Lesson 5.3 Networked Teaching
OER foster collaboration among the producers, the users, the improvers, and the re-users of the content. Similarily , OEP are strongly based on collaboration, especially through social media. The Center for Open Learning and Teaching (University of Mississippi) defines Open Educational Practices (OEP) as ‘teaching techniques that introduce students to online peer production communities, (for instance, Wikipedia, YouTube, OpenStreetMap), which offer rich learning environments’. We have seen in Module 1 that other typical activities that characterise Open Educators are collaborative course design, open research collaborations, and many more. But, as a first step, being present on the most relevant social networks is a prerequisite, and being connected to peers in order to exchange ideas and knowledge is more and more the norm.
What is online collaborative learning?
Harasim (2012) describes online collaborative learning (OCL) as follows (p. 90):
‘OCL theory provides a model of learning in which students are encouraged and supported to work together to create knowledge: to invent, to explore ways to innovate, and, by so doing, to seek the conceptual knowledge needed to solve problems rather than recite what they think is the right answer. While OCL theory does encourage the learner to be active and engaged, this is not considered to be sufficient for learning or knowledge construction……In the OCL theory, the teacher plays a key role not as a fellow-learner, but as the link to the knowledge community, or state of the art in that discipline. Learning is defined as conceptual change and is key to building knowledge. Learning activity needs to be informed and guided by the norms of the discipline and a discourse process that emphasises conceptual learning and builds knowledge.’
Online discussion forums go back to the 1970s, but really took off as a result of a combination of the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, high speed internet access, and the development of learning management systems, most of which now include an area for online discussions. These online discussion forums have some differences though with classroom seminars:
- first, they are text based, not oral;
- second, they are asynchronous: participants can log in at any time, and from anywhere with an internet connection;
- third, many discussion forums allow for ‘threaded’ connections, enabling a response to be attached to the particular comment which prompted the response, rather than just displayed in chronological order. This allows for dynamic sub-topics to be developed, with sometimes more than ten responses within a single thread of discussion. This enables participants to follow multiple discussion topics over a period of time.
Developing meaningful online discussion
There are several design principles that have been associated with successful (online) discussion, such as:
- appropriate technology (for example, software that allows for threaded discussions);
- clear guidelines on student online behaviour, such as written codes of conduct for participating in discussions, and ensuring that they are enforced;
- student orientation and preparation, including technology orientation and explaining the purpose of discussion;
- clear goals for the discussions that are understood by the students, such as: ‘to explore gender and class issues in selected novels’ or ‘to compare and evaluate alternative methods of coding’;
- choice of appropriate topics, that complement and expand issues in the study materials, and are relevant to answering assessment questions;
- setting an appropriate ‘tone’ or requirements for discussion (for example, respectful disagreement, evidence-based arguments);
- defining clearly learner roles and expectations, such as ‘you should log in at least once a week to each discussion topic and make at least one substantive contribution to each topic each week’;
- monitoring the participation of individual learners, and responding accordingly, by providing the appropriate scaffolding or support, such as comments that help students develop their thinking around the topics, referring them back to study materials if necessary, or explaining issues when students seem to be confused or misinformed;
- regular, ongoing instructor ‘presence’, such as monitoring the discussions to prevent students getting off-topic or becoming too personal, and providing encouragement for those that are making real contributions to the discussion, heading off those that are trying to dominate the discussions, and tracking those not participating, and helping them to participate;
- ensuring strong articulation between discussion topics and assessment.
Cultural and epistemological issues
Students come to the educational experience with different expectations and backgrounds. As a result there are often major cultural differences across students with regards to participating in discussion-based collaborative learning that in the end reflect deep differences with regards to traditions of learning and teaching. Thus teachers need to be aware that there are likely to be students in any class who may be struggling with language, cultural or epistemological issues, but in online classes, where students can come from anywhere, this is a particularly important issue. For example, in many countries, there is a strong tradition of the authoritarian role of the teacher and the transmission of information from the teacher to the student. In some cultures, it would be considered disrespectful to challenge or criticise the views of teachers or even other students. In an authoritarian, teacher-based culture, the views of other students may be considered irrelevant or unimportant. Other cultures have a strong oral tradition, or one based on story-telling, rather than on direct instruction.
Strengths and weaknesses of online collaborative learning
This approach to the use of technology for teaching is very different from the more objectivist approaches found in computer-assisted learning, teaching machines, and artificial intelligence applications to education, which primarily use computing to replace at least some of the activities traditionally done by human teachers. With online collaborative learning, the aim is not to replace the teacher, but to use the technology primarily to increase and improve communication between teacher and learners, with a particular approach to the development of learning based on knowledge construction assisted and developed through social discourse. Futhermore, this social discourse is not random, but managed in such a way as to ‘scaffold’ learning:
- by assisting with the construction of knowledge in ways that are guided by the instructor;
- that reflect the norms or values of the discipline; and
- that respect or take into consideration the prior knowledge within the discipline.
Thus there are two main strengths of this model:
- when applied appropriately, online collaborative learning can lead to deep, academic learning, or transformative learning, as well as, if not better than, discussion in campus-based classrooms. The asynchronous and recorded ‘affordances’ of online learning more than compensate for the lack of physical cues and other aspects of face-to-face discussion;
- online collaborative learning as a result can also directly support the development of a range of high level intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, analytical thinking, synthesis, and evaluation, which are key requirements for learners in a digital age.
There are however, some limitations:
- online collaborative learning does not scale easily, requiring highly knowledgeable and skilled instructors, and a limited number of learners;
- online collaborative learning is more likely to accommodate to the epistemological positions of faculty and instructors in humanities, social sciences, education and some areas of business studies and health, and conversely it is likely to be less accommodating to the epistemological positions of faculty in science, computer science and engineering. However, if combined with a problem-based or inquiry-based approach, it might have acceptance even in some of these subject domains.