Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

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1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.

Resources:

2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.

Resources:

globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.

Resources:

5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Appear.in.  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.

Resources

Other Resources for Online Students:

Three Actors that Contribute to Student Success in Online Courses: The Institution, Instructor and Student

This post examines three actors that are essential to student success in online courses: 1) the institution, 2) the instructor and, 3) the student.

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Actors Contributing to Student Success in Online Courses

What contributes to student success in a course delivered online? To consider the question from a different perspective one can pose the question this way—who is ultimately responsible when students are not successful—when they fail the course for instance? Is it the student for not having the discipline for online learning? The instructor for not providing support, or the institution for not providing services to support the online student? These are questions worthy of examining at a philosophical level, though in this post I examine select behaviours and strategies associated with the three actors involved in the process of students learning online, 1) the institution, 2) instructor and 3) the learner.

What Contributes to Student Success?
Before examining the three actors roles in the learning process it’s helpful to identify the factors contributing to student success in online environments including the skill set required. It’s also instructive to acknowledge that there is an underlying expectation that students enrolling in online courses are self-directed and capable of managing the tasks associated with online studies. Yet research and feedback from educators reveal something quite different; many students are unprepared to learn online, lack the basic skills, and are not capable of assuming responsibility for their learning. Online course work requires that students use a range of skills including accessing resources, people and content within a network, analytic and synthesis skills to distill relevant information from an abundance of information and resources (Kop, Fournier, & Mak). Though as mentioned, it’s not uncommon to find students lack some, if not many of these skills.

Not only are students often unprepared, but institutions often fail to prepare faculty and instructors for online facilitation. A starting point in boosting student success is identifying the behaviours associated with each of the three actors.

1) The Institution: Student Support Services via the Institution 
One characteristic of institutions offering successful online programs is their ability to support the unique needs of distance students through a student support services function.  As online programs evolve and mature we now have numerous programs to examine and study. Though each unique, there is a common theme—a focus on the students by acknowledging their diverse needs and challenges of studying online. Below are select examples.

Services for online students need to be customized, re-tooled from those provided to traditional students. Services should include technical support, academic advising, online community programs and clubs, library services and career planning.  Some institutions have gone further and developed programs that offer personalized academic support, SUNY Empire State College for example offers a peer tutor program. This program is unique, it’s not a subject matter coaching program, but a mentoring program where the goal is for tutors to help students identify and implement strategies that promote independence, active learning and motivation.

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“Creating College Success” from Rio Salado College,  an Award Winning Program

Rio Salado College developed an orientation program “Creating College Success”. It’s a one-credit course delivered fully online. The goal of Rio Salado’s program is similar to that Empire State’s—student self-sufficiency in academic environments.  Penn State World Campus, one of the first universities to deliver online degrees has a comprehensive roster of services for virtual students. One service that all institutions should consider is offering extended hours for technical and academic help via email, phone, or instant messaging.

Western Governors University is one that offers not only academic and technical support, but wellness services through its Well Connect program where students can call a toll-free number any time of day or night for support including personal counseling, legal and debt counseling, new parent transitioning support and more.

2) The Instructor:  Course Design and Instructor Support 
There are two areas that fall under the instructor support: 1) course design, and 2) instructional support.

Course design plays a significant role in students’ potential for learning online, given that students engage with course content, instructor and peers through the course platform. The way in which course content is presented on the course site, the instructions for assignments or activities are written, even the structure and order of the tabs on the course home page (course interface) have an effect on how the students engage with the course, will potentially affect students’ learning. Professor Robin Smith, author of “Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design” (2008) describes course design this way:

Design features incorporated in [the] system course development and the learning guide, will create an environment in which students are confident of their pathway, and the only challenge is the course content, not the navigation of the course or figuring out what must be done in order to complete the course…this focus on course design, will free you [instructor] up to spend the semester teaching and interacting with students rather than answering questions about course navigation or specific directions about assignments.” 

The instructor’s role in online courses will vary depending upon the nature of the course, but more importantly instructor behaviours will be a function of the level of students educational background and students’ skill level in the areas mentioned above (collaboration skills, technical, etc). To assess what level students are at when entering the course, ideally the instructor does so through involvement in discussion forums, course introductions, synchronous activities, etc. that allow the instructor to get to know students. Instructors also can do so by reviewing student work early in the course so he or she can provide detailed feedback, challenge the student, suggest external writing support as needed, etc.

The goal is that the instructors focus on challenging students academically in the course via feedback and interaction; individually and as a class. Support for technical, research, or basic academic skills should be provided by the institution, via support services. Institutions should also offer professional development courses, workshops or resources to support online instructors and faculty in course development and instruction.

3) The Student:
The student is ultimately responsible for his or her success in the learning process; it is up to him or her to leverage the resources of the institution and the support of the instructor. There is an effective tool however, a leader readiness questionnaire, that many institutions make available on its website which identifies the skills and tools students will need to be successful with their online studies. Also the concept of giving the responsibility of learning to the students, is another method to encourage success—letting students know they are ultimately responsible.

Below are links to several learner readiness questionnaires provided by various institutions, one is licensed under the creative commons share alike license which makes it available for use to anyone.

In a follow-up post I review tools and resources available on the web that support the development of the skill-set students need for online learning. Readers may also find a previous post, Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning helpful— it outlines behaviours associated with successful outcomes for online students.

Conclusion
Supporting student success in online course work begins with the institution—ideally with a strategic plan that includes a system for provision of administrative services, academic counseling, and support specific to online students, as well as professional development and comprehensive resources for faculty and instructors teaching online. Yet to maximize the value of the support offered by the institution and instructor, the learner needs to own the learning, and know the responsibility for success ultimately rests with him or her.

Resources:

Need-to-Know News: Minerva and The Future of College, Amazon Moves into Purdue & Inoreader

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“The Future of College”,  The Atlantic

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

1) Minerva and the Future of College?  Should we Be Worried?
The Atlantic’s feature story this week covering the newest entrant into the higher education sector Minerva, really fired up educators’ Twitter feeds. “The Future of College?” is primarily about Minerva’s philosophy and pedagogical strategy as a for-profit, (wanna-be) elite and semi-virtual university. The school is a radical departure from a traditional university—no administrative buildings (except for one office for employees on the 9th floor of an office building in San Francisco), no libraries, sports teams, or tenured faculty. Nor is the school run like a MOOC. Minerva’s inaugural class is made up of thirty-three students, thus classes are intimate, seminar discussions via tele-conferencing technology. MOOCs are used as content only at Minerva, and Ben Nelson, founder of the school shares in an interview with author, Graeme Wood, “We are a university and MOOC is a version of publishing….The reason we can get away with this model is because MOOCs exist. The MOOCs will eventually make lectures obsolete.”

It’s statements like these made by Nelson in this interview and others that are rather jarring to educators’ ears. Reading the 185+ comments in response to the article, one gets a sense of the concerns—tenure, scholarship, and for-profit.

Insight: Minerva is not a solution to the challenges facing higher education. This model seeks to be exclusive and elite—a barrier to access.  It’s not affordable for everyone—it doesn’t accept financial aid—a barrier to cost. It does have potential to deliver quality, given the excellent professors Minerva has hired, including Stephen Kosslyn, a cognitive neuro-­scientist and former Harvard dean.  However, it is a model worth watching for the instructional methods implemented, how open content is leveraged, and to follow the educational outcomes of graduates. We will see.

2) Amazon Coming to a Campus Near You?

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Screen shot from Purdue’s storefront on Amazon.com

Speaking of education and business endeavors, Purdue University’s storefront with Amazon went live this week—the “co-branded experience” as described by Purdue with Amazon for the rental and sales of textbooks and other school supplies. The initiative was in the works last year according to details of a press release from Purdue. There is an Amazon webpage which serves as the Purdue’s storefront at purdue.amazon.com, and there is a significant Amazon presence within the campus bookstore. It’s hard to miss, with amazon-staffed service centres and the yellow, very large Amazon storage lockers where students can drop off and pick up textbooks. You can’t miss those eyesores.

If any students are wary about commercialization of their school with a public company such as Amazon taking over its bookstore, this line prominent on the Purdue’s store page may alleviate some concerns—“Your purchases are now supporting Purdue, which will use proceeds to support its Student Affordability and Accessibility initiatives.”  I guess that will work.

UC Davis piloted the program back in November, called davis.amazon.com. UC Davis gets 2% of all sales generated. The amount that Purdue receives may be more, as according to Purdue, “Amazon will return a percentage of eligible sales through the Purdue Student Store on Amazon to the university, including sales to faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the university“.

Insight: As much as we don’t like to consider the student of education a ‘customer’, it’s hard not to with the growing presence of for-profit entities in education.

Introducing INOREADER—Read Smart, and Share
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One of the loyal readers of this blog, Laura Gibbs, a faculty member and online instructor at The University of Oklahoma, shared her newest find and its application of a tech tool—Inoreader. She raved about it on Google+ and described in detail how she uses it to organize her student’s blog posts for the online classes she teaches. Google Reader is no more, and I too have been searching for a customizable reader application with a clean interface. Look no further than Inoreader. It is impressive. Very. Thanks Laura.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

 

Need-to-Know News: A Degree-in-Three, Future of Education at MIT, & Robin Hood’s Semi-finalists

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

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A three-year degree coming soon to an institution near you

1) Purdue’s three-year degree: “Think 3 Years!
Purdue University announced a new degree program this week that will save students time and money when pursuing a bachelor’s degree. The program is completed in three instead of four years—hence “Think 3 Years!”.  The new program is a result of a challenge put forth to all Purdue faculty and staff by Purdue President Mitchell Daniels in January of this year (2014).

To encourage such leadership, I am offering a million-dollar prize for innovation, divided between these two areas. The first department or program to fashion a three-year degree, and the first to create a competency-based degree, will each be supported with $500,000 from the presidential discretionary account. Any funds left over after costs of transition are the department’s to keep.  (Open Letter from Office of President at Purdue University, 2014)

That’s a considerable chunk of cash indeed—$500,000, and was awarded this week to Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication for their Think 3 Years! program. It’s an accelerated degree (with the same number of credit hours as a four-year program), not a competency degree which the other half of the million dollar prize will go to. Nothing has been disclosed from Purdue on this degree yet.

The estimated savings for students enrolling in the three-year program is $9,290 for Indiana state residents and $18,692 for non-residents.

Insight: It’s quite likely we will see more institutions offer similar programs in the next year or two in an effort reduce costs and reduce pressure from the Federal Government to do so. We’ll also likely see competency degree programs that could include a prior learning assessment component, and/or competency-based assessment. Though the latter programs are far more challenging to develop, the Department of Education (DOE) is fully supportive of competency-based initiatives, offering incentives to institutions to create such programs to address the cost and access issue. The DOE endorsed such programs back in 2013 (Fain, 2014). More to come.

2) MIT and The Future of Education
429px-MIT_Seal.svgPurdue is not the only institution thinking about how to save students time and money. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the same institution behind edX, launched the results from an institution-wide task force on the “Future of MIT Education”. The report is impressive; it lays out a vision for how MIT will adapt and move forward to proactively address access, cost, changes in pedagogy due to technology, reaching global students and more. What is impressive about this report is not only its depth and breadth, but the commitment to change, to be proactive and adapt in order to continue to deliver excellence—part of MIT’s mission. I realize I’m giving a hard sell here, but I read pages 1 through 30 of the report and it’s hard not to be impressed.

Quick Snapshot of the report: There are 16 recommendations in total around four themes:

  1. laying a foundation for the future, by creating a proposed Initiative for Educational Innovation
  2. transforming pedagogy, largely through “bold experiments” sponsored by the proposed new initiative
  3. extending MIT’s educational impact, to teachers and learners well beyond its own campus
  4. enabling the future of MIT education, by cultivating new revenue streams and envisioning new spaces to support learning at MIT.

I found the section on pedagogy of most interest. What’s intriguing is the idea of an “ecosystem that promotes educational connections across the Institute and provides an educational innovation hub, or a ‘sandbox,’”.

Insight: There are leaders in the education field worth watching over the next few years, such as Purdue and MIT for several reasons. Not to copy or mimic, but to be inspired by how change is handled, how visions are communicated and people engaged.

3) Robin Hood’s College Success $5 Million Contest: Semi-Finalists Announced
A few months ago in this Need-to-Know series, I wrote about a competition sponsored by the non-profit organization Robin Hood, based in New York. Robin Hood is dedicated not only to poverty-fighting but to finding, funding, and creating programs and schools that generate meaningful results.  The competition is for $5 million and awarded to individual(s) that develop a successful intervention – a smart phone app, computer application, and/or web-based tool aimed at supporting community college students that ultimately leads to their success—measured by completing a higher education program. There are more details and conditions, but that’s the gist.

This week the semi-finalists were announced—seventeen in total. Results are in the form of an app or web-based application, and they all look quite promising. Many are available now for free. Sign-up with an email account is required for most that I viewed. One that I found quite interesting is Core Skills Mastery, “Preparing people for high performance in college, work and life…”

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI 

How-to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies

“CL (collaborative learning) occurs when small groups of students help each other to learn. CL is sometimes misunderstood. It is not having students talk to each other, either face-to-face or in a computer conference, while they do their individual assignments. It is not having them do the task individually and then have those who finish first help those who have not yet finished. And it is certainly not having one or a few students do all the work, while the others append their names to the report (Klemm, W.R., 1994).” (Laal & Laal, 2012).

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Group Collaboration

Providing interactive learning opportunities in online courses is frequently cited as a best practice by institutions offering distance education—Penn StateUniversity of Illinois and Grand Rapids Community College are three of many examples. Yet I know from experience on both sides, as a student and educator, the challenges of functioning within and facilitating collaborative learning activities—group work especially.  In theory, collaborative learning is a sound idea given the numerous studies that suggest the benefits of students learning from and with each other by sharing ideas and perspectives:

…Samuel Totten (1991) who claims that: The shared learning gives learners an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers. (Laal & Laal, 2012)

And:

Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest that online courses that are rich with student interactivity facilitate the development of critical thinking skills, better learning, socialized intelligence, and reflection.  (Zygouris-Coe, 2012)

Yet all too often students’ experiences in small virtual groups contrived for the purpose of creating group learning experiences, result in frustration and even resentment. It’s no wonder educators often question whether group work is worth the aggravation. Is student collaboration really necessary for learning? And if it is, how can it be successful?

This post aims to offer support and resources for readers looking for answers to these questions; I incorporate research from four recent papers on group work and collaboration in online learning environments specifically that shed light on the realities of contrived collaborative activities for students. One in particular, “Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions)” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007) provides practical and helpful suggestions for course designers developing group activities and for instructors facilitating group work. Another, “Collaborative learning: what is it?” (Laal & Laal, 2012) is particularly helpful and applicable to educators; it clarifies what collaborative learning looks like and describes in detail the required elements.

Group Work for Closed Courses not MOOCs
This post outlines essential conditions for group work in online learning environments and suggests four strategies that hone in on the key components needed to create collaborative activities specific to closed, online courses, not MOOCs. In my experience with Massive Open Online Courses, it is not possible, nor desirable for instructors to require or mandate class activities where students collaborate in small groups. Collaboration in MOOCs is ideally student-driven, in keeping with the pedagogy of massive courses. In small, closed and for-credit online courses, the pedagogical approach is different—it requires involvement of the instructor, and a more structured learning environment and activities that support specific learning objectives typically associated with for-credit courses.

Learning Theory and Demand Behind Group Work
Before discussing practical strategies, it’s worthy to examine how group work became an accepted practice in education. The idea that students need to work together to learn, stems from several learning theorists including Piaget, Dewey and Bruner. The premises of their theories are that learning is active, and knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment (constructivism). Building on the constructivist premise is social learning, where learning happens through active engagement with others (Vgostsky). Yet the concept of students needing to work in groups to learn, is not the only driver of group work in online spaces. The other is the idea that students of today require a unique skill set to work, engage and collaborate as global (and digital) citizens. Businesses also demand that employees be team players, have excellent communication skills that includes working virtually in teams, as well as proficiency with digital platforms. Recently the Wall Street Journal featured an article about companies that seek employees who are able to collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world, often without ever meeting in person (Rubenfire, 2014). These factors contribute to the perceived need to provide learning opportunities for online students that involve small groups.

Group Work: Cooperation versus Collaboration
Two concepts frequently used interchangeably when discussing group work is cooperation and collaboration. Though each concept is distinct; each suggests a different level of learning in practice. I suggest that both exist on a continuum of student interaction in online environments, with students ‘discussing’ a topic (in a forum for instance) on one end, and ‘collaborating’ where students work and learn as a team—creating for example, a final product interdependently that represents their knowledge construction, on the other.  In their paper, Laal & Laal define each:

  • Cooperation is a structure of interaction designed to facilitate the accomplishment of a specific end product or goal through people working together in groups;
  • Collaboration is a philosophy of interaction and personal lifestyle where individuals are responsible for their actions, including learning and respect the abilities and contributions of their peers. (2012, p. 494).

In most instances, group work in online courses is cooperative at best. Small group exchanges within online courses were examined and discussed in the paper “How much “group” is there in online group work” where students interactions were categorized as: 1) parallel, 2) associative and 3) cooperative interactions (Lowes, 2000, p. 4). Only one group of the five examined approached the higher level of cooperation. However, there are methods and strategies educators (and their institutions) can implement to move students along the continuum of group learning towards the collaborative. There are several conditions necessary for cooperative and collaborative learning identified in the literature referenced in this post—summarized below.

Required Conditions for Cooperative and/or Collaborative Learning in Closed Online Learning Environments

  • Dialogue amongst students is a fundamental component of the group activity; assignments should be designed to encourage discussion and brainstorming (asynchronous and synchronous) rather than a division of labour. One paper suggests that group assignments be constructed for “positive interdependence” where each group member contribution is unique and indispensable (Lowes, p. 12) though examples are not given
  • Understanding of the purpose of the activity—achieved by communicating to students why group work is necessary, e.g. sharing how the project aligns to the learning goals, how students will benefit
  • Access to digital platform(s) and tools that support online collaboration—for discussion, creation of final product, etc. e.g. Google Docs, Google Hangouts
  • Support for students unfamiliar with collaboration platform & tools
  • Guidelines that outline: student expectations, netiquette, procedure to deal absent group member(s), assessment methods, examples of collaborative exchanges between students, team roles, etc.
  • Instructor (and institution) efforts aimed at developing and supporting student skill set for cooperation, collaboration and working in teams
  • Instructor involvement to address non-contributing group members, group challenges, etc.
  • Inclusion of an assessment mechanism on two levels—group and individual

Four Strategies for Instructors (and Institutions) That Support Online Group Work

1. Design a Group Assignment that is complex, that challenges students to apply and discuss course content using multiple perspectives to solve a problem or develop a solution. Include expectations, purpose and clear instructions about how students can collaborate and provide feedback to each other. (Lowes, 2007, p. 12)

2. Model and support the development of collaborative skills • Develop collaborative learning protocols and establish clear expectations about student and instructor roles • Promote student self-monitoring of learning through progress reports, feedback, discussion forums, virtual student-instructor conferences  Cover the skills required at the beginning of the course… An extensive list of ideas in “Collaborative learning in an online teacher education course: lessons learned” (Coe, 2012, p. 339)

3. Facilitate and be involved in group activities.Closely monitor group discussion boards to identify student involvement at beginning of group work, contact students not participating early in the group process.  Collect ongoing data on student progress.

4.  Make the assessment criteria explicit. “Several effective solutions may be employed to do exactly as Webb suggests, that is, to measure group productivity and to measure the individual students’ abilities within the group. Exactly which of the solutions is the most
appropriate will depend upon the circumstances.” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007, p. 263).

Closing
There is no formula for creating effective group learning opportunities in closed online courses, yet there are shared experiences from educators and academics that provide a starting point as outlined in this post. I encourage readers to share their own experiences, ideas and suggestions for facilitating group interactivity either here with other readers, on other social media platforms or with colleagues. What works and what doesn’t?

References:

Laal, M. & Laal, M. (2011). Collaborative learning: What is it? Social and Behavioral Sciences 31: 491 – 495. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811030217

Lowes, S. (2014). How much “group” is there in online group work? Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1). Retrieved from http://jaln.sloanconsortium.org/index.php/jaln/article/view/373/82

Roberts, T. S. & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology and Society 10(4): 257-268. Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/10_4/22.pdf

Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Proceedings from ICITE 2012: Collaborative Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Lessons Learned. Rhodes, Greece. Retrieved from http://www.icicte.org/Proceedings2012/Papers/08-4-Zygouris-Coe.pdf

An Essential Read for Online Education Decision Makers: “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education”

9781579227968_cf200

By Gary Miller, Meg Benke , Bruce Chaloux, Lawrence C. Ragan, Raymond Schroeder, Wayne Smutz & Karen Swan

“Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education” published in 2014 by Stylus Publishing in association with The Online Learning Consortium (formerly Sloan Consortium) is the first book in a planned series about distance education.

Overview The book is current and relevant; “Leading the e-Learning Transformation of Higher Education: Meeting the Challenges of Technology and Distance Education” is an invaluable if not essential resource for leaders and decision makers in online education, though anyone involved with the development or implementation of an online learning strategy for a higher education or K-12 institution will find it an excellent resource. The themes are familiar—e-learning effectiveness and quality, support for faculty success, student success and retention, and the impact of online learning programs has on an institution’s traditional programs. What sets this book apart and makes it exceptionally valuable is the diversity of perspectives from the authors—seven leaders in distance education representing five higher education institutions and the Online Learning Consortium.

The book aims to guide and support leaders as they make decisions about online learning including how to overcome barriers and implement change. The purpose of the text is to provide readers with new perspectives on online program implementation and skill development for approaching education transformation proactively. 

Each author brings experience and a perspective to the topic of online learning that gives readers insight into a variety of models and organizational structures for setting up their own online education programs. Organizational structure and culture, influence on traditional institutions are discussed at length, as are standards of quality for online education including the framework for the Five Pillars of quality online education.

Highlights The book is divided into sections categorized by three principal themes: Part One: “Leading Change: Making the Match Between Leadership and Institutional Culture”, Part Two: “Ensuring Operational Excellence” and Part Three: “Sustaining Innovation”. Each features three or four chapters dedicated to a topic that addresses current and real challenges institutions face as they seek to adapt and transform within the constraints of institutional culture, policies and administrative issues. Each offers instructive insights and practical alternatives for consideration. Below I’ve included highlights of one chapter from each section.

In Part One, Chapter Two:The Impact of Organizational Contextoutlines in detail five very different programs of online education in higher education institutions. The five examined: 1) The Pennsylvania University World Campus, 2) University of Illinois at Springfield, 3) Empire State College, 4) Rio Salado College and 5) the American Public University System.  The leaders’ views are examined within each of the programs’ institutions on the leadership challenges, culture shifts, attitudes of faculty and impact of business models. The leaders’ responses in comparison with each other is instructive and enlightening.

In Part Two, Chapter Six: “Supporting Faculty Success” suggests that the skills and competencies required by faculty are contextualized to the culture, practices and administrative structure of the online initiative of the institution. I agree with the authors— culture and administrative structure pose a significant barrier in many instances. There is gap between what is needed and what most institution  provide in the way of support and skill development for faculty and instructors teaching online. This issue, the chapter emphasizes, is central to effective online education delivered by an institution.

The challenge for the institutions is to understand and address the needs of the online instructor and create appropriate programs and support services and policies that help develop the competencies necessary for online teaching success (p. 109)

In Part Three, Chapter Ten: “Policy Leadership in e-learning” discusses the multiple challenges e-learning growth has had on policy at the federal, state and institutional level. Policy remains a barrier and threat to the growth and success of e-learning the authors’ state, and they outline five policy issues that pose real barriers to online education now, that have emerged within the past ten years. The five identified and discussed are: 1) tuition, 2) transfer credit, 3) state and campus budgeting and allocation, 4) federal and state financial aid, and 5) student support services.

Closing No doubt, one can see the value this book holds for leaders of e-learning education.  What’s also helpful to the reader is the organization of the book, which makes it  unnecessary to read it from beginning to end; readers can choose to read chapters of interest and relevance. Though I suggest that all chapters are relevant to anyone involved in online education programming.

Resources:

Need-to-Know News: Are Lectures Really Dead?, edX CEO on Perils of Unchanging Education, & Will MOOCs Replace College?

Student bored

Are Lectures Dead?

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

1) Are Lectures Really Dead?
Tony Bates posted an excellent piece this week on his blog  “Why lectures are dead (or soon will be)”, yet contrary to the title, Bates does describe a context for when and how lectures are valuable. Though Bates gives lectures another ten years before they become obsolete, he outlines the circumstances and provides an example where lectures are effective:

  • Example: A public lecture delivered at a higher ed institution by a newly appointed research professor where he delivered an inaugural lecture summarizing his research customized to the diverse audience of lay people and subject matter experts—used excellent visuals and analogies 
  • Other contexts: Lectures delivered as supplemental events,  e.g. as a course introduction where the instructor connects with students by sharing his or her interests and enthusiasm for the course topic, interest in getting to know students and supporting their learning, thus motivating students, or midway through the course to address difficult concepts, or to summarize at course end

Bates also refers to two textbooks geared to educators that convey skills and suggestions for effective teaching methods, lectures in particular. From the text “McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers”:

McKeachie and Svinicki (2006, p. 58) believe that lecturing is best for:

  • providing up-to-date material that can’t be found in one source
  • summarizing material found in a variety of sources.
  • adapting material to the interests of a particular group.
  • initially helping students discover key concepts, principles or ideas
  • modelling expert thinking.

Bates also covers the history of the lecture, and the research that supports why traditional lectures are ineffective. Nothing educators haven’t heard before, yet it’s an excellent summary piece. Below are links to the texts Bates mentions. I’ve also included an article “The Twilight of the Lecture” featured in Harvard Magazine of a similar vein about lectures. It’s about Eric Mazur’s (professor at Harvard University) journey to transforming his classroom instruction; he is now an advocate for active learning and a reformed lecture.

2) edX CEO Gives Keynote at Campus Technology Conference, 2014

“Everything around us has changed. Communication has changed, healthcare has changed, but education hasn’t,” Agarwal said. “It is actually pretty shocking and pathetic that the way we educate learners hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.”  Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX in Keynote address at Campus Technology Conference

Anant Agarwal delivered the keynote, “Reinventing Education” at Campus Technology’s conference this week where he described how MOOCs, (edX particularly) can transform higher education. Though Agarwal acknowledged that the concepts of active learning, peer learning and instant feedback, those used in edX’s platform are not new, yet he stated that  “what is new is applying the technology and making these ideas more scalable and available.”

Not sure if I buy this. Though he’s right about how new technology scales some aspects of education, e.g. providing (short) recorded lectures and instant feedback in the form of multiple choice tests, the real issue is how do these methods transform higher ed? How does the MOOC platform address quality and access?

3) Will MOOCS Replace a Traditional College Education?
The Atlantic published an article this week “Will Free Online Courses Ever Replace a College Education?”. The answer the author (an attorney) implies is no— MOOCs he surmises are like films, almost a form of enlightening entertainment. Though I see more value to MOOCs than the author, the piece is worth a read given the insights into edX provided by two individuals interviewed, edX’s Chief Scientist Piotr Mitros and Richard Lue, edX’s faculty director. Mitros discusses automated grading with edX’s Open Response Assessment (ORA), though “carefully points out that no one—least of all edX—seriously believes that automated grading can fully replace a live instructor“.  That is some good news.

Though what I found more enlightening is what Lue shared with Wintehalter about the value of MOOCs, which appears to be how it benefits the MOOC instructors—by improving their teaching skills back in the classroom.

“The MOOC,” Lue told me, “has been a catalyst that helped us realize just how different things are. I have tried some blended-learning techniques in my own classroom and been startled by the results. The level of performance was remarkable.”

This is a common theme I’ve read about and heardinstructors find great value in MOOCs for the different perspective it provides back in the traditional classroom. They are able to adapt and view classroom teaching differently, are more ready to try new techniques and incorporate methods that leverage digital resources, including those used in the MOOC format.  Perhaps this is how MOOCs will revolutionize higher education—not for bringing access and lowering costs for students, but for supporting faculty in professional development. This is great news, albeit a very costly method of professional development.

You can keep up to date with developments in education and related sectors by following me on Twitter, @OnlineLearningI