How-to Integrate Collaboration Tools to Support Online Learning

I share here a five-step strategy for integrating technology tools to support meaningful learning in online courses. However I’d be misleading readers if I suggested that effective technology integration is as easy as following a five-step formula; I’m likely not sharing anything new with readers by emphasizing it’s not. A key component when creating effective online learning experiences with ed-tech tools that lead to collaborative learning (and not busy-work that students abhor), is determining why and how.

busyworkThe why and how needs to be determined well before implementing the five steps. I was inspired to delve into the strategy behind ed-tech integration after reading “10+ No-Signup Collaboration Tools You Can Use in 10 Seconds” (Couch, 2015). I tweeted the article last week (below). It got several views and likes which is not surprising since most online instructors are looking to incorporate interactivity into their courses, and the tools featured were free and easy to use. Yet despite my enthusiasm for the tools, I felt the need to share a strategy for integrating tools effectively. The tools are alluring—as the article’s headline suggests the collaborative tools ‘can be used in 10 seconds’. Yet each tool on its own is neutral, zero-sum; there’s no value-added when using technology for student learning unless integrated with a purposeful strategy, and an approach that’s grounded in the why and how.

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 2.46.22 PMThe Approach
Approaching technology integration as a multi-dimensional, strategic exercise is not the usual approach by course designers and instructors, yet is essential to creating conditions for learning. Though it sounds obvious, the first phase is exploring what, why and how. This phase determines if the tool ‘makes sense’—sense within the context of the course learning objectives, and the sense it makes to students. Both are at the core of every effective education technology strategy, yet in my work experience I’ve found that integrating tech tools into learning activities is one of the most neglected areas of course design even though it has significant impact on student learning.

WHAT and WHY
Teachers and faculty need to know why they are using the tool, which begins with what—what learning goal or objective does using a learning activity support? What kind of learning activity, e.g collaborative group project, discussing forum posting, group case study analysis, will support student learning that will lead to meeting the objective? What tool can potentially support the activity? Next is whywhy would or should I use the tech tool? Why this tool over another? It seems so simple to ask ‘why’, yet the answers can often be complex; all the more reason to begin with why.

identity-crisis
Students also need to know the ‘why’ behind the learning activity and the tool

But finding answers to the why for educators is not enough—students need to know the why—why are they doing this activity? The latter is often missed. Educating students about the purpose of a learning activity is an essential element that supports pedagogically sound teaching, where a tool is used not for the sake of using a tech tool, but used purposefully. Otherwise it’s becomes a busy-work assignment—using a ‘cool’ tool. So how do we let students know the why? We tell them. This means when writing a brief description of a learning activity for students to include within the course site that includes a sentence that begins with “The purpose of this activity is to….” . The activity purpose should align with one of more of the course learning objectives. Articulating the purpose makes clear that the activity is worthy of students’ time and commitment; student motivation is far higher when they know the purpose and premise.

HOW
When approaching the how, educators should consider a tool from two perspectives: 1) the technical aspects of the tool—how it works, what it does, how feasible it is to use the tool within a course, e.g. whether students will be able to access the tool easily, the learning curve for using the tool, and 2) the pedagogical aspects—how the tool will support learning and how it’s use will be described to students so that it’s becomes seamless experience so the focus is on learning and not the technology. Which is why as mentioned, there are several considerations, layers of complexity to integrating tech tools. The five-step strategy (below) addresses most of the factors that need consideration when integration educational technology, while the first phase of examining why, why and how addresses the remaining.

Five-Step Strategy for Tech Integration

  1. Consider: Will this application/tool enhance, improve instruction or motivate learners? What similar applications/tools are there to consider? I
  2. Review the learning objectives for the  course or lesson to determine what activity (with support of the tool ) will support learning. Which tool might best support meeting objective?
  3. Identify the content/concepts students need to learn – review, augment and/or update content that students may need to access during activity
  4. Assess the ed-tech application/tools – will it encourage students to apply the content and learn the material, construct knowledge and promote critical thinking?
  5. Select and implement the best application. Create concise instructions of how-to use tool. Allow time for learning of tool and learning of course content
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Graphic: 5-Step Strategy to Ed-Tech Integration (Morrison, 2012)

The HOW for Students
I would like to highlight for readers Step 5—the last component of step five that addresses the student—how are students going to use the tool and how will it be explained to them?. This component including in the course concise instructions for the activity and the use of the tool, is critical yet often overlooked. Students need to know why they are doing a collaborative activity, then how they are going to go about it, what tool they will use so that they can get down to business of learning. Otherwise their time is spent of figuring out what they are doing and why they are doing it.  Wasted time.

Closing
There are so many tremendous educational technology tools and applications available now, more than ever before, but unless they are integrated effectively and thoughtfully, it’s a zero-sum game—zero learning and a waste of resources.

Collaborative Tools

References

 

MOOC Quality Comes Down To This: Effective Course Design

“Design brings forth what would not come naturally”
                                —Klaus Krippendorff, Professor of Cybernetics, Language,and Culture

designThere’s little data to go on to determine the quality of learning outcomes in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Traditional education measures the quality of learning with a variety of assessment methods against a set of established criteria or objectives. But MOOCs don’t fit into the traditional education mold and given it’s usually unclear what the intended outcomes are for MOOCs, assessment is challenging (Gaebel, 2013). If the objective is to deliver quality learning there’s little to go on except for low completion rates and even smaller percentages of student rankings of their perceptions of learning (via end-of-MOOC surveys). A recent study attempts to address MOOC quality by assessing instructional quality of 76 MOOCs—50 xMOOCs offered on dedicated MOOC platforms and 26 cMOOCs or connectivist MOOCs (Margaryan, Bianco & Littlejohn, 2015). My aim in this post is to share results of the study and outline the framework used to evaluate the MOOCs in an effort to highlight how a course design framework is critical to developing quality learning experiences within MOOCs.

Factors Affecting Quality Course Design
Course design is a critical to delivering quality learning through online courses and MOOCs, yet it’s rarely mentioned in literature and articles discussing MOOC and online course outcomes. This study fills a gap. It determined that while most MOOCs were well-packaged, design quality was low. Out of a possible 72 points that each MOOC could score, not one MOOC scored above 28 points (p. 82).  Reasons vary, but I see it as absence of one or a combination of: skill set of course designer(s), time, and/or a structured process that includes a course design framework.

My view is that an online course takes on a persona of the instructor where the course guides and promotes part of the learning process as an instructor would. This thinking requires a different design approach—a different mindset than one used for traditional courses. A well-designed course also provides a learning path that students can follow and influence. A path that includes: quality, varied and curated resources, methods that encourage active learning whether individually or within self-selected groups, places for students to engage and share where they also act as contributors to the course. The latter is key—students should be able to shape the course through application of course concepts using their existing knowledge and experience.

Overview of the Study & “First Principles of Instruction”
The study analyzed quality through the lens of the Merrill+ model, a framework based on the “First Principles of Instruction” framework of David Merill (2002). Merill’s model is remarkably thorough, detailed and thoughtful in its inclusion and application of learning theories and approaches incorporating components of R. Gagné and H. Gardner’s theories as well as models of instructional design. First Principles also aligns closely with Malcolm Knowles’ adult learning theory andragogy, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. There’s significant research in support of Merrill’s theory suggesting it’s a credible, perspective tool to evaluate curriculum design of traditional, online courses and MOOCs (Frick et al. 2007; Margaryan et al., 2015).

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Merrill’s’ model is grounded in the practical as shown by figure 1 which describes how his five principles focus on problem-focused learning (Merrill, 2002).

Ten Principles of the Merrill+ Model
Margaryan and Collins added five additional principles to Merill’s First Principles to create Merrill+ Model which builds on Merrill’s philosophy and synthesizes contemporary instructional theories and practices (2014). The 10 principles of Merrill+ Model:

Learning is promoted…

  1. Problem Centered Learning: …when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems
  2. Activation: …when learners activate existing knowledge, experience or a skill set as a foundation for creating new knowledge and/or skills.
  3. Demonstration: …when learners observe a demonstration [that includes learning of new knowledge via a primary resource] of the skill [knowledge] to be learned.
  4. Application: …when learners apply their new knowledge or skill through discussion, written work, or creation of an artifact to solve a problem.
  5. Integration: …when new knowledge is integrated and into the learner’s context
  6. Collective knowledge: …when learners contribute to the collective knowledge of a subject or topic
  7. Collaboration: …when learners collaborate with others to expand knowledge of individuals and a community of practice
  8. Differentiation: …when learners are provided with different avenues of learning, according to their need, e.g. scaffolding
  9. Authentic resources: …when quality learning resources are curated from and applicable to real world problems
  10. Feedback: …when learners are given expert feedback on their performance

Closing Thoughts
There are other course design frameworks that can be used as alternatives to the Merrill+ Model, Khan’s e-Learning Framework (I’ll be writing about Khan’s Framework next month) and the Dick and Carey model for instance. Some institutions develop their own course design model as Purdue University did with its IMPACT model. The key to MOOC quality is selecting, then following a framework grounded in learning theory that supports an effective course design process that delivers quality learning experiences.

References

  • Frick, T., Chadha, R., Watson, C., Wang, Y., & Green, P. (2007). Theory-based course evaluation: Nine Scales for measuring teaching and learning quality. Retrieved from  http://www.indiana.edu/~tedfrick/TALQ.pdf
  • Gaeleb, D. (2013). MOOCs: Massive open online courses. (Tech.). European University Association. Retrieved from http://www.eua.be/Libraries/publication/EUA_Occasional_papers_MOOCs
  • Margaryan, A., Bianco, M., & Littlejohn, A. (2014). Instructional quality of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Computers & Education. 80. 77–83. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.005
  • Merrill, D. M. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 43-59. doi:10.1057/9781137394644.0012

How to Make Learning Matter to Online Students

Learn_ALevine
“Classic Learning” by Alan Levine on Flickr

One of the core premises of “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning” is to make learning matter to students (Brown, Rodediger & McDaniel, 2014). The authors emphasize that learning is stronger when it matters, when the abstract is made concrete and personal. Intuitively it’s a logical premise; of course we want learning to matter to students, where learning is relevant and applicable to their contexts. Yet how do we know if students perceive course concepts as relevant and meaningful? And even if they don’t, does this matter? The consensus is that it does. Evidence indicates that when learning is relevant, students are motivated and engaged→ learning is more effective and outcomes are more likely achieved. This phenomenon is described in “Make it Stick”  and in recent research (Bernard, 2010). In practice, I’ve seen how students are more likely to engage and participate in online courses when assignments encourage them to apply course concepts and ideas by building on their existing knowledge and experience.

Framework for Relevant Learning – Andragogy
The concept of making learning relevant to students is not new. Malcolm Knowles, creator of andragogy the theory of adult learning, outlines a set of assumptions of how adults learn; relevance is a core element (1984). Andragogy suggests adults learn differently than children, and learning programs tailored to characteristics of adult students, such as work experience, existing knowledge and life situations, are more likely to motivate and engage students in the learning process. Below are core assumptions of andragogy that serve as guidelines for making learning matter to students:

1. Adults need to know why they need to learn something
2. Adults need to learn ‘experientially’
3. Adults approach learning as problem-solving
4. Adults learn best when the topic is of immediate value.

Online Student_ThinkingStrategies for Making Learning Matter
I’ve found that by applying adult learning principles to the design of online courses, assignments and learning activities for instance, payoffs are significant in terms of student participation. I’ve seen this time and again. Online students are sensitive to busy work—activities or assignments that don’t appear to have a purpose, don’t require critical analysis, don’t appear to align with course learning objectives, or have real world application. Granted, these are students’ perceptions, yet it is beneficial to explain the purpose of an assignment, to describe how it will further learning and be of value, or be applicable later in the course. Following are practical strategies that I’ve applied when designing courses in an effort to make learning matter. Comments highlighting my experiences are in blue.

  • Describe an assignment in three parts; 1) outline the purpose of an assignment: how it fits in with objectives, what students will gain from the assignment, why they are doing the assignment, 2) describe assignment details and logistics: provide a description of assignment, format, resources, due dates, rubrics, and 3) describe technical logistics and details, e.g. any platforms or software needed for the assignment, collaboration tools for group assignments, where and how to submit the assignment e.g. within the LMS, or Turn-it-In, etc.  Frequently I’ve seen assignments that lack detail in at least one of the three mentioned here. This creates confusion for students, potential for lower-quality assignments, need for frequent reminders/clarifications, more student questions, and it delays students getting on the path to learning.
  • Provide opportunity for students to apply and share their experience and knowledge of subject matter: encourage students to draw upon work experience or existing knowledge. For example in a discussion question activity, include opportunity for students to share their experiences as applicable to the topic. Doing so can be as simple as adding another component to a discussion question where students incorporate examples from their personal or work experience.
  • Create opportunities where students research and/or share how (select) course concepts apply to real world scenarios or situations. This can be done within a discussion forum activity, a blog post assignment, written reflection activity or other type of written assignment. Alternatively, assignments can be based upon a real world challenge or problem the student is facing within their work, community or personal situation. As discussed earlier, the key is to highlight to for students why they are doing the activity—even though it may seem obvious. An example of how a question might be framed—here’s how a question from an undergraduate course in nursing might read “…to demonstrate how (concepts) apply to current situation in clinical setting, describe how this would be integrated…”.

Closing Thoughts
Making learning matter to learners does matter; where learning is relevant and applicable, especially for adult students. Considering adult learner characteristics is good practice that can lead to motivated and engaged students. Yet online learning does require a different approach than used for face-to-face settings—one that considers characteristics not only of the students, but the medium. The strategies outlined here are a starting point.

References

Are you Ready to Teach Online? Readiness Surveys Aim to Help Faculty Prepare

“…the following questions will help you determine what you need to do to succeed at online learning. Post-survey feedback will also provide you with information on what you can expect from an online course”  — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire for Students

Teaching Readiness ChecklistThere are several excellent self-scoring assessments on the Web for students to assess their readiness for online learning as the one mentioned in the opening, yet few for instructors and faculty planning to teach online. The purpose of such questionnaires is to help students identify what skills they’ll need to be successful; technical and ‘soft skills’ such as self-direction, time management, etc. This post aims to help instructors prepare for teaching online by reviewing readiness tools and questionnaires that help to assess and determine what skills they will need to make the transition from teaching face-to-face to an online learning environment.

Shared below are two surveys and key findings from two papers on ‘readiness’ for online learning and teaching; both are examined briefly. One paper discusses student, instructor and institution readiness and argues that a successful online learning program must include a systematic process of planning, designing and creating environments where learning is actively fostered and supported (Mercado, 2008, pg. 18.2). In the same paper, Mercado stresses that teachers must also “possess personal attributes to perform online teaching and administration of the online environment successfully“. And most instructive are the tables within the paper with questions that focus on attitudes that aim to assess instructors’ perceptions towards online teaching (screen shot below). It’s the attitudes that are most important given that a student-centric mindset is required for successful online instructors, one that differs significantly from traditional, face-to-face instruction.

“Teaching in an online course involves more than replicating classroom strategies in a different form. It “requires a different approach—one that focuses less on the amount of time students spend together in a particular place, and more on facilitating a distance community and on activities designed for students working individually” (University of Washington, 2004).”

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.14 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.28 PMScreenshot above: Excerpt from survey that assesses teachers attitude towards online teaching as part of readiness. Designed to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching style and strategies, circumstances, abilities, motivation and time management. (Mercado, 2008, pg.18.6)

Though there is little research that supports the thesis that readiness questionnaires lead to better learning outcomes for students, there is consensus that readiness assessments at the very least emphasize for students and instructors the expectations and demands of learning and teaching in an online space, encouraging the assessment-taker to take the necessary steps and actions to prepare in an effort to reduce the learning curves associated with technology and teaching approaches (Gascoigne & Parnell, 2014).

Categories and Barriers to Readiness
The assessments available on the web specific to instructor-readiness are few—two are listed below. Both categorize the required skills into three areas; 1) technology, 2) pedagogy and 3) administrative skills. Though as already mentioned, the paper by Mercado includes attitudes and perceptions of online learning as one component of a readiness which highlights the different mindset required for teaching online. It’s the mindset of a traditional education model that puts up the biggest barriers to instructors transitioning to teaching online. An extreme example of an instructor unable to adapt to a student-focused approach is from a MOOC on the Coursera platform where a faculty member quit midway through “because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it” (Kolowich, 2013).

I suggest that the required skills fall into three categories. Though the two surveys included below are good, they do not encompass all of the skills I suggest are required. In lieu of a survey that includes all three areas, I recommend consulting the “Teacher Attitudes” survey questions in Mercado’s paper in conjunction with one of the surveys below pages (18.5 to 18.7).

1.  Technology and Social Media Skills: Technology skills are fundamental, and though social media skills not an essential, they enhance the instructor’s ability to connect with students. Skills include: ♦ basic computer skills ♦  proficiency with software applications ♦ installing/updating software and plug-ins ♦ internet search literacy ♦ proficiency with features and functions within the LMS including uploading files, grading tools and grade book ♦ LMS tools for asynchronous/synchronous communication ♦ familiarity with platforms for communication/engagement outside of LMS, e.g. Pinterest, Twitter, Google+

2.  Administrative and Organization Skills: Includes skills such as time management e.g. ability and willingness to respond to student questions with immediacy e.g. within  24 hours ♦ provide constructive feedback on student assignments in timely manner ♦ proficiency with grade book and ability to submit grades by required ♦ monitor/follow-up with academic integrity issues

3. Pedagogical Skills and Teaching Approach: ♦ student focused learning model ♦ instructor focus on supporting and guiding learning not delivering content and instruction ♦ providing constructive feedback ♦ establishing and sustaining online presence

‘Readiness for Teaching Online’ Surveys

1. Faculty Self Assessment: Preparing for Online Teaching from Penn State University is free to use under the Creative Commons license. It’s excellent. One is required to input a name and email address to access the survey, though apparently it is not stored on the school’s server, and you to get a very detailed, comprehensive report emailed upon completion based upon your responses (check your spam folder; email is from PSU Online). CUNY published on its faculty website an example of a feedback report of the Penn State Self-Assessment—you can see the example by clicking here.

There are thirty questions ranked within three categories: technical, administrative and pedagogical competencies. The survey assumes the instructor has teaching experience—it includes questions about familiarity with LMS features and teaching online for instance, but it does highlight for instructors new to online teaching, the skills and expectations required.

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 4.10.08 PM
Screenshot of Penn State’s Faculty Teaching Readiness Questionnaire https://weblearning.psu.edu/FacultySelfAssessment/#

2. Faculty Online Teaching Readiness Survey from the University of Toledo, twenty-question self-scoring survey. This survey is not nearly as comprehensive as Penn State’s, but it does provide a snapshot of skills required and provides in the feedback for each response, a detailed description of the skill with links to resources for further learning and/or information. Note, the selection buttons are misleading on this quiz, when completing it select the radio button that is above the answer you want.

Resources

Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

How much time does it take to teach an online course? Does teaching online take more or less time than teaching face-to-face? How much time does it take instructors to develop an online course? — Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses (Freeman, 2015)

Time business conceptA study released in March of this year set out to answer these burning questions that the majority of online educators would like answers to. There’s considerable anecdotal evidence that favors both sides—it takes more time versus less time to facilitate an online course when using a face-to-face course as benchmark. The purpose of this study was to nail down the facts—to measure the perceptions of and actual time spent developing and teaching online courses. The findings are significant for institutions and educators involved in online education for several reasons. Professional development for one. The report reveals areas where survey-respondents struggled during the course development phase, and where the majority of time was spent when facilitating (the conclusions are surprising). Secondly, results may be helpful for institutions when considering compensation and work-allocation models. Institutions can use the results as benchmark, at the very least the study may act as catalyst for constructive conversations about compensation and support for online course development and facilitation. And finally, it may help online instructors gain insight into their own teaching experiences by considering the experiences of  other educators that have experience with face-to-face and online courses.

This post highlights the findings and suggests factors for educators to consider when it comes to, 1) the time spent developing online versus face-to-face courses, and 2) how much time is invested in online facilitation, and how it compares to face-to-face instructions.

Survey Details
To put the results into context—the survey gathered data from 68 instructors from a total of 165 solicited from three universities across eight academic disciplines. Each respondent had developed an average of 2.13 online courses and had experience teaching an average of 2.03 online courses, and had been teaching at the university level for an average of 14.2 years (Freeman, 2015).

1) Course Development Time: Pedagogical Learning Curve Steepest
Survey results confirmed that developing online courses is indeed more time consuming than developing face-to-face courses. Though the time required declines when the same instructor develops a second or third online course. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they spend over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their (first) online course. This significant number of hours is likely due to the fact that 59% of respondents developed over 90% of the course without any assistance, which included developing content, assessments, assignments, and time associated with course design. The other 41% received course design support from instructional designer(s) and/or used ready-made content available through textbook publishers. Also significant is the technological learning curve which was found to be shorter than the pedagogical learning curve, in other words instructors required more time to determine how to implement pedagogical methods, how to create learning experiences and deliver content appropriate for the online format than they did learning about the features and nuances of the technology used to deliver the course. The learning curve is described as the time it takes to “get used to” the course elements [platform, tech features] and/or the method of teaching.

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(Freeman, 2015)

Implications:
Developing a quality online course is complex due to the fact that technology adds yet another layer to course design and one that requires a unique skill set. In addition there is an interdependent relationship between technology and pedagogy specific to online courses—for instance the features of a LMS platform will determine and shape the course and the teaching methods. Using the discussion forum as an example—the flexibility of the forum feature—how easy it is to set up by the course designer for group assignments, and how it can be used by students for a group assignment whether it can facilitate the communication and collaboration that is required for the assignment will dictate how effectively the ‘method’ is executed in the course.

Online course design requires a breadth of skills that includes technical knowledge, not only familiarity with LMS features, but also outside tools including social media platforms that can enhance student learning.  Knowledge of user-focused design, or web design principles is also critical in delivering an intuitive, learning experience for students (How Five Web Design Principles Can Boost Student Learning). Second are the pedagogical methods, in other words how learning is sequenced, framed and presented to students.  This array of skills required is far beyond the scope of most faculty, who are experts in their field of study, not necessarily course design. Realistically creating an online course requires at least two or more individuals with specific skills sets working together to develop an engaging, intuitive and quality learning experience.

The onus is on institutions to provide not only professional development for faculty in course design principles and strategies, but to provide support in the technical and pedagogical aspects.

2) BIG Time Commitment Facilitating First Online Course — Levels Off After 2nd Time, But Grading Involves More Time Investment
Though respondents in the survey originally perceived that teaching online took more time than teaching face-to-face, by the third time facilitating respondents reported that it took them about the same amount of time as it did a similar face-to-face course.

There is supporting evidence to the earlier finding that teaching an online course the second and third time becomes about as time-consuming as teaching a face-to-face course the second and third time.  The factors that still remain more time-consuming for online teaching compared with face-to-face teaching, even after teaching the course three times, are Instructor-Student Interaction and Grading & Assessment, the two specific factors  that can not be prepared in advance for online courses (unlike Content Development and Pre-Semester Setup).

Implications:
Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that it took ‘much more’ and ‘more’ time to facilitate an online class for the first time. Yet by the third time, it dropped to 25% in this same categories (table 4 below), which does support the learning curve theory. These findings suggest that acknowledging that more of the instructor’s time will be required the first and even the second time facilitating a course, is important for both the instructor and the institution. Though it does also suggest that professional development is needed for instructors—development focused on facilitation skills that will support skills specific to the uniqueness of online instruction. Such training can potentially reduce the learning curve for instructors, as well as reinforce the building of effective skills, best practices, and efficient use of time.

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Annotated screenshot that shows two-thirds of  respondents by the third time facilitating online indicate that it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face (Freeman, 2015).

A startling (and significant) finding of this study is the time dedicated to grading and assessing online students. It appears that the time dedicated to grading students’ work actually increased from the first to third time of facilitating an online course (table 4). Two-thirds of the respondents indicated by the third time it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face.  I find these results encouraging since an instructor’s feedback of students’ work is a critical component that can motivate students, deepen their knowledge and push them to think critically (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Implications are that skill development in this area are needed and will benefit not only students but can help instructors to provide feedback more efficiently. There are several technology tools and applications that can help instructors achieve efficiency and to make the most of giving feedback using online tools that deliver meaningful, quality feedback for students (Morrison, 2014). Again professional development is needed in the area of grading and assessment to support instructors in their efforts.

Conclusion
By no means is this study the definitive answer on the time requirements for developing and facilitating online courses, but it is an excellent starting point for conversations about ‘time’ needed to create quality online learning experiences.

References

Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection?

teamwork

Facilitating group work in an online course for instructors is often the most challenging aspect of teaching an online class. The amount of time invested by students and the instructor in the group process can be significant; unfortunately there’s often more time spent on logistics of the assignment than on meaningful learning. But there is a solution that significantly improves the process and the outcome. It’s course design. Effective course design, which includes the timing, description and instructions for the group project, is a determining factor in the quantity, quality and type of interactivity (Swan, 2001). Facilitation skills of the instructor is another factor, more so when the instructor uses a specific skill set that supports meaningful group interaction. In this post I focus on the course design component. Though I’ve written several posts about group work, I want to share with readers findings from a journal article “Creating Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment” (Brindley, Waiti & Blaschke, 2009) that emphasizes the connection between course design and group effectiveness.

Why a Group Activity?
Before I get to the practical applications I want to examine why creating collaborative assignments is worth the effort. First, there is considerable research that identifies a relationship between participation in collaborative group experiences and deeper learning. There is also a strong relationship between students’ acquisition of communication and collaboration skills (Brindley et al, 2009). Second, creating active learning experiences, and opportunities where “learning is more like a team effort than a solo race” meets two of the seven principles outlined by Chickering and Gamson in their seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987).

Five Course Design Strategies that Support Effective Group Collaboration
Effective course design not only leads to more meaningful learning, but also makes facilitating group work easier for instructors; where more time can be spent supporting students’ learning concepts and developing critical thinking skills than on administrative-type logistics. Below are five strategies to consider:

1. Make the Assignment Meaningful, Relevant and Challenging
Students taking online courses are typically juggling multiple responsibilities, work, school and/or family. Their time is valuable, therefore it’s critical that a group assignment is worthwhile, where students see its value and purpose, that it clearly links to the learning objectives, is relevant to real world scenarios and their own experience. The assignment should be complex and encourage students to work together to build knowledge and gain a perspective that they wouldn’t gain by working alone. The definition (below) is by far the best description of the principles of and reasons for group work:

“…collaborative learning situations, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. There is wide variability in collaborative learning activities, but most center on the students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it. Questions, problems, or the challenge to create something [should] drive the group activity” (Davidson & Major, 2014)

2. Clear Instructions and Transparency of Expectations
Detailed instructions are essential for effective group work, as is a description of the activity’s purpose. If the instructor senses any degree of reluctance on the students’ part, he of she can encourage (via a news post, email, or recorded message) participation and emphasize the purpose of the exercise and the group process. By doing so, students are more likely to see the benefit of the process, and approach the assignment with a higher level of motivation. Clear instructions require details relevant to the assignment, and should include a description of behaviours associated with a contributing team member.

3. Balance Between Structure and Flexibility of Task

Performance expectations of each group member is necessary. As is structuring the assignment so that it is achievable, challenging with enough time for completion. Yet giving learners’ some control over the assignment encourages ownership, responsibility, and increases motivation. Giving control may take the form of students forming their own groups, or allowing students to have a choice of how the groups are formed. Another strategy is including flexibility in the assignment where students can choose the topic, case study or problem scenario. A well-designed course provides parameters for the project, emphasizes its purpose, yet still gives learners an element of control through choice.

4. Timing of Group Activity
Timing of the group activity—how much time the group has to work on the activity as well as the due date plays a significant role in quality of the outcomes.  Sufficient time for classmates to build rapport and establish a ‘presence’ in the class is also needed before group work can begin. Building rapport leads to developing relationships and trust, essential to a group’s effectiveness. Group’s also need adequate time to work on the project; asynchronous group work is challenging due to students’ differing schedules.  It’s also helpful if students submit the project in phases over a period of weeks, e.g. first phase the choice of topic with description, second an initial draft before the final project submission. This provides benchmarks for the group and an opportunity for the instructor to provide feedback.

5.  Provide Suggestions for Technology that Supports Collaboration

How groups communicate in an online course is another determining factor to the groups’ success. Learning and development of critical thinking is less likely to occur when technology is a barrier to communication. Guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is necessary, as is providing resources on how-to use the technology. Dedicating one section within the group instructions to “How to Communicate” that includes recommendations of platforms and tools is ideal. There are several good (and free) collaborative platforms: Google Docs, Mind42, and Wiggio, as well as brainstorming platforms for sharing ideas, TwiddlaPadlet for example, and synchronous tools for real-time meetings—Google HangoutsSkype or Facetime.

Conclusion
There is a strong connection between effective course design and successful group collaboration. Outcomes of a well-designed group activity result in students acquiring new knowledge, gaining different perspectives, and developing critical thinking and collaboration skills.  In a future post about I’ll write about how to handle the non-contributing group member, which is a challenge for students and the instructor.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

References

  • Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009, June). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,10(3).  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pp. 3-7, Issue brief). Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED282491.pdf
  • Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting students’ satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331. Retrieved http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0158791010220208#.VQSo3BDF9so.