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

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“Foundational elements” iStock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

Ten Reasons Students Don’t Participate in Online Discussions & How to Remedy Each

“Why don’t students participate in my online discussion forums?”

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Why don’t my students participate in online discussions?

It is most discouraging for instructors when students don’t participate in discussions or group work in online learning environments. It’s hard not to take it personally. However, one can take comfort in the fact that it’s a common phenomenon—and it’s not just in for-credit online classes, but it’s just as common in not-for credit classes, such as MOOCs. I’ve experienced this frustration when working closely with faculty of for-credit classes, and heard from numerous readers of this blog that face similar challenges.  This motivated me to create a resource featuring the top ten reasons for student non-participation and suggestions for remedying each. We developed several methods to overcome this challenge when I worked as lead curriculum developer for online education at a small university, and many proved effective. I’ve shared these in the following resource. I selected the ten most common reasons by using data from end-of-course anonymous surveys, student interviews, anecdotal feedback from online instructors in my network, and personal experience.

Below is the resource available for viewing and download through Scribd, or click here for the file available for viewing and download in Google Docs. I wrote a three-part series last year on facilitating and evaluating online discussions that readers may find useful; I’ve included the links at the end of this post. Also included in the resources section are links to examples of rubrics for online discussions which may be helpful for instructors that plan to create rubrics tailored to one’s own online class.  Comments from instructors  sharing other methods and resources are welcome.

Note: The suggestions in the following resource are not solely the responsibility of the instructor—the institution offering or hosting an online course should assume responsibility for several functions including: guidance for students including technical support, instructional development support for instructors, and instructional tools and education for online instructors.

Resources:

More Essential and Helpful Resources for Online Instructors

This post features a collection of carefully selected resources specific to teaching online; geared to educators seeking skill development for creating meaningful online discussions, communicating effectively with students, and providing constructive feedback.

iStock_000018547848XSmallThis is the second article in a series featuring select instructional resources—I’m in the process of building a bank of resources accessible from this blog geared to educators seeking skill development in facilitating and designing online courses. Over time I’ll be adding to the Resources section with the goal of sharing high-quality, relevant and helpful resources. This post includes resources grouped by topic with a brief description of each, and an icon indicating its type. For the list of previously featured resources and/or for the icon legend please refer to the resources tab of this site.

IV. Personalized Instructor Feedback and Interactions with Online Students

The level of instructor involvement [or not] in online learning environments is a controversial topic in the education sector. With automated grading programs and LMS platforms that provide automated, yet ‘personalized’ feedback based on student response scores, log-on and key stroke patterns, a growing camp of educators are convinced that learning is not comprised in the absence of an instructor—and is even improved with programmed feedback. Intuitively, I disagree. I see the need for personal interaction and support from an experienced and interested educator. In this section I’ve included a collection of resources that support the premise that interaction and feedback are critical to student success.

pdf1. This literature review paper explores far more than instructor feedback and interaction in online learning spaces, yet it is worthy to include here given it addresses current research concerned with online learning effectiveness in terms of learners’ interactions with their instructors and classmates. The specifics can be found on pages five through eighteen: Learning Effectiveness Online: What the Research Tells Us, Swan, K (2003).

Videos2. Giving feedback and interacting with students in the online classroom is no less important in the virtual realm than in face-to-face; yet doing so requires instructors to be strategic and purposeful in their communication with students, and requires a different perspective. This three-minute clip, Interact with Students featuring the program chair from Penn State World Campus, summarizes how and why faculty involvement with students online differs from, and is just as crucial as in face-to-face classrooms.

blogicon3. I wrote a blog post, ‘Speaking’ to Students with Audio Feedback in Online Courses about providing feedback to online students using audio feedback for student assignments in place of written feedback. The idea came from a communications professor that I follow on Twitter who had great success with this method; her students loved it.  Apparently so do many other students [and instructors] based upon the feedback and reaction from readers. The post explains how-to give audio feedback and what tools to use. The comments within the post are also helpful.

Website Link4. This web article provides three solid strategies for communicating with online students, as a class and individually. Though not specific to skill development for educators, there is helpful information here including how to use a rubric for structuring feedback for students: How to Provide Fair and Effective Feedback in Asynchronous Courses, Gruenbaum, E. (2010).

V.  Fostering Asynchronous Student Discussions

pdf1. Asynchronous discussions that are incorporated into curriculum for online courses can build student engagement and support higher levels of achievement and learning. However in order that forum discussions are successful and not viewed as busy work by students, discussions must be thoughtfully planned before the course begins, and need to be facilitated and monitored once the course is underway. This peer-reviewed article provides the foundational knowledge that educators require to construct the conditions, parameters, and student guidelines for successful and meaningful synchronous discussions:  Essential Elements in Designing Online Discussions to Promote Cognitive Presence — A Practical Experience.

Videos2.  This six-minute video, Conducting effective online discussions from the COFA series Learning to Teaching Online, provides educators with skill development and strategies for managing and facilitating effective online discussions and how to engage students in the process. I can’t say enough about this series from COFA—skill development in a concise format, honed to specific topics, that can be accessed easily by educators for their own skill development when needed.

Website Link3. There are several essential elements inherent to successful asynchronous discussions, and this web article, 5 Tips for Hosting Online Class Discussions,  summarizes the five core elements, including the need to grade student contributions. From my experience, assigning a grade for discussion contributions is necessary to foster participation in for-credit classes, including using a rubric that outlines expectations which increases the chances for a higher quality level of contributions.

Closing
As mentioned previously, this is the second post where I’ve shared a set of resources, and I’ve been encouraged by the number of positive responses and excellent suggestions. Thank you! There’s more to come, and in my next post that features resources, I’ll share ones specific to instructional design and pedagogy.

Essential Resources for Educators of Online and Blended Courses

back-to-school_imageIt’s that time of year when educators seek fresh ideas and strategies to create meaningful learning experiences for their students. I too have plans for the upcoming school-year; one of my goals is to create a robust selection of useful resources accessible here on Online Learning Insights. This resource bank will be a list of links by topic targeted to professors, instructors and instructional designers looking for ideas, inspiration and/or skill development specific to online or blended learning and instruction. The resources are carefully selected; I’ve included only those that I refer to consistently, are of high-quality and support knowledge and skill development.

This post [part I] is the beginning of the resource section—it will grow over time. If you have ideas for additional topics, or would like to suggest a resource, please do so by adding a comment to this post.

I. Skills for Teaching Online [Introductory]

Though there are a plethora of available resources specific to skill development for teaching online, I’ve chosen resources to share here that are targeted to educators that are in the developmental phase of teaching blended or online courses.

1. Shifting from a face-to-face setting to an online classroom requires not only a different skill set, by a different mindset. Georgian College’s Center for Teaching and Learning site includes excellent information on online and blended teaching skills for the novice instructor including this article—Key Shifts in Thinking for Online Learning. It’s a good starting point for instructors moving from face-to-face to the online classroom.

2. The most comprehensive resource for teaching online [in my opinion] is the COFA series, Learning to Teach Online produced with University of New South Wales (UNSW).  The program features a series of videos [maximum of six minutes each] available on Youtube. The primary objective of the program is for viewers to gain an understanding of successful online teaching pedagogies. One of the twenty-five videos in the series is  Planning your Online Class which explores the key elements educators need to consider when planning an online or blended class.

3. Teaching presence in the online environment occurs when students feel that the instructor is ‘there’. Though online presence sounds vague, it’s instrumental in supporting meaningful learning. This slideshare Understanding Teaching Presence Online provides an overview of how to establish presence and outlines why it’s essential.

4. Thanks to University of Minnesota State Colleges for this excellent mini-course on how to teach online, Getting Started Online, Advantages, Disadvantages and How to Begin. Open to anyone—this resource is applicable to novice and experienced educators.

II.  Using Rubrics for Effective Instruction and Course Design

1. Chico University created this site for instructors and designers of online courses with the concept of the Rubric for Online Instruction (ROI).  It includes excellent tools for educators wanting to evaluate their own online courses and can be used for course redesign. Though it is geared to faculty teaching within a higher education setting, it can be adapted to other environments.

The Rubric for Online Instruction (ROI) is a tool that can be used to create or evaluate the design of a fully online or blended course.  The rubric is designed to answer the question, “What does high-quality online instruction look like?” http://www.csuchico.edu/roi/the_rubric.shtml

2.  University of West Georgia created a webpage specific to rubrics and included resources about online instruction for faculty including the Five Star Rubric for Online Instruction.

3. This slideshare presentation, Rubrics for College – The Easy Steps Way,  provides a good overview of rubrics that instructors can create for students—tools that provide clarity and guidelines for student assignments and assessments. The presentation covers the why, and the how of rubric implementation applicable to face-to-face and online environments.  More resources specific to student rubrics to follow.

III. Blended Learning and Teaching [Introductory]

Blended Learning Panel @richardgorrie et al [v...
Blended Learning (Photo credit: giulia.forsythe)
Blended learning has several definitions, though overall the idea is that a portion of the face-to-face class time is augmented or replaced by online instruction. In most cases it involves reduced class time, but not always. Results from numerous studies show an increase in student performance with the blended format, more so when the curriculum is adapted and modified to maximize each instructional method.

1. The Clayton Christen Institute gives an overview of the blended model for K-12 and higher education on its site in a section dedicated to defining Blended Learning. The pages include links to several research reports on Blended Learning specific to K-12.

2. This resource, the mother-of-all resources on blended learning from EDUCAUSE, is a comprehensive tool that provides links to numerous research reports on blended learning outcomes as well as how-to tools for educators wanting to implement their own blended learning programs.  The Blended Learning Toolkit: Improving Student Performance and Retention also includes the Blended Learning Toolkit, a how-to resource provided by the University of Central Florida, is an open educational resource licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike license.

3.  Georgian College is one of several higher education institutions implementing the blended model. The schools’ site provides an overview of the pedagogy associated with blended learning, and compares it to online and face-to-face instruction – Blended Online/Face-to-face Courses.  Purdue University, another school recently implementing  blended courses across campus, has a web page designed for its faculty, though it still offers helpful insights for educators of any institution.

Closing
I’ve only just started sharing the many resources that I’ve collected, and in my next post, I’ll share resources on fostering discussion in online environments, learning theory—exploring how people learn, and finally, the pedagogy of MOOCs.

The second post featuring resources for online instructors is available here.