To evaluate the effects of the fast-friendship procedure on social integration and retention in an online college course.
Combating Challenges of Online Education with Social Integration
Though online education has flexibility and accessibility benefits, it also has significant challenges. Online learners must be more self-organized and self-regulated than face-to-face learners, and they face increased social isolation. Moreover, online learners must have high digital literacy and manage several technical tools that may not be integrated, either technologically or curricularly. These challenges are often harder to overcome for non-traditional students, who likely have significant professional and familial obligations, and for students from underrepresented groups, who are often first-generation college students and/or from low socioeconomic status families (implying less access to tech growing up, poorer preparation for college during K-12 education, and higher likelihood of holding a job during college)—the very students who many hope online education would help the most. These challenges can become impassable barriers, leading to low academic performance and high dropout rates.
Studies of distance learners find that social connections with other students mitigate challenges and offer “positive communication, shared understanding, technical, emotional, or information support, satisfaction, and perceived learning” (p. 52). Social connections do not spontaneously happen because the technical capability is available, though. Students must first develop social relationships to meet the social psychological conditions that are required to want to engage with others. To develop social relationships, Stürmer et al. used the fast-friendship procedure that was developed by Aron et al. (1997) for face-to-face interactions. In Stürmer et al.’s online adaptation, pairs of students engaged asynchronously in pre-structured, reciprocal self-disclosures over a 3-week period. They compared students’ liking of their partner, number of logins and time spent logged in, perceived social integration (i.e., quality of interactions with other students), and exam participation (i.e., inversion of dropout rate) between students who engaged in the fast-friendship procedure and those who did not. All students were in a credit-bearing, first-semester, introductory psychology course from a distance education university with a high dropout rate.
Participants’ weekly ratings of liking their partner positively correlated with number of weekly logins and time spent logged in. Weekly ratings of liking their partner increased as participants completed the fast-friendship procedure. Stürmer et al. evaluated whether (dis)similarity within pairs affected liking based on gender, migration background, disability, age, or sexual orientation. They found that only gender interacted with liking. Both same-gender and mixed-gender pairs increased liking from week 1 to week 2, but only same-gender pairs continued to increase liking from week 2 to week 3. In a follow-up analysis, Stürmer et al. found that both female and male students preferred female partners.
Compared to the control group, participants who completed the fast-friendship procedure perceived more social integration. Statistically controlling for sociodemographic factors did not affect this result. This increased perceived social integration corresponds with higher rates of taking an exam in the course. Students who participated in the fast-friendship procedure were more than twice as likely to complete an exam in the course than students who did not. Again, statistically controlling for sociodemographic factors did not change this result.
Why this is important
Online learning environments often lack the social cues that lead to relationship building. Students in online classes don’t share a smile with other students near them as they find a seat, turn to their neighbor to ask a clarifying question, or ask the person who normally sits next to them why they weren’t in class last week. Though there are many tools to help online students maintain social relationships, the students need to know that there is a friendly face on the other side of the line before they are willing to use them. Adapting the fast-friendship procedure for an online environment helped students make genuine connections in 3 weeks that they maintained throughout the semester. Ultimately, it resulted in over twice the rate of participation in course exams for a credit-bearing, online course. This could be a huge barrier-breaker for online students, and the pre-structured procedure means that it is easy to implement. I’d like to try it in my online courses immediately.
Aron, A., Melinat, E., Aron, E. N., Vallone, R. D., & Bator, R. J. (1997). The experimental generation of interpersonal closeness: A procedure and some preliminary
findings. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 363–377.
Stürmer, S., Ihme, T. A., Fisseler, B., Sonnenberg, K., & Barbarino, M. L. (2018). Promises of structured relationship building for higher distance education: Evaluating the effects of a virtual fast-friendship procedure. Computers & Education, 124, 51-61.
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