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.

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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

 

Need-to-Know-News: Harvard & MIT Evaluate MOOCs, ‘Lean Forward’ the New approach to Online Collaboration & Why LinkedIn Buying Lynda.com is Good for Higher Ed

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

MP9004055001)  Harvard and MIT Evaluate MOOCs’ Impact
Harvard and MIT recently released a report evaluating the impact of their MOOCs offered on edX’s platform (Ho et al., 2015). The report uses data over a two-year period across 69 MOOCs and includes analysis on participation levels, student demographics, profile of certificate seekers, completion rates and more. It’s a worthwhile read for educators involved in planning or the delivery of xMOOCs. Three key takeaways:

1.  Participation* across eleven MOOCs offered for a second time declined by 43% from the first to second version. Of five courses offered for a third time, participation numbers remained essentially the same.  The one exception was for the Introduction to Computer Science MOOC, which doubled in size from the first to second version.

*Participation determined by number of enrolled students that accessed MOOC content at least once.

2. Computer Science MOOCs attracted four times as many participants as courses in three other categories. The four categories: 1) Computer Science, 2) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 3) Humanities, History, Religion, Design, and Education, and 4) Government, and Health and Social Sciences.

3. Demographics of participants are consistent with earlier reports of MOOC participants: educated with at least a bachelor’s degree, male, and in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The paper reported revealed a slight shift however in demographics:

“Year-over-year demographic shifts have been slight but indicate a direction toward courses with older, more educated, more US-based, and more female representation”

Insight:  As more data is compiled and shared about MOOCs, institutions will (hopefully) be able to make more prudent decisions about MOOC investments.  Investments in Massive, open online courses are significant, yet often the purpose for, or even the expected outcomes are not determined beforehand. With reports such as this one MOOC, (again—hopefully) decision-makers can make more informed decisions about MOOCs.

2)  Online Collaboration – New Methods including ‘Lean Forward’
The article “What Harvard Business School Has Learned About Online Collaboration” featured in Inside Higher Ed  this week presents innovative methods for online group collaboration, one in particular called ‘lean forward’.  Articles that focus on  pedagogical methods in online course design are scant, which is why this article tucked away within Inside Higher Ed’s blog column section is noteworthy.

It describes unique and novel methods for delivering learning experiences for students in Harvard’s three-course certificate program, Credential of Readiness (CORe). CORe is not a MOOC, but an online certificate offered for $1800 that is geared to undergraduate or graduate students with a non-business background. It’s described as “a primer on the fundamentals of business. It is designed to introduce you (students) to the language of business” (HBX CORe).

The article outlines how courses were designed to change the passive learning approach, typical of MOOCs and some online courses where learners are consumers of content, to an active approach that organizers label ‘lean forward’.  Lean forward means that students will not spend more than three to five minutes on the course site before being required to interact with content or peers.  Some of the methods use to foster learning forward include:

  • Student profiles and introductions were the focus of the first week—not course content. The course site which typically features content at the start, instead focuses on students by featuring their profile pictures and bios. At the beginning of the course students are required to upload a personal picture and create their profile before they can view any course content (quite brilliant!).
  • Collaboration needs a trigger – course organizers used grade incentives to get students started, requiring a “basic level” of participation. After that, momentum of the process itself, students interacting and collaborating, took over.
  • Desired behaviors for online collaboration and interaction where shaped at the beginning of the program. Course leaders actively encouraged desired behaviors, discouraged others, and clarified standards for online conversation. We encouraged participants to disagree with others — but to do it with respect.

Insight: HBX’s approach is worth considering. The innovative methods used for creating interaction and focusing on students and not content, is exactly what online learning needs. Though new approaches for online course design are in demand, there are few  public discussions about online education that focus on pedagogy.  We need more of this—sharing of different approaches that can improve online learning experiences for students. The article is a must-read for anyone involved in course design for MOOCs, open online courses, or for-credit, online education programs.

3)  Linked-In Buys Lynda.com – What it Means for Higher Ed
LinkedIn offered in to buy Lynda.com for $1.5 billion. Lynda.com is a subscription, video-based training platform that offers online training courses for a variety of technical subjects e.g. computer programming, photography, business skills video filming, editing and more. I view Lynda.com as a polished, searchable and sophisticated You Tube-type platform without advertising (bundled into convenient courses) for a fee.

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Screenshot of Lynda.com website

Insight:  Though The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the transaction may affect higher ed in some way as per the headline How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges (the article is a behind a pay wall), it won’t, at least not in a competitive context. Lynda.com satisfies a need for just-in-time training, training to learn how to do something—now.  Not only does the platform offer excellent training for programs such as Excel or Photoshop, but it also offers skills-training ideal for new graduates, for example Creating an Effective Resume, Insights from a College Career Coach, or Job Hunting Online.  With LinkedIn’s recent moves to attract college students to its platform, this development will only enhance and support higher education institutions by providing their college graduates and students with tools that will make them more marketable and employable—a win-win for everyone.

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

woman teaching
“Foundational elements” iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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