Five Essential Skills Instructors Need to Facilitate Online Group Work & Collaboration

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

“Specific strategies are needed to effectively implement online group projects. These included such things as how to help the students get to know one another, form groups, assign grades, explain group functions, use online tools to maximize interaction, and how to deal with non-participation of group members…”  Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members (2012)

Facilitating group collaboration in an online course is no doubt the most challenging facet of teaching in an online space; the skills required go way beyond teaching and sharing one’s area of expertise. In the last post I wrote about the elements needed to create a foundation for effective group collaboration online—in this post I outline five core skills online instructors need to be effective leaders of group learning assignments.

My aim with this post is to outline for readers the skills instructors need to facilitate online collaboration in small, closed classes, and to provide specifics on how to implement and develop the skill set through examples, instructions and resources. This post delves into the elements of group collaboration and expands on the instructor’s role by fleshing out the core skills—not just as a subject matter expert, but as a leader of learning.

I’ve listed a number of open resources specific to each of the five skills below, and there is one resource that I’ve drawn upon frequently, Best Practices in Online Teaching by Larry Raglan from Penn State World Campus. It’s an open resource on the Connexions platform, and I highly recommend it for instructors wanting to develop their online teaching skills further. Post three of this series will focus on student needs’, their perceptions of online group work, and a list of resources and tools to set students up for success.

“Faculty members perceive group work as an essential tool for students’ future professional lives.Exemplar quote:  “Even though it [group projects] can be painful for students and painful for faculty, I’m absolutely sold on the benefit of it. I think it fosters time management skills …They may find themselves having to collaborate with peers in another facility in town. They may be in another state to present something locally [or] nationally. I just think those skills are absolutely essential in today’s technology, we don’t just communicate via phone or face-to-face….”  (Williams et al., 2012)

Getting Started: The paper I’ve quoted frequently in this series, and which the above quote is drawn from, Facilitation of Online Group Projects: Insights from Experienced Faculty Members provides sound advice for educators starting out with group projects in their online course:

“Our recommendation is that faculty members ask themselves the following questions before undertaking group projects:

  • What is the desired learning objective?
  • Will the groups be assigned or will students choose their group members?
  • How will students get to know each other and develop trust?
  • Will students receive direct experiences/assignments to help them learn group processes, or will they discover those during their projects?
  • How will students be graded?”

The Five Vital Skills for Online Course Instructors

Online Learning by giulia.forsythe (cc)

1. Create a Social and Active Learning Community
Effective teamwork in any setting requires a level of trust among team members, which highlights the need for online leaners to get to know one another, to build familiarity. In a virtual learning space, creating activities and a sense of community where students can establish social presence and feel ‘safe’ to be themselves, and be real is up to the course instructor to create, model and encourage (Rourke, L., Anderson, T. Garrison, D. R., & Archer, W., 2001).

“It is always important to remember that in the online environment, we present ourselves in text. Because it is a flat medium, we need to make an extra effort to humanize the environment. In the face-to-face classroom, students have the opportunity to get to know one another as people–before or after class, during classroom discussions, and in other campus locations such as the student lounge. In the online environment, we need to create these opportunities more purposefully” (Palloff & Pratt, 2001, p. 32).

I usually encourage course instructors to create a short welcome video (or audio) clip, no longer than two or three minutes to post at the beginning of the online course that welcomes the students to the class, tells the students about him or herself, both professionally and personally. I find this format sets a positive tone—makes the instructor appear approachable. Dr. Curtis Bonk, professor and champion of online learning says this, “Social actions might include instructor empathy, interpersonal outreach (welcoming statements, invitations, and apologies), discussion of one’s own online experiences and humor” (Bonk et al., 2001, p. 80).

2. Demonstrate Leadership: The online instructor is more than a subject matter expert he or she is a learning leader, a champion of students’ learning. In the online learning space demonstrating leadership takes a variety of forms including:

1. Being a role model for communicating effectively (see examples outlined in resources by Larry Ragan)
2. Showing presence by posting messages on the course site about the class’s progress and participation
3. Giving feedback on participation [or non-participation] to individual students using email, online chat or online calling using Skype
4. Clearly outlining expectations for group collaboration, following-up with students that are not meeting expectations and discussing with group members
5. Posting strategies for effective team work, outlining how groups work effectively in online spaces, and encourage groups to assign a group leader

“Instructor involvement and engagement in online learning is crucial. Online learning requires instructors to take on active roles in facilitating students’ learning. As well as peer support, instructor presence in supporting and guiding students’ learning and engagement are important for enabling active learning” (Vonderwell & Turner, 2005, p.82)

3. [Over] Communicate: I once worked for a boss who gave me the best leadership advice I ever received —”if you think you are over-communicating, you are communicating just about enough“.  I learned early on that consistent, and plentiful communication is central to helping people be successful. In an online environment, communication takes on new meaning given the barriers of text communication as mentioned in the above quote.

It’s helpful to learn to use other modes of communication—for instance how to use audio to give feedback to students, or record a video or audio clip that outlines instructions about an assignment, or how to use synchronous communication tools such as Skype, Google Hangouts or online chat.  The hardest part to using modalities other than text is the initial learning curve associated with a new technology, but the rewards are great. Often it saves time in the long run, and students appreciate the personal touch.

4. Deal with Conflict: When a conflict surfaces, welcome it and view it as a sign that a group is developing(Palloff & Pratt, 2001).  No one likes conflict, most of us avoid it at all costs. But conflict is part of team work, no one is learning if everyone is agreeing, or ‘giving in’ to get the project over with. It’s helpful to share with students resources on how teams work, and emphasize that conflict and disagreement is a by-product of teamwork— it’s not a sign of dysfunction, but a sign of learning and growth.  Below is a summary of excellent strategies shared by online instructors:

  • Outline in the instructions on the course site, steps to resolve team conflict, ie. 1) address the problem early on… 2) contact and discuss with the team leader …. 3) contact the course instructor…
  • Include a regular mechanism for peer evaluation for group projects so students can communicate to you about the group’s functioning (refer to example 2 in ‘Deal with Conflicts Promptly’)
  • If needed, schedule a group meeting where you act as moderator to help the team get back on track. Use Skype or Google hangouts
  • Research suggests that allowing online groups to create their own teams is an effective method for reducing potential for conflict (Borg, 2011), though a cautionary note: this method requires building time into the course schedule to allow for the group formation, ideally a full course week, and usually works best when at least some of the students have been together in previous courses
  • For serious student problems that go beyond these efforts, contact your institution for support

5.  Monitor Student Progress and Provide FeedbackThe course instructor facilitates the process behind the scenes by: reviewing the individual group discussion forums to see who is participating, who is not and following up as needed, posting a feedback message to students on group assignment progress (see screen shot below) and responding to student concerns and questions promptly

Screen Shot 2014-02-17 at 12.09.57 PM
Example of an email to students of an online course that demonstrates instructor feedback provided collectively on a class assignment [‘Providing Support and Feedback’ Larry Ragan]
Include small benchmarks of assignment due dates that lead up to the final assignment submission, for example the outline for the final project might be due date #1, draft of final assignment, due date #2, etc. This strategy builds in opportunities for instructor to provide feedback and support during the group process of the collaboration, sharing and knowledge building.

Further Reading


Dear Professor, I Really Enjoyed the Online Course But….

Some of the most worthwhile feedback for instructors is student responses on end-of-course surveys that give constructive suggestions. Analyzing student responses collectively from our end-of-course, anonymous surveys at the institution where I work reveals rich, qualitative data that helps us determine how we can better support students. In this post I share the patterns that emerged after we examined over 100 student response forms from our most recent session of fifteen general education courses [survey response rate was just over 60%].

The students’ voices jumped of the pages of data; students were loud and clear about what they want from their learning experience, which we categorized into two areas, 1) specific and constructive feedback from the instructor, and 2) active involvement within the online course through discussions and activities. This is not a scientific analysis per se, but other educators may find value in what students have to say and perhaps take away ideas to apply to their own online programs.

About the End-of-Course Survey
Our survey includes twenty questions: seventeen that are a mixture of multiple choice and Likert scale questions, and three open-ended response questions as follows:

  1. What did you like most about the course?
  2. What did you like least about the course?
  3. How could we improve the course?

Theme One: Students’ Want Instructor Feedback
Student responses suggested they want constructive and specific feedback from their course instructor, and the timing of the feedback is also critical. Quick turnaround times  on grading are crucial for courses with condensed time frames of eight to ten weeks where assignments build upon the other. Below are a selection of comments that are representative of the many.

  • “I felt that the professor could have communicated more critically on our assignments.”
  • “My personal preference would have been to receive more timely feedback regarding our written assignments. My preference is to receive feedback during the course than once the course is over.  Doing so provides the student with the necessary feedback and constructive criticisms that can be incorporated into the future assignment.”
  • “He [course instructor] was involved [in the discussion boards] but he did not get all of my grades back to me very quickly, especially the discussion forum grades. I did not get any of the three grades back for those until after I had finished all of them. He also did not participate very much in the class discussion forums. But he was …. great communicating with me individually.”
  • “I would like to have had feedback from the professor on my papers. I would get an email saying feedback on a certain paper can be seen, but when I would click on the link …. I would see my grade but no comments.“

Theme Two: Students Want Interaction
For the most part, students appear to want to interact in the online class. They want to be ‘active’ either through discussion forums, and/or class assignments that involve interaction such as a peer review assignments or collaborative assignments where groups create an essay or presentation.

However, the onus is on the course instructor to construct group assignments and discussions that result in quality exchanges that support the desired course learning outcomes. Students are sensitive to busy work, or assignments that don’t create meaningful learning. On the other hand, assignments may have the potential to be quality, but require the instructor’s guidance and involvement.

  • “It was hard to find study partners; I did miss the camaraderie of classmates.”
  • “I honestly do not like the forced discussion forum, though I understand that it is necessary. I have never liked forced discussions, they always feel fake, and usually leaves you trying to rehash something someone else has all ready said, because so many students can only come up with so many things pertinent to the topic at hand before things start to become repetitive.”
  • “It would be nice if the instructor were more active with the question board.”
  • “More wiki assignments and class activities would not only strengthen the student\’s knowledge by exposing him to the opinions of others, but also make the course more enjoyable.”
  • “I did not like the group project. It was very difficult to get a hold of my team mates. I would have preferred writing the essay on my own.” [Often group assignments require instructor involvement to ensure students participate].
  • “I enjoyed the group project and the discussion in the discussion boards.  I really had fun talking with the other classmates there.”
  • “The small amount of students in this course made it difficult to communicate and discuss things with them.” [Instructor involvement to get the discussion going with a small group may be needed].
  • “I honestly wasn’t expecting to like this class very much … I have taken a class from Dr. Smith [name changed] before [in a face-to-face setting], and he wasn’t my favorite teacher then, but his interaction through this course (which I think is more of ‘his element’) even helped me grow to enjoy him personally as a teacher more.” [This instructor has established his online presence successfully :)].

Analysis and Application
What is heartening after completing this analysis is recognizing that student responses suggest they are eager to engage in the learning process. Research also supports this fact, to students a course is a course regardless of its modality (Cavanagh, 2012 ).  We can consider teaching by the same token, teaching in the online environment in a structured course has the same goal as teaching face-to-face, albeit the methods are different. A different or modified set of skills set are needed by the instructor in the online environment, yet acquiring this skill set need not be a daunting process. Developing skills  can begin one class at a time with simple actions such as: asking for, then reviewing student feedback, monitoring student progress, trying new tactics, talking to colleagues, etc. The list goes on. If you have suggestions you would like to share with readers about what you have learned, please post a comment.

Cavanagh, T. The Postmodality Era: How “Online Learning” Is Becoming “Learning,”  Chapter 16 in Game Changers (Diana Oblinger, ed.), EDUCAUSE Publications, May 2012.

Five-step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning

Students that are enthusiastic about online learning cite numerous reasons for preferring the virtual format, yet it’s flexibility that is extolled most often – the ability to study and learn on ‘my time’. Ironically, it is this convenience factor that can cause some online students to procrastinate, or worse fail to engage in the learning process at all, which often leads to students dropping out or performing poorly.

As discussed in previous posts, a key factor to student success in the online environment is self-direction, the capability and willingness to direct one’s own eduction. Online students, more so than traditional students, need to be independent and take responsibility for their learning. Self-directed learning involves a specific skill set: organization, motivation, and a sense of confidence.

The question—can online students ‘learn’ to be self-directed, or is self-direction innate? Most educators would agree there is an element of both at play. Intrinsic motivation is needed for learners of any age in any situation, though for the most part self-direction competencies can be learned, that is specific behaviours can be practiced and implemented. In this post I write for two sets of readers, first for online students. I’ve included a five-step strategy that includes a set of behaviours ‘real’ students have identified as crucial to their success in completing online college courses for credit. For educators, I’ve included a set of suggestions, actions that support students in becoming self-directed learners, one of which involves giving the responsibility to the learner, a critical component in the instructor-learner relationship.

Five-step Success Strategy for Students
I’ve customized the following strategy based on three credible sources of ‘real’ online students: 1) a student body of online learners at a four-year college (my workplace), 2) a group of successful online students from a study How Students Develop Online Learning Skills and, 3) from my experience as an online student.

Step One: Read the syllabus. The syllabus is a critical resource for any course. It is the road map or ‘game plan’ for the entire course—get to know it well. Print a copy on the first day of class, read through it twice. At the same time highlight, then record the due dates for assignments and threaded discussions in your personal calendar. If you need reminders, add those too.  Once the course gets going, review assignment instructions, discussion topics, etc. at the beginning of each week and consult grading guidelines and check dues dates [again]. You’ll be amazed how much easier assignments become once you are [very] familiar with the instructions.

Online Student: “I had work and family responsibilities when I took online courses – life would get crazy! After the first course when I missed the due dates for assignments one too many times, I was determined not to get behind again. The most effective method for me was to enter the due dates in my calendar. I was then able to get a handle on what was due when.”

A note about due dates: if you know it will be impossible to submit an assignment by the due date because of an urgent life situation (illness, work disaster, etc.), contact your instructor as soon as possible, before the assignment is due. You will get far more consideration from the instructor by contacting him or her before rather than after-the-fact.

Step Two: Plan weekly study times. Studying, participating in forums and completing assignments in an online class can be challenging, even more so when juggling multiple responsibilities. Time management is vital for online students. Planning a regular study time, blocking off set times each week is what successful online students do most often. According to the study referenced in this post, 79% of students identified this method of managing their time as critical to their success (Roper, 2007). Plan a schedule and stick to it.

Online Student: “Setting and staying to specific study days was one factor that worked for me. For example, in the evenings throughout the week, I read the lessons. Weekends were generally reserved for working on assignments. Saturdays were also devoted to online postings and building on what I had submitted.

Step Three: Log onto the course home a minimum three times per week. Logging onto the course home page consistently each week is associated with higher grades for students according to several studies on online student behavior. Get into the habit of checking in consistently, even daily, to read discussion posts, check for instructor announcements and/or review course materials.  While you are logged on, get involved and be an active participant in discussions. Though threaded discussions may appear daunting when you first get started, everyone has something of value to contribute. By logging on consistently each week, reading and responding to classmate postings, you will begin to feel part of a community, and enhance your learning experience at the same time.

Online Student: “The experience was greatly enriched by the relationships and interaction with my fellow students. It amazes me how well we got to know each other even though we were often thousands of miles apart and were only virtual classmates. I learned as much from other students as I did from the instructors.”

Step Four: Ask questions. Instructors want to help, they want students to be successful and expect students to ask questions. When I work with course instructors this is one complaint that is expressed most often about online students, ‘why don’t they ask?’ The virtual space in online learning can be a barrier, if you let it get in the way. If you have a question about course content, need clarification on a difficult concept – ask.  And when you do ask a question, make it count. Before you post a question, know what you are asking and why. Be clear and concise in your communication. You’ll be glad you asked!

‘Google Hangouts’ image credit

Step Five: Make connections with fellow students. Connecting with online classmates and building a learning community is easier than you might think given all of the social tools and applications available today. Reach out to one student, send an email to ask a question, or create a Facebook group for your class, even create a small study group. If assigned to a group project, try Google Docs, which is a terrific collaborative tool, and while in Google, try Google+ Hangouts, an application that allows you to video chat and discuss in real time, even share documents and Web pages.

To all online students: I encourage you to apply and try-out at least one of the five suggestions outlined here. Though there is no perfect strategy that guarantees online success, trying at least one strategy is better than no strategy.  The critical factor in online learning success is your role as the learner – the learning experience is what you make of it. Be an active participant, ask questions and enjoy the opportunities that learning provides.

Recommendations for Educators
Educators have a role in students’ self-directed learning too, and that is to give the learner the responsibility of learning, expect success and be there. Below are a few suggestions:

  • Outline expectations for students thoroughly, By articulating expectations and the role of the student in the course, we ‘give’ the student the responsibility.
  • Expect questions in the first two weeks of the course. This is the ‘syllabus blues’ phase. Students require more support during this phase than any other. See my post here that describes this phase in detail.
  • Respond promptly to student questions. The twenty-four hour rule is a good benchmark.
  • Don’t expect students to know how to be self-directed, they may need to develop this skill set. Direct students to resources that support students in developing their self-direction skills. Many higher education institutions provide excellent resources for online students. Find out if your school offers these resources, and inform your students about them. If not, consider including a list of resources in your syllabus for students. Below are a few excellent examples:

Tips for Success in Online Learning, Boise State University
Online Study Skills Workshop, Cook Counseling Center, Virginia Tech
Quick Start Guide for Online Students, Sidneyeve Matrix, Queen’s Univerity
Student Tips for Online Learning Success, North Hennepin, Community College

Online learning has its rewards for both students and instructors, as well as its challenges as we’ve explored in this article. But with a sound strategy for learning, a strategy for education that is specific to the online environment, students have the opportunity to be successful online students and life-long learners. I very much like this quote that applies to both students and instructors, ‘learning is not a spectator sport’.

Update: Most recent post on student success strategies from Online Learning Insights—Are you Ready to Learn Online? Five Must-Have-Skills for Online Students

Photo Credits: Jumping for Joy by Peter Voerman, Oude School  and Fun with Google+ Hangouts, by Josephine Dorado, Flickr

Resources for Faculty
Helping Students with Basic Skills,

3 Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions

‘Why don’t my students participate in online discussion forums?’ I’ve received numerous comments [questions] like this one, about the lack of student participation in online discussion forums from instructors who appear more puzzled than frustrated. Why don’t students contribute even when their involvement is graded?

An important question to address. As we navigate through adapting pedagogy for online teaching and learning, determining the why and how of student interaction is worthy of consideration. In this post I’ll share what I’ve discovered through an analysis of post-course surveys that might explain why students hold back from getting involved in forum discussions. I’ve identified possible reasons for student reticence and strategies that course instructors can implement to overcome each.

In previous posts on this blog I’ve offered several suggestions for encouraging student participation in discussion forums that include:

  1. Providing practice during an orientation period to increase familiarity with the technical aspect of forums as well as the social dimension.
  2. Associating a grade with discussion contributions.
  3. Adding a rubric with concise expectations.
  4. Developing open-ended and thoughtful questions that stimulate analytical thought.
  5. Becoming involved strategically in the forums – not overpowering but encouraging.

Still, non-participation persists. It wasn’t until this past week that I stumbled across what I suggest might explain the lack of student involvement. In analyzing the anonymous student feedback within the surveys as mentioned above, I identified three prevalent themes associated with non-participation. Below I’ve included a student comment representative of each of the three, with an analysis and instructor recommendation(s) for each one.

1)  Poor timing of due dates

Student comment:  It was also difficult that we were required to complete the discussion board by Thursday if we wanted full credit when most distance students (I assume) are working full-time Monday through Friday. The best time for me to complete my work is on the weekend, but my grade would suffer because of posting “late.”

Analysis: Due dates for discussion responses that fall within the workweek pose a problem for many online students given that the majority are adult learners working full-time. Research shows that online students tend to complete their course work on the weekends. In our college’s online program module weeks begin on Monday and end the following Sunday. The initial post is due by Thursday [hence the problem as the student identified], and two response posts [to other classmates] due by Sunday.

This timing can be awkward for working adults. In order that students make meaningful contributions to discussions, the week’s reading, lectures or content presentation usually need to be completed prior to their post. This allows the student time to engage with the content by reflecting and considering it. The act of articulating a response in the forum via a written post is the first step. Discussion that ensues between students deepens learning through dialogue and meaningful exchanges.

What  instructors can do about it: Consider adopting a schedule that accommodates the working adult. Several institutions have a class week that begins on a Wednesday and ends the following Tuesday. This time line meets the needs of the working student who normally completes his or her course work on the weekend

2)  Reticent Students

Student comment : “I am not the kind of person that likes to ask questions or talk in front of a lot of people in fear of looking stupid when I talk about something I am not too sure about. I also found it hard to be able to even post in the discussions when there is so much to be learned and read in order to know some [something] about the discussion. So trying to post a comment in the middle of the week was really hectic for me and I was not and did not get involved too much in the discussions and so it hurt my grade because of it. So I am not a big fan of the discussions.”

Analysis: Students who feel apprehensive about participating is more common than you might think. In the students introduction forum reticent students can be identified. Frequently these students will reveal their apprehension subtly or even blatantly by mentioning their ‘newness’, their angst, even suggesting that they ‘don’t have much to contribute’.

What instructors can do about it: Identify the reticent students early on. Within the first week or two, you should be able to pinpoint these students either through reading their introduction posts, or through non-participation in graded discussions. There are a few options:

  1. Consider making smaller discussion groups of 4 or 5 students if the class is large. Balance out strong and reticent students if possible.
  2. Create facilitation teams of 2 or 3 students that rotate throughout the course the duties of the moderator for a given week. Each facilitation team would be responsible for guiding the discussion for one week. Duties would involve responding to students, challenging, encouraging discussion and summarizing key points at the end of the week. Pair reticent students with stronger or more experienced learners.
  3. Contact the diffident student via email indicating that you have noticed he or she has not participated. Offer support and encouragement.

3)  Student Posts that are shallow/lack depth

Student Comment: I like the idea of the discussion board, but people respond with such contrived answers. There isn’t a lot of depth in responses, which makes it difficult to give feedback that isn’t just repeating what everyone else has said. (I.e. “wow, I found that part really interesting too”. Or “Great.”).

Analysis: This comment refers to an important theme that addresses quality and depth of student responses that directly relates to the level of critical thinking skills applied. One of the goals of the discussion forum is to encourage students to engage in meaningful and thoughtful dialogue which won’t be achieved with lightweight replies.

What instructors can do about it: This is the most challenging of the three scenarios to address, though by providing guidelines and expectations in the rubric for responses as well as initial posts, students will be more likely to provide meaningful replies. Another strategy is to challenge students that provide one-sentence responses by asking the student to elaborate and/or provide further examples. Calling out students that post shallow replies might also address the problem.

Though our goal as educators is to support learning, I like to point out that the responsibility for learning does not rest entirely with the instructor. The learner, especially the online student, owns his or her learning. Unfortunately there will always be students that are faced with life challenges that make it impossible to study at a given time, have poor time management skills or are non-motivated. That being said, educators that understand the dynamics and factors that affect online learners as we’ve seen in this post, will be better equipped to support and guide students in the online learning environment.

Encouraging students to engage in online discussion. David Hopkins. Blog Post
Reinventing class discussion online. Bridget Murray. American Psychological Association
Guidelines for effective online discussions. Chad Shorter. University of Wisconsin-Madison

Strategies for Online Instructors: Understanding the Needs of the Online Learner

This is the first post in a four-part series that presents instructional strategies addressing the unique  needs of online students. In this post I’ll present a model that outlines three distinct learning phases inherent to an online course and how instructors can support the learner through each.

Cognitive overload. There is no question that online learners suffer from cognitive overload at the start of an online course. Many learners struggle, are ill-equipped to handle the volume of information inherent to an online course. Frequently, students lack the technical skills needed to navigate through the course itself. In a traditional setting the process of assimilating information is different – course material is often distributed throughout the course, the syllabus reviewed, quite often the instructor further clarifies course requirements at various intervals throughout the course. Not so for an online course. Course information is abundant, often delivered all at once. Students can feel as if they are drowning in information and not sure where to begin. I’ve been there.

In the virtual environment a unique skill set is required, quite different than what is needed within a face-to-face (F2F) setting. A high level of motivation is required for online learning, as are time management, organization and self-directed learning skills. Granted, these skills are needed for a F2F class, though at a much higher level in the online course.

Why a Framework of Support is Needed
Students learning online need a different level and type of support. Often there is considerable guidance for first-year students in a F2F setting – yet not for online students.  Research suggests that learners of distance education classes are at a higher risk for dropping out,  performing poorly, or not completing the course. There has been much discussion in higher education circles lately about high drop out rates within online course, yet few resources exist to explain the process of learning in an online environment. A framework to guide instructors is needed.

 Online Learner Support Framework
The framework presented in this post, the Online Learner Support model is based upon  the PARS model, Providing Academic and Relational Support adapted by Stephen D. Lowe (2005). The model is both descriptive and prescriptive, providing insight for the educator into the needs of learners (part I) by analyzing their level of dependence over the duration of the course in three distinct phases. Building on part I, part II is prescriptive in nature outlining specific strategies for instructors and institutions to support online learners. These two parts, when layered together create a practical framework for the instructor and institution.

Part One: Self-directed Learning Phases of Learner
This part of the model is informative as it illustrates the learners inclination to drive the learning process through the phases within a course based upon their level of dependency. Moving through the weeks of a course, the student ideally will learn how-to-learn and become less dependent. Within phase one when the student is dependent, he or she requires direction, instructional and/or institutional support to learn how to navigate and manage the course. I’ll discuss this concept further in my next post, and will elaborate on how instructors can apply this information.

Part Two: Levels of Instructor Support (academic and relational) for Learner
This part outlines specific types of support required to help the virtual student throughout the three phases. Support is divided into two categories: first is relational support. Relational support takes the form of personal interaction and social connection which creates a foundation for student motivation and engagement. The second category is academic and technical support. This level of support requires competent and responsive faculty, technical support, quality materials, tutorial assistance, knowledgeable support staff and orientation to the learning platform.

Next in the Series
The model is dynamic and relevant. Over the next 3 posts I will review each of the three phases in-depth, outlining characteristics of students and providing specific strategies course instructors and institutions can employ to support online students effectively. Check back later this week for my next post titled, Strategies for Online Instruction: How-to support and guide the Dependent Learner.

Smith, K.T. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time e-Learners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of  Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. JOLT.

Lowe, S. D. (2005). Responding to Learner Needs in Distance Education: Providing Academic and Relational Support (PARS). PDF

Are Video Lectures effective in Online Courses?

  “The instructor-made videos helped me understand the material better.” (Rose, 2011).

100% of the students taking an online course indicated some level of agreement with the above statement. Though the research study was small, the findings are consistent with what we discovered when surveying our own students in an anonymous end-of-course survey that asked a similar question. In my previous post, Mobile or Not? How students watch video lectures I reported the viewing patterns of our students when watching the prerecorded lectures inherent to each credit course within our program. In this post I’ll share the student response results to a question asking about the effectiveness of video lectures in communicating course content. I will also discuss factors that institutions should consider when implementing video lectures within their own online courses.

Our college uses prerecorded videos in two ways, 1) for course welcome messages, a 2-minute clip where the course instructor introduces the course and gives an overview, and 2) (the topic for this post) as the primary method to deliver the course content to the student. To put this into context, each of our courses has between 20 and 30 prerecorded lectures.

What the Students Say:
The following question was part of the recent student survey, and I’ve included the results after each choice in blue text. Though the goal of this question was to identify how effective the lectures videos were in facilitating content delivery, we acknowledge that this method is one-dimensional, that there are multiple methods and approaches to assess effectiveness of prerecorded lectures. An accurate and efficient method is an assessment in the form of a quiz, given to the student immediately following the lecture. This is the method used by Coursera, which I’ve experienced while taking a course this summer. Our program is not capable of implementing this method currently, though I do like this option and plan to explore this at a later date.

Question: The video lectures were effective in communicating the course concepts and content. [Student Respondents n = 76]

Strongly Disagree: 0%
Disagree:  6%
Neutral: 4%
Agree: 33%
Strongly Agree: 57%

Even more helpful in determining lecture effectiveness, are the responses to the following open-ended question which followed the above question. Record any comments about the video lectures below (Optional).

  • I liked that there were notes and power points that could be used to follow along with the lectures.” [Students seem to appreciate either an accompanying note packet or copy of presentation slides]
  • “I found the lectures to be very relevant and interesting! They addressed important issues and made me think!” [Mission accomplished!]
  • “No matter how good my internet connection was, it paused a lot or sometimes just started back at the beginning randomly…this caused frustration!” [This comment illustrates how technical difficulties have the potential to negatively impact student learning. Having a technical support system in place when offering media rich courses is essential. We also began offering lectures for download which partially solves this problem, though we are still working on other alternatives]
  • It would be nice to have higher quality video to download. The new iPads have very high-resolution and iPhones and iPads can be plugged into HDTV’s. Watching low res on any device is not as nice as watching good quality.[Another example of the technology ‘demands’ of students. Institutions need to be responsive to new technological devices and student consumption capabilities. On the other hand, higher quality videos are large in size, posing a problem for students with low-bandwidth. No easy solution]

Other Content Delivery Options
There are other options for delivering the ‘content’ or the ‘meat’ of the course, in addition to prerecorded lecture videos. The online courses I completed as a student at GWU used primarily text-based materials, though often these were supplemented by other methods, which included:

  • Prerecorded audio lectures streamed, or available for download
  • Recorded interviews
  • Live lectures using Elluminate Live. An interactive platform with professor lecturing in real-time, or prerecorded. Presentation slides are used. Students could ask questions in the live lectures. Lectures were two-hours in length, and recorded for later reference, or for students not able to participate.

Other online programs use media in innovative ways to enhance the program and engage students. One such program, developed by Douglas Hersh at Santa Barbara City College, called the Human Presence Learning Environment is quite interesting.  I’ve included the link below of the article describing the program with further details.

Video lectures are one tool of many for delivering course content, as mentioned in this post. It is during the process of creating a comprehensive instructional strategy in the course design phase, where the instructor will select the best content delivery method. However, not to be ignored is the value the video has when the course instructor is featured and ‘speaks’ to the student. It is a visual image which makes the instructor a real person – a person that the student is able to make a connection with. Research does support the effectiveness of the video in creating a sense of presence, which further supports social and cognitive presence which are critical components to a successful learning experience.