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)

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.


How Collaborative Learning Works in Closed Online Courses vs. MOOCs

My previous post about the MOOC disaster at Coursera with the Fundamentals of Online Education [FOE] course generated constructive and worthy discussions among readers that focused on the value and purpose of the MOOC, the role of the instructor and student, and how learning happens within this type of course.

‘The Happening’, by willaryerson, #edcmooc

In this post I explore how collaborative learning works in two types of online courses—one in the all-familiar massive, open and online course, MOOCs, and the other a closed, fee-based course, COLC, which is the acronym I’m using to label a closed, online, for-credit learning, course. There are hundreds of COLCs available from virtually all higher education institutions within the U.S. Visit any higher education institution’s website (Ivy schools excluded) and search for online learning. Following are just a few examples of schools and the availability of COLCs—University of Central Florida, Arizona State University, Michigan State University, University of Delaware, and Penn State University.

Group Work: MOOC versus COLC
Collaborative learning [group work] is a component of COLCs and MOOCs, yet learning with peers occurs differently in each; one is prescribed, controlled and potentially used for assessment purposes, as in the COLC, while in a MOOC learning is often chaotic, student-driven, optional, and not controllable by course facilitators given its thousands of participants. In a COLC, group work is often a method chosen as part of the courses’ instructional strategy, and is part of students final grade. This contrasts to a MOOC where the instructor(s) must relinquish control of the teaching functions normally done in a COLC or a face-to-face class, including controlling how groups form and/or collaborate, grading, and giving feedback on assigned course work.

This topic of collaborative learning in an online space is intriguing and interesting, and I realize how the focus on online learning with MOOCs in recent months has challenged educators, myself included, to examine their previously held beliefs about teaching and learning, models of course design, even pedagogical approaches. This post is an attempt to separate online learning into two types [though there are more], with the goal of  helping readers learn more about collaborative learning and instruction in each learning context.

Network Analysis of #edcmooc Facebook group, by anando purutama

The Same, but Different
It is the online aspect, the Web as the platform, that COLC and MOOCs share that make the two similar, yet this is where the similarities end, [granted each is called a course, but the word ‘course’ in itself can be a source of confusion]. It is the underlying purpose of each that draws the line between the two. The COLC is a course that mimics the traditional face-to-face classroom environment; it is controlled by the instructor, has specific objectives, and includes graded assignments of which group participation and a group project might be included in the mix. The COLC is for-credit, with a limited number of students [usually between 10 and 40], where group work is likely and is part of the overall course grading scheme. This contrasts MOOCs where groups are not a requirement and if formed, are spontaneous—as participants find and form groups on social platforms based on common interests.

Collaborative Learning in COLCs
In COLCs collaboration might consist of, small groups that work together on a presentation or case study, participation in threaded discussions, and/or groups that work together to act as ‘moderators’ for class discussion forums. Detailed rubrics are often needed to ‘grade’ quantity and quality of a participation, and with group projects even though each student receives the same grade, students often have the opportunity to grade their peers.

The reason for this effort in outlining the group work so laboriously is to support the deep learning that can happen within online environments through collaboration. Considerable research supports this thesis and I’ve included references to several papers at the end of this post to that end.

The course instructor’s role in creating, monitoring and grading collaborative learning is demanding and intensive. One paper, Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment states,

Kearsley (nd) points to the importance of instructor skill in creating and managing interaction in online courses, particularly when collaborative learning is required. However, he also points out that most people have little formal training in how to successfully interact or work with others and that the social milieu of online activities is quite different from in-person interactions, thus requiring new skills and behaviors.  (Brindley, Walti & Balschke, 2009)

In COLCs when group collaboration or participation is a part of the courses’ instructional strategy, the onus is on the instructor to provide detailed, clear instructions, objectives of the project and the purpose for the group work [how the work supports the goals of the course and student will benefit]. Doing so is necessary as many learners are resistant to the idea of group work, especially in an online environment.  My experience suggests that group work is most successful when detailed guidelines are provided, with specific directions and instructions on how to use and access Web tools and applications for group collaboration and communication. Research supports this – often students have the will to participate but don’t have the necessary skills [including technical skills] to collaborate effectively online (Brindley et al, 2009).

Purpose and Value of Group Work in COLC
I’m convinced that group work in COLCs is necessary, for two reasons:

1) it allows students to learn needed skills, including how to collaborate and communicate effectively in an online environment, and
2) it creates a framework for constructing and/or sharing knowledge in a given subject area that may lead to deeper and more meaning learning.  I say ‘may’ because this is not guaranteed, but this is where the instructor needs to guide and model learning.

I also suggest, COLCs can be the training ground for students to become lifelong learners, with the Web as classroom, yet under the guidance of a course instructor. Students in a COLC can learn how-to-learn in a massive, open and online course, one where the student assumes responsibility, but within a framework and under guidance.

Taxedo2, by cathleen_nardi, #edcmooc

Purpose and Value of Groups in a cMOOC
Collaborative learning and communication is needed and an essential dimension within cMOOCs. Participants learn by making connections, through communicating and collaborating with others. cMOOCs are based upon the theory of connectivism created by Downes and Siemens, which is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories (Siemens, 2004). The difference between a COLC and a MOOC is stark. Learning in cMOOCs it is not prescribed but self-organized. Participants drive the course, contribute to it, build it and add content, while facilitators provide the platforms (or meeting places), provide a loose structure with an outline of the course [at the outset at least].

Group Work in MOOCs
Coursera and edX MOOCs are called xMOOCs, so named by Downes to avoid confusion of the two [very different] concepts. As I’ve written about before in various comments on the post about FOE, it was the instructor’s prescriptive approach to group work that derailed the course. With all due respect to the instructor, she appeared to approach the class as a COLC. Instructors cannot control thousands of students on a Web-based platform, just as he or she cannot control plagiarism by posting an honor code on a xMOOC course home page.

However there is some common ground between cMOOCs and xMOOCs—they are massive, open and online, yet institutions such as some of those associated with Coursera and similar platforms are applying a COLC pedagogy to the MOOC format, though the MOOC itself, is conducive to a connectivist philosophy. A different pedagogy is required, yet this is the problem—what is the appropriate pedagogy?

Closing Thoughts
What we do know is that instructors involved with massive courses, with thousands of students can’t control the outcomes of course, can’t direct the learning in a given direction, and can’t use an instructional strategy or methods that work for traditional courses. But the concept of the Web as a classroom, that can bring learning to thousands of individuals that are eager to learn, has tremendous potential for many reasons. Already we have heard of stories from numerous students who have completed one or more MOOCs—about the positive impact this open learning has had on their lives. What the next steps are for higher education institutions that are offering MOOCs, and how they will solve the cost and access concerns in higher ed is yet to be determined.  Stay tuned!

Note: I wrote this post before I had heard of a professor quitting a Coursera MOOC halfway through, yet this post describes why this happened – the professor appeared to want to control the course –the level of students participation and, at times [according to a Twitter conversation], discouraged students from participating. The professor ‘dropped out’ …”Because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it, with regret,” Professor McKenzie.  Read more here.

Further Reading and References

Photo Credits: Photos featured in this post are student contributions from the  eLearning and Digital Cultures course offered through Coursera, for the optional assignment in week three. Posted to Flickr, and tagged #edcmooc.

Online groups – Cooperative or Collaborative?

“Work teams Cooperate; learning teams Collaborate

What is the difference between collaborating and cooperating? Online communities and group work in particular has generated much discussion lately, and I’ve written several posts about group work, peer evaluations and more. Interesting, though the definitions differ ever so slightly, [cooperate: the process of working together to the same end, versus collaborate: to work jointly on an activity to produce or create something] yet how each is executed in the online learning environments differs significantly.

I’ve experienced both as a student in online communities – there is a stark contrast between the two – the process, experience and outcomes were all different. Most group work happening online today is likely cooperative in nature. Cooperative group work is not a negative – essentially students are engaging at a different level of cognitive skills (in context of Bloom’s Taxonomy). When online groups cooperate they apply, plan, develop. When collaborating, students analyze, synthesize and construct knowledge, problems are solved collectively. Higher order thinking skills are engaged.


When virtual [online] groups cooperate, it’s a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, usually each group member is responsible for completing his or her ‘section’, which usually involves discussion and negotiation. From this point on, the work is done individually, and an ambitious (and gracious) team member puts all the various sections together and attempts to create a common ‘voice’ and consistency.

How do you create Collaborative (or Cooperative) group activities?

As most online educators know, creating virtual teams, and placing students into groups within the online learning platform, and providing assignment guidelines does not make cooperation or collaboration happen. From experience both as a student and as instructional designer, the type of interaction and learning (and success) of the group experience depends in a large part on the instructional strategy. A good place to start is by asking the question – ‘what learning objective does the assignment need to achieve’?  It is at this level that the instructor determines what kind of activity can be developed, and which approach is most effective in context of the learner (i.e.level of course, experience with online format etc.), and online environment. Choosing what one wants the student to do to achieve the objective, (i.e. synthesize or analyze) drives the instructional strategy, in that the group activity is constructed incorporating actions around the content to be learned or problem to be solved. See Bloom’s taxonomy below for ‘learning in action’ verbs.

SVG version of
SVG version of by John M. Kennedy T. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Can Collaboration work in online environments?

Several educators have suggested that given the barriers of space and time, collaborative work in groups online is virtually impossible. I disagree, challenging – yes, impossible, no. That being said,. according to research it is how the the group task is structured, communicated and supported — that collaboration happens, thus higher order thinking skills are engaged (Paulus, 2005).

Collaborative learning – closing thoughts…

  • Learning happens in the dialogue, the conversation the problem solving (or not solving)
  • When groups come together to solve a problems, they need to use online tools to collaborate, Skype, Google +, Google Docs, Elluminate Live., and need to be introduced to the tools early in the course and have time to practice with them
  • Instructor support for students ‘dialoguing’, is critical to collaboration – this may mean professor prompting discussions among groups and/or providing encouragement and further direction to students at the beginning of the group process.

Related Posts
The Difference between Collaboration and Cooperation,
Why we need Group work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Making Peer Evaluations work in Online Learning, onlinelearninginsights
Teaching and Learning at a Distance, Collaborative vs Cooperative

Paulus, T. M. (2005). Collaborative and cooperative approaches to online group work: The impact of task type. Distance Education, 26(1), 111-125. doi:10.1080/01587910500081343