Need-to-Know News of the Week: The ‘Student Cliff’, Coursera’s Signature Track and More

In this ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series, I aim to share noteworthy stories with readers that speak of developments within higher education and K-12 that have potential to influence, challenge and/or transform the traditional model of education.

The year has started off with a bang, barely half-way through January, we’ve got three significant developments in higher education that will likely set the tone for 2013. On Tuesday, Coursera presented its money-making proposition, soon after two reports were released with news of declining enrollment numbers, one dubbed the ‘student cliff’, and there was this meeting of numerous education minds to discuss California’s crisis in public higher education.

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Coursera’s Verified Certificate, http://www.coursera.org

1) Coursera: Wants to Make Money in 2013
Coursera has been coy about how it plans to make money; co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng have not shared a business strategy despite the $22 million invested by venture capitalists (Empson, TechCrunch). This changed on Tuesday; the model starts to take shape.  Coursera revealed Signature Track, a program that will offer Verified Certificates to interested students for a fee [between $30 and $100 per course]. The Signature Track program is a novel concept, outlined in detail on Coursera’s Blog. Here’s an excerpt.

Today, we’re excited to announce Signature Track, a new option that will give students in select classes the opportunity to earn a Verified Certificate for completing their Coursera course. Signature Track securely links your coursework to your identity, allowing you to confidently show the world what you’ve achieved on Coursera.

Signature Track offers:

  • Identity Verification. Create a special profile to link your coursework to your real identity using your photo ID and unique typing pattern.
  • Verified Certificates. Earn official recognition from Universities and Coursera for your accomplishment with a verifiable electronic certificate.
  • Sharable Course Records. Share your electronic course records with employers, educational institutions, or anyone else through a unique, secure URL. 

I find the point about ‘sharable records’ most significant. It appears the student will be able to develop a portfolio of the work completed. This appears similar to the idea of competency-based education models.  Not all Courersa’s university partners have signed up for the program, so far only, Georgia Tech, UCSF, Duke University and University of Illinois.

Further Reading: Coursera and Universities to Offer ‘Verified Certificates’ to Extend Credential Options for Students, Marketwire, Paying for Proof, by Paul Fain, Inside Higher Ed and Would You Pay $100 for a Free Online Course, by Bill Oremus, Slate.

2)  The Student Cliff
Move over fiscal cliff, we’ve got another big problem, fewer college bound students, less tuition dollars which leads us to the ‘student cliff’ (Kiley, Inside Higher Ed).  According to the report released Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education, there is a demographic shift, fewer students within the demographic group that have traditionally gone to college is declining. This change “will force states and institutions to rethink how they do business, putting a greater emphasis on recruitment, retention, and serving new segments of the population”. Click here for article which includes a link to the report.

The U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics released “Projections of Education Statistics Through 2021 on Wednesday which shared different projections, but does tell a similar story. Post secondary enrolments will grow by 15 percent between 2010 and 2021, but this is far lower than the 46 percent increase that occurred between 1996 and 2010.  This will lead to more pressure on institutions in light of the increasing number of options for degree seeking students. More competition, putting pressure on schools to specialize, show value, and focus on strengths.

3) California Higher Ed Needs a Re:Boot:
California is in crisis mode, at least the Cal State higher education public universities are. The problem is money [at least that appears to be the problem], students can’t get classes to graduate, there is less money from public funds, all causing much angst among students, academic leaders and politicians. This week there was a day long event, a panel discussion, Rebooting California Higher Education sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation. The purpose of the event was “to raise the awareness and discuss key issues regarding the potential for online education to lower the costs for higher education in California.”

Twenty+Million+Minds+FoundationThe problem is complex, which was apparent by the panel discussion at re:boot event. Though consensus was not the goal, there appears to have been much discussion that was unproductive, as values and ideas about the purpose of education differed greatly. Audrey Watters gives a good overview of the event. Other good reading about the event, Re-booting CA Higher Education: My First Thoughts, Michael Feldstein, e-literate, and Re:Booting California Higher Education – Transcript of Darrell Steinberg Introduction, Phil Hill, e-literate. One of the biggest problems with this issue as I see it, is that online education appears to be the quick fix to the cost problem, and seems to be viewed as a compromise. What is the real problem with higher ed in California? Does anyone really know? It doesn’t seem so.

Closing
We will no doubt be hearing more about these developments and stories over the next few weeks – stay tuned!

5 Tools and Strategies that Support Group Collaboration Online

Collaboration, where students work towards a common goal, interact and co-create is an essential component of online learning, yet the challenge for the course instructor is how? How can instructors create activities where students collaborate effectively in groups when separated by distance and time? In this post I review strategies for implementing collaborative activities, and review tools that can be effective in supporting students work within their virtual groups. I’ll begin by highlighting why educators might want to consider investing time in creating collaborative activities in the first place.

Why Collaborative Activities?
It takes considerable time and effort to develop group learning activities for the online class, which begs the question, is it worth it?  Absolutely, and for several reasons. One is that group activities in online communities support learning as described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry (COI) model. According to Garrison’s model students who “collaboratively engage in purposeful, critical discourse and reflection will be more likely to achieve a successful educational experience” (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000).

From another viewpoint, a recently introduced learning theory by Siemens and Downes connectivism, supports the idea that collaboration is critical in our networked world. From this perspective, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition, rather it relies on the connected learning that occurs in social networks and group tasks (Brindley, Walti & Blaschke, 2009).

Whether you agree with these above mentioned principles or not, collaborative activities should be included in online learning communities if only for the fact that it ‘forces’ students to engage with peers in a digital context which is a required skill for students and workers of the 21st century.

Strategies for Group Learning Activities
In a previous post Online Groups – Cooperative or Collaborative, I reviewed briefly how to create effective group activities as part of an overall instructional plan, and in the following strategies I focus on practical implementation. I’ve included strategies that I have used in my work with online course development that have proved to be successful in supporting group work.

  • Create Transparency of Expectations and Purpose: Make the activity relevant for students by describing how and why working within a group will help them [the students], and be of benefit. Clarify what is expected in the syllabus. Outline the requirements for participation and the process for participation that includes a description of the online tool(s) students will use for facilitating group communication. Identifying the tool will also allow time for students to become familiar with the application as needed.
  • Provide Clear Instructions: Barriers to successful group work include lack of clear objectives and vague directions. Taking the time to explain the purpose of the activity, providing clear due dates, and outlining instructions is essential. Also, a due date that is near the end of the course is recommended as this allows students to complete the orientation phase and establish relationships within the group.
  • Form Small Groups: Small groups are most effective for online activities – three or four students is ideal. With larger groups [over five participants] students can lurk in the background and not contribute. There is literature for online instruction that suggests it is beneficial to have students create their own groups, though as a student I always preferred that the instructor create the groups.
  • Monitor and Support: It’s important that the instructor be available to answer questions and ‘be there’ for groups, especially for those that are struggling. Holding synchronous video sessions with groups is an effective method of instruction. I experienced this type of support as a student with a difficult group project; it was helpful and appreciated.
  • Include Etiquette Guidelines: Create guidelines for students that outline how to  participate effectively in an online group. Highlight the difference between cooperative work and collaborative work, cooperative is individuals giving input to peers, yet collaborative is group work where ONE product is created, submitted and graded as whole.

Five Collaboration Tools
The tools below are just that – tools that are designed to support group collaboration, which is the discourse that is the means to their learning. For that reason I’ve selected tools that are highly rated, but at the same time are easy to use, with a minimal learning curve. The one exception is BigMarker, I have yet to work with this tool and for that reason I reserve judgement on its ease of use, but it looks promising.

  1. MindMeister:  This tool allows groups to work on one mind map document that can be used in the early phases of group work for planning or brainstorming, or it can be used as the primary collaborative document for the duration of the project depending upon the nature of the assignment. There are numerous templates, mind maps, project planning, SWOT analysis and more. It can be used asynchronously, but also includes a live chat feature.
  2. Google Docs: Another excellent tool given its ease of use, flexibility and comment tools which are conducive to group work. I worked with this tool throughout graduate school for group projects, and still use Google Docs for project management at my workplace. It includes several document types, including Word, Presentation and Excel. It also features live chat.
  3. BigMarker: A new tool, it looks comprehensive, it includes live synchronous video chat (useful for groups wanting to discuss in real-time) with the added capability of recording which can be viewed by group members unable to attend the live chat, and collaborative document sharing similar to Google Docs for asynchronous communication. It looks powerful and promising.
  4. SlideRocket: A top-rated application that creates ‘stunning’ presentations that allows groups to work collectively on one presentation document. The application is easy to embed within discussion forums of the Learning Management System platforms or web pages.  Each document has a unique URL, which can be submitted to the instructor for viewing.
  5. Skype: Tried and true, Skype was one of the first video chat tools offered for free, and is reliable and easy to use. Another benefit is that students are likely to have Skype accounts and be familiar with it. It is a synchronous tool, a negative factor, however in many cases group members can agree upon a convenient time.  Skype is also an effective tool for course instructors to have video meetings with groups or individual students to discuss progress or concerns.

Collaborative group work is present in any workplace, face-to-face college classroom or K12 institution. Implementing group work activities in online learning is necessary, almost a given in today’s learning climate, though it is challenging due to time and space barriers. With thoughtful instructional design and implementation strategies, and use of tools that support student communication seamlessly, online students can benefit from the enhanced learning and skill development that group collaboration can offer.

Resources
Collaborative Learning, R.I.T. Online Learning
The Importance of Collaboration in Higher Ed, opensource.com

How-to Facilitate Robust Online Discussions

Class discussion can be an effective learning tool – the challenge?  How-to facilitate and manage discussions virtually.

 

This is post two in a three-part series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. Post one, introduced five components of effective discussions and addressed the first two – 1) course design and 2) establishing guidelines for students. In this post I”ll show how course instructors can develop and sustain dialogue by 3) creating ‘good’ and ‘right’ questions, and 4) guiding and moderating the discussions to support meaningful discourse. In the final post I’ll discuss methods for assessing student contributions in online forums. Please note, this series deals with discussions in the context of online courses for credit.

Discussions with no goal
Imagine for a minute, what a soccer game would look like if played without goal posts. Players running up and down the field aimlessly with no goal, no purpose. This is similar to a discussion forum without a focus or direction—students posting and trying to engage in discussion aimlessly. Discussion that get off topic, ramble— learning then [if it happens at all] is by chance. Online discussion need goals, structure and a purpose tied to the learning objectives of a course. The discussion is what builds cognitive presence, as  mentioned in previous posts, and is part of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. Cognitive presence is an essential component to learning, according to this model for online learning, allowing for the construction of new knowledge.

“The challenge is that educators have the responsibility to provide structure and guidance that will encourage and support students assuming increased control of their learning(Garrison, 2006).

Creating Good and Right Discussion Questions
Good questions are just as important as the right questions. Questions must meet two criteria, be open-ended [good] and prompt students to reflect and analyze, and be ‘right’ in that the they support and lead students to construct and develop knowledge in support of  learning objectives. In a paper by Muilenburg and Berge, using discussion questions can be strategy that promotes higher levels of cognitive thinking.

Example of question about critical incidents or problems:
“If you were consulting in this [a given] situation, how would you approach it? What might some of your recommendations be?  Explain thoroughly drawing upon the course readings for this week. Respond to one other classmate’s post with feedback and comments on his or her approach.

Promoting controversial discussion is another tactic that can be effective in supporting development of critical thinking skills. Instructor attention and facilitation is needed more so with this method, though most professors find the ensuing results well worth any additional effort. One of our instructor’s employes this method frequently by  selecting a recent ‘hot’ news topic, prompting students to take one ‘side’, explain his or her position, and then respond to a classmate with an opposing viewpoint.

Peer or Guest Moderators
The moderator does not always have to be the course instructor. Other options include, 1) class participants in the form of peer moderating, 2)  a teaching assistant or 3)  a ‘guest’ moderator/speaker  (though usually the ‘guest’ is only for one week within a given class).

Several studies have shown peer moderators to be just as, if not more effective than course instructors. In several courses I took for my graduate work, class members worked in teams of two or three and moderated discussions on a rotation basis throughout the course. Other courses operated by asking for peer moderator volunteers at the beginning of a session. These volunteers were given guidelines and support for skills in moderating.

There is a fine art of moderating as the course instructor. The drawbacks include, too much involvement where the conversation becomes instructor focused, and students become reticent to participate and hold back. Or, students that are fearful of making a ‘wrong’ statement, or feeling they have nothing worthwhile to contribute.

The role of the moderator is to promote thinking, challenge learners to think, consider a problem or situation from alternative viewpoints and to develop new knowledge through thinking and constructing.

Questions to promote Deep Learning…

  • That is an interesting point. What might someone who disagrees with you say to challenge your opinion?
  • Can you compare your response to xxx (other student post)? Are you both saying the same thing or not? Why or why not?
  • You make a good observation, Can you give us some examples to support your view?
  • What are alternatives to the one you suggested? Are there other solutions?
  • What is your reasoning for this? Can you compare this with the xxxx post? What is different and what is similar?
  • What might happen to xxxxx if your idea was implemented as you described?

Moderating discussions supports learning. As course instructor, you have much to say, much to give and contribute to students learning experience. With an effective course design, well crafted discussion questions and a skilled moderation, online discussions will be active and robust where critical thinking skills flourish. Check back on Thursday for the final post in this series, how to asses and evaluate student participation in online discussions.

Resources

  • Post one: How to develop effective Online Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
  • Post three: The Method and Means to Grading Student Participation in Online      Discussions, onlinelearninginsights
  • Muilenburg, M. & Zane L. Berge. (2006). A framework for designing questions for online learning. Academia.edu
  • Seo, K.K. (2007). Utilizing peer moderating in online discussions: Addressing the controversy between teacher moderation and non-moderation. The American Journal of Distance Education, 21(1). p 21 -26.

How to Get Students to Participate in Online Discussions

This is the first post in a triplet series on how to create effective discussions in an online learning environment. This post discusses how course instructors can shape and create robust and rich discussions, in post two I”ll share facilitation strategies to develop and sustain course dialogue, and I’ll conclude the series with methods for assessing student contributions and participation in online forums. Please note, this series addresses discussions in the context of online courses for credit – as forums in Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs} are a different animal altogether [I will share my thoughts on MOOC discussion forums next month at the close of the MOOC course I am taking].

Getting students to ‘talk’
Getting students to participate in [brick and mortar] classroom discourse can be a painful process – the blank stares or worse students absorbed with their laptops or iPhones, which is disconcerting to say the least. Yet online discussion forums present further challenges due to its ‘virtual’ space. Research suggests online discussions often fall flat- are shallow, superficial, fail to engage students and result in frustration —for students and the course instructor (Wang & Chen, 2008). From a student’s perspective, poorly designed forums can feel like busy work, a pointless exercise. Is it really worth the effort to develop effective discussions? Yes – online class dialogue is essential to developing engagement and most importantly cognitive presence, which builds critical thinking skills [for more about critical thinking in the online environment see resources below].

“It is within online discussions where learners are able to construct and confirm meaning [of course content] through sustained reflection and discourse.” (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

What makes Online Discussions effective….
In the online program at my workplace, we struggled with getting students to engage in discussions forums throughout a given course. After several months, we’ve increased participation considerably after much trial and error. We found it takes more than a skilled facilitator to develop and sustain meaningful dialogue. The instructional design of the course – or  how the course is set-up is critical. Course discussions are most successful when embedded into the design, are tied to the learning objectives or outcomes, which allows for purposeful discussions rather than ‘busy’ work or forced dialogue for the sake of creating ‘interaction’. Below are key components to effective online discussions, adapted from a journal article in Distance Learning (Wade, et al., 2006). My own take on each, follows in [brackets].

  1. A solid course design strategy where discussion forums support learning objectives [students thus recognize discussions are meaningful].
  2. Clear, concise guidelines and expectations for students [I’ll share some examples in this post].
  3. Well constructed topics/questions [critical! – I’ll discuss this aspect in post 2].
  4. A skilled facilitator or moderator [in our program, most successful discussions include the instructor or students as the moderator – more on this in my next post].
  5. An assessment component for giving student feedback [we use a grading rubric – I’ll share a sample with you in my next post. Though grading participation has its drawbacks and benefits, which I’ll discuss in post 3].

Course Design
I won’t spend a lot of time on this topic, except to highlight the need to create a solid instructional strategy with clear, learning objectives and outcomes, with carefully selected content and methods where students will apply and work with the course content, (this is where discussions come into play). Consult my preferred method of instructional design, the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional design model, click here.

Guidelines for Students
We found clearly outlining expectations in more than one place within the course is helpful for students, and reinforces the purpose of, and expectations for discussions. I always like to include a sentence that states the purpose for the discussion, thus alleviating the feeling of pointless busy work. We include a statement such as, “Discussion forums are an important part of learning in an online ‘space’….most students find that participating in discussions helps with not only understanding of the course content, but deepens their learning and ability to think critically….”

Below is a sample of what we include in our online syllabus, under the heading of Discussion guidelines.

  • Use a subject line that relates to your post; this will help create interest and focus for the discussion.
  • Write clearly and with expression. Communicating online requires careful and concise writing, but also allows your personality to come through! Though humor is effective and at times relevant in discussion, be sure to avoid sarcasm, which does not translate well in the online environment.
  • Be supportive, considerate and constructive when replying to your classmates. Do not use jargon, slang or inappropriate language. If you disagree with a classmate please respond in a respectful and tactful manner. Any posts deemed inappropriate by the professor will be removed from the discussion board.
  • Keep your post focused on the topic, relating any class readings and materials from the current module in your post (as applicable).
  • Proofread and review your response before hitting the submit button! You have one hour to edit your response before it is posted, then, it cannot be modified or removed except by the instructor.
  • Participate regularly. Improve your learning by being an active and engaged student. Successful students follow and participate in the assigned discussion throughout the module, logging on at least three times a week while reading and participating in forums as assigned in the module.

In the instructions section for a particular module or week, we include directions and specific guidelines for participation:

“Participate in the Module xx discussion forum. Discussion forums are graded and count towards your participation grade. Refer to the Discussion Forum grading rubric in section xx of the course e-book.”

The Potential of Online Discussions
From what I’ve presented thus far, you can see there is much upfront effort required to set the stage for effective online discussion, even before the first discussion is launched, yet it is well worth the effort. Online discussions have tremendous potential to promote critical thinking skills, ‘force’ students to engage with the content, use higher order thinking skills, and ‘construct’ new knowledge. Numerous studies suggest it is the act of writing, thinking about and composing a text-based post that encourages students to engage their higher order thinking skills (Wang & Chen, 2008) – it’s the power of writing.

Click here to read the next post in this series, which reviews strategies the course instructor can implement to continue the momentum of developing and sustaining effective course discussions, and here for the final post on discussion assessment.

Resources
Wang Y. & Victor Der-Thang Chen (2008). Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence, Journal of Asynchronous Communication. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 3-4 (12).

Wade, D. A., Bentley, J. P. H., & Waters, S. H. (2006). Twenty guidelines for successful threaded discussions: A learning environment approach. Distance Learning, 3(3), 1-8.

Related Posts: Critical thinking in the Online Classroom, Onlinelearninginsights 
Post Two: How to facilitate robust discussions online, Onlinelearninginsights
Post Three: The method and means to grading student participation in online discussions, Onlinelearninginsights
MOOC Mythbuster – what MOOCs are and what they aren’t, Onlinelearninginsights

Critical thinking in the Online Classroom

This is part 3 in a 3 part series discussing the concept of ‘presence’ in online learning communities.

I’ve been writing about online presence in this series and though complex, it is best understood by the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model, a framework of three dimensions that work together to create what I call a complete learning experience (though the  creators of the model call it an ‘educational experience’ where all three coincide (Garrison et al., 2000). In part one, I reviewed instructor presence  and part two, social presence. Though this third dimension is officially labeled ‘cognitive presence‘ I have made reference to critical thinking, as this is what should be happening in the cognitive presence domain, which I’ll elaborate on further in the post. I’ll also provide several examples of what cognitive presence looks like (or sounds like as I’ll be using actual student feedback to illustrate), and for those interested, practical strategies to build and support cognitive presence (critical thinking) in an online learning community.

What is Cognitive Presence?
I thought social presence was the most abstract and elusive, but I was wrong, it’s this dimension, Cognitive Presence that is the hardest to get my head around and put on paper. It’s in this dimension where all the action is – where the student learns - thinks critically – he or she goes through the process of constructing knowledge, inquiring, exploring, and thinking. This model is interesting, as it illustrates how other aspects of presence, social and teaching presence need to exist before critical thinking skills are engaged and deep learning can happen. Though CoI is a model (or theory), I do see how it works in real life learning communities, based upon my analysis of student feedback, engagement levels (measured by LMS activity) and retention numbers of our online student body at my workplace. Granted, some level of learning can happen without either social or teacher presence, yet to create the very best environment for learning online all three dimensions are necessary.

cognitive presence: is the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse (Garrison, Anderson, & Archer, 2001).

How does cognitive presence lead to critical thinking?
There are four categories of events within the cognitive dimension that need to happen to stimulate the cognitive processes and critical thinking, 1) triggering event, 2) exploration, 3) integration and 4) resolution. These are nothing new from the educators perspective –  we want the student to become interested, in the topic (trigger), and be motivated to explore, ask questions, discuss (exploration),  leading students to construct knowledge, learn and think by means of discourse and discussion (integration) and finally to think critically, apply the knowledge to other areas, draw conclusions and demonstrate knowledge (resolution).

These events do not need to happen sequentially, they may overlap and run into one another – it might get messy, but all this to illustrate the need for meaningful interaction and discourse that supports the student’s development of higher order thinking skills.

Strategies for developing Critical Thinking
Creating opportunities within the course for these above mentioned events to happen takes planning, it is part of the instructional strategy, the course design. However, It does not have to be complicated, or time-consuming to develop – but intentional and purposeful. Here are some examples of types of activities that support cognitive presence.

  • Discussion forums that include meaningful and thought-provoking questions that get students to think and apply the course content. Clear participation guidelines and expectations for students are an important part of the activity. Instructor involvement will be needed to monitor and guide the discussion.
  • Small group activities where students discuss a topic, even a complex one – with the goal of creating something together – for example, a [unified] position statement on a controversial  topic OR an analysis of a problem [in the form of a presentation] that involves applying the course content and drawing upon other resources.
  • Forum structured for a debate – this takes some upfront work – but is worthwhile. For example, the instructor assigns each student one of three points of view on a given [controversial] topic, prompting students to engage in discussion/discourse through an asynchronous discussion forum [or live chat] defending their assigned point of view, even if they do not personally support that point of view. This can be effective, as it encourages students to appreciate diversity, acknowledge others’ perspectives and points of view different from their own.
  • Reflection Activities – having students create a blog for to work on throughout the course is one example, where students discuss and write about what they’ve learned in class. This is effective in promoting thinking, and getting students to internalize content. Other reflection activities could be as simple as students creating a Slideshare presentation, blog post, or forum posting at the end of the course describing the critical things they learned from the class, how the class might have changed his or her thinking and/or how they will apply the new knowledge beyond the class.

A study reported in the British Journal of Educational Technology in 2007 on cognitive building activities similar to those mentioned above, determined factors contributing to the activities success:

  1. They were well structured.
  2. They provided clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the students.
  3. They provoked the students to explicitly confront others’ opinions. (Kanuka et al., 2007).

What the students say…
You may be thinking, OK sounds good in theory but does this really work with students? Yes I believe it does – after reading through student responses from our last session in our online program at my workplace I was convinced more than ever, not only of the value of the instructor and his or her presence, but that discussion forums and group activities do develop critical thinking, promote deep thinking and engage students’ higher order thinking skills.  Below I’ve shared feedback from students, which are responses to the question “What did you like best about the course?

I liked how certain questions were asked and then I was allowed to think about them. Then when I came to the conclusion that I was not sure, Dr. ____ then took us to the [course materials] to draw our conclusions…”  [Discussion forums encouraged critical discourse].

“I loved the challenge of this course to compare philosophy [from different viewpoints]…. The choice project was awesome being able to watch films and converse about their philosophical meaning was very fun.”  [Comparing activity forced use of critical thinking]

“Probably the responses required by students after the reading assignments … it made me think deeply and apply my answer not only to the material, but to other [areas] as well.”  [This reflection activity supports analysis and deep thinking].

These are real student comments, though I’ve removed professor names, and references to specific course materials to protect privacy of students.

In this post, I’ve just scratched the surface of what can be done in this presence domain, as there are factors to consider that I’ve not been able to address, for example course topic, delivery platform, course duration, number of students etc. But hopefully I’ve given you some ideas for supporting and promoting critical thinking within your own online courses.

Resources:
Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-10

Kanuka, H., Liam, R. & Laflamme, E. (2007). The influence of instructional methods on the quality of online discussion. British Journal of Educational Technology, 38(2), 260 – 271.

Do we need ‘social butterflies’ in Online Learning Communities?

 Part 2 in a 3 part series on Presence in online learning communities.

Does it matter if students are social in an online learning community? Should we be concerned if students lurk in the background, not participate, be a [virtual] wall flower? At first blush you might think so. Isn’t this a benefit of online, letting learners choose their level of participation? I’ll take a stand on this – not OK. It’s not beneficial to learn in a vacuum, though in the ‘virtual’ world this is exactly what can [and does] happen. In one of the MOOC‘s I participated in (for a short stint that is), I remember reading a post of one of the participants who said she much preferred learning online because she could fade into the background, and participate minimally or not at all, and not be called out.

This may be preferred by some, yet much research contradicts – it appears that students want social connection – in fact one study  by Swan and Shih discovered that learners who perceived a strong social presence recorded higher scores of perceived learning, and cited learning from their peers as a benefit (2005). Another study, conducted in an online community [albeit within a social gaming platform as opposed to a learning community], examined the effectiveness of member’s engagement and repeat visits in a group gaming environment. Results revealed that when there was visual representation of group member, in other words a profile picture, the study participants exhibited higher levels of engagement [return visits to the site] and longer participation times. (Gaytan & McEwen,2007). The implications for learning environments are profound, by one [seemingly] simple action, a learner uploading an image of him or her self in the learning platform, a sense of social presence is supported.

What does social Presence look like?
Social presence in the online community is more abstract, intangible than instructor presence [as discussed in my last post], yet social presence, one of the three dimensions of presence required for complete learning is the most difficult to describe and create, and is further complicated because it is out of the instructors control. Social presence is felt by learners, yet is created by the course design and participation of other learners, in contrast to instructor presence which is mainly driven by instructor behaviours and participation. Hence the challenge.

And though social presence is a much discussed topic in literature about online learning, there are numerous [sometimes vague] definitions – the one I believe to be most fitting is:

“the sense where the learner feels part of the community, by demonstrating willingness to engage in communication exchanges,  perceives learners and instructor to be real people, and is able to project him or herself  in the online environment confidently.”

students sitting in health classIn face-to-face environments, there is a stark contrast as to how to gauge, visualize and describe social presence. In the nearby illustration, we see that the learner is present and the instructor can read the body language, make eye contact (or lack there of), identify facial expressions of learners – read the visual cues.

Why is building social presence necessary?
Social presence allows the learner to feel ‘connected’ with an emotional and personal connection to the group in order that they can express themselves socially, and eventually cognitively which ultimately leads to engagement with content and concepts. This is described in Garrison’s Community of Inquiry model, where the 3 presence dimensions are required for meaningful and effective learning to take place.  It is not only this model which emphasizes the social component, Kellar’s ARCS model of motivation design for learning builds on similar principles in the Attention dimension [the ‘A’ in ARCS].

In years past, when I was in training and development and conducted day long [f2f] seminars, I thought that ‘social presence’ was an extra, the nice-to-have, not the need- to-have.  In this context social presence, was created by the ‘rapport’ building exercises, also known as ice-breaker activities. These activities, in a sense did build social presence, and did help facilitate learning. Also I had the 3-dimensional advantage, where I could recognize when learners were bored [this happened more often than I’d like to admit], lost focus or would need to be drawn out. This is not so easy to do online. In fact, what is most interesting about creating social presence in online learning, is that activities and actions must be considered and planned for within the course design – built into the fabric of the course, and throughout the course. Let’s get to the nitty-gritty.

How to Create Social Presence Online Community?
There are a few things we have done at my workplace with our online courses to support building social presence

  1. Encourage learners to upload a picture or avatar to his or her profile (we use Moodle). Though we make this voluntary, about 75% of students do so.
  2. Create Orientation Activities just prior to classes starting. In our online program, we give students access to their course home page(s), 4 or 5 days prior to official start date of class, and among other activities we have students participate in introduction forum where they post a bio and introduce themselves and share their interests etc.
  3. Design learning activities which encourage group interaction (ideally small group activities). This will vary from course to course depending upon learning content and objectives, but each course has unique small group activities where groups work on a project together, conduct peer reviews and share work samples, or engage in small group discussion.
  4. Encourage students to join [program/school] Facebook Page, if you don’t have one, create one.
  5. Suggest students use social tools for collaborating. Example Skype, Google Docs, Facebook or Google +Hangouts.
  6. Use discussion forums  with well crafted questions that will promote meaningful dialogue.
  7. Post discussion forum etiquette. Create and post guidelines for posting to discussion forums.

Above are only a few suggestions. There are many great resources available on the Web. I’ve included a slide share below which includes some helpful tips, and also refers to the Community of Inquiry model.  Further resources listed below.

Related Posts:
Part I: Instructor Presence in the Online Class: Key to Learner Success, Click here

References:
Gaytan, J., & McEwen, B. C. (2007). Effective online instructional and assessment strategies. American Journal Of Distance Education, 21(3), 117-132.

Swan, K. & Shih, L.F. (2005, October). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9 (3), 115-136.

Instructor involvement in Online Discussions? To be or not?

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part series on Instructor involvement in Online discussions

How important is discussion and discourse in learning?  How about in online learning?  Somewhat important —- vital —- not?  This past week I’ve been immersed in online discussions— as a participant and as a mentor to professors teaching online. Before we go on, the answer to the question is … vital, critical, essential – the instructor that is.  A caveat, deep, authentic and successful learning is supported by instructors that guide, yet focus, redirect, and shall I say… nurture. It’s a challenge, as facilitating discussions in online classes is much different than face-to-face. It’s no surprise that instructors teaching online are often at odds with how to develop effective discussions in the online class. Some professors even feel it’s best not to get involved. What to do?

From a Student’s Perspective…
Can students have meaningful and valuable online discussions asynchronously without the instructor’s presence?  Research says no, for the most part. And from a student’s perspective, I’d have to agree. My most meaningful learning experiences involve at least some level of interaction and contributions from the professor. The involved instructor keeps the discussion focused and moving by responding to student posts with comments and questions that challenge students to build on their point and think.

What the experts say about Instructor Participation….

  • “Instructor presence [including participation in discussions] is a key element in the distinction between online and face-to-face education. Online instructors need to be “seen” in order to be perceived by their students as present in the course just as do face-to-face course instructors”. (Mandernach et al, 2006)
  • Paloff & Pratt (1999) pose that the instructor in an online class is responsible for facilitating the personal and social aspects of an online community in order for the class to have a successful learning experience.
  • Olcott & Wright (1995) assert that the responsibility for instructional quality and aggregate effectiveness of distance education rests with the instructor.

ImageCreating a framework for Effective Online Discussions
This week as I’ve been participating in a MOOC called iFaciliate a 5 week online MOOC for educators which modeled what’s needed to establish effective discussions. This course refers to the Community of Inquiry model, which synthesizes pedagogical principles and needed instructional practices for effective instruction in the online learning environment. I discussed this model in a previous post.

How to Create the Framework for effective discussions:

  • Establish guidelines and purpose for threaded discussions –  outline these at the introduction to the course.
  • Establish a Social Presence – this is where participant and instructor, introduce themselves to classmates –  sharing, introducing and connecting. Also known as the orientation  phase, Social presence is defined as the ability of learners to project themselves socially and affectively.  When students feel connected with other learners, feel part of the class and community, they are more likely to engage in discourse and discussion about course content.
  • Make the technology transparent – the discussion needs to be about the students – the content and the learning, not the technology, i.e. the Learning Management system or the discussion threads. When students are participating in online discussions, the ‘technology walls’ should disappear – just as when we are in a classroom, is the focus on the whiteboard, the power point slides or the professor’s tie for that matter?

Check back this week for part 2: How instructors can effectively facilitate online discussions.