The Sound of One Hand Typing
Remember back when you were in school? The empty building, the vacant classroom, sitting alone in contemplative silence when the teacher was your only friend? Unless you were trained as a Shaolin Monk, then probably not. You were surrounded by people, some paying more attention than others perhaps, but still people. You were not alone, and that made more of a difference than you were probably aware of. We are social by nature, even in the creation story it is acknowledged that it is not good for us to be alone. We make connections, associations, even comparisons that bump and nudge the primal forces within us to propel us forward in our learning. There may be situations where we need to seek the isolation and solitude of a single instructor and student (see Shaolin Monk reference above) but generally this is NOT something we seek out and it IS something that is easy to impose upon students in the online environment if we do not make a concerted effort to avoid this. In education Student to Student interaction is something that is important, even vital to our ability as humans to grow, to learn and to develop, and moving learning to the online environment is no reason to abandon this important aspect of learning.
Don’t be creepy
Imagine a scenario where you are sitting in a class full of people, but for some reason your teacher either only talks to you, or addresses the class by playing a recording of generic instructions that he or she made sometime in some previous semester. You might be a little confused about how and when to address your instructor since they are the sole outlet for human contact in class. Maybe you have a criticism of the class, maybe you have a question on material that you should already know or maybe you just want to pass a note to someone; either way bringing this up with the teacher is going to be pretty awkward. This is the situation we force students into when they don’t have adequate access to their classmates and all of our lectures and weekly postings are pre-recorded. This can be frustrating, our class becomes an academic gauntlet for them to navigate in order to attain the prize of a final grade with their only option for human contact being someone they are only acquainted with either via email or the creepy undead version of ourselves that we post speaking to them from beyond the semester.
The fact is we as a species generally do better in groups; that is what has allowed us to rise to the top of the food chain. It has allowed us to kill the woolly mammoth, explore the Antarctic, and why my 4 kids working together can get catch my black lab puppy much more quickly and easily than I can alone when she get out of her fence. But we need a way to coordinate our efforts, a way to communicate. If fact lack of communication is often cited for the breakdown in relationships, teams and businesses. In the end even the best Instructor to Student communication in isolation is not enough.
Time Out, I got something in my eye!
The best place to begin working communication into your course is establishing a “safe zone”. Somewhere that students can casually communicate. “Does anyone else have a penguin on the cover of their textbook instead of a mongoose” “Can anyone else not see the quiz that the teacher says is posted” etc… In most of my classes for this first level of Student to Student support and interaction I set up a General Discussion/Help forum. This can be something you work into each topic week to keep organized and prevent the forum from mutating into something too large and unwieldy to be of practical use, or simply set it up at the beginning of the course in a central location and monitor it periodically to keep it organized and working efficiently.
In Moodle I recommend setting these to “General Discussion” as this is the most straight-forward format available, and I usually set them to “Forced Subscription” as this will push the posts out to the email of all the students. Forced subscription helps to ensure that all students are aware that someone has a question or a point to make and that they get an answer to their question in a timely if not real-time manner. Much like tracking down rouge Labrador who escape their fences, your students working as a collective will often give better and faster answers than you can acting alone…so everybody wins.
The next level to this type of communication and interaction might be to adapt assignments that you may already have that would typically just be an “upload and submit” scenario and up-fit them for a discussion forum. This introduces a “fishbowl” type of element to a class where students can “see” what other students are doing, both the good and the bad. With a backdrop for assessment like a rubric in place, as students begin to assess each other’s work they by default also begin assessing their own efforts as well. There is really only so much we can learn inside a bubble, even when that bubble includes your instructor; discussion forums allow students to step outside of the their bubble and measure themselves against their peers. The feedback they give as well as the feedback they receive from classmates can be constructive as well as empowering as they discover their online “voice”, something that can go wholly undeveloped if not consciously built into the pedagogy of a class.
As you progress and you and your students feel more comfortable with this type of social assessment you can progress in social complexity to a group work activity like a wiki or group exam. This progression in the complexity of Student-to-Student communication from passive helper on the general forum, to competitive participator in a discussion forum to active collaborator in a group work setting can help to foster a greater sense of community within a course and work to develop some basic social support that is impossible to build individually with each student with only Instructor to Student interaction. In the end more students get to kill a mammoth, and really isn’t what this is all about?
The final culmination of this type of communication would be a blended course with periodic synchronous and/or a well-managed asynchronous meetings via web conferencing services like Microsoft Lync, Google Hangout or Big Blue Button, or an alternative service like Voicethread. These types of sessions can really open the door to hosting guest speakers with expert knowledge, facilitating real-time student group-presentations and/or active learning sessions involving problems solving, lab experimentation, discussion/debate, etc… An important factor to consider with Student to Student interaction within these sessions is creating a venue for back-channel chat. This is where the “real” conversation often happens. I have seen both in-house chat solutions used as well as social media services like Twitter, both are effective and can allow for social commentary, correction and foster a sense of being in the “same space” which is particularly important when your audience is a mix of seated and online participants. As with other communication settings it is important to be clear about expectations. If the communication is being assessed a metric like a rubric should be provided, if it is “back channel” this also should be clear as students will feel free to converse in natural language, and if there is a baseline expectation for all course communication this also should be provided through a document like a Netiquette Policy.
But, what if they cheat?
Sometimes I get this response when I suggest that more Student to Student communication might could help a course, particularity when “group work” is suggested. Before I get into some basic strategies to avoiding cheating, let me flip this questions around and ask, “what if we don’t allow them to talk to each other?” This at its core is an issue of basic digital literacy. What are your program or institutional goals? Basic abilities to communicate effectively, to work in groups etc…are skills that I have heard time and time again both as much coveted and hard to find for employers when I meet with them. To be “educated” in the 21st century to me suggest more than knowing the basic facts or even a set of complex skills, it means having the ability to communicate those skills effectively and to work-in if not lead a group of people in accomplishing tasks with complexities that involve multiple skills working simultaneously and collaboratively. In online learning if we are not careful we have the unprecedented ability to train without educating if we do not consciously incorporate these strategies into our pedagogy.
Some of these strategies I will touch on more in my next post on Student to Content interaction, but to address concerns about cheating I would recommend a couple of strategies. The first would be to develop either an institution wide or at least a course level Netiquette Policy as I mentioned before detailing what is and is not acceptable within a forum. Make sure that penalties for blatant copying, cheating etc… are clearly outlined in your syllabus, and also mentioned at least in the instructions for the first forum. Simply reminding students of proper ethical conduct has been demonstrated to have a powerful effect on cheating.
A second strategy might be setting up gateways to access. This can be done pretty easily in Moodle using adaptive release. Set a minimum score on an assessment as a prerequisite to gaining access to the forum to increase the quality of posts. Another way to help facilitate a good conversation in a forum is to set a time limit for accepting original posts after which the forum is only open to replies. While this can be facilitated somewhat through the Q&A Forums in Moodle where a student can only see other posts after they have made one of their own, the downside is that you are really forced into using one initial post and having student posts thread off the original, which can quickly develop into a mess if you’re not careful. To avoid this problem with Q&A Forums I tend to use small group discussion to keep them from getting too large, if I want a full class discussion I will use the previous method with a General Discussion and time limits. I am still waiting for our Moodle instance to get the rubric grading feature for discussion forums, but when that becomes enabled, I believe that will be an ideal tool for assessment.
A final strategy would be a pedagogical restraint creating groups for an activity like Think, Pair, Share where the individual stakes are lowered and each student is asked to pair with another and only asked to genuinely share what they may know of a topic and then the class builds its knowledge collaboratively. My experience in seated courses has been when the path of least resistance is to collaborate with a classmate rather than cannibalizing their content many students opt for this route.