What is the Optimal Size for Online Groups within MOOCs?

Is there an optimal size for groups working within a MOOC?

Multiethnic Group of Business People with Speech BubblesI received this question from a reader of this blog about optimal group size for individuals who meet online and are collaborating on a project or participating in a study group as in a MOOC. I share here our discussion via email, and resources specific to online groups that readers may find helpful.

Reader’s Question:
“I was wondering whether or not there is an optimal size for online collaborative groups. I’m referring to collections of individuals who “know” and “meet” each other only via web interactions but who interact with each other (one on one and one on many) to accomplish a goal? Do you have an instinct as to whether there is an optimal size for a student collaborative study group in a MOOC and, if so, is it 5, 15, or even more?  Anything very large would more resemble a bulletin board for postings and replies.”

My Response:
This is an interesting area of study. I’ve done a fair bit of research in this area along with practical application and my observations are consistent with the research which finds that online collaboration in an academic context where a group project is part of a grade for a fully online course, requires involvement and guidance of a moderator (instructor) for best results. Not to say that students’ won’t participate without an instructor’s guidance but that participation by group members is higher with an instructor’s influence (Peck, 2003). Also optimal size for this type of group collaboration—online in a course where students do not interact outside of the the online context, is three to five. This is consistent with my experience where I’ve seen best results when groups are this size. Five is almost too big in an online context: it’s more challenging to coordinate and a group member that is by nature lazier, will find it easier to shirk responsibility in a group of five. In smaller groups there is more responsibility and pressure for each group member to perform. I’ve found the ideal size to be three or four.

However, in a MOOC context group collaboration whether for an online study group or project varies greatly. There are several factors that influence the group collaboration dynamic and outcomes.

First is motivation of participants which is different from in online, for-credit courses; each [student] is taking the MOOC for different reasons many who are not interested in taking the course for a grade which is the case for smaller, closed online courses for credit.  This alone implies that group work or collaboration must be entirely voluntary and not directed by the instructor.

Second is the structure of the MOOC. Due to the massive number of participants, it is technically impossible for an instructor to be involved in the group formation and moderation for a formal group assignment, from a manpower perspective, and from a technical perspective in terms of providing the ‘space’ for groups to form and interact.

However there are instances where informal online study groups can happen as well as smaller discussions, that can be guided by course facilitators. Below are some instances where this can work:

  • Participants can be encouraged to form their own groups; which I’ve seen participants do where they reach out to others in the general discussion forum and form their own groups on Facebook or other platform. I’ve seen this happen in MOOCs on several occasions. Groups may be formed by interest in a specific aspect of the topic, or by geography.  Groups are then run independently of the course with no involvement from the course leaders
  • I’ve also seen success with breaking discussion groups into smaller groups which allows for more manageable and intimate conversations. For a specific discussion question related to a given topic (module), three or four discussion forums are created and participants asked to contribute based on the first letter of their last name, e.g. for last names beginning in A to G, respond here,  from H to M respond here, etc. This can be very effective as it overcomes the challenge of the cumbersome discussion boards with massive numbers of participants, granted the numbers can still be large.

Formats for what’s described above can be the discussion forum within the LMS, or there are also digital bulletin boards that can be used, which I’ve seen used for smaller groups with tools such as Padlet (though I’ve not seen Padlet used for groups over 30, so not sure of the technical implications).  I like Padlet because users do not need to sign up and create an account, once a board is created (by course facilitator) it can be open for anyone to contribute to who has the link. There are other applications, but many require creating an account and updated versions of Java etc. which some students may not have.

Some MOOC platforms and structures are based on the small group concept and require participation, Stanford’s open courses I believe work on this concept of ‘mandatory’ participation by students who sign up. I believe the groups are fairly large, up to fifteen or twenty. I have not taken a course on this platform, but have heard from practitioners in my network who have.

Hope that helps.  Below are a few resources you may find helpful.

Resources

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.

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

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

iStock_groupcollaborationXSmall
Group Collaboration

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

Model_online_courses
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

References

Three Social Trends That Will Influence Education in 2014

8540717756_396867dbab_cThere are patterns within the trend predictions for 2014 that are worthy of paying attention to. There is strong, if not overwhelming evidence that behaviour patterns of students, educators, employees and professionals are moving towards the use of social tools for learning, working and teaching. Collaborating seamlessly face-to-face and at a distance, bringing the human element to virtual interactions, and personalized learning will prevail in 2014; each facilitated by technology. But it’s not going to be about the technology, it will be about making connections by voice and/or visual, contributing to new knowledge, and learning with and from others—all mediated through social media. It will be the behaviours of students, lifelong learners and educators—their use of technology, specifically social media applications that will influence education in the upcoming year.

To date there have been a handful of predictions made by business and education entities about trends that will impact education in 2014; of the few there are common themes. What dominates is the idea that social media will serve users’ [employees, students, educators, administrators, etc.] needs for getting their work done (whatever that may be)—seamlessly and virtually.

Sources for Social Trends Affecting Education in 2014
The following post delves into the three social trends and the influence each will have on education sector. The sources chosen for this article are few, but solid (and are listed at the end of the post). The majority are from the education sector. The NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Education Edition Wiki for example, provides excellent insight into educational technology trends for 2014 (and is an interesting read). The majority of the content used for the Horizon Report published each year is generated in this wiki where education experts exchange ideas and engage in discourse. An article from the Nov/Dec 2013 EDUCAUSE Review provided yet another viewpoint on social media in education, suggesting that media ‘is coming of age’. Collectively the sources mentioned here, and the events of the past year provide a window into what we can expect in 2014.

The Three Social Trends 

images1)  Collaborating seamlessly whether at a distance or face-to-face, without technological barriers to get in the way is becoming a reality for professionals, students and educators, and will be integral to the education experience. With the selection of free and numerous high quality applications, and with a record of conversations and work stored ‘in the cloud‘, projects are available to access anytime, from any device. Google docs for example, allows several individuals to collaborate on one document; notes can be made, audio feedback incorporated, and team members can chat in real-time while editing the doc. Collaboration done remotely or within institutions is becoming synonymous with working and learning. Even more of a driving force for teamwork and creating knowledge though, is our current culture which embraces a global mindset. Collaboration today is becoming a necessity, not a nice-to-do.

Over the next year, students will drive the collaboration movement forward through peer projects, virtual study groups, and self-directed learning via their personal networks, though educators shouldn’t be far behind. One unexpected yet positive side effect of the MOOC phenomenon for some institutions, has been the positive outcomes from the collaborative experience among faculty members and institutional staff within and outside the institution. As a recent article in Forbes states, the silo mentality is challenged by social media—it’s not just about social anymore, it’s about creating something that reflects diversity.

 “Social is no longer just about collaboration. Social today is enabling businesses to break down organizational and hierarchical silos and barriers. It’s providing employees an opportunity to share knowledge and locate expertise.”  Forbes

The article in EDUCAUSE as mentioned earlier describes how social media tools are becoming viable methods for education endeavors.

“Social media tools will continue to evolve and flourish because they are not so much about the platform as they are about the content and about the credibility of the individuals producing and sharing the content.”  EDUCAUSE

2)  Humanizing interactions in online learning, meetings, presentations and classroom learning is an unmet need, soon to be addressed by the many new and improved synchronous and asynchronous tools. The lack of a ‘human touch’ has long been a criticism of online learning, but now as tools get better and the cost barrier falls, the ability to connect face-to-face virtually is becoming a reality in education, and will only expand over time as the comfort levels with the technology increases among educators. Tools used for synchronous chat and video conversations are Google+ Hangouts, FaceTime, WhatsApp, and Skype to name a few. It seems that students seek not only a connection with faculty and peers, but want a humanized experience, including personal feedback, especially in online learning. Asynchronous interaction (not in real-time) that is facilitated through other programs and applications, such as applications that record audio and video, are much improved and conducive to providing students with audio feedback. Learning Management platforms (LMS) also have improved substantially, many include robust tools for asynchronous communication.

Face-to-face interaction will not disappear; though as one educator stated in the New Horizon wiki, educators will need to create meaningful and rich experiences when  teaching in face-to-face environments. Lectures that are a one-way mode of communicating content will be a thing of the past. “I think this means that we simply need to make our face-to-face interaction more meaningful”, Sam in response to the notion that digital delivery will be the norm resulting in less face-to-face interaction.” NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Education Edition Wiki

Selection of Humanizing Tools

  • SlideKlowd an application that captures audience attention levels and incorporates audience feedback
  • Google Docs – Directions on how to incorporate audio feedback for student assignments
  • Twitter for Education, Center for Instruction & Research Technology, University of North Florida

3) Personalizing learning experiences where learners are taking control of their learning, not relying upon institutions or companies for providing education and/or vocational development they want and need, is just beginning—in 2014 the movement will continue. This applies to graduate students, educators seeking professional development, professionals, employees in the workplace, and life-long learners. The growth of MOOC platforms and Mozilla Badges, along with the ability to record and document alternative learning through various platformsLinked In, Degreed, for example, demonstrates how life-long learners are taking charge and engaging with education via social media, as well as using it for documenting and sharing.

“With the explosion of web 2.0 and social media tools and the integration of these tools into learning, it is no longer sustainable, economical, nor logical to leverage an internal faculty development staff to develop training resources for these technologies and train local faculty” Eva, NMC Horizon Report: 2014 Education Edition Wiki

globe_mouseProfessional development for educators will shift to a personalized approach, where educators build a personal network using social media tools, connect and collaborate virtually with other educators to fulfill their own learning needs.

There is much discussion among educators about how effective undergraduate students are at self-directed learning; how capable are young adults who don’t know what they don’t know? This point is debatable. However an emerging trend in undergraduate education is what might be called ‘alternative learning’, where the learner gets to choose his or her own learning path based upon their interests. Many readers may be familiar with the UnCollege program, which I wrote about last year. There are many variations of the ‘uncollege’ learning path, and this too will grow over time, however, this is another trend to cover in another post.

Conclusion
Though we can predict and make an educated guess what the year 2014 will hold for education, we won’t really know until we are in it—knee deep. The year 2012 named by the New York Times as the Year-of-the-MOOC, shook the foundations of education, and no one saw it coming. Will social media influence education by increasing collaboration, humanize the learning experience, and support personalized learning in 2014? Time will tell.

Sources:

Image Credit: Social learning, MKHMarketing Flickr creative commons

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

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

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Stanford University launched new MOOC platform NovoEd this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Designing a New Learning Environment’ course offered through NovoEd

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

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

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

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

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

New Ed-Tech Tool to Support Interaction in Online Courses

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Smartsparrow.com

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

Have a great week!