Strategies for effective group work in the Online Class

This is the 2nd post in a 3 part series on group work in online learning communities. Post 1, featured why we need group work in online learning,  and post 3, will be on how to evaluate group work in online assignments.

Quick recap -  why oh why do we need to create opportunities for collaboration and structured learning  in an online class? Because…

  1. Collaboration is the future, collaborative skills will be essential skills for the 21st century.
  2. Working with others spawns innovation and growth. Great ideas were not created in vacuum – post 1 includes an excellent video about. We need innovators in the 21s century
  3. Learning now more than ever needs to be social and active. Our culture is about connecting with people using digital and social media, why can’t learning happen this way?

Groups – my Dual Viewpoint
I’ve experienced group work from the inside and out. From the inside, through my fully online graduate program of which I’m a student, where I’ve had (and have) group work in every class. Group assignments contribute anywhere between 20%, and as much as 100% to the final grade.

Concurrently, I’ve worked with groups on the outside, working with professors extensively to create assignments and collaborative activities for students in several online classes at my work place. Each perspective has assisted the other, which helped me to create a pretty comprehensive list of strategies for making groups work…

What Makes Group Work
The group experience can either be painful or refreshing, constructive and enjoyable,  fortunately my experiences have been positive (except for one group disaster, though this in itself provided an authentic learning experience), in fact, I would say that group work has challenged me to learn and grow in ways I would not be able to do solo.

I’ve compiled a list of essential strategies for setting up groups for successful interaction and meaningful learning that the online instructor or instructional designer might find helpful.

  1. Create a student introductory forum in the first week, or even a few days before the course start date. Frame the activity so learners introduce themselves to other learners, by writing one or two paragraphs about themselves, interests, hobbies etc, and then have them respond to at least two other classmates in the forum.  When Learners feel connected, the barrier of the technological infrastructure comes down, (in most cases the learning management platform).  Learners are establishing a social presence, and feel they are becoming part of a community. I cannot underestimate the importance of this activity. The social presence is a dimension necessary in the online ‘space’ which can be intangible and hard to define for the learner.
  2. Make it real – have learners upload profile pictures of themselves through the learning management platform. Most LMS platforms have this capability. It’s amazing what picture can do to help make a personal connection.
  3. Announce groups early in the session, Group work in online environments, often takes more time to establish group tasks and objectives. Building in at least three weeks time for groups to work on a small-scale assignment is reasonable, obviously the more complex the assignment the more time is needed. As far as assigning groups, my preference is to have the instructor create the groups. One method to creating groups is to observe how students relate to others within the introduction forum. Often students make ‘connections’ with common interests. Another strategy is create groups balancing out experienced online students, with first time online learners. Again this can be identified through the introductory forums.
  4. Encourage group members to make contact early on – create a group discussion board within the LMS dedicated to each group, or a chat room – encourage members to connect, even through outside media, i.e. Facebook, Google+ etc.
  5. Create clear instructions for the  group project. This also is essential. Here is my rule of thumb, if you dedicate three pages in a traditional class syllabus to instructions for assignments, you will need double the number of pages in an online class. Students require clear, specific directions, explanation of ‘why’ they are doing the assignment (see next point).
  6. Highlight the Purpose: When we design group activities in our online classes at my workplace, we are cognizant of giving an explanation to the learner that outlines why they are doing this activity, what they will learn by doing so, why the activity is created for group . No one wants to do ‘busy work’ and students will respond far more positively when they see how the assignment fits in with the course and how they will benefit personally.
  7. Limit Group Size: The ideal group size for online is three or four group members. Though I’ve seen groups of five, from experience it appears that when there are more than four participants, it is not uncommon for one or more group members who tend to be on the lazy side, to fade into the virtual world and not contribute. Smaller group sizes make this phenomenon less likely to occur.
  8. Web 2.0 filosofiaren kontzeptuak.

    Web 2.0 filosofiaren kontzeptuak. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Encourage teams to collaborate with Web 2.0 tools outside of the LMS environment. A blog reader, a communications professor shared a strategy that got me thinking – why keep the students within the LMS platform? The tools in most LMS platforms are not conducive to effective group work (as I lamented in this post). This professor ‘forced’ her students to use Web 2.0 tools outside the platform, for example Google Docs, Dropbox, Skype, Google + ( which has a great feature of Google + hangouts). I like her strategy.  In order for this to be effective I would suggest providing the teams with a list of web 2.0 tools and links for accessing various tools, and ideally with basic instructions and/or ‘how-to’ links about each tool included as well. This is an extra step, but don’t assume students are familiar with collaborative applications. Some students may have a steep learning curve, another reason why the lead time for given assignments is helpful.

  9. Be available for concerns and questions! Encourage students to contact the instructor for concerns and/or guidance. I even suggest going the extra step to arrange for Skype or conference calls with a given group if needed. I’ve had a professor who arranged for two Skype meetings with a group I was part of, when we were struggling with an assignment and way off track. I can’t tell you how much this supported our group and created cohesion and motivation within. When an instructor is involved and supportive of teams, higher levels of learning are more likely to be the result.
  10. Be culturally sensitive. As I write this, I realize that some suggestions will not work in all cultures.  Instructors need to be sensitive to different communication styles and access to tools for various students. This article, provides some helpful info for those interested in reading more about this, as does this one, Techniques and strategies for International group work: An online experience.

Group work, when used to support learning goals in the e-learning environment, is most effective  in creating meaningful learning, and developing communication and collaboration  skills so very much in demand in our current digital culture and global economy.  Check back later this week for post 3, how to evaluate group work in the online environment.

Keep learning :)

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.

Keep Learning :)

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 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

The digital divide – a term educators are likely familiar with, describes the ‘haves’ with the ‘have-nots’ in the digital world. Those that have access to Internet connection and those that don’t. This divide is closing, but there’s a new divide in town, it’s the LMS (learning management system) divide, a social presence gap created by LMS platforms*  where students feel socially ‘there’ or not. Feelings of not ‘being there’, can leave the learner feeling disconnected, isolated, and even frustrated with online learning. Much research supports this phenomenon, with one report finding that, “students participating in online courses often have a sense of isolation, which can impact a learner’s success within a distance learning program”.

I experienced the LMS divide this past week in both of the online classes I’m taking this semester to complete my Master’s degree. Trying to communicate with my classmates, one for a group project using a wiki, and the other in a threaded class discussion using the discussion forums, I felt as if I were talking to my peers through a brick wall. There was more than one barrier to collaborating and conversing about the course content. The discussion board was cumbersome, awkward and difficult to navigate with 25 classmates in one class, and was quite a mess with over 257 posts. In the other class, our group of four working on a group assignment tried to use the wiki tool, which was another exercise in frustration, non-intuitive, flat and awkward. After talking to other online educators in the last few days, the consensus is, the time has come for change and growth in e-learning platforms.

What is Social Presence
Social presence, defined as “the ability of participants in a community of [learning] to project themselves socially and emotionally as ‘real’ people through the medium of communication being used...”(Garrison and Anderson) or “a student’s sense of being and belonging in a course“, described by researcher Picianno in his article on student interaction and presence in an online course, though I bring it to a more simplistic description – a sense of ‘being there’ and being together.

Community of Inquiry Framework

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.

Keep Learning :)

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

New Online Teaching Model: Sage-on-the-Side?

Have you heard the online instructor [cheekily] described as a ‘guide-on-the-side’, contrasted with the traditional professor, known as the ‘sage-on-the stage’?  I’ve heard this term often -  my interpretation is that the ‘sage’ is the learned professor with great expertise and knowledge, the ‘guide’ the mentor or coach. The terms  ‘sage’ and ‘guide’ in this context, epitomize a collision between two  theories of learning, each with opposing views on the way we learn. The sage-on-the-stage labels a teacher-centered approach, essentially a directive teaching style, grounded in behaviorist theory. One such theory, developed by B.F Skinner, suggests the learner is a vessel, waiting for knowledge to be absorbed like a sponge. Contrast this approach to the constructivist model, of which educators Piaget, Bruner and Gardner support(ed), where the learner directs his or her own learning and ‘constructs’ knowledge by drawing upon his or her experiences and background while interacting with learning content.

What is the Sage-on-the Side?
I first came across the term, sage on the side while reading Campus Technology’s article ‘2012: What’s Hot, What’s Not’ which seems to describe the blending of theories of learning, constructivist and directive. Four technologists shared their views about upcoming learning trends and tools in educational technology. Consensus is, that college lectures as we know them, will transform given new technology (i.e. lecture capture, mobile devices), online learning and changes in learner styles.

We need a Sage AND a Guide
I do not suggest one theory is better than another – though I see parts of the theories being necessary in online learning as a new paradigm for college instruction emerges. Why?  First off, the  medium of delivery for online learning, the learning management platform (such as Moodle) forces change. And two, the learner has changed and the learning context. It’s no wonder that academia has been wary of online learning with this clash in ideologies. The instructor, (aka the sage) requires a completely different skill set for e-learning – he or she needs to be a mentor and the intellect. I  see the need for instructor’s knowledge (now more than ever) to be shared with students, especially since we have information available 24/7. These subject matter experts (sage or instructor), can help students discern, think and learn, but only with a skill set that can teach and communicate in the online environment.

Controversy about Online Teaching and Learning
Controversy about the quality of online learning should not be a new to most educators, but I suggest it is due in part to the lack of online skilled instructors. There has been a tremendous gap —- though top-notch instructors of face-to-face institutions may be excellent in the traditional lecture environment, they may be unprepared and lack the appropriate technical skills for teaching online. A new teaching model is needed – one that includes a subject matter expert with a specific set of competencies.

Essential Competencies for the Online Instructor
Colleges are beginning to recognize this need for additional skills and many have provided training programs and support. One such school, Penn State, developed Competencies of Online teaching Success, a video series geared to online educators to develop competencies for effective online instruction. University of South Wales, developed an excellent video series Learning to Teach Online, for online instructors.

Skills need by Online Instructors:

  • Communication skills for the asynchronous environment
  • Time management
  • Technical skills for LMS
  • Trouble shooter
  • Mentor
  • Instructional design skills to create an environment for online collaboration

I’ll leave you with a video from COFA, which describes how higher education institutions can adapt successfully to the changes and challenges of online learning.

The No-textbook Challenge: Using web resources to replace the College Text

Is it possible to use Open Educational Resources  and other open education materials to replace student textbooks for an online college course? Find free content on the web, eliminating the need for  students to buy textbooks?  Yes! -  at least for the course United States Government which I put to the test. I put myself up to the  No Textbook Challenge – to replace textbooks for a given General Education college three credit course as described in my last post. In this post, I’ll outline the context of the course, and the engaging, comprehensive and free instructional resources which I’ve incorporated into the online course delivered via Moodle (the  learning management platform our college uses).

 The context
I use the Dick, Carey and Carey instructional model (consisting of 9 phases) for design and re-design of our online courses. There are nine phases in the model – though with the re-design we focus on phase 7 and 8, developing the instructional strategy and selecting the instructional materials.

Background: Course Objectives:
To put the course in perspective, the course is a survey course designed to introduce students to the institutions and processes of the American political system.

  • Explain the basic concepts on which the American governmental system was based
  • Describe the workings of the American governmental system
  • Outline the process by which a bill becomes a law
  • Explain the various civil rights guaranteed by the Constitution
  • Describe the basic functions, organization, and powers of the Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary

Instructional Materials:
Instructional materials are part of the Instructional Strategy and are essentially the content that supports the course objectives. Other materials may include materials (resources) such as, workbooks, textbooks, case studies, web resources, lecture notes, simulations etc. For this US Government course, we use pre-recorded video lectures that covers some of the course topics, delivered over 8 modules, and text books, (before the re-design).

The texts we replaced:
1) American Government, Brief Edition, 9th Ed. by James Q. Wilson – $76.73 (paper back), $69.06 (Kindle edition)
2) The Federalist Papers by Charles Kessler – $7.99

English: Title page of the first printing of t...

With: open content and web resources: – Free
The resources below are part of the instructional strategy -  the instructor uses these as content to support learning objectives. Note that student application and synthesis comes through online forum discussions, group work, mini assignments, quizzes and essay assignments where the student applies the content. These sources are not the sole method of learning, it is instructor involvement and guidance that promotes meaningful and authentic learning.

Federalist Papers: : This  awesome site, features 100 milestone documents of American history presented by the National Archives. Best of all the site lets the user view and zoom in on the images of original documents, including all of the federalist papers, i.e. Federalist no. 10, as it appeared in the New York Daily Advertiser, November 22, 1787.

American Government: Topics:

I  The Constitution of United States
The United States Constitution –
The Declaration of Independence – The History Channel - video
Constitution development & Principles: Video lesson: OER, US Government
Separation of Powers: OER
Federalism: Video Lesson: OER:
Theories of Democratic Government: OER
Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:

II Political Beliefs and Behaviors
Political Parties: other
Interest Groups and their influence: other, list of select groups
Public Policy: Iron Triangles: other
The Media and its Influence: Pew Research Center
Voting Behavior of the Public: other

III Institutions of the Government: Congress, Presidency, Bureaucracy and Courts
Electoral College – how it works: The Kahn Academy
Three Branches of Government: OER
The Nature of Bureaucracy: OER video lesson
Legislative Simulation –
Presidential Election History:
The White House
US Senate: Live Stream of US Capitol

IV Civil Rights and Liberties
The Bill of Rights:
Civil Rights: Landmark Cases:
How a bill becomes Law: OER

Glossary of Political Economic Terms:

This course used for this no textbook challenge was [very] conducive to open content. Not all courses will lend themselves to open and free content, though I firmly believe that with detailed and careful research, there is much content available on the web for free. I do want to reiterate, that the resources we listed do not stand on their own – the selection and choice of tools require careful pedagogical planning and development of learning activities and assessments. And, the final component of successful learning is instructor guidance and instruction. Check back in a few days for another post on other textbook options.

Keep Learning :)

Is there a Future for e-textbooks in Online Courses?

What is the future of Digital Textbooks in U.S. education? After I participated in a webinar on Friday, by this same title sponsored by MBS textbooks, though enlightening, it dawned on me that we [educators] have been asking all the wrong questions about e-textbooks. Instead of when and if [will we incorporate e-texbooks], how [will we include them], we should be asking why and what. What tools and resources will support the learning objectives? What will be relevant and meaningful to students?  What are the needs of the learners? Why should we choose a given textbook?

Before getting caught up in the slick, attractive and enhanced world of interactive e-textbooks, it’s a perfect opportunity to stop and…

Reframe the Textbook Discussion
The discussion needs to be re-framed in the context of the course instructional design process. Let me explain. During a recent re-design of two general education online courses, I revisited the instructional design model I usually follow, the Dick, Carey and Carey ISD. This model reminded me that the textbook is an instructional tool in the big picture strategy —- it is not the driver of the course, it supports the course objectives.

The AHAH moment!
I began to rethink the textbook conundrum, AHAH! Maybe the textbook as we know it may not even be necessary! It [the textbook] might not be the right instructional ‘tool’ for the course in the first place. A radical thought for some? — I am not suggesting to rule out textbooks as viable options (whether hard copy or digital), but we need to ask —- is this e-textbook (from one of the major textbook publishers) the only option? It might be … might. There is a plethora of resources available to educators on the Web, many at little or no cost. We have choices for instructional resources that we did not have forty, thirty or even ten years ago. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Education is transforming, and morphing in response to shifts in digital products and resources, and information consumption patterns. Course instructors and designers  have the opportunity to take charge and assess their current learning strategy, students and choice of [instructional] materials.

Start with the Instructional Design Process
Let’s take a step back and review the foundations of a course design. I am a fan of Instructional design models, because it gives me a framework when designing or re-designing courses (online or not). As mentioned my model of choice  is Dick and Carey’s Systems Approach model of instruction. The model is based on Gagne’s domains of learning. The instructor, learners, materials, teaching activities learning and performance environments interact to bring about the desired learning outcomes, whether for online courses or other.

Dick, Carey and Carey Instructional Design Model

Side note: it is not until stage 7 (of 9 stages) that selecting instructional materials, which includes text books, even happens.  This model is one of many – though each follows similar patterns in course development.

Assessing the best Instructional Tools (textbooks, digital learning objects etc)
What better time than now, in 2012 on the brink of major educational transformation to revisit the building blocks in our courses to assess what the best instructional materials, assessment methods, and tools will most effectively support learning outcomes. Analyzing the learner, and how he or she learns is another essential step, as the learning context has changed:

  • Learning is social
  • The learner, more than ever before has access to tools to construct knowledge
  • Learning is anytime, anywhere

Since the context of learning has changed, so should the instructional tools.

Open and Free: Course Instructional Materials Options

The [no] textbook challenge!
To wrap up – I am not suggesting we disregard the college publishers textbooks or e-textbooks, digital options and tools as viable options. Not at all, but I am suggesting that educators:
1. Use a sound instructional model as a guide when designing or re-designing online courses
2. Consider, then select the best tool to fit the needs of students and course objectives
3. Consider options – research what resources and tools are available

Check back later this week for my no-textbook challenge. I’m redesigning two online general education courses, US Government and English Literature.  My goal is to find alternatives to the current textbooks used by using OER and other tools, that will cost the student not more than $20.

Keep Learning :)