Why we need group work in Online Learning

This post is 1st in a 3 part series on the topic of group work in online learning communities. Post 2 will be about strategies for effective group work, and post 3, successful evaluation and outcomes.

Group work. Students groan when they find out there’s a group assignment that’s part of the grading for a given class [ I’m no exception]. Students learning online don’t feel much different, and given the time and distance barriers, it presents even more challenges for these students. What is it about group work that is so distasteful? Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking team work with classmates. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

The future IS Collaboration
Collaboration goes beyond, two or more people working together towards a common goal – in today’s terms,  collaboration is about open, learning, relationships, sharing and innovation. Though there are numerous benefits to groups working together in an online learning community, below I’ve highlighted the three most important reasons (I think) why group work is essential to any e-learning environment.

1. Essential skills for the 21st Century
Nothing describes ‘why’ collaboration is needed than a living example – of several, I chose Atlassian as an illustration, an innovative software company featured in Forbes Magazine this past month, who’s $100 million business is built on the concept creating collaboration platforms for companies. The client list is impressive, and company executives “are serious about spreading the idea of collaboration and transparency in how people work and how companies are fun”.

Another organization P21, advocates 21st century skill development and claims that employers identify that it is “Critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, collaboration, and communication skills [that] will become more important in a fast-paced, competitive global economy.

Collaborative skills, developed through effective communication in online environments is, and will be essential to workplaces in the 21st century.

2. Innovation and growth
I won’t elaborate too much here, this short, but clever video illustrates beautifully why collaboration is fundamental to creativity, innovations and development.

Where do Ideas come From?  by Steven Johnson

3. Social and Active Learning
Learners learn, really learn when they engage with classmates, when they connect, share, communicate and collaborate with each other. Learning from and through peers is a dimension of learning both in the class and online that is often negated. In previous posts, I’ve also discussed the need for social presence as one of three dimensions of the Community of Inquiry model, which is foundational to successful group work. Students’ ability to express themselves confidently online is necessary for effective team learning.

Further more, time and again we see examples of active learning, where students learn through purposeful, and planned group activities. Harvard Professor, Eric Mazur is an advocate for peer learning, and incorporates this pedagogy into his own instruction, as well as giving seminars to colleagues across the country about his methods. You can read more about Mazur’s [social learning] approach in Twilight of the Lecture – an interesting read.

This innovative style of learning grew into “peer instruction” or “interactive learning,” a pedagogical method that has spread far beyond physics and taken root on campuses nationally. Last year, Mazur gave nearly 100 lectures on the subject at venues all around the world. (His 1997 book Peer Instruction is a user’s manual).  Harvard Magazine, 2012

For e-learning and online educators, incorporating group work into courses is a non-negotiable, given the demands and needs for collaboration and [online] communication skills. Check back early next week for post 2, strategies for creating effective group work online.

What do Curators, e-Educators and Constructivists all have in common?

“A curator (from Latin: cura meaning “care”) is a manager or overseer [educator] of a collection [e-resources], traditionally a museum or gallery and is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections [educational resources] and involved with the interpretation [constructivist] of material.”

I’ve inserted my own words into Wikipedia’s definition of curator, as I’ve been exploring the term ‘educator as curator’, an emerging concept I’ve noted based on blog discussions and social learning tools developed within the past twelve months. Scoop-it and Curatr both describe learning with the adjective ‘curate’ and discuss educator as ‘curator’.

I’ll admit, I was stretched to see the connection between real learning and ‘curating’ in this context, though after viewing Corinne Weisgerber’s (St. Edward’s University) slideshare presentation  (below), I [finally] could see the connection — in essence, curating is a dimension of social learning, and with the expansion of web 2.0 tools, has tremendous potential for engaging students. However….

Educator as curator, is about social learning, and has great potential with the explosion of social learning tools – yet, I predict, will face acute resistance in higher education circles.  Adoption of ‘social learning’ will face barriers, as the concept collides with traditional teaching methods.  (onlinelearninginsights)

Corinne Weisgerber  (Associate Prof. of Communication at St. Edward’s University, presentation at SXSWedu, March 6, 2012.

Social learning is Constructivist Approach
I found this slideshare intriguing – the focus is on students’ creating, collaborating and learning through sharing. This approach emphasizes social, using web 2.0 applications and tools to create knowledge, with a byproduct being student engagement. This smacks of the constructivist learning theory, of which many higher education educators are wary. Though as mentioned in my post, sage-on-the-side, there is a clash between the objectivist (behavioral) theorists where learning believed to be transmitted from teacher to learner, is passive,  with the inquiry based learning or constructivist approach where the learner is thought to construct knowledge through inquiry, discovery and experience.

The future for Social Learning?  Resistance by Higher Education….
Why am I pessimistic about the adoption of the constructivist approach any time soon? It’s the divergent philosophies about knowledge acquisition held by traditionalist and progressives in higher education institutions. Post-secondary  institutions (in the USA – at least), are objectivist theorist, and though there is progress, change is slow. For example growth in online learning stalled in 2010, in part due to slow adoption (and continued resistance) of higher education institutions and faculty (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011).

Author and researcher C. Payne puts it this way in her book Information Technology and Constructivism in Higher Education, “The problem of the unwilling students seems to be fading away [using web 2.0 applications] while the hostile colleagues and the land of rigid institutions are likely to become the most important obstacles to deal with“. Ouch! To be fair, not all post secondary institutions fall into this resistant category, in fact there are several progressive higher-ed institutions which embrace and embody the student center approach for undergraduate and graduate programs. These schools discussed in-depth by Payne, however are outnumbered, and the ‘outliers’ in higher ed.

How to make Social Learning Effective
Jerome Bruner is considered one of the founding fathers of the  constructivist theory, influenced by Jean Piaget, a psychologist, founder of the developmental stage theory which describes the nature of knowledge and how humans construct it. E-learning and online educators would do well to review the concepts and principles of the constructivist model —  it provides a foundation for sound and complete instruction for putting the learner in the center, and for creating a framework that allows the learner to construct their own knowledge. I would like to emphasize, that the teacher is not absent from this model, in fact it is only through careful course design and with thoughtful selection of learning activities, can learning be effective and focused.

Principles for effective E-learning design using the Constructivist Theory
A successful e e-learning course is most effective when developed using a course design model, and with consideration of principles of a given learning theory, such as the constructivist theory (core principles below).

  • Emphasize the affective domain, make instruction relevant to the learner, help learners develop attitudes and beliefs that will support both present learning and lifelong learning, and balance teacher-control with personal autonomy in the learning environment.
  • Provide contexts for both autonomous learning and learning within relationships to other students. Group discussion, projects, collaboration as well as independent.
  • Provide reasons for learning within the learning activities themselves. Have students identify relevance and purpose.
  • Use the strategic exploration of errors to strengthen the learners involvement with intentional learning processes and self-feedback.

I look forward to the evolution of ‘educator as curator’, and constructivist – I am sure there will be more to come.  Keep Learning 🙂


Image representing Curatr as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Curatr: Create rich and active social e-learning
Scoop.it: Business and Economics: E-learning and Blended Learning

I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Going the distance – Online education in the United States, 2011. (2011), Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

Webinar Round-up: Professional Development for the e-learning Educator

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
Image via Wikipedia

Information is not knowledge“, Albert Einstein. There is no shortage of information given the ‘information gateway’ at our fingertips – yet finding the time to select relevant, meaningful and worthy information that can be synthesized into knowledge is a challenge.  I’ve struggled with how to choose from the deluge of information,  materials that I can use to expand my knowledge base, and keep current with the ‘latest’ developments in the realm of educational technology. One solution?  Webinars. These online seminars are time efficient, relevant, inexpensive [often free] and cutting edge [for the most part]. Through trial and error, I’ve been able get the most out of these sessions in an efficient way.  I’ve shared my strategy below, and included a selection of upcoming webinars  that may be of interest to educators.

What are Webinars?
The term webinar, defined by Webopedia“is short for a Web-based seminar, a presentation, lecture, workshop or seminar that is transmitted over the Web” .  The key feature of a webinar is interaction. Though not at a high level, there is ability to ask questions of the presenter, ‘chat’ with other participants and hear live from one or more experts on a given topic. Several platforms deliver the webinar, and as the user, for the most part you don’t need to download any software. It’s easy to participate. First step is registering, done online of course, at which time a link is provided by the host. On the day and time of the webinar, participating is as simple as clicking on the link provided 5 minutes before the start time, and you’re in.  🙂

Benefits of the Webinar for Professional Development
Recently I’ve learned much by attending various webinars including:  how lecture capture systems are being implemented in traditional campuses and what that means pedagogically (and gathered ideas of how this will benefit the online program at my workplace), the new LMS platform Canvas (Instructure), identified new instructional design strategies, identified a new method for making learning more personal for our students, and more. All through attending various webinars in the last three months. Though each topic has not been directly related to what I’m working on at the moment, I’ve expanded my knowledge base, by listening  to experts in an area of educational technology –  without leaving my office, without spending more than one hour to do so, and at no (or little) cost!

Webinar Strategy
Finding webinars and choosing ones of potential benefit can be challenging in itself. But worth the effort. Here’s what I have gathered.  First, free webinars are terrific, but you want to identify who the sponsor is, and who might be involved as a ‘guest’ or as a supporting presenter. Sponsors of the webinar are those paying for the delivery, not a bad thing, but be aware that the sponsor usually is using the webinar platform to gain more clients or sell a product (bias is possible of course). The benefit is that one can identify trends in the market (by the product featured) and often can hear from users of the product, and their experiences. Often you’ll here from instructional designers, technology leaders etc from other educational institutions. They often share experiences and answer questions not necessarily related to the product. Here’s some further points:

  • Establish a goal of attending one webinar a month – picking a topic that is not necessarily related directly to your area of expertise. I find this helpful in expanding my knowledge base and I often get ‘ideas’ for my work by doing so.
  • Sign-up for for e-newsletters of ed tech organizations or associations. Sign-up is usually free, and you’ll receive notification of upcoming webinars. The downside is the emails; there will be emails aplenty. Suggestions: Campus Technology, ISTE, ASTD, EduCause and the e-learning Guild.
  • Take notes while participating, filing them in a designated file. I have a folder, Webinars on my desktop to keep my notes and any materials from the webinar such as power point slides.
  • Ask questions during the webinar (typed in through the chat box) – they usually get answered.
  • Take note of the email of presenter if you have  information, question or project you would like to share with him or her. I find most hosts are very open to participants questions and feedback after the fact.

Upcoming webinars 

Mobile Learning: Designing Instructionally Sound and Engaging mLearning
No cost. Sponsored by:
Date: Wednesday, April 4th, Click here for details

Image representing GoingOn as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

Social Media for Faculty Engagement: Utilizing Social Technologies to Improve Faculty Communications & Collaboration
No Cost: Sponsored by GoingOn
Date: March 27th. Click here for details

Tegrity and the Flipped Classroom
No Cost. Sponsored by McGraw-Hill Tegrity
March 20, 2012,Click here for details

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative 2012 Online Seminar
March 19, 2012 • 1:00–4:00 p.m. ET (UTC-4) convert to your time zone  Runs three hours.
Click here for further details (I’ve attended a webinar by this presenter – she is very good)

Hybrid Learning and Instructional Design:
No cost for Sloan-C members, $99 for non-members/Guests of Sloan C
Date:  March 20, 2012. Click here for details

What to Expect in Learning Technology and Learning Content in the 3-5 Year Horizon
No cost. Sponsored by Next is Now Click here for details
Date: April 25, 2012

Remote Proctoring in Online education:
No cost. Sponsored by: Campus Technology (magazine) and Software Secure
Date: March 27, Click here for details

Keep Learning 🙂

Is Learning Online ‘Cool’?

What’s the ‘cool factor’ for Online Learning?  As educators, teachers and instructional designers should we even care?  The answer is unequivocally yes.  But, the problem goes beyond the ‘cool factor’ – online learning has an image problem, a big problem. As educators I think it’s time to figure out what to do about it. How is online learning perceived?  In K12 education, higher education and in corporations, I’ve heard these words expressed that capture the impressions collectively – ‘sub-standard’, ‘ineffective’, ‘not social’ or how about this one – ‘boring’.  I’m sure you’ve heard all of these and probably more, whether from the students’ perspective, faculty, or potential learner. What we can do about this image problem? How can can we change perceptions and even make online learning seem ‘cool. I have a few ideas:

Online education and Financial Aid
Image via Wikipedia

Some facts: online learning
Let’s frame the problem. According to Sloan Consortium the growth rate for online enrollment is slowing, even plateauing (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011). In fact  the growth of online enrolments in degree granting instructions fell from 21% in 2009 to 10.1% in 2011 {this surprised me}. In contrast, there were 845 million active Facebook users at the end of February 2012 [400 million in 2010], and 50 million Twitter users, of which over half log on each day. Granted Facebook and such platforms are not directly related to online learning, but there are significant parallels; the delivery method, the Internet, now accessible 24/7 given the proliferation of mobile devices, and the asynchronous aspect (not in real-time) are the same.  Why is online learning with its ability to connect learners with learning 24/7 at a place and time that is convenient for the learner not experiencing the same growth?  Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

How do college age students perceive online learning
I found this interesting – several research reports showed that though students like the flexibility of online learning, they still aren’t completely convinced online learning is at least as good as face-to-face learning. One paper, Students Perceptions of Distance Learning, Online Learning and the Traditional Classroom (O’Malley), drew this conclusion,

“Our research indicates that students perceive that OL has a significant relative advantage to traditional methodologies. These advantages include saving them time, fitting in better with their schedules, and enabling students to take more courses. They do not believe that they learn more in OL courses and have concerns related to being able to contribute to class discussions. Interestingly, the students seem to be ambiguous when comparing OL to traditional methodologies. They prefer traditional courses to OL courses although they want more OL courses.”

Students aren’t the only ones who are still apprehensive about online learning. Though acceptance is increasing, faculty at higher education institutions are still wary. In 2011, faculty acceptance rates are as follows: 56.5 % have neutral feelings about online instruction, 11.5% disagree with it, and 32.4% agree with online instruction (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011). We still have some work to do.

Why the ‘bad image’?
Looking back to early programs of online learning we can determine where the problem began. Early attempts at online instruction for most institutions were simply adaptations of classroom-based courses. Content was uploaded to a learning management platform  and professors checked in every once in a while, and hoped for the best. Gradually institutions began to see that this method does not work – pedagogical principles that worked in the classroom do not translate well to the online delivery method – and [fortunately] institutions are realizing that the development and delivery of online education is complex and requires a different and unique skill set.

What we can do?
There are obvious answers including improving the quality of the instructional design process, addressing the uniqueness of the teaching method, and educating instructors in the skills necessary for this ‘new’ environment.  Though we need to move beyond the basics, and begin to address the image of online learning and discuss where online learning fits into the educational strategy within our organizations.

Fortunately, there are some great examples of what higher education institutions and K12 are doing in an effort to change the image of online learning. Below are a few [impressive] examples.

1) The Wall of Cool (Celebrating Outstanding Online Learning) : Created by the Cal Poly Ponoma Faculty  – this awesome website is designed to a promote e-learning and showcase successful instructors and best practices. Faculty are featured in brief video clips sharing their successes and strategies. The site is ‘cool’ – and worthy of a visit.

2) Cool School: Online Content Management site: A Canadian organization, COOL School specializes in the development of  web-based resources to be used in learning management platforms like Moodle and Blackboard.  I like how this organization puts great effort into making learning resources that are engaging for the student and recognizes the uniqueness of, and embraces the online format.

3) The Manifesto for Teaching Online
The idea for writing this post came to me after reading this post about a manifesto for teaching online. Created by students and scholars at the University of Edinburgh the goal (besides as a learning assignment for a student) is to challenge educators to think differently about online education, assessment methods, development, and “In short, we’re trying to contribute to a conversation about what a generative and exciting vision of online education should be.” There has been some criticism, and much discussion since the manifesto hit the web. Worth a quick click to check it out for yourself.

To wrap up, I hope I’ve left you thinking about the image you have of online learning, and perhaps what you might be able to do to challenge and take online learning to the next level.  I really like the idea of marketing the image of online learning – even presenting an image of ‘cool’ to the under 25 learner. Seeing what other schools and organizations are doing to differentiate their online learning programs has expanded my views on what can be done to promote online learning, and to present a program in its best light – one that is vibrant, high quality with tremendous potential for a rich  learning experience (and maybe even a little bit cool).

Keep Learning 🙂

I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Going the distance – Online education in the United States, 2011. (2011), Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.

A MOOC for Online Instructors

Great news for online instructors – a Massive Open Online Course, iFactilitate, just started this week targeted to instructors, professors or anyone else interested in developing skills to facilitate discussion, interaction and engagement in an online learning community. The beauty of a MOOC is that there is a rich source of knowledge and information powered by the WWW, yet the goal is to apply, discuss, share and actively participate.

Objectives of iFactilitate
What encourages me about iFacilitate is it appears to be rooted in a sound instructional strategy, is focused (within a tight time frame of five weeks), and has a website with a user-friendly interface. In addition, learning outcomes are described which I’ve outlined below [excerpted from the website].

By the end of this workshop [iFacilitate] you will be able to begin to:

  • Create, facilitate and assess asynchronous online discussions;
  • Use a blog to aggregate remix, re-purpose, and feed forward meaningful content.
  • Discover opportunities afforded by Web 2.0 technologies for online learning communities.

Learning Theory behind a MOOC
A MOOC is based on the theory of ‘connectivism‘ which embraces an active learning approach. One learns through participating in activities. The connectivist theory, also known as the Social Learning Theory developed by Lev Vygotsky is similar to a constructivist approach, yet emphasizes doing –   discussing, reflecting and  applying. Learning comes through action. For example, discussing, writing, blogging (in this case) and teaching. Furthermore, iFactiilate describes how the learner in this course will learn, which is by:

1. Aggregating
2. Remxing
3. Repurposing
4. Feeding Forward.

Click on iFacilitate, to learn more about what each of these means within the context of the course, and /or to sign up.

Keep Learning 🙂

The LMS Divide – Social Presence in Online Learning

Social Presence and Community of Inquiry Model
The Community of Inquiry model, developed by Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000) presents the social dimension along with cognitive and teaching presence as essential for effective learning in the online community. I’ve experienced the robust and rich learning that takes place when all three do intersect, and the void when they don’t. The social dimension in this framework, involves several components beyond the scope of this post, but globally include group collaboration where  emotions and opinions are exchanged, group work that requires focused collaboration and builds participation and acceptance.

Why Online Classrooms need Social Presence
Let’s get to the point here, social presence is needed for effective learning, and its needed to take online learning to the next level. Learning has become learner centric,  students want an active role in the learning process. Though common sense tells us that students are more likely to engage in learning when they feel connected, research supports this premise. One report below states,

“Students who perceived high social presence in the online discussions also believed they learned more from it than did students perceiving low social presence.”  Swan, K. & Shih, L-F. (2005).

What will bridge the LMS divide?
This is an interesting topic and much discussed among educators, which I’m sure many readers of this blog are part of. Here’s one group actively engaged in the discussion, Beyond the LMS: Selection, Ownership and Implementation Issues, and the role of the LMS in the broader academic technology ecosystem. Also worthy of note, is an upcoming LMS Unconference, though there is an agenda, the conference outcomes will be dependent upon each individual’s reasons for participating in the sessions as they relate to learning management platforms.

Based on these groups and conversations, it appears the scope of online learning is going beyond the traditional LMS. Social presence is just one dimension of online learning, and its up to us as educators to make sure the focus is kept on the student, not just the content.  We’ve seen many advancements in enhancing content, e-books learning objects and more being offered by textbook publishers. Let’s see if we can harness the energy and enthusiasm that’s created a plethora of social platforms, that millions are part of, including Facebook,  Pinterest, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google +, etc all which involve interaction and sharing. These platforms give a compelling argument for the value in establishing authentic ‘presence’.

What Online Learning Needs
Seamless integration of tools, for students and instructors:

  • Enhanced collaboration tools for students that incorporate both synchronous and asynchronous tools for students and instructors. Collaborative tools like Google Docs, Skpe, VoiceThread or Google + Hangouts (Hangouts have tremendous potential for online learning).
  • Instructor tools that provide opportunity for giving enhanced feedback to students, such as pod casts, screen casts and video messages.
  • Profile building that makes learning personal –  allowing students to add pictures, icons, profiles, ‘likes’, interests and previous experiences.
  • Discussion boards where students can seamlessly include content and media from other sources on the web, and even from other classes.
  • Social tools and sharing that allow and encourage students to bookmark content related to course:  videos, web sites, e-books, photos or more.

* In this post, when I refer to LMS platforms, I’m referring to the most dominant platforms used by higher education institutions, those with the most market share.


Online Learning: Social Interaction and the Creation of a Sense of Community
The Evolving LMS Market, Part I, Blog Post