Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

Success ahead sign

1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.

Resources:

2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.

Resources:

globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.

Resources:

5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Appear.in.  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.

Resources

Other Resources for Online Students:

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).

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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

Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

This is the third 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. This post identifies what students really think about group work—the three most significant barriers to working in online teams and strategies to help students overcome each.

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of Books
Success of the group learning process is dependent upon the target outcomes of the assignment and design of the collaboration activity

 “Working with other people on a real project can actually be a valuable learning experience. The problem is, if it’s mandated by school, and participants aren’t really interested or motivated, that’s not a “real project.”  If there was a way to facilitate projects that were relevant to participants’ interests, and perhaps some kind of meaningful output, that would likely result in a different kind of experience.” Student comment on the School Survival Forums [an uncensored forum for students created by students in 2001]

It’s a myth that students in online courses don’t want group work. Most students see the value of working in groups, but are resistant when the project appears unrelated to course goals, is simplistic, without a purpose—busywork.  When introducing and writing instructions for group activities, I emphasize the why of the activity—what’s in it for the students. I’ve outlined other strategies below focusing on the three most significant barriers to group work based upon research of group work specific to online learning, and personal experience as an educator and student.

Meaningful Learning
Before getting to the strategies for overcoming barriers to team work, I’ll point out what’s needed to highlight the what’s in-it-for-me part of the assignment descriptions for students, what I refer to as the marketing element or selling of the group work. The assignments need to be weighty, not necessarily in grades but in terms of complexity; projects that encourage students to synthesize, analyze and create a product that showcases their knowledge via a ‘meaningful output’ as mentioned by the above-quoted student.

A meaningful output might be a group essay, a narrated slideshare, Prezi presentation, a video, or wiki—also known as digital artifacts. The slide below from the slidesharestudent perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools” outlines the elements of a problem based learning approach, necessary to foster meaningful and authentic learning via collaborative learning environments that are designed to develop expertise by helping learners discern patterns and create meaning in a non-static, collaborative setting. According to “How People Learn” (Bransford et al, 1999), such environments encourage the development of deep factual knowledge bases where knowledge is easily retrieved and shared, and conceptual frameworks built.

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Slideshare: ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools’ slide #4  (Wicks, 2011)

Significant Barriers to Group Work and How to Overcome Each

 “I feel sometimes you have to give in to some other people’s ideas so that you    can finish the project.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

“I like working in efficient groups. Not many groups I’ve been in were as such. Most we’re “Hey, who doing the work?” or “You just do x-y-z, and we’ll stand here” Student comment on School Survival Forums

1.  Accountability

…among the factors that either facilitated or impeded progress, individual accountability was perceived as being the most critical factor. A lack of individual accountability is consistent with what Latane et al. (1979, cited in Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993) referred to as “social loafing.” This term was defined as meaning that when individuals think they are working in a group, they anticipate doing less work than when they think they are working alone.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions:

  • Have students create a team charter. The charter includes the purpose of the group, the rules and guidelines for group interactions, using their words, rules and guidelines.  See example  below right:
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Sample of Group Charter, slide # 13, from Slideshare ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects’ (Wicks, 2011)
  • Provide an outlet for students to get help with group collaboration and conflict. Include on the course site steps to effective group work, and steps to resolves issues.
  • Create small groups – ideal size is three or four students, maximum five.
  • Provide a mechanism for students to give feedback and reflection on group participation and the experience overall. Readers that have read several of my other posts on group work, may see that this contradicts my views on group work (my initial position was to have self-reflection only, not rate other groups members), however research says otherwise, and I do see that a carefully facilitated method where students submit to the instructor, evaluations of other team members that is kept private, and not shared with other members in the team,  addresses this barrier.  See below the form used by online instructor Larry Ragan from Penn State World Campus.
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Screen shot from open course, “Best Practices in Online Teaching”, by Larry Ragan

#2  Technology

“Participants indicated that the challenges inherent to virtual communication relying solely on written language was the second highest impeding factor (19%). Although online communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Bruckman, 1998), online faculty need to consider the inherent limitations of asynchronous, written communication. Because of the challenges of its usage (time lags, lack of spontaneity), and the dependence on the written word, a number of students indicated that they were overwhelmed, especially when they faced conflicts and when they felt isolated from the group.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

 Suggestions:

  • Provide recommendations and guidelines for one or two tools that facilitate group collaboration that are user-friendly and foster seamless collaboration. Group discussion boards don’t have enough features, and students often find the discussion threads overwhelming and difficult to follow. Google Docs is an example of very good collaborative tool.
  • Recommend groups schedule at least one synchronous discussion during the course of the project using a platform such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or a new video conversation tool appear.in.
  • Provide orientation to course site and tools. The institution should create and offer a course that introduces the student to the learning platform, and the features and tools within it. The institution should also highlight to students within the course site the help services available for technical and trouble shooting solutions.
  • Where possible, encourage group members to be in similar time zones to facilitate synchronous communication (a three-hour time difference or less).

#3  Leadership

“Another noteworthy response is related to the perceived role of the group leaders. Having a positive group leader was recorded as the third highest facilitative factor (16%), while the absence of this factor was believed to have negatively impacted the completion of collaborative tasks (5.9%). For our study, it should be also noted that the course instructor merely suggested that each team elect a team leader, rather than making this a requirement.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions and Comments:

  • Recommend that the group select a project or team leader. Though I’ve seen some instructors select the group leader, I suggest having the group determine their own roles. In the long run this creates more autonomy and trust within the group, even more so when done in conjunction with the creation of a team charter as mentioned above. A shared leadership role is also possible.
  • The need for leadership in groups working asynchronously is more acute given the nature of the medium.

Further Reading

References