As I read the assigned chapters for class this week, one thing that stood out to me was how critical peer interaction is in academic environments. According to Schneider, Gruman, and Coutts, (2012), kids who have poor peer relationships struggle with developing competency in a variety of different areas of their lives, including academia, while those with positive relationships are more likely to thrive. In fact, studies have indicated that the act of just playing with other children can increase a child’s self-confidence and, in turn, increase their academic achievement (Schneider et al., 2012). However, in an increasingly modernized educational environment, more and more academic programs are being offered online. According to Connections Academy (2015), from 2009 to 2014, there has been an 80% increase in grade school students taking online or blended learning courses and a 58% increase in full-time online public school enrollment. If students are no longer in classrooms together, however, will this lack of peer interaction be detrimental?
As Schneider et al. (2012) note, the academic environment provides individuals with the opportunity to form and maintain friendships, acquire leadership skills, learn about conflict resolution and cooperation, and develop positive self-concepts, in addition to enhancing academic achievement. All of these lessons are learned through peer interaction. Early poor social adjustment is shown to lead to academic struggles later on, a negative perception of the school environment, and even eventual academic failure (as cited in Schneider et al., 2012). This opportunity to develop social skills is even more important for students with disabilities and behavioral difficulties, with positive interactions leading to marked increases in their motivation and performance (Schneider et al., 2012). If students are participating in online learning, then, they will experience distinctly less peer interaction, potentially leading to poorer academic and social skills.
Despite this dire picture, however, studies also show that the academic-social interaction can be reciprocal, with high academic performance leading to more positive social skills. Specifically, studies have shown that actively working to increase the academic performance of children early in their school careers, through interventions such as math and reading tutoring, can lead to positive social development (Schneider et al., 2012). This suggests that the lack of peer interaction in online education may not be so detrimental after all. In fact, if these programs focus on high achievement, social development may just simply follow along.
So, where does that leave us?
It seems that since online education, especially that aimed at younger children, is still in its infancy, no conclusions have been universally agreed upon. In an article for Parents.com, Deborah Stipek, a Stanford University education professor, noted that the research for the consequences of online education on social-emotional skills is simply not there (O’Hanlon, 2012). It is agreed that traditional school provides a unique setting for students to learn and interact, but what happens to the development of social skills once this mold is broken is still unknown. Since these future implications are still unidentified, I believe it is crucial that online education programs utilize as many strategies as possible to promote effective social skill development. This includes social skills training programs, where students can learn appropriate behaviors and methods of interacting, an emphasis on small group work to encourage effective collaboration, and free time in a synchronous virtual environment where students can help one another learn. All of these strategies, as mentioned in Schneider et al. (2012), have been shown to help foster social skills and, in turn, academic achievement in traditional classrooms, so implementing them in online learning environments would, hopefully, result in similar benefits.
Overall, the modernization of education, especially the drastic increase in online education, provides some interesting new challenges for students. As social skill development has been shown to be important in fostering academic achievement, discovering ways to promote the development of these skills in asynchronous environments will likely be critical to the success of online students.
Connections Academy. (2015). Growth of K-12 digital learning. Retrieved from https://www.connectionsacademy.com/Portals/4/ca/documents/pdfs/press/2015/CE_Infographic%202015_FINAL(2).pdf
O’Hanlon, L. H. (2012). Virtual elementary school: Should you enroll your kids? Retrieved from http://www.parents.com/kids/education/elementary-school/virtual-elementary-school/
Schneider, F. W., Gruman, J. A., & Coutts, L. M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understand and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.