I was introduced to the study of education through an online masters degree. My masters was an excellent program, and as such, it has set my context for what good Masters level online education should look like.
When I have had the opportunity to design and teach online courses, I took many of the lessons from my masters and applied them to the online classes I have designed and taught. I found that these lessons worked well, however, this last semester there were some things that didn’t go as well as they should have. I had failed to account for the fact the university I was teaching at, and the program I was teaching in, was predominantly face-to-face. For the most part, my students were not taking the course ‘at a distance’ (3 of 30 were not in the city). My previous experiences with online courses, both as an instructor and as a learner, had been in the context of completely online programs. Learners come to the course from various locations. Learners choose to study online, they choose online as their primary means of study, and they were committed to the processes involved with studying online. Even though the course I taught last semester was completely online, the face-to-face culture of the university, and the lack of ‘distance’ for most of my students, had a large impact on how the student studied. It is also important to note that the course was only offered online, so if students wanted to take a technology course as part of their masters, the only option they had was in an online format.
The part of the course that was particularly at issue was the group work. In online courses, group work provides an opportunity for students to learn how to collaborate online, but also helps online students build connections with their peers. If you don’t have group work, you don’t have a chance to work with each other beyond discussions in the online forums. Group work helps cohorts become more cohesive learning communities.
I added a group work component to my online course, in part because I wanted my students to experience online collaboration. Rather than talking about online collaboration tools (e.g. Skype, Google Docs, Hangout, Prezi, …), a group project provides them with the opportunity to actually work with online collaborative tools. According to best practices in online learning, I randomly assigned my students to groups. Several of my students thanked me for this, others critiqued the group assignment for having groups that were too large (they were groups of 5). I was looking forward to hearing how my students would be transformed from hating group work to loving group work. Unfortunately, for most of my students, that did not happen. I had not accounted for the overwhelming influence of the face-to-face culture and the lack of distance.
My first mistake was that we did the initial group activities too early in the course. Because both sections of the course had wait lists, within the first two weeks students were dropping and being added to the course. So, when we did a group forming, storming, norming activity in the second week, group membership was still changing. The group assignment wasn’t due for another four weeks, which meant that any norming that did happen in the second week, was forgotten by the time the students actually started performing.
I had also failed to provide adequate scaffolding. I had expected that students taking an online class, whose topic was emerging technologies, would have been keen to use online technologies to approach group work. In addition, I had failed to appreciate the effect of not having a proper online collaboration orientation. At most online universities, these core skills are usually developed within the first semester during some form of orientation to online learning course. In my masters program, we had a six-week course dedicated specifically to what it meant to learn in an online environment. This involved activities that allowed us to learn how to do online group work effectively (which looked a lot different before Internet-based audio was an option). In a predominantly face-to-face university, there is no orientation to online learning. Most of my students had not taken an online class before. When given the challenge of group work in the online course, they drew upon the skills they had developed in their other classes. They used online collaboration tools (e.g. Doodle) to schedule face-to-face meetings!
Unfortunately, the groups that did most of their group work face-to-face did not have the transformative experience which I was hoping for. Worse, the groups that worked together in a hybrid format (with some face-to-face and some at a distance) experience conflict relating to students at a distance feeling like their contributions were not being heard. Many of my students only learned of the challenges in group work, and interpreted it as challenges in online group work. Most concluded that online group work is better if you can meet face-to-face first. They lost sight of the ‘process’ of group forming and performing, and how this could be done online. Of the six groups in my course, only one group did their group project at a distance. This turned out to be the group that did the best on their presentation. What they produced showed a deeper level of thought regarding the topic, and a more cohesive overall presentation. This group also reported having enjoyed the group work experience (so it wasn’t a complete failure).
What I have learned from this is that we cannot simply take practices that work well in the predominantly online distance education university and expect them to just work in the predominantly face-to-face universities. Many of the best practices in online learning make the assumption that learners are ‘at a distance’ and that the opportunity to meet and work together face-to-face is rare or not possible at all. When students choose to meet face-to-face, and the opportunity exists throughout the course, the dynamic of the online classroom is different.
I’d love to hear more from those of you who have experience teaching online both ‘at a distance’ and online in a non-distant setting? With the move to see more online classes offered at traditional universities, where students are physically on campus, different best practices must be emerging where online doesn’t mean ‘at a distance’. What are the best practices for non-distant online education?