Conceptual framework”.

Published by Anya Siddiqi

Lecturer of English at Aalto University Language Centre, Finland.

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