How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better for an Online Course: Case Study Using an edX MOOC

I’m enrolled as a student in the MOOC Saving Schools Mini-Course 1: History and Politics of U.S. Education on the edX platform and share in this post discussion questions used for assignment purposes from the course to illustrate what NOT to do when it comes to writing discussion questions. I use these for illustration purposes to help readers who teach online to further improve their own courses.  I share three questions from the MOOC, describe why they don’t work and include revised questions in better and best categories. I’ve incorporated guidelines from “Best Practices for Designing and Assessing Online Discussion Questions”, a webinar hosted by the Online Learning Consortium along with my experience.  In a later post I’ll review the entire course from an instructional design viewpoint, highlighting what worked and didn’t. 

First we examine (briefly) why discussions can be an effective method for learning, and second explore how to write better and best questions by looking at examples of not-so-good questions.

Discussion Questions - Two Layers of Pedagogy
It’s not uncommon for educators to believe that discussion forums are used primarily as a method to encourage student interaction. This is only partly true. There are two layers of pedagogy to the discussion method.

First layer:  Good discussion questions prompt students to evaluate course content, reflect, construct knowledge and articulate understanding through a written response. Scenarios or case studies are also effective where students are required to develop and provide a written solution demonstrating application of course concepts. Student responses are (typically) crafted individually then shared in a forum. This method encourages student to construct meaning and build knowledge by engaging with course materials, reflecting then applying concepts through written explanation.

Second layer:  Dialogue is more meaningful when students have a solid grasp of the concepts accomplished in the first layer.  Students continue to evaluate course concepts, construct knowledge, but also develop alternative perspectives, even critical thinking by engaging in discourse with classmates.  Students are exposed to others’ perspectives in this phase, ask questions, defend their own positions, evaluate alternative positions, challenge others’ positions, construct new knowledge and further develop communication skills. This is the ideal scenario. In reality what’s described will not always happen, but different levels of learning will occur depending upon the student’s motivation, confidence and trust level.

Guidelines for Developing Discussion Questions:
Discussion questions should closely align with course concepts and objectives. Below are guidelines to consider with developing questions for an online forum.

  • Frame the question as open-ended. Begin questions with how, what or why
  • Create questions that will elicit more than one answer or solution
  • Ask students to provide support for their response with examples/references, e.g. personal experience, course materials or outside sources.
  • Create questions that encourage students to voice their opinion, perspective or personal experience
  • Make specific reference to theories, diagrams, authors, and/or page numbers
  • Use words such as ‘describe’ or ‘explain’ to elicit deeper responses.
  • Review and consider the course/module objectives —ask  ‘does this discussion question support the course/module objective or focus?’ Students dislike busy work— discussion questions without a focus and purpose lead to shallow responses

Consider the above guidelines as you read the discussion questions below from the MOOC on edX. I realize that this is not perfect as the questions are out of context given you don’t have full access to the course. However the aim is to provide readers with ideas and tips for online discussion forums. Blue text highlights content from the MOOC. Following I explain why the question is ineffective—bad.  The rewritten questions follow the blue text in better and best categories.

Question One: The Challenge

Read “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests” by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann from the Fall 2014 issue of EducationNext: “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests”

Based on the results of this study and the lecture video, are you surprised to discover that the United States has two large gaps in its education — the gap within the country and the gap internationally?

Why it’s a Bad Question: The question is closed, “are you surprised?” •  It encourages no further dialogue or application/exploration of course content • Research suggests majority of MOOC students hold at least an undergraduate degree, this question would not be a surprise to MOOC students and could suggest to MOOC learners the course is shallow, superficial

Better:  “Consider the International PISA results presented in the article and discussed in the lecture video. Identify two or more reasons using course content and/or outside sources that could account for the United States performance. Explain.”

Best:  “1) Describe the impact of PISA scores on education policy in the United States. Identify one education policy designed to raise student performance. Describe the intended outcome(s). 2) Do you agree with the policy, why or why not?”   Note: The course materials would need to provide background information, including primary sources. The questions could be more focused by providing a time range for policy, or even identifying a list of policies.

Question Two: School Boards

Read Lost at Sea by Lisa Graham Keegan and Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Steering a True Course by Sarah C. Glover, both from the Summer 2004 issue of Education Next: Lost at Sea   and  Steering a True Course.  Based on these readings and the lecture videos for this week,  discuss what you feel the role of the local school board should be in the 21st century.

Why it’s a Bad Question: Using the word ‘feel’ in questions does not encourage students to approach questions from an analytical perspective • The readings and videos in this module show only one (biased) perspective • Models a narrow point-of-view

Better:  “1) After reviewing the primary role of the school board as outlined in the materials (examples below) determine the role the school board has in the district where you reside. If there is not a school board in your district consider one from this list [provide list of 4 or more]. 2)  From your research do you think the school board is effective?  Why or why not.”

Best:  “1) After reading about the role of the school board as outlined and the other materials, and considering the poor performance of several districts within the United States as outlined in______,  do you think school boards should have a role in school districts?  Explain. 2)  What do you consider as a viable solution(s) to districts’ poor performance? Share any resources that may be of interest to other students.”

Question Three: The Progressive Movement

Read “Romancing the Child” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. from the 2001 issue of Education Next:  “Romancing the Child”.

Based on the lecture videos, do you feel Progressive political reforms have gone too far or do they still have an important place in 21st century education? Based on the required readings (both the above article and the this week’s chapter from Saving Schools), do you feel Progressive philosophy should still play a role in 21st century education?

Why it’s a Bad Question: Questions are closed • First question is leading — “Do you think reforms have gone too far“… (it’s better not to include options) •  There is little content or resources that describes the principles of progressive education or its characteristics thus (some) students won’t have the background to respond adequately  • The content is biased and suggests that progressive reform is ‘bad’ • The essay is overtly critical of the progressive education movement, which is fine if there were resources provided to portray additional perspectives

I would eliminate this question altogether. The question lacks purpose and focus.

Alternative question:  What are examples of education reforms put forth by John Dewey in the progressive era that are evident in policy of US public schools today? Discuss.  2) Are these policies still applicable to learners’ needs? Why or why not?”

 Further Resources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of how Twitter is used:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

Even in Education Everything Old is New Again

“There are more people In the world than ever before, and a far greater part of them want an education. The demand cannot be met simply by building more schools and training more teachers. Education must become more efficient. To this end curricula must be revised and simplified, and textbooks and classroom techniques improved.”  (Skinner, 1958)

what's old is new again sign

It’s been over fifty years since the article “Teaching Machines” appeared in the Science Journal from which the opening quote was excerpted. Author B.F. Skinner would be pleased to read some of the headlines in the education sector this week, one in particular “College in a Box” (Kahn, 2014) which describes how textbook publishers such as Pearson have developed enhanced textbooks and put them on their online platforms such as MyMathLab. These enhanced ‘books’ feature interactive quizzes, tutorials, immediate feedback, and tutorial videos based upon students’ responses. Pearson’s new spin on the old textbook would likely meet Skinner’s definition of efficiency. Coincidently, the instructional method used for Pearson’s textbook programs is programmed instruction; a method Skinner developed and applied with his teaching machine. Skinner’s machine consisted of a program, developed to deliver a self-learning experience for the student that included presenting of content, related questions for students to answers, immediate  and corrective feedback.

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Skinner’s teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed instruction

The expression (also a song) comes to mind, ‘everything old is new again’.  We don’t need to look far into the education sector to find more examples of traditional, which some may consider old, instructional methods repackaged and presented as new. We see this with MOOCs offered through institution-affiliated platforms that feature recorded lectures delivered to students, multiple choice assessments and certificates awarded upon successful completion of institution-established criteria. A new twist on traditional methods.

‘Old’ Instructional Methods
In doing research recently about influential educators and educational psychologists of years past—their philosophies of education, corresponding instructional methods, influence, etc. I see glimpses of these educators’ philosophies in many new methods and education models—with Pearson as described, with Coursera’s model which according to their website uses Benjamin Bloom’s Mastery learning as its pedagogical premise, or essay-grading software that touts immediate (and formative) feedback to students as one of the most useful instructional benefits.

In this post I’ve created a photo post that illustrates the old and new concept with a selection of images on four instructional methods. Included is the corresponding scholar, an image of the method implemented in the past, and today. For description of each image, roll the cursor over the photo; text appears.

The Four Methods Illustrated: Old and New

1) Programmed Instruction: B.F. Skinner (1904—1990)
2) Experiential/occupational learning: John Dewey (1859—1952)
3) Mastery Learning: Benjamin Bloom (1913—1999)
4) Discovery learning: Jerome Bruner (1915 —  )

Closing Thoughts
In discussing the instructional methods in this post in terms of old and new, I’m more making an observation than a heavy hitting point. But, it did come to mind when writing, that if one wants different results, as many seem to want when it comes to education, that they perhaps should be trying different methods, not the same methods slightly repackaged, and then expecting different, (presumably better) results.

References

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

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

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‘Social learning’ by MKHMarketing, creative commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Actors Contributing to Student Success in Online Courses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources:

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

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

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Group Collaboration

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

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‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me in class?”, I considered my experiences as an online student—having more than one exchange, though not toxic, that were strong enough to leave a sting—dampening my enthusiasm for engaging and participating with my classmates. I’ve since worked with students and faculty that have experienced similar exchanges. Though not all reach the toxic level, there have been instances where faculty encountered students using strong and offensive language, requiring the removal of offensive posts within discussion forums and other actions.

Lack of civility in online forums within learning communities is manageable in small, closed online learning communities where an instructor is in control of a class of up to thirty, or even forty students. However, as classes expand, with MOOCs, and other types of learning communities growing, in combination with platforms that allow anonymity (such as Coursera) it will become an issue for educators [and their institutions] involved in online learning at some time or another. Peers within my network have shared their experiences as students and instructors within MOOCs that involve politically charged or contentious subject matters where discussion forums are fraught with offensive, even toxic comments and vitriol discussion.  It is for this reason that I write this post; to provoke thought and discussion in order for educators to be proactive and develop appropriate strategies.

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Community of Inquiry via coi.athabscau.ca

More so because online behavior in learning communities is complex.  On one hand, a sense of presence, or “being there” is critical to deep and meaningful learning and thus needs to be encouraged. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a well-researched framework (Garrison, 2007) that addresses three dimensions of presence—social, instructor and cognitive that are deemed necessary for higher education students to experience deep learning in online environments.

Yet on the other, the CoI framework, due to its two-dimensional nature, does not give us insight into the type of exchanges, the tone behind the student-to-student exchanges online and how they might affect learning. Just as tone of voice, eye contact and body language affect verbal communication—word choice, characters used, even font size and type, (e.g. CAPITAL LETTERS), in text exchanges affect meaning of a message conveyed in an online space. Yet some students will exhibit online disinhibition, emboldened by lack of personal contact, distance and in some cases anonymity. Such behavior can wreak havoc within a learning community—can discourage participants, damage student confidence, stall, or impede learning.

In open learning situations that are not controlled by any one individual due to a connectivist learning approach or student-centered focus for example, dealing with such behavior is challenging, though not impossible. Swift and deliberate action is required by one or more individuals. Even in controlled settings, on a closed platform, or within a small learning community, action is required to preserve a learning climate and community.

Highlights from the Paper:

Below are highlights from “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.”

  • The study is qualitative in nature. Analysis of data collected from two universities, from undergraduate and graduate students revealed “instructors’ and students’ experiences of connection with, or disconnection from, each other were profoundly influenced by the phenomenon of online disinhibition.
  • Students recounted stories of class peers turning “ugly” or “abusive” in online posts, making “personal attacks” against classmates, even “swearing at people, calling them idiots and stuff like that.” One student, attributed this tendency to people’s comfort with the online environment: “something that was surprising to me was that people were comfortable enough with the environment to lose a sense of decorum…like they just lost it.”
  • In most of the students’ stories, arguments and disruptive behaviour were seen as the direct result of the kinds of miscommunications that occur in online environments, where paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are not available to clarify meaning.
  • Online disinhibition is also associated with positive outcomes— In some cases, the student-to-student or student-to-instructor relationship may be enriched—for example, when a student shares an experience that personalizes and thus deepens the learning for everyone, or when a shy student opens up.
  • In other cases, the relationship may be inevitably damaged, as when a student confides something she or he later regrets, or says something that other students consider inappropriate or offensive.

Conclusions
Online disinhibition is a phenomenon that affects not only learning exchanges in online communities, but social (e.g. Twitter) and gaming platforms, etc. Yet learning environments need a special layer of protection that goes beyond a ‘report abuse’ option that exists within most online platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Learning in online communities requires a level of trust, familiarity, and has associated with it an expectation of a ‘safe’ zone. How can educators create a safe learning community in a closed, online class? What about in an open learning community, in a MOOC?  Answers to questions like these depend upon the learning community, the participants, the purpose of the learning and other factors. But it is up to us as educators to look for answers; we need to have strategies and built-in mechanisms within the different types of online learning communities that will provide [albeit wide] guard rails to foster, yet protect a climate of learning and development.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, specifically anonymity in online learning communities. Stay tuned!

References: