Collaboration online

Many online courses now require students to collaborate, but we know that just putting people together in the same space isn’t enough? What should a tutor do to prepare students for collaborative tasks?

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides very good guidelines on how to prepare for collaborative tasks online. These are usually designed into Stage 4 of the model after it has been established that everyone has successfully accessed the learning environment (Stage 1), participants are socialising easily and the learning community norms have become apparent (Stage 2) and  information is being freely exchanged and a culture of open sharing exists (Stage 3).

Up to Stage 3 activities centre around helping participants to feel stimulated by and comfortable in the learning environment. Relationships are beginning to be established. Students who are not comfortable with each other and the learning environment will not be able to collaborate effectively, so it is worth spending time on the early stages of accessibility, socialisation and information exchange.

Tutors also need to decide whether the collaborative groups will be self-selected or whether students will be put into groups by the tutor. My personal view on this is that it depends on whether the collaborative group tasks are to be assessed and assessed for what, and whether it is a short course or a longer course. If the task is to be assessed, then if I was a student I would want to be in control of the outcome of that assessment as much as possible and therefore choose my own group. If it is the ability to work in a group that is being assessed then maybe random mixing of students is appropriate.

Nowadays I often work on online non-assessed short post-graduate professional development courses. In these courses there isn’t a lot of time for students to get to know each other, but as a tutor, having done quite a bit of ‘back channelling’ and being able to see the student log in statistics, its fairly easy to create groups made up of a mix of very active participants and lurkers – so that these student characteristics are evenly distributed across groups. Even then a tutor only knows what s/he has been told by the students, so there’s no way of knowing whether a very active student who you are relying on to get a collaborative group going, is, for example,  going to be on holiday or away from the course at the time of the collaborative task, unless that student tells you. So your carefully planned groups can still go awry.

Once the students have started the collaborative task, a tutor can do a lot to help them be successful by making the norms of online group collaboration explicit – so ask the students to inform each other about when they will/will not be online, when they will/will not be able to work on the task, what roles they would each like to volunteer for and so on. Encourage them not to be ‘backward in coming forward’ and not to be shy of taking the lead.

Having worked on online collaborative tasks myself as a student in the past, I know what powerful experiences these can be. It’s surprising how well you get to know each other in these circumstances, even though you are only meeting online and have never met each other face-to-face  – but often these collaborative activities do lead to long-term working relationships.

But I also know from personal experience that group work can be a ‘nightmare’. On my face-to-face Masters degree we had to do a group presentation and I remember having to argue for an educational philosophy to which I was  opposed simply because I was the only person in the group to hold the opposite view (this was about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and the use of rewards) – and everyone else wanted to do a presentation on something I didn’t believe in – so groups do require a lot of compromise.

This raises an interesting question for tutors about whether you would allow a student to opt out of a groupwork assignment and do an individual assignment instead, if they could make a sufficiently persuasive case, or should we insist that all students engage in collaborative group work.

I once heard Stephen Downes – at the 2005 ALT conference, describe collaboration as – “the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up”, which challenges the whole notion of collaborative learning. But then David Jacques and Gilly Salmon’s have published a quite substantial text on Learning in Groups: A Handbook for face-to-face and online environments which really promotes groupwork.

So is it possible to collaborate online – Yes, of course and very definitely. Can tutors prepare students for this – Yes, of course – good teaching doesn’t change just because it’s online. Obviously there are things that you can do face-to-face (like a science field trip to study rock pools on a Northumberland beach) that would not be possible to capture in exactly the same way online, but an awful lot of what we do face-t0-face can now be done online.

The question is not whether we can get students to collaborate online – the question is whether we should. Are we asking them to do something that is worthwhile and that will enhance their learning.  Are we offereing them opportunities that they would otherwise not have? What is it that students can get from collaborative learning that they can’t get from individual learning? What specific challenges does online collaboration bring?

I don’t think there are necessarily any right or wrong answers here. If you want students to collaborate online, then there are tried and tested ways of making this a successful learning experience, but if you don’t then there will be equally effective alternatives that might suit the situation, context and culture better.

Using technology in teaching

How do you use technology in your teaching? Why do you use particular technologies? Which technologies do you dismiss? What are the drivers for using technology in your course design?

Thinking about these questions I am struck by the emphasis on technology and teaching as a starting point, whereas I have always thought that learning should be the starting point. What do we hope that learners will learn? As teachers we are first and foremost concerned with learning. So the first question is not ‘how’ do you use technologies, but ‘why’.

Quite a few years back the answer to this was quite straightforward from my position as the leader of a post-graduate distance learning progamme, which at the time we were running like a correspondence course supported by email communication. At that time the use of technology (notably the introduction of a VLE) significantly improved communication and ensured that all the information about the course was located in one place, which meant that we were able to avoid the mixed messages that were a characteristic of communication by email. Technology not only improved communication, but it also enabled a whole host of people who could never have accessed a full-time face-to-face course, to study at times and in locations of their choice. This not only increased our student numbers, but also led to great diversity in the student group – a really rich mix of students from widely different backgrounds, of different ages and ethnic backgrounds and with a huge range of life and work experience. It was very exciting! That was the starting point. Technology opened the door.

But that was nearly ten years ago. Nowadays students come to courses with greater expectations of the flexibility and diversity offered by web 2.0 technologies, but there are still many students who are not confident with technology. For the past few years I have only worked with post-graduate students, so my choice of technologies to use in my teaching is influenced by this. It is also influenced by the fact that I work 100% online – 100% e-learning – so I don’t meet my students face-to-face. In addition, I work with international groups, some of whom (for example those from Africa) have access difficulties. So I think very carefully about about the technologies I was use and try not to use them for the sake of it, and only if I think they will promote learning.

I don’t dismiss technologies, but I am cautious about what I use. For my post-graduate international learners I tend to use a set of technologies that includes

  • a VLE (my preference is Moodle, but I also work on Blackboard and WebCT),
  • Email,
  • discussion forums,
  • WordPress and Blogger,
  • a wiki (my preference is pbworks, but I have also used wikispaces and the VLE wikis),
  • Word,
  • Powerpoint (I only use this infrequently these days),
  • Wimbacreate (to convert Word documents into webpages),
  • Flickr for photo sharing,
  • Youtube (I haven’t yet created a video, but use video created by others in my teaching)
  • Audio files (I use an mp3 player to record these) 

For myself I also use

  • RSS feeds,
  • Delicious,
  • Googledocs,
  • Skype,
  • Internet Explorer and Firefox,
  • Adobe photoshop,
  • Facebook,
  • Elluminate,
  • Dimdim,
  • Survey Monkey,
  • Winzip,
  • Ning.

I’m sure there must be other things too, but these are the technologies that I use consistently.When I say use, I don’t necessarily mean that I lead the use of them – for example I am a member of a number of Ning sites, but I haven’t yet created one for myself.

I notice that on Jane Hart’s Top Tools for Learning, Twitter is at the top of the list. I haven’t dismissed Twitter, but as yet I haven’t needed to use it, just as I haven’t needed to use Second Life, Slideshare and many other tools that I am aware of and see others using quite regularly.

So the main driver for using technology in my courses is the needs of the learners I work with. If the technology can meet those needs and enhance the learning then I use it – if I can’t see the potential for this, then I don’t. 

I could never be a learning technologist – the use of new technologies does not come easily to me – but this means that I am cautious about what I expect from learners in relation to technology and I don’t make assumptions about what they will be able to cope with.

Grainne Conole’s questions

I have finally managed to listen to Grainne Conole and view the slide presentation (thanks Kristina) and was interested in her Slide 100 with three questions, which I have been thinking about.

1. How can we encourage a culture of sharing ideas and designs?

A lot will need to change in HE before a culture of sharing ideas and designs becomes truly established if it ever does. Currently the whole system is geared to promoting individual advancement, in research, teaching and management. I think Stephen has the answer when he says it needs to be done through modelling and demonstration, which is just what he and George have done with this course. They have shown that it can be done. It would be interesting to know how many of their colleagues at the University of Manitoba freely share their ideas and designs. And how many people on this course will go back to their universities/institutions and request to be allowed to start open courses with free access to their ideas and course designs. My experience is that you can’t even take your own work to a new job in another institution, as work done for an institution is regarded as the property of that institution!

2. Why has there been little uptake of educational repositories?

My feeling is that the answer to this question lies in what I was trying to get at in my last post – and here I want to thank Rodd Lucier for his comment.

Although there wasn’t mention of commenting on Cloudworks products produced by others, the use of a common template would make such projects easily recognizable, shareable and editable. I think that’s what makes the WebQuest model of rich project development such a useful framework.

Another benefit to the tool Grainne shared, is that it walks teacher-designers through a thoughtful process of building a lesson, unit, or course. Educators are forced to consider a relevant lesson components from expectations thru roles and activities.

I don’t disagree with anything Rodd has said, but his points don’t answer my original concern and that is that a teaching idea is only of use when it can be practically applied in the classroom and that that is context dependent. Having listened to Grainne’s talk and it seems that she considers Cloudworks to be a social network, but I can’t see on the site where the discussions are going to take place. I suspect they will take place off the site, which could lead to a site which people take from, rather than give to and take from. If there hasn’t been an uptake on educational repositories it’s because they don’t provide what people need.

3. Can we apply web 2.0 principles to an educational context?

I think this course is proof that we can, but there has been plenty of discussion this week about the gap between the web 2.0 principles and many educational contexts. I thought Stephen overstepped the mark a little in tonight’s Elluminate session when he all but suggested that Lisa would either have to be content with only applying web 2.0 principles to her own learning, or might have to choose to leave her job if she couldn’t apply them in her current situation. He did retract rather quickly after this (I wonder if he heard my sharp intake of breath!). Of all people Stephen will know that there is a big gap between our traditional education systems and the principles to which web 2.0 technologies aspire. This is not going to go away and I think it’s probably a preferable option to try and change a system from the inside rather than from the outside (although loads of politicans seem to manage it from the outside!). Stephen himself has said that teachers need to model and demonstrate and this makes perfect sense to me. We just take small steps to begin with, modelling and demonstrating in small ways what can be achieved and celebrating success as we go along and gradually things start to move, but it will be a slow process. Rome wasn’t built in a day – as they say!


What connectivism is Not

Another series of posts to come back to.

The key point in it for me is: ‘..learners are expected to be able to manage complex and rapidly changing environments.’

This raises the question of whether this is a realistic expectation. What about all those people who simply will not be able to – who have learning disabilities and so on? Who need motivation?

Is this going to lead to another divide? We already have the ‘digital divide’ and one of the papers (can’t remember which one now) mentioned that Web 2.0 technologies could lead to a cultural divide. Will we also have a connections divide?