Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Student-to-student interaction in small distance courses

I have been asked several times about ideas for injecting student-to-student interaction into distance courses when the enrolment numbers are likely to be low. Some instructors feel that with low enrollment numbers that it might be better to design an assessment scheme that contains only individual work. However, I feel differently. I think that one of the factors that determines the satisfaction level of a student with a particular course is the community of learning that was present during the semester. To have a community student-to-student interaction is required. So despite a very short class list, you can still form an effective learning community. Some things you could consider include:
  1. Discussion. It’s the gold standard in cooperative student-to-student interaction. The deliverables are still individual but the students need each other in order to complete the tasks. There are many different ways you can build a discussion activity. Probably the most common way is for the instructor to post a few questions in the discussion forum at the beginning of the week and then ask students to answer a question in a reply post and then to comment on the answer to another student’s reply post. There are other ideas too. Select one student per week to write a summary or critique about the week’s required readings and then ask the other students to comment on their summary/critique in reply postings. There are many different models you can choose. You are only limited by your creativity here. And be sure to set clear guidelines about the quality and quantity of postings required to earn grades in this activity. These types of activities could work with as few as two or three students.

  2. Peer feedback. In courses where there is a major paper or a project, you can inject cooperative student-to-student interaction by assigning students the tasks of reviewing the first draft of a classmate’s final paper/project. Provide them structure/guidance on what the feedback should be like and then have them submit their feedback to both the student and to you. You of course will grade the quality of their feedback. One idea to push the envelope further on this type of assignment is to conduct the entire exercise out in the open in a discussion forum. Have students post their 1st drafts to the discussion forum and assign classmates to post their feedback/reviews of the 1st draft also to the discussion forum. Students can benefit by seeing 1st drafts of papers/projects of others as well as the feedback each person received. Of course, the graded piece at the end conducted by the instructor should be kept confidential and not be placed into the discussion forum.

  3. Group work. Cooperative student-to-student interaction is not the only type; there is also collaborative student-to-student interaction. That’s when you assemble a small team of students and assign them to produce a single group deliverable. In a small class – that equates to one team. It can be a paper, a Powerpoint presentation with speaker notes, a video, a podcast, a project, etc. It doesn’t matter – be as creative as you wish in choosing a deliverable that relates directly back to the learning objectives you are trying to serve. The key to conducting this type of activity is providing supports to help students accomplish this task at a distance. Almost all students will know how to work in a group in a face-to-face setting; however, in distance courses many students have far less experience. So I suggest the instructor prepare three supports: 1) a handout that explains some tips and tricks to effective teamwork at a distance. The handout should be tailored to match the deliverable in the specific course. In addition to discussing the deliverable, it should also discuss basic team functions such as the concept of needing a team leader, the importance of defining expectations between team members and role definition of members to facilitate task assignment, etc. This handout should include a standard team dynamic description (Bruce Tuckman’s model is the standard). 2) A mandatory Learning Team Charter. This requires students to create a document that contains all their contact information (including skype/twitter/facebook/IMs/TextMsgs), their expectations for the project, their personal strengths, weaknesses and interests. This document is central to starting the team off on the right foot with their communication strategy, and 3) Advice on tools. Create a private discussion forum for them where they can communicate, advise them that they can use brainstorming tools (like WallWisher - see this post) to generate ideas for their group paper/projects, advise them that they can use a wiki to collaboratively author a single document without emailing multiple versions of the document over and over, advise them that they can use a file repository service (like dropbox) to share centrally resources they collect while conducting research on their paper/project. One other important aspects of group work at a distance is that a component of the final grade MUST include peer evaluation. I suggest the component be fairly large – like 20%. 20% of the grade for this assignment should be based on a confidential evaluation of their group members that students submit only to the instructor at the end of the course. This gives incentives to students to perform at a high level in the team activity. Let’s face it – group work at a distance is an important skill to develop because it is increasingly present in almost every workplace. So giving students the opportunity to develop these skills in university courses is very worthwhile.
The above three categories of ideas are not exhaustive. There are many more ways in which you can inject student-to-student interaction into a web-enabled distance course even if the enrollment numbers are low. What are your ideas? Leave a comment below.

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