Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

This is the third post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. This post identifies what students really think about group work—the three most significant barriers to working in online teams and strategies to help students overcome each.

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of Books

Success of the group learning process is dependent upon the target outcomes of the assignment and design of the collaboration activity

 “Working with other people on a real project can actually be a valuable learning experience. The problem is, if it’s mandated by school, and participants aren’t really interested or motivated, that’s not a “real project.”  If there was a way to facilitate projects that were relevant to participants’ interests, and perhaps some kind of meaningful output, that would likely result in a different kind of experience.” Student comment on the School Survival Forums [an uncensored forum for students created by students in 2001]

It’s a myth that students in online courses don’t want group work. Most students see the value of working in groups, but are resistant when the project appears unrelated to course goals, is simplistic, without a purpose—busywork.  When introducing and writing instructions for group activities, I emphasize the why of the activity—what’s in it for the students. I’ve outlined other strategies below focusing on the three most significant barriers to group work based upon research of group work specific to online learning, and personal experience as an educator and student.

Meaningful Learning
Before getting to the strategies for overcoming barriers to team work, I’ll point out what’s needed to highlight the what’s in-it-for-me part of the assignment descriptions for students, what I refer to as the marketing element or selling of the group work. The assignments need to be weighty, not necessarily in grades but in terms of complexity; projects that encourage students to synthesize, analyze and create a product that showcases their knowledge via a ‘meaningful output’ as mentioned by the above-quoted student.

A meaningful output might be a group essay, a narrated slideshare, Prezi presentation, a video, or wiki—also known as digital artifacts. The slide below from the slidesharestudent perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools” outlines the elements of a problem based learning approach, necessary to foster meaningful and authentic learning via collaborative learning environments that are designed to develop expertise by helping learners discern patterns and create meaning in a non-static, collaborative setting. According to “How People Learn” (Bransford et al, 1999), such environments encourage the development of deep factual knowledge bases where knowledge is easily retrieved and shared, and conceptual frameworks built.

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Slideshare: ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools’ slide #4  (Wicks, 2011)

Significant Barriers to Group Work and How to Overcome Each

 “I feel sometimes you have to give in to some other people’s ideas so that you    can finish the project.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

“I like working in efficient groups. Not many groups I’ve been in were as such. Most we’re “Hey, who doing the work?” or “You just do x-y-z, and we’ll stand here” Student comment on School Survival Forums

1.  Accountability

…among the factors that either facilitated or impeded progress, individual accountability was perceived as being the most critical factor. A lack of individual accountability is consistent with what Latane et al. (1979, cited in Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993) referred to as “social loafing.” This term was defined as meaning that when individuals think they are working in a group, they anticipate doing less work than when they think they are working alone.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions:

  • Have students create a team charter. The charter includes the purpose of the group, the rules and guidelines for group interactions, using their words, rules and guidelines.  See example  below right:
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Sample of Group Charter, slide # 13, from Slideshare ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects’ (Wicks, 2011)

  • Provide an outlet for students to get help with group collaboration and conflict. Include on the course site steps to effective group work, and steps to resolves issues.
  • Create small groups – ideal size is three or four students, maximum five.
  • Provide a mechanism for students to give feedback and reflection on group participation and the experience overall. Readers that have read several of my other posts on group work, may see that this contradicts my views on group work (my initial position was to have self-reflection only, not rate other groups members), however research says otherwise, and I do see that a carefully facilitated method where students submit to the instructor, evaluations of other team members that is kept private, and not shared with other members in the team,  addresses this barrier.  See below the form used by online instructor Larry Ragan from Penn State World Campus.
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Screen shot from open course, “Best Practices in Online Teaching”, by Larry Ragan

#2  Technology

“Participants indicated that the challenges inherent to virtual communication relying solely on written language was the second highest impeding factor (19%). Although online communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Bruckman, 1998), online faculty need to consider the inherent limitations of asynchronous, written communication. Because of the challenges of its usage (time lags, lack of spontaneity), and the dependence on the written word, a number of students indicated that they were overwhelmed, especially when they faced conflicts and when they felt isolated from the group.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

 Suggestions:

  • Provide recommendations and guidelines for one or two tools that facilitate group collaboration that are user-friendly and foster seamless collaboration. Group discussion boards don’t have enough features, and students often find the discussion threads overwhelming and difficult to follow. Google Docs is an example of very good collaborative tool.
  • Recommend groups schedule at least one synchronous discussion during the course of the project using a platform such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or a new video conversation tool appear.in.
  • Provide orientation to course site and tools. The institution should create and offer a course that introduces the student to the learning platform, and the features and tools within it. The institution should also highlight to students within the course site the help services available for technical and trouble shooting solutions.
  • Where possible, encourage group members to be in similar time zones to facilitate synchronous communication (a three-hour time difference or less).

#3  Leadership

“Another noteworthy response is related to the perceived role of the group leaders. Having a positive group leader was recorded as the third highest facilitative factor (16%), while the absence of this factor was believed to have negatively impacted the completion of collaborative tasks (5.9%). For our study, it should be also noted that the course instructor merely suggested that each team elect a team leader, rather than making this a requirement.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions and Comments:

  • Recommend that the group select a project or team leader. Though I’ve seen some instructors select the group leader, I suggest having the group determine their own roles. In the long run this creates more autonomy and trust within the group, even more so when done in conjunction with the creation of a team charter as mentioned above. A shared leadership role is also possible.
  • The need for leadership in groups working asynchronously is more acute given the nature of the medium.

Further Reading

References

Five Elements that Promote Learner Collaboration and Group Work in Online Courses

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“Foundational elements” iStock

This is the first article in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. The strategies discussed in this series are specific to closed, small, online, for-credit courses, though the principles discussed regarding student needs’ and barriers to group work online are universal to almost all formats of online learning experiences.

“Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes. Implementation of group work in online classrooms may be stymied by faculty members who struggle with effective implementation of group work…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

This series is in response to the need that exists for professional development for online instructors, specifically for the skills required to promote and support learning that comes with students’ collaborating, sharing and discussing with their peers. I’ve had many discussions with educators about the challenges of getting students to collaborate and build knowledge together; there are numerous barriers. On the top of the list is the lack of skill development and support that institutions offer for faculty and instructors teaching online. This is what motivated me to develop this series. I include in this series, research from  studies specific to group learning in online courses, personal experience creating group learning activities with faculty for undergraduate online courses, and feedback from students on their perspectives on group work.

In this post I cover the five foundational elements needed for effective collaboration in online learning communities. Post two addresses the strategies, and skill set required for facilitating group collaboration and learning, and post three includes students’ experiences with online learning, barriers to group learning and strategies to minimize barriers that exist.

Why Group Work?
Educators and even students cringe at the idea of group work, more so in an online course. Instructors often view it as impossible due to barriers inherent in the online format—students envision chaos, frustration and even more work than individual projects entail. Yet as online becomes a ubiquitous format for learning, and collaboration in virtual environments becomes an essential skill in the 21st century, teaching students how to work effectively in online groups becomes just as critical to the undergraduate learning experience as the benefit of the knowledge gained through the learning experience itself.

The benefits of students’ learning together, truly collaborating, discussing and sharing [not just dividing the work up and putting it together at the end] is great. Research supports the premise that students, in well designed learning environments experience meaningful learning, develop higher order thinking, and learn to evaluate and acknowledge multiple viewpoints.

“Research has continued to emphasize the need for effective group dynamics and collaborative approaches in projects and approaches to problem-solving (Dennen & Wieland, 2009; Johnson, Johnson & Stanne, 2006; Rovai, 2004). Academic settings are an important venue for information about group processes to be disseminated and for students to be provided with opportunities to practice and gain skills in effective group work (Ilera, 2001; Smith, 2008). Successful group processes include the ability to problem-solve, work effectively with others, communicate orally and in writing, and manage resources including time and responsibility to project outcomes.”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Though we know the benefits and acknowledge its value, the question becomes—how can educators create an experience that facilitates this kind of learning in a virtual space?

Five Elements Needed for Effective Group Work
Creating a collaborative and rich learning experience through group activities requires a different and unique set of skills, but what’s also needed is awareness of the underlying dynamics that exist when students are physically separated from peers and their instructor. The face-to-face experience provides an opportunity for groups to build trust and cohesiveness through verbal cues, facial expressions, and physical presence. Considering the elements that make up a strong online learning community is necessary when shifting to online teaching. Such elements include creating social presence, a safe learning environment, and a commitment to a learning team.

“Currently, online collaborative learning tends to focus on the cognitive process by emphasizing task-oriented communication, while assuming that the social dimension will occur automatically via communicative technologies (Kreijns et al., 2003). However, individuals will not willingly share their tentative ideas or critically challenge others’ opinions unless they trust group members and feel a sense of belonging (Kreijns et al., 2003; Rourke, 2000). Therefore, collaboration often remains shallow due to the lack of affective group support.” 

Teacher Perspectives on Online Collaborative Learning: Factors Perceived as Facilitating and Impeding Successful Online Group Work (2008)

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

Community of Inquiry Framework, (Cleveland-Innes, Garrison & Vaughan)

Below I list five foundational elements that are critical to effective student collaboration and knowledge sharing and creating. Not all elements are within the control of the instructor, though an awareness contributes to instructor effectiveness. Some elements are based upon the Community of Inquiry [CoI] framework created by scholars at the University of Athabasca. CoI is a theoretical model that outlines a process for creating deep and meaningful learning experiences [online] through the development of three interdependent dimensions – social, cognitive and teaching presence. Establishing social presence helps students to establish themselves as a community member and contributor to the course, necessary for successful online learning that leverages group knowledge building and sharing. I’ve also incorporated findings from a paper on teacher perspectives in online collaborative learning published in the journal Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education.

1. Social Presence: For students to be successful in online learning environments, introducing themselves, making connections with classmates and establishing themselves in the learning community is critical. Student anonymity in learning spaces is a barrier to establishing trust and building learning community. Establishing presence is facilitated through several methods including, 1) introductions at the beginning of the course, that includes the instructor’s involvement,  2) synchronous lectures sessions where students can chat on back channels (Twitter, etc), 3) orientation activities at beginning of, or before course beginning, 4) social media platform for the class, Twitter, Google +, etc.  It’s also a good idea to wait two weeks from the course start date before group work begins.  More in-depth reading on social presence, at the CoI website.

2. Presence of a Leader: This refers to two aspects, 1) the leadership of the instructor where he or she supports group work, ie. dealing with group members that don’t participate, holding Skype calls with individual groups to problem solve, provide instruction or guidance, and providing feedback to groups and class on the process [I build on this element in post two] and, 2) the presence of a positive leader within the group (An, Kim & Kim, 2008).  A leader of the group can be assigned by the instructor (recommended) or selected within the group. The group leader also acts as the liaison between the group and the instructor.

3. Purpose and clear Instructions: Outlining why students are completing a given learning activity is critical, students are sensitive to busy work, and seek meaningful learning experiences. They are more likely to engage and commit to a group project when it is aligned closely with the learning objective of the course and is meaningful.  Stating clearly in the activity instructions, “the purpose of this activity______” is appreciated by students, as are clear instructions that are specific to the expected outcomes of the project, the details, including due date, grading scheme, group structure etc.

4.  Skill Development for Working in a Team: Learners rarely have the skill set required for effective group collaboration, sharing and/or discussions in online spaces. The instructor should provide skill development resources for group interaction including specific guidelines for communicating [netiquette rules, for example NO CAPITAL LETTERS when communicating via text, and using emoticons :), steps to solve group problems or disagreements, including an option that involves the instructor as a resource. Stepping in as a mediator may be required at times, where the instructor can walk students through problem solving steps via a group meeting using Skype, or other synchronous medium.

5. Seamless Technology:  Though instructors may not always have direct control over the technology, guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is helpful. Technology is very often cited as a barrier by students, minimizing the barriers is within the instructors control, if not the institution. Ideally online communication should be seamless. Suggesting tools for groups is helpful, and providing resources on how-to use the technological tools or applications is also critical; better yet is practicing as a class with the tools before the groups members work together.

Next Monday, I’ll publish post two, the skills and strategies instructors need to build effective group learning in online class. I encourage readers to share their resources and/or experiences in the comment section so others can benefit.  I know readers benefit greatly from this sharing.

Post two in this series: Five Vital Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work and Collaboration, Online Learning Insights

References:

How Online Educators Benefitted by Walking-the-Talk with Collaborative Instructional Design

This post examines how instructors teaching online can develop pedagogical and instructional skills by collaborating, communicating and building knowledge online with peers using technological tools and applications.

MP900444382[1]A paper published recently in the Journal of Online Teaching and Learning (JOLT) highlights (perhaps unknowingly) one of the most effective methods for teaching faculty and instructors how to become skilled in online pedagogy and instruction—walking-the-talk. In the paper instructors did exactly what the students need to do to learn effectively and deeply online, by collaborating, contributing knowledge, sharing and creating an artifact [in this case two online courses] virtually. What’s significant is that collaboration and learning occurred via technological applications, i.e. Skype, Google Docs, Dropbox, discussion forums, and Voicethread. The point is that the technology wasn’t the focus, but that robust, meaningful and productive learning occurred despite the technology. When used effectively technology, as apparent in this study, becomes invisible—transparent. Communicating and collaborating online should be a seamless experience aided by tech tools—when real learning is more likely to happen.

In order for seamless collaboration, communication, etc. to occur users [students, instructors] need to be familiar with the technical tool—they need to  know how it works. Think of how we use a common device, a telephone for example. Most of us don’t focus on the hardware, the dial pad, the earpiece etc, we focus on the conversation, because we already know how to use a telephone. We can apply this same scenario to ed-tech tools used in online collaboration synchronous or asynchronous, with Skype, Google Docs, discussion boards or Voicethread. Unfamiliarity with the technology is a barrier to learning online.

Benefits of Collaborative Learning Online
The paper Instructional Design Collaboration: A Professional Learning and Growth Experience documents the experience of several faculty members and two course instructors that collaborated virtually on two online graduate-level courses using an instructional design model. The paper highlights the outcomes of the online collaborative experience, outlining the three primary benefits:

1. multiplicative effect of the diverse ideas, expertise, and  experiences of educators from different research disciplines
2. collaborative pedagogical and social support during course delivery
3. enhanced and strengthened professional relationships and pedagogical expertise that developed and endured beyond the duration of the course.

Faculty’s Seamless Technology Use 
Though the primary benefits mentioned in the paper (above) excluded the concept of modeling for students the necessary behaviours for collaborating and learning online, the paper does emphasize the value of the tools used, and its indirect benefits to the instructors’ students.

Collaboration was foundational to the instructional design process for the off-campus instructors and a variety of networked technologies supported online collaboration as shown in Table 2. E-mail was primarily used for short messages, questions, and to arrange meetings. Skype, a free audio and video communication tool, was used to meet virtually to discuss and consolidate ideas, and to refine the instructional design. The instructors shared desktops when building the course components in the Blackboard learning management system (Figure 2) and used Dropbox, a free, cloud-based file-sharing service, to collaboratively develop and share course files, such as the syllabus and assessment rubrics. (Brown, Eaton, Jacobsen, Roy & Friesen, 2013)

The faculty and instructors relied upon these tools extensively, and continued to do when communicating after the design project was complete. Such behaviour demonstrates the seamless nature of the tools upon conquering the learning curve. However despite the benefits of using the tools for collaborating, sharing etc., several challenges persisted.

The instructors perceived increased time was spent in exchanging information and engaging in ongoing professional dialogue…a collaborative instructional design approach takes extra time for meetings, negotiating ideas, document revisions, managing document flow, and online course creation. Consequently, preparing an online course coupled with working in partnership and engaging in a collaborative and supportive approach to instructional design and course delivery demands an increased time investment for instructors. That said, we contend that the increased time investment is worthwhile for improving the process of course design and subsequently supporting job-embedded professional learning experience for the instructors. (Brown, et al., 2013)

Closing
Though several ideas are discussed here, my aim is to share with readers the idea that learning as our students learn, walking the talk—can be an effective method for acquiring  skills for teaching in a new modality.  It’s the instructors and faculty that make learning happen online, not the technology, yet mastery of using the technology as a tool provides a seamless experience; the technology becomes invisible and learning reigns.

References:

News of the Week: Robo-Grading Debate, MOOCs Promoting Peer Collaboration & New Ed-Tech Tool

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

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Stanford University launched new MOOC platform NovoEd this week.

In this post I’ve included the key developments of this past week that will keep readers in-the-know on education news. Another new MOOC platform, NovoEd launched by Stanford this week offers challenging courses and takes a unique approach to team projects and peer grading, and the machine grading of essays—the debate continues and is an issue that prevents one school from joining edX. Also, I’ll introduce a new tool that bring interactivity to online learning.

1)  Machine Grading Generates Petitions, Debates and a Message
The NYT story, Essay-Grading Software Offers Professor a Break continues to generate serious and heated debates. This particular article has received almost 1,000 comments, many from students, parents and teachers vehemently opposed to machine grading. [Background for readers not familiar with machine grading: a software program is programmed to provide a grade on student essays based upon factors such as essay length, grammar, sentence length, etc. However it cannot provide comments on tone, logic, development of main idea or thesis, etc.]

Online Petitions: This week I came across a site launched by a group of educators, Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment that has collected over 3700 signatures of individuals opposing machine grading. The groups’ mission “to eliminate computer scoring of essays used in any decision that might affect a person’s life or livelihood and should be discontinued for all large-scale assessment purposes.”

College Rejects edX – machine grading a factor: The use of machine grading by edX was of serious concern to Amherst College a [top-rated] liberal arts college that had been considering joining the edX consortium. This week Amherst announced it has decided not to partner with edX, citing several reasons, and computer-grading software was one of the major concerns.

They [edX representatives] came in and they said, ‘Here’s a machine grader that can grade just as perceptively as you, but by the way, even though it can replace your labor, it’s not going to take your job,’ ” Sitze [professor at Amherst] said. “I found that funny and I think other people may have realized at that point that there was not a good fit.”  (Inside Higher Ed, Rivard )

I admire Amherst for the in-depth process administrators and faculty appeared to follow to determine whether to join in on the MOOC parade. In the end, faculty voted to move more class material and classes online and to create ways to incorporate technology in the classroom rather than join edX, which sounds like a rational decision. Reading the background of how the school came to this decision, it does make me wonder what process other higher education institutions do [or don’t] follow when considering what to do about MOOCs. Hmmm.

2)  MOOC platform NovoEd: Good courses but potential challenges with peer grading System
Another MOOC platform launched this week NovoEd [formerly Venture Lab] and seeks to differentiate itself from other MOOC providers by promoting peer collaboration. I am both intrigued and impressed by the line-up of classes NovoEd offers. The course Mobile Health without Borders for example, will operate more like a conference than a course. Its focus is on global health challenges, and students will work in teams on small group assignments with the primary goal to “help you prepare for the Health Innovation Challenge, an opportunity to work with a global multi-disciplinary team and world-class mentors to design a solution to a health challenge you care about.”

There are eight courses in total, including Hippocrates Challenge, Technology Entrepreneurship and more. It really is a tremendous opportunity for interested individuals to participate in such courses with faculty from an excellent school such as Stanford.

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‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ course offered through NovoEd

Though the primary challenge I see with the platform is the team work assignments and the respective peer grading process. Here are some of the issues—how effective and inclusive can groups be when working in large teams assembled by algorithms? This platform apparently has software which separates learners into groups based on certain criteria. These are not self-selecting groups, which usually is how it goes in other MOOCs.

Differing Views of Groups vs Individuals
Another factor is the potential impact that cultural differences will have on teamwork. Though diversity in groups is a positive in terms of the multiple perspectives put forth—the problem I anticipate is NovoEd’s sophisticated peer grading program, where group members grade one another on each individual’s participation and contribution to team assignments.  Venture Lab [before becoming NovoEd] named and described this process as a “Reputation System’ for rating peers (evaluations, forum posts, team contribution)” [Stanford Venture Lab].

I believe this process of grading individual team members undermines the purpose and value of teamwork. Rather than working together to sort out differences during the process of working on an assignment, the system supports addressing the issue not in real-time, but after the fact through [anonymous] grading.

Furthermore, the idea of assigning grades to an individual’s work on a group project is a reflection of the North American value system, which values individual contributions over team. Other countries view teamwork as a collective effort, and the idea of grading individuals within the team is quite extraordinary. Professor Geert Hofstede created a well-known framework centered on four dimensions [individualism versus collectivism is one dimension] for analyzing how countries values affect workplace interactions and productivity.  I see these dimensions playing a role in the projects put forth by NovoEd. You can find out more from this website and even compare different countries rankings of its values.

Several of my peers on Google+ completed one of the first courses on Venture Lab, and have positive feedback about it, as well as some constructive. Overall it appears NovoEd has a tremendous and worthy platform and selection of courses. I look forward to reading about the results.

New Ed-Tech Tool to Support Interaction in Online Courses

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Smartsparrow.com

This platform looks like its worthy of investigating further – as it provides easy way to build interactive content into online courses: “Smart Sparrow is an Australian ed-tech start-up pioneering adaptive and personalized learning technology. It was founded by Dr Dror Ben Naim who led a research group in the field of Intelligent Tutoring Systems and Educational Data Mining at the University of New South Wales in Sydney resulting in the development of the Adaptive e-Learning Platform”.

Have a great week!

How Collaborative Learning Works in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs

My previous post about the MOOC disaster at Coursera with the Fundamentals of Online Education [FOE] course generated constructive and worthy discussions among readers that focused on the value and purpose of the MOOC, the role of the instructor and student, and how learning happens within this type of course.

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‘The Happening’, by willaryerson, #edcmooc

In this post I explore how collaborative learning works in two types of online courses—one in the all-familiar massive, open and online course, MOOCs, and the other a closed, fee-based course, COLC, which is the acronym I’m using to label a closed, online, for-credit learning, course. There are hundreds of COLCs available from virtually all higher education institutions within the U.S. Visit any higher education institution’s website (Ivy schools excluded) and search for online learning. Following are just a few examples of schools and the availability of COLCs—University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, Michigan State University, University of Delaware, and Penn State University.

Group Work: MOOC versus COLC
Collaborative learning [group work] is a component of COLCs and MOOCs, yet learning with peers occurs differently in each; one is prescribed, controlled and potentially used for assessment purposes, as in the COLC, while in a MOOC learning is often chaotic, student-driven, optional, and not controllable by course facilitators given its thousands of participants. In a COLC, group work is often a method chosen as part of the courses’ instructional strategy, and is part of students final grade. This contrasts to a MOOC where the instructor(s) must relinquish control of the teaching functions normally done in a COLC or a face-to-face class, including controlling how groups form and/or collaborate, grading, and giving feedback on assigned course work.

This topic of collaborative learning in an online space is intriguing and interesting, and I realize how the focus on online learning with MOOCs in recent months has challenged educators, myself included, to examine their previously held beliefs about teaching and learning, models of course design, even pedagogical approaches. This post is an attempt to separate online learning into two types [though there are more], with the goal of  helping readers learn more about collaborative learning and instruction in each learning context.

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Network Analysis of #edcmooc Facebook group, by anando purutama

The Same, but Different
It is the online aspect, the Web as the platform, that COLC and MOOCs share that make the two similar, yet this is where the similarities end, [granted each is called a course, but the word ‘course’ in itself can be a source of confusion]. It is the underlying purpose of each that draws the line between the two. The COLC is a course that mimics the traditional face-to-face classroom environment; it is controlled by the instructor, has specific objectives, and includes graded assignments of which group participation and a group project might be included in the mix. The COLC is for-credit, with a limited number of students [usually between 10 and 40], where group work is likely and is part of the overall course grading scheme. This contrasts MOOCs where groups are not a requirement and if formed, are spontaneous—as participants find and form groups on social platforms based on common interests.

Collaborative Learning in COLCs
In COLCs collaboration might consist of, small groups that work together on a presentation or case study, participation in threaded discussions, and/or groups that work together to act as ‘moderators’ for class discussion forums. Detailed rubrics are often needed to ‘grade’ quantity and quality of a participation, and with group projects even though each student receives the same grade, students often have the opportunity to grade their peers.

The reason for this effort in outlining the group work so laboriously is to support the deep learning that can happen within online environments through collaboration. Considerable research supports this thesis and I’ve included references to several papers at the end of this post to that end.

The course instructor’s role in creating, monitoring and grading collaborative learning is demanding and intensive. One paper, Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment states,

Kearsley (nd) points to the importance of instructor skill in creating and managing interaction in online courses, particularly when collaborative learning is required. However, he also points out that most people have little formal training in how to successfully interact or work with others and that the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviors.  (Brindley, Walti & Balschke, 2009)

In COLCs when group collaboration or participation is a part of the courses’ instructional strategy, the onus is on the instructor to provide detailed, clear instructions, objectives of the project and the purpose for the group work [how the work supports the goals of the course and student will benefit]. Doing so is necessary as many learners are resistant to the idea of group work, especially in an online environment.  My experience suggests that group work is most successful when detailed guidelines are provided, with specific directions and instructions on how to use and access Web tools and applications for group collaboration and communication. Research supports this – often students have the will to participate but don’t have the necessary skills [including technical skills] to collaborate effectively online (Brindley et al, 2009).

Purpose and Value of Group Work in COLC
I’m convinced that group work in COLCs is necessary, for two reasons:

1) it allows students to learn needed skills, including how to collaborate and communicate effectively in an online environment, and
2) it creates a framework for constructing and/or sharing knowledge in a given subject area that may lead to deeper and more meaning learning.  I say ‘may’ because this is not guaranteed, but this is where the instructor needs to guide and model learning.

I also suggest, COLCs can be the training ground for students to become lifelong learners, with the Web as classroom, yet under the guidance of a course instructor. Students in a COLC can learn how-to-learn in a massive, open and online course, one where the student assumes responsibility, but within a framework and under guidance.

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Taxedo2, by cathleen_nardi, #edcmooc

Purpose and Value of Groups in a cMOOC
Collaborative learning and communication is needed and an essential dimension within cMOOCs. Participants learn by making connections, through communicating and collaborating with others. cMOOCs are based upon the theory of connectivism created by Downes and Siemens, which is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories (Siemens, 2004). The difference between a COLC and a MOOC is stark. Learning in cMOOCs it is not prescribed but self-organized. Participants drive the course, contribute to it, build it and add content, while facilitators provide the platforms (or meeting places), provide a loose structure with an outline of the course [at the outset at least].

Group Work in MOOCs
Coursera and edX MOOCs are called xMOOCs, so named by Downes to avoid confusion of the two [very different] concepts. As I’ve written about before in various comments on the post about FOE, it was the instructor’s prescriptive approach to group work that derailed the course. With all due respect to the instructor, she appeared to approach the class as a COLC. Instructors cannot control thousands of students on a Web-based platform, just as he or she cannot control plagiarism by posting an honor code on a xMOOC course home page.

However there is some common ground between cMOOCs and xMOOCs—they are massive, open and online, yet institutions such as some of those associated with Coursera and similar platforms are applying a COLC pedagogy to the MOOC format, though the MOOC itself, is conducive to a connectivist philosophy. A different pedagogy is required, yet this is the problem—what is the appropriate pedagogy?

Closing Thoughts
What we do know is that instructors involved with massive courses, with thousands of students can’t control the outcomes of course, can’t direct the learning in a given direction, and can’t use an instructional strategy or methods that work for traditional courses. But the concept of the Web as a classroom, that can bring learning to thousands of individuals that are eager to learn, has tremendous potential for many reasons. Already we have heard of stories from numerous students who have completed one or more MOOCs—about the positive impact this open learning has had on their lives. What the next steps are for higher education institutions that are offering MOOCs, and how they will solve the cost and access concerns in higher ed is yet to be determined.  Stay tuned!

Note: I wrote this post before I had heard of a professor quitting a Coursera MOOC halfway through, yet this post describes why this happened – the professor appeared to want to control the course –the level of students participation and, at times [according to a Twitter conversation], discouraged students from participating. The professor ‘dropped out’ …”Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Professor McKenzie.  Read more here.

Further Reading and References

Photo Credits: Photos featured in this post are student contributions from the  eLearning and Digital Cultures course offered through Coursera, for the optional assignment in week three. Posted to Flickr, and tagged #edcmooc.

How NOT to Design a MOOC: The Disaster at Coursera and How to Fix it

I don’t usually like to title a post with negative connotations, but there is no way to put a positive spin on my experience with the MOOC I’m enrolled in through Coursera, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. The course so far is a disaster, ‘a mess’ as numerous students have called it. Ironically, the learning outcome of the course is to create our own online course. To be fair, there are some good points to the course, but there are significant factors contributing to a frustrating course experience for students, myself included.

Chaos Ahead Traffic SignGroup Chaos
There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups. I’ll review here what went wrong, highlight students’ reactions to the problems. Though it’s too late to fix the situation now, I’ve also provided a suggestion to the course instructor, what to do for the next course to prevent a repeat of this scenario. And to help instructors or educators be more effective with their own instruction, with group activities in particular, I’ve outlined strategies and tips for the creation and facilitation of group learning activities.

The course started Monday, January 28, 2013 and problems began on day one when participants were instructed to ‘join a group’.  As of today, Friday, February 1, the purpose of the groups is unclear, many students are still looking for a group, and if they are in one, aren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 3.09.28 PM

One comment from student in a threaded discussion titled ‘This is a mess’ which was started by another student.  So far, there are over 1,000 discussion threads, many with similar sentiments.

How to Prevent Group Work from Going Haywire 
Creating and facilitating group activities in small online classes, (under forty students) can be exceptionally effective in creating meaningful learning experiences, and supportive of the social dimension, which contributes to the building of a positive and effective online learning community.  I’ve written several posts about facilitating group work, which are listed at the end of this post. In short, successful group activities in online courses need:

1) clear and detailed instructions.
2)  a thorough description of the purpose of the assignment, explaining why a group project is required over an individual activity. Highlighting how the student will benefit is a tactic that can contribute to a higher level of motivation.
3)  access to technical tools that effectively support group collaboration, i.e. a dedicated discussion venue for each group (numerous LMS platforms support dedicated group space).

What happens When Group Work Goes Haywire

1) Technical ‘Glitches': excerpts from the course instructor’s announcements in Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application.

Posted 10:33 am, January 28
Dear Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application Students,
Thank you for taking my class! With so much debate on online courses in general and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) …. I also hope that you will enjoy this class and that you will have fun.

This course will be collaborative in nature. So the first thing I would like you to do is to join a group. You will be able to do this when you access the course site. You will be able to click on the Join A Group link in the left navigation bar. This will take you to a Google Spreadsheet.…..” [The Google server could not handle the traffic - it crashed]

Posted 12:18 PM, January 28
Hi Everyone,
It has been an exciting few hours. The course has just started and some of you have managed to delete entire rows and columns in Join A Group Google spreadsheet…some of you removed people from their groups, crashed the Google server.  To fix this…. [try logging on again] and If you get a “We’re sorry. Our servers are busy. Please wait a bit and try again” message, please wait and try again. This just means there are too many people trying to access the site…. [This still did not work].

Posted  2:24 PM, January 28
I apologize for the technical glitch that did not allow you to view the Week 1 tab. This caused a lot of confusion for a lot of people. Everything is laid out in order in Week 1 tab. Here is a summary of what you need to do for each assignment [Instructions for assignments were 'missing'].

Posted  2:48 PM, January 30
I was hoping that the Google Spreadsheet would work after a day but it looks like it will not work at all for our purposes. So I have gone to Plan B. I have created a new Group Sign Up forum. To differentiate this from the groups on the Google Spreadsheet, the group names start with Group A and continues. ……[This method did not work, now they are on Plan 'C'. Students don't appear to know what group they are in, with hundreds of 'threads' for group discussions, it's quite mess].

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 11.30.48 AM

Numerous students appear confused (as the two comments show here). Though in fairness, it is the first week the course; students are trying to assimilate to the environment and determine expectations. This does highlight the need for instructions that are detailed and clear. Some instructors have found using a video or audio clip to explain an assignment helpful for students.

2) Lack of Clear Instructions and Guidelines: Instructions for the group work in this  course are vague. It is not clear what the groups are for, or why one needs to join a group. This was not explained anywhere in the course description or instructional video, only instructions of how to join a group.  All of this further confuses the technical issue, begging the question ‘why are we dong this’?

Screen Shot 2013-01-31 at 11.31.21 AM

A student question about the group work which is representative of many other student comments.

My guess is that the instructor is trying to manage the discussion format by providing a more intimate framework to discuss the questions for the given topic of the week. Below is a suggestion for the course instructor of the Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application. For the next course, I suggest the following strategy for the group work:

[Recommended] Instructions for this Discussion Assignment: There are three discussion questions for this week. They are 1) …   2) … 3) …  To gain a deeper understanding and perspective on the topic, I recommend you participate in a discussion with several of your peers. Given the large group, we suggest students form smaller groups, [suggested maximum is twenty students per group] which will provide a more intimate and meaningful dialogue. You may use a platform of your choice, Google +, Facebook, Skype etc. [From my limited experience as a participant in MOOCs, some students form small groups spontaneously, without prompting].

Alternatively, you may choose not to join a small group in which case you can participate in the class discussion board dedicated to week one questions that is open to all participants. Since the discussion is open to the entire class, it will be impossible to read all of the responses. I suggest you post your response and engage with one or two students during the week by replying to students that respond to your post, and respond to those that engage with your initial post. This method can provide a focused and meaningful way to gain a different perspective on the topics of the week.

Closing Thoughts
Group work can provide meaningful learning, in the right context with the support of a sound instructional strategy. The example here from the class, Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application demonstrates why a sound strategy is needed, and what happens when one is lacking. MOOCs require a unique instructional strategy, one that is different from small online courses. What exactly the strategy to follow is under discussion. It is through the courses, such as this one that institutions can learn what works and does not. I give the instructor credit for trying something new, and investing the time and energy she has done which is considerable.

I will be sticking with this course, though I’m not submitting assignments, but I’ll be using the examples, tools provided and experience to hone my own instructional design skills.

Note: I’m also enrolled in Coursera’s E-learning and Digital Cultures, with University of Edinburgh, which is so far excellent.  What I wrote in this post is exclusive to the course Fundamentals  of Online Education: Planning and ApplicationI also completed Introduction to Sociology, through Coursera last year which was quite good.

Updates:
Sunday, February 3, 2013, 12:23 PM PST:  Apparently after the notice yesterday of suspending the course, Coursera has decided to re-open the class:
“Dear FOE students,
We were inspired to see the number of people who expressed an interest in seeing the class resume. There were some choices made in the initial design of the class that didn’t work out as well as we’d hoped. We are working to address these issues, and are reopening the discussion forums so that we can get feedback on how the class can be improved when it relaunches.Thank you for your patience as we work to provide you with a great learning experience in the next version.

Saturday, February 2, 2013, 4:17 PM PST:  “We want all students to have the highest quality learning experience. For this reason, we are temporarily suspending the “Fundamentals of Online Education: Planning and Application” course in order to make improvements. We apologize for any inconvenience that this may cause. We will inform you when the course will be reoffered.”

Further Reading on Group Learning Activities in the Online Environment

Follow-up Post: The MOOC Honeymoon is Over: Three Takeaways from the Coursera Calamity, Online Learning Insights

MOOC Development Advice from Instructors that Have-Been-There-Done-That, Online Learning Insights

Three Strategies for Online Credit Courses to Stay Competitive in 2013

Finish line.How will online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates be able to compete in 2013?

The year of 2012 is the year of the MOOC in the higher education sector. MOOC mania has me rather ‘MOOCed’ out by trying to keep up with the latest news and updates, though these massive open online courses are transforming education, despite a handful of details that still need to be worked out. The MOOC influence is so great, not only are schools changing policies on credit equivalency, the Carnegie Foundation the founder of the credit unit, is reconsidering its model.

These changes are significant, and no doubt will affect not just face-to-face courses, but online courses offered for credit. I’m referring to the hundreds of courses offered online by colleges and universities across the US. These courses serve a need for students looking to obtain general education credits [or other] towards a Bachelor’s Degree or certificate. Yet even these online credit courses may be threatened by MOOCs if the trend continues towards the granting of credit for certain xMOOC courses (courses offered through platforms such as Coursera or Udacity).

What can institutions that offer online courses for credit at traditional tuition rates do to compete? The answer is to differentiate—offer an educational experience that goes beyond what the MOOC offers. Below I’ve listed three strategies that can provide a unique and alternative experience to massive open online courses.

1. Limit class sizes for Personalized Learning Experience

Class sizes of up to twenty students is an ideal size for an instructor to facilitate discussion, provide meaningful feedback on assignments and give instruction to individuals and small groups. Up to thirty may be manageable, but beyond that, it becomes a challenge. One premise of MOOCs is the massive component, which usually means students are not able to develop a personal connection or receive individual feedback from the instructor.

By emphasizing personalized learning, students will be able to discern the difference in the learning experience between massive and personalized.

2. Create an Interactive Community with Synchronous Meetings

One significant drawback to online learning [in credit courses] mentioned frequently (by its critics and students)  is the lack of an interactive component as most classes are asynchronous. Though it is possible to create a connected learning community with a strong instructor presence, research shows students frequently cite lack of interaction with, and/or feedback from instructor as a significant drawback.

The solution to this conundrum seems obvious— offer a synchronous component where the instructor at least once a week addresses the entire class perhaps with a short lecture followed by a discussion, or break-out group sessions (possible with some tools such as Elluminate Live).  Instructors can also conduct one-on-one meetings with students for specific instruction or support. Offering synchronous class meetings in the past was challenging because of the lack of accessible tools for real-time meetings. Now there are numerous options that are accessible, offered at little cost to the institution and/or no cost to the student (if going outside the learning management platform) including:

  • zoom.us: Free video conferencing and screen sharing
  • Google + Hangouts: Free with Google + account
  • Go to Meeting: Free trial period, fee based afterwards
  • Big Marker: Free video conferencing and collaboration tools
  • Elluminate Live (which is available through most LMS platforms or independently outside of the LMS)
  • Skype: video calls

The second barrier often mentioned is the issue of students living in different time zones making meeting times challenging. In my experience with synchronous lectures offered in an online credit course I took in grad school, most students were able to make the meeting time. Our class included students all across the US and several in other countries. The session was recorded for later viewing for students unable to make the meeting. I suggest that time zone differences should not be a reason to rule out using synchronous meetings. Most conferencing tools have a recording option allowing the meeting to be posted later for students to view for the first time, or for review.

collaboration3. Build in Collaborative Group Work:

Building community with group work meets the needed social component, where students feel they belong, and are recognized as an individual. Research has found that the psychological distance, or rather lack of community in the online learning environment can result in student isolation, frustration, boredom, overload, and low course completion rates. Conversely, students that feel a social connection, which can be accomplished through group work, achieved deeper learning and higher grades (Young & Bruce, 2011).

Well-constructed group activities that require students to collaborate and not just cooperate (this post reviews the difference), have the opportunity to acquire knowledge through creating a product that represents their learning.  Furthermore, when groups create a product (i.e. slide share presentation) that is openly shared with other class groups, further discourse ensues which can promote deeper learning.

The key to successful group work is small groups, ideally between three and four group members, instructor guidance and sometimes involvement (usually at the beginning phase), and an application(s) that groups can use to meet both synchronously and asynchronously.

Resources developing group work activities:
5 tools for Group Collaboration Online, Online Learning Insights
Strategies for Effective Group Work in the Online Class, Online Learning Insights

Competition?
Are institutions out there promoting courses with this kind of interaction as discussed here? Maybe. But there is a soon-to-be-launched consortium of ten schools Semester Online, that is planning on offering a differentiated online experience. They have  identified a gap between what traditional learning offers and MOOCs offer to students. Semester Onlines’ announcement in November seemed to slip under the radar, it wasn’t picked up by many of the online higher education newsletters. Here is an excerpt from Semester Online’s press release:

“We anticipate worldwide interest and demand for Semester Online courses. With that said our live classroom environments will be limited to 20 students per course section and we will closely monitor all courses to ensure the highest quality academic experience.” Chip Paucek, Co-founder and CEO, 2U Inc.

Closing Thoughts
No doubt 2013 will shape up to be just as tumultuous as 2012. It is an exciting time for education; barriers to learning are coming down like never before. Students are changing too; they want to be able to learn anytime, anywhere, and are seeking value. Any institution offering online courses for credit, is almost obligated to consider differentiating the learning experience by offering personalized learning, interactive learning communities and opportunities for rich learning through group collaboration. It is indeed an exciting and busy time for educators. Cheers to 2013!

Related Resources:
Tools for Synchronous and Asynchronous Classroom Discussion,(2012) ProfHacker
Classroom Community and Student Engagement in Online Courses, (2011), JOLT
Semester Online, Press Release

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