How to Develop a Sense of Presence in Online and F2F Courses with Social Media

Social presence is a significant predictor of course retention and final grade in the college online environment. Two effective interventions are recommended: establishing integrated social and learning communities;… (Liu, Gomez & Len, 2009)

Presence is considered a central concept in online learning. ‘Presence’ in the online course is understood as the ability of people “to project their personal characteristics into the community, thereby presenting themselves to other participants as ‘real people’”. (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2000, p. 89). One way of examining ‘presence’ online is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, a frequently referenced model that outlines three interdependent dimensions of presence: social, teaching and cognitive. When all three elements interact, it’s then that students are able to experience deep and meaningful learning.

COI_model_adaptedCoI–is breaking through the social barriers that exist because of the transactional distance between students and instructors (Moore, 1993)…. These human qualities, established through personal sharing, help students develop a sense of trust in and connection with an instructor…foundational for cultivating the social presence needed for a healthy and productive [learning].

Other bodies of research suggest presence is a key factor to engagement, another metric for predicting student success in online coursework. Presence in this context also considers student perceptions of instructor involvement as a central factor. High levels of engagement, studies indicate, lead to higher levels of student achievement, greater likelihood of graduation, and deeper satisfaction (Oblinger, 2014, p 14).

Presence and Social Media
But describing presence in an online course is vague, slippery—hard to describe. It’s a challenge for instructors to figure out how to make presence happen. What does one do to create social and teaching presence in an online course? This post outlines examples that describe how faculty and instructors use social media to establish presence—that feeling of connectedness among students in online and F2F courses. What’s described here, social media as a vehicle for presence-development, is different however from using social media as a pedagogical tool, which I wrote about in a previous post, How to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments. Though there is some overlap. One of the aims of using social media platforms in this context is to bridge the distance gap that exists in online education, to overcome the disconnectedness student can feel when studying online.

Presence in F2F classes: Numerous educators have found that social media tools support a sense of community, or connectedness in face-to-face (F2F) courses as well. One faculty member shares his experience in the Prof Hacker column over at The Chronicle, “Twitter adds to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester” (Sample, 2010).

Examples of Instructors Using Social Media
Below are examples of how instructors use social media platforms to create a sense of being ‘there’.  Note: the methods described here facilitate informal learning; to foster a learning community. Social media used in structured (or formal) learning activities is used as a method to bring about targeted learning outcomes as mentioned earlier.

1) Twitter 
The paper “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence” describes how the Twitter platform creates a sense of community among students. In 140 characters or less, learners share ideas and resources, ask and answer questions, collaborate on problems of practice, participate in discussions at conferences, webinars, or lectures.  A hashtag (a.k.a.the pound sign ‘#’) for a class aggregates all ‘Tweets’ (messages) sent on platform when the hashtag is used as a tag for all class-related messages. For example a professor at Trinity College created a tag #eng685 for his face-to-face English class (Sample, 2010). Hashtags are also used to aggregate tweets on specific topics, e.g. #onlinelearning, #highered.

“Twitter’s just-in-time design allowed students and instructors to engage in sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem-solving, and creating. Participants noted that using Twitter for socializing and learning purposes felt more “natural and immediate” than did using a formal learning management system.” (Dunlap & Lowenthal, n.d.)

Examples of how Twitter is used:

  • To post news and share resources relevant to the class
  • To ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings
  • Professor Sample allows and encourages students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to class discussion but admits, “This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference” (Sample, 2010).
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Screen shot of the Twitter exchanges between students and instructor for F2F class #eng685

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Screen shot of a current course, ‘Indian Epics’, #ou3043, an online course taught by Professor Gibbs at the University of Oklahoma.

2) Pinterest
Pinterest is a digital bulletin board, and holds great potential for education settings. It’s visual, flexible, customizable by using images, and text to create themed boards that can be templates for projects; individual and group—a tool to support instructional activities. Yet Pinterest also has tremendous potential for increasing presence and interactivity. Professor Gibbs is experimenting with Twitter and Pinterest as vehicles for socializing in two of her online courses this semester:

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Screen shot from Professor Gibbs’ course web page for students describing how to socialize in Indian Epics and Myth & Folklore undergraduate online courses.  Retrieved from http://onlinecourselady.pbworks.com/w/page/83588941/socialize

Gibbs shares links to students’ Pinterest boards on a webpage within the course site on the Pinterest Class Directory. Students can comment on one another’s boards, re-pin to their own board and/or ‘like’ a pin. Students do need sign up for a Pinterest account using an email address.

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Screen shot of a student’s Pinterest board ‘Epics of India Portfolio’. Retrieved from http://www.pinterest.com/catherinelesser/epics-of-india-portfolio/

3)  Google+ Hangouts/Video Conferencing
Real-time meetings, seminar discussions even watching panel discussions over video conferencing platforms are excellent methods to create a feeling being there and together. I’ve participated in several online courses (MOOCs & closed, small online courses) where the Google+ Hangout platform (or similar) has been used in a variety of ways that do create feeling of being in a learning community. Even if students can’t engage in the active discussion on the platform, Twitter is frequently used as the back channel for questions and discussion. Sessions are usually recorded, then posted for students that can’t participate live.

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Screen shot of Google Hangout of a seminar discussion around a class reading with five students and professor of a Massive Open Online Course. Other students’ watching live, asked questions and discussed via Twitter.

4) Instagram
searchInstagram is one of the most popular social media platforms used by high school and college students in North America. It’s similar to Twitter, as the platform uses hashtags, though it’s billed as a photo sharing platform. Yet it has more potential than Twitter since character limit for Instagram captions is 2200, considerably more than Twitter’s 140 limit. Instagram comments have a limit of 240 characters.

I’ve not yet come across examples of educators using Instagram to create social presence for courses, though numerous institutions use Instagram as a marketing vehicle. There is considerable potential in online courses for Instagram as a presence-building tool given its popularity with the younger set—it’s just a matter of time.

Closing
Technology is shaping culture. Alternatively, one could say that culture is shaping technology. Whichever viewpoint one takes, social media is central to the change, to the shift in how we communicate, socialize and learn. Educators have an opportunity to help students (and ourselves) blur the lines between informal and formal learning—creating life-long learners.

References:

How-to Use Social Media Platforms to Create Meaningful Learning Assignments

This post describes and provides examples of three social media platforms used as a pedagogical tool to create meaningful learning assignments in face-to-face and online courses.

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‘Social learning’ by MKHMarketing, creative commons

Social media platforms such as blogs, Wikis and Twitter hold great potential as vehicles for student learning. These tools can support meaningful, rich learning outcomes when assignments are developed to align with course objectives. Yet social media has an image problem—in education at least; it’s viewed as frivolous, a distraction, a time waster. In this post I outline how three social media platforms, when used in pedagogically sound ways support student learning and skill development in for-credit course work.

Social media is the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration. Websites and applications dedicated to forums, blogging, social networking, social bookmarking, social curation, and wikis are among the different types of social media” Definition via techtarget.com

Social media In Higher Education
Social media applications are used by instructors in several contexts: 1) as a tool for communicating with students, 2) as a subject of study, e.g. UC Berkeley’s course “Analyzing Big Data with Twitter”, and 3) as a pedagogical method for instruction and learning. The latter is what we focus on in this post but it’s instructive to acknowledge the other uses. 

Most educators were first introduced to social media via Facebook, with students checking-in during class time. But some of these same educators have discovered the value of social media applications, as teaching and learning tools. Twitter for example—instructors can send Tweets to students with class updates, reminders and/or links to course-related resources as described in “Class Twitter Account”. Other options include Facebook or Google+ that can serve as a platform for a course (club, study group, etc.) where notices can be posted, messages exchanged, and resources shared. In these instances, social media applications act as supplements to a course that enhance learning.

Three Platforms—Three Instructional Strategies
Different from above however, is using a social application such as Twitter or Wikipedia as a pedagogical method to support learning objectives of a course. Below I share examples of instructor-developed assignments requiring that students’ apply course concepts using a social media application as the vehicle. The learning outcomes vary depending upon the course and assignment, but instructors find students learn not just course concepts, but develop additional skills that include critical thinking, advanced written communication and digital skills.

Wikipedia-logo-en-big1) Wikipedia: A professor of Museum Studies at the University of Memphis teaches a one-credit hour, face-to-face course “Wikipedia as a Research Tool” to freshman students. The focus of the course is less on Wikipedia, and more on the concepts of user-generated content, open authority and public access. He uses the Wikipedia platform for the primary assignment where students create a Wikipedia article or substantially edit an existing page—a process involving considerable research, edits, responding to feedback and criticism. Students seem to learn just as much from the process itself, as about their topic. You can read a selection of student comments in “My Experience in Teaching a Class on Wikipedia, Part 2“.

The professor shares his experience in a series of three articles on his blog, including resources available through Wikipedia Outreach.

blogicon2) Blogging: I share two examples of faculty using blogging platforms for assignments: 1) a professor teaching an online, under graduate course, Mythology and Folklore and, 2) a professor teaching a face-to-face, graduate level course, Communicating Science through Social Media.

In Mythology and Folklore students are required to set up their own blog the first week of class, which they use for weekly assignments throughout the course. Students ‘publish’ their writing each week, which allows the instructor to review the work, and classmates to read other’s work. Credit is given for students commenting on two or more posts in select weeks. Instructions for each assignment are detailed; the professor describes how to make each blog post clear, encouraging students to put their writing into context for potential readers (e.g. using an ‘author’s note’ as applicable).

Students are also required to add bibliographies and images. The instructor includes a detailed section on her course site describing the concepts including digital copyright, Creative Commons and public domain, along with instructions and resources for each. You can read more about this professor’s instructional methods on her blog, “Anatomy of an Online Course“. Students seem to engage at a higher level in this course, given they are writing for an audience; skills developed go beyond comprehension and writing skills.

The second example, a graduate level course takes blogging to the next level, as described on the courses’ blog site Mind the Science Gap:

“Mind the Science Gap is a science blog with a difference. For ten weeks each semester, Masters of Public Health students from the University of Michigan will be posting weekly articles as they learn how to translate complex science into something a broad audience can understand and appreciate.

Each week, ten students will take a recent scientific publication or emerging area of scientific interest, and write a post on it that is aimed at a non expert and non technical audience…And they will be evaluated in the most brutal way possible – by the audience they are writing for!  As this is a public initiative, comments and critiques on each post will be encouraged, and author responses expected…”

I followed this blog for the first semester the course was offered. I posted comments to students articles on a consistent basis. It was rewarding to watch the students’ writing develop and improve over the semester. Yet the purpose of the course was not about blogging, as the professor describes:

“This course is not designed to teach the art of science blogging (although inevitably this will be a by-product), and because of this, no previous experience with blogging and social media is needed.  Rather, through the medium of the blog, it is designed to teach participants how to collate, synthesize and translate scientific evidence into information that a non-expert audience can access, understand and act on.”

Note: This course started as an experiment, and unfortunately won’t be continuing given it is, “extremely time-consuming, dependent on feedback from readers and other science communicators” writes the professor in a recent post.

search3) Twitter
A digital humanities professor created a unique assignment using Twitter—the Twitter Essay. A challenge given Twitter is known as a micro-blogging platform due to the 140 character limit of messages, or ‘Tweets’. The instructor shares the assignment details in this article—he writes:

There is pleasure in the act of composing with these constraints, an intentional and curious engagement with how sentences, words, and letters make meaning. Composing a text-message or tweet is most certainly a literate (and sometimes even literary) act. And, interestingly, the average text-message or tweet distorts grammar much less than the naysayers would have us believe.

Student Learning Curve
Almost all of the professors mentioned the learning curve students experienced when becoming familiar with the features of the social media platform. Contrary to what we expect, young people are not always proficient in all social media platforms. Thus educators planning on using a social media application would do well to provide links to tutorials, step-by-step instructions, and build time into the course to accommodate for technical learning.

Conclusion
Though social media platforms can be a valuable learning tool, there is an upfront time commitment required on the instructor’s part. Planning for the assignment, involves not only the writing of the instructions and materials, but requires familiarity with the platform, evaluation of the alternatives and then the selection of method that fits the needs of the class. Though, the time investment on the instructor’s part appears worth it, not only for the students benefit, but for the quality of learning students experience as a result.

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:

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

Three (BIG) Barriers to Student Participation in xMOOCs

This post outlines three barriers that can deter, discourage and/or intimidate students from participating in xMOOCs (MOOCs offered on platforms associated with higher education institutions, i.e. Coursera, iVersity, edX, etc).

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“Construction Barriers”  Photo by Lyn Topinka

The xMOOC model that emerged in 2012 has not changed much in 2014, with completion rates and participation rates just as low as they were when concrete data on completion rates appeared in 2013 (Parr, 2013). Though there are a variety of factors that contribute to low completion rates, I suggest that three barriers, 1) technology, 2) poor usability & course design, and 3) anonymity contribute significantly to low student participation levels and completion—barriers that deter, discourage and in some cases intimidate students. Also, in some instances, barriers one and two are potential barriers in closed, online classes (as those offered as for-credit courses at public and private institutions).

To illustrate points one, technology and two, poor usability and course design, below is a selection of screenshots featuring actual student comments and questions (names obscured) taken from several MOOCs offered on Coursera. Comments below are representative of typical experiences and frustrations of students participating in MOOCs. In some instances, the examples included are similar to frustrations students experience in closed online courses, which I’ve encountered when working with faculty in online course design, and as a lead curriculum developer for online programs at a private university. I close by discussing the third barrier, anonymity in online learning, specifically in MOOCs.

1) Technology 
Examples below feature student challenges with accessing course content and engaging in events due to bandwidth and internet access limitations.

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File size is a common problem in MOOCs and small courses

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Connectivity issues are common due to bandwidth, and even limitations of the devices used

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Restricted access to certain sites in some countries

Examples below feature students’ frustrations with applications (discussion forums, etc) within the MOOC platform itself which put up barriers to student participation and engagement, for example, i) discussion forums (volume of student posts and organization), ii) synchronous events offered via Google Hangout or other platform which often fail due to technical glitches, or because of students’ lack of technical ability, etc.

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Discussion forums often become unwieldy; though more common in MOOCs it also happens in closed, small online courses

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Discussion forums in most MOOC platforms have options for ‘subscribing’, where participants receive alerts of new posts within that particular forum, though not all students are familiar with this settings and don’t know how to turn the notification emails off (or on). It’s helpful to provide participants with the instructions of how-to do so (among other features) in an orientation or introduction to the course

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The forums with large numbers of participants can be overwhelming to the point that there is little opportunity for reflection or deep discussions. In closed online classes it helps to have focused discussion questions per thread, and if more than 20 participants to break the class into smaller groups

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Google hangouts and other platforms used for synchronous events, are not immune to technological glitches. A practice run prior to the event helps (granted even still, problems occur),  and having a back-up plan is recommended

2) Poor Usability and Course Design
Usability refers to how effectively students can navigate, interact and engage with the course interface, find the content they need, determine what they need to do to engage, etc. How user-friendly the course is (or is not) is a function of how the course content and pages are organized, what is featured on the course home page for example, or where the course announcements show up, even how the course tabs appear in the navigation menu. Usability falls under the umbrella of course design; it is a component with its own principles and guidelines that impacts the students overall course experience and learning outcomes in online spaces. Usability adds another layer of complexity to designing learning experiences mostly due to the newness of online platforms as delivery mediums for education.

Course design is a broad and deep topic, which I can’t address at all adequately in this post, but below are some examples that are representative of issues that frustrate students, and can deter learning outcomes that have to do with how an assignment’s instructions are worded, presented to the student, or even designed in the first place.

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Instructions for student assignments or activities need to be written with exceptional clarity. This means expanding on details is necessary, including examples, and reinforcing instructions and expectations via course announcements or live sessions when the course is in session. Another issue is the use of  consistent terminology throughout the course.  In this above example ‘thread’ and ‘post’ were used interchangeably, when in fact they mean different things, thus confusing the students.

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Another example of student confusion when there is inconsistency or conflicting information in the course

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Frequently, it is student assignments that generate the most confusion among students in virtual formats, often due to unclear instructions, or those that require students to use technical applications (e.g. to create a digital artifact) that they are not familiar with

3) Anonymity
A view on participants posting anonymously within a MOOC from iVersity:

“MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums…participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.” iVersity blog post on Anonymity

I disagree with iVersity’s position, and with Coursera and edX, which both allow anonymous posting within discussion forums. Anonymity does not contribute to effective online learning communities such as MOOCs; it’s counterintuitive to the premise of a learning within a community, where the idea is that learners actively engage, and learn with, and from each together. Several papers have identified the benefits of learning communities in distributed (online) learning environments (Dede, 2004), with some emphasizing the value of communities in MOOCs especially (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006). What is consistent in the research is the idea of trust and a set of common values or goals among learners.

The type of support structure that would engage learners in critical learning on an open network should be based on the creation of a place or community where people feel comfortable, trusted and valued, and where people can access and interact with resources and each other. (Kop, Fournier & Mak, 2006, p. 88)

Learning in a virtual community, where students go outside of their comfort zone, are challenged to consider alternative perspectives and build a personal learning network for example, requires a level of rapport, familiarity and trust between classmates and instructors. This sense of community can and does happen in small, closed learning environments, and in cMOOC learning communities, but experiencing a sense of community in xMOOCs is far more difficult to accomplish with many of variables making it so, anonymity is just one. With this learning approach (and others) assumed by MOOC platform providers, I see xMOOCs destined to be static resources posted on the web—open courseware such as MIT OCW.

Closing Thoughts
Learning in xMOOCs is far more complex than what the MOOC platforms seem to be able to address. Low completion rates are just one metric of how students’ views of MOOCs are at odds with what the expectations of the MOOC providers. The three barriers discussed here, technology, usability and anonymity are just one piece of a bigger problem that MOOC platform providers will need to address if they are interested in creating a communities of learning where students actively engage, contribute and learn.

Further reading:

What Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Global Village’ Tells Us About Education Technology in 2014

imgresThe Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century (1989) published posthumously, is one of Marshall McLuhan’s best works. It’s quite remarkable how this book published over twenty years ago, provides the reader with a contemplative perspective on the role of technology in 2014. While reading, I found myself thinking about educational technology quite differently—thinking more about the effects, nuances, and implications technology has beyond education. Effects on relationships, learning (and teaching) in the context of our culture and long-term implications for society in general. The book is about far more than education, it delves into technology and its influence on communication patterns, family structures, and entertainment. The book prompts reflection and forward thinking at the same time.

McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher and educator of communication theory, and considered a public intellectual of his time. His work on media theory is still studied today. The Global Village was a culmination of his years of work on media, a collaborative effort between McLuhan and long-time friend and colleague Bruce Powers. It summarizes McLuhan’s lifelong exploration and analysis of media, culture and man’s relationship with technology.

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McLuhan designed the tetrad as a pedagogical tool to of examine the effects on society of any technology/medium by dividing its effects into four categories and displaying them simultaneously.

McLuhan and Powers introduce a framework for analyzing media via a tetrad. A tetrad is any set of four things; McLuhan uses the tetrad as a pedagogical tool for examining an artifact or concept (not necessarily a communication medium) through a metaphoric lens, which according to McLuhan translates to “two grounds and two figures in dynamic and analogical relationship to each other”. You can see how the idea can stretch one’s cognitive processes. The framework began to make more sense to me when reviewing the tetradic glossary at the end of the book which examines twenty or more ideas and artifacts through the tetrad framework, including periodic tables, a clock, cable television, and the telephone.  McLuhan designed four questions to explore a medium under analysis using the tetrad framework:

  1. What does the medium enhance?
  2. What does the medium make obsolete?
  3. What does the medium retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the medium flip into when pushed to extremes?

Wouldn’t it be challenging in a media and communications class, or even in an education theory class to have students apply the tetrad structure to current technological tools and applications? How might the iPhone be viewed? Or Twitter? Though provoking to say the least.

The more I read of McLuhan’s work, and about McLuhan himself, the more I believe this man was a genius. He predicts not only events, but how media tools and advancements in technology affect society as a whole—that no one could have imagined or even considered in the 70’s and 80’s. Yet McLuhan could almost see into the future, see how our society is shaped and influenced good and bad by technology.

Worthwhile [short] Clips to Watch on McLuhan’s Views on Technology

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‘Technology is not just a happenstance…’ video clip via marshallmcluhanspeaks.com

Further Reading: