Students learn better in groups. I am sure most trained teachers will have heard of social constructivism, connectivism or active learning. I will not dwell on these theories as this post is practical and not theoretical.
In a face to face environment this usually involves group projects or class discussion. Students could debate a hot topic, or work together on a piece of work to present to their peers.
How can you encourage group learning in an online only environment?
I have been studying at masters level in an online only environment for a couple of years. Last year, I was compelled to do group work (summatively assessed!) and these were the issues I found:
- We all worked to different schedules, I for example like to get a jump on things but others were further behind. Some of us logged in at lunchtimes or in the evenings, whereas some could only study at weekends.
- Not all the students in my group had access to the same technologies as me, for example, no mics or an unreliable internet connection.
- Despite being students of “online and distance education” some of my classmates were techno-phobes.
- We were in different time zones, making arranging synchronous meetings a pain to organise.
- The task we were given was arduous, confusing and poorly described.
- Some of the group did not pull their weight, and I wondered how the tutor was allocating marks. I felt rather disgruntled as I assumed (rightly or wrongly) that the tutor would not notice those who half-heartedly contributed.
In the end, I learnt a lot from my peers, but perhaps most of what I learnt was not directly related to the intended learning outcomes!
The main thing I learnt from participating in this group work was the limitations of online synchronous learning. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the occasional online tutorial, but these cannot be relied upon for social learning. For one thing, they have the potential to revert to a standard chalk and talk lecture with little interaction.
I would now like to focus on the humble wiki. Often maligned (by myself previously, I must admit), I have come to realise its potential for online collaboration.
OK, so what is a wiki?
I am sure you have heard of Wikipedia, though probably because is looked down on as a source of information. Why? Because anyone can add a page. But then, anyone can edit it too (and the edits are published). Publish an uncited page of nonsense and it’ll be removed by the Wikipedia community before you can say “open source”.
The citations and edits are the best bits of Wikipedia for me. I love going down a research rabbit-hole by clicking on the citations and finding more information –more input.
I also enjoy looking at the edits, which are like geeky soap-operas. I spent a lot of time looking at the early MOOC edits where key MOOC players appear to have been in an editing war over the definition of MOOC. There is an interesting article on OpenLearn about civil servants alledgedly editing the entry on the Hillsborough disaster on Wikipedia.
Right, so that’s Wikipedia, how does that actually help my students?
Students can create their own mini wiki- a course/module wiki. What better way to get online classmates to work together than to ask them to research specific topics and build up a bank of resources to refer to later? The wiki can be used by them to write coursework or revise for exams.
Great, so what tools can I use?
If you are using Moodle, there’s a few wiki plugins. Of the Moodle plugins available, I recommend the free plugin OU Wiki, as it’s a bit more user friendly than the standard Moodle wiki plugin.
You could use a cloud doc, such as Google docs to get students to add and organise information collaboratively.
My favourite way is to use a cloud-based notebook, such as OneNote or Evernote. You could make one for the whole module and students can organise and categorise their information using the tabs. I am a massive OneNote fan but I am sure similar software is just as good.
You can use a browser-based collaborative tool such as Padlet (which has a free version) to get students to collect and collate information informally. This is not suitable for writing long pieces of writing though, think of it as a large piece of paper with post-its, great for collecting links, notes and images.
I hope I have given you food for thought.
If you do decide to use a wiki of some kind in your lessons, make sure that the task is clear and well defined. The tool you choose should be simple and easy to use, so that the students can focus on the activity, rather than trying to understand what to do, or learning how to use a complicated app.