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Build More Collaboration into Your Online Class

Promoting active learning in a digital classroom.

January 28, 2016
 

Travis Grandy is a PhD student in Composition and Rhetoric at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Find him on Twitter @travisgrandy or at his website.

 

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This summer I’ll be teaching my first fully online course. As you might remember from a previous post I wrote on using team-based inquiry, I really like creating opportunities for students to collaborate and support each other’s learning process. As I build my course in preparation for this summer, one of the challenges I anticipate is how I can create similar kinds of active learning experiences for students without the benefit of in-person meetings. This started my thought process about ways to foreground collaboration in an online class. Today, my post will discuss some approaches to designing online activities that promote active learning and team-building skills. Although I'll focus on some example activities intended for an online class, they can also be adapted for blended classes as well.

 

What follows are a few activities that I’ll be working to adapt for my online class. Hopefully they’ll give you some ideas too!

 

Online peer review

As a writing teacher, I know that students can be a tremendous support to each other as they move through the writing process. Emblematic of this is having students share their writing with an audience of peers in order to get feedback and revise their work. While doing peer review online can be difficult, I find some of the following things can make it more successful.

  • Write detailed instructions for the peer review process – While this may seem obvious, students need clear instructions from beginning to end of the peer review process. I mean writing instructions for everything. This can include things like how to format files, where files will be shared with peers, and how feedback should be recorded. While I want my students to eventually be self-sufficient when doing peer-review, like any other skill it requires practice, so it’s worth the time to institute an organized system.

  • Provide clear directions for feedback – Don’t have students post drafts of their writing to a message board and just say “go.” Instead, it’s important to set very clear expectations over how students should be reading their peers’ writing, and what kind of feedback is appropriate. For example, I like to have students respond to a set of questions as part of writing their feedback.  Some questions I like to use include:

    • In your own words, what is the main claim or argument of the essay?

    • What is at least one place in the essay that you thought was especially strong or convincing? Why do you think it was effective?

    • What is at least one place in the essay that was confusing or difficult to follow? What was difficult for you to understand?

  • Use a rubric - I like to be really transparent with my grading process by using rubrics, in part because they can also function as a good teaching tool. Near the end of the writing process, I’ll assign peers to review each other using the grading rubric, and then write explanations for the score. This can help students be more careful readers, write feedback that substantive and specific, and usually the feedback they write for peers can be applied to their own writing as well.

  • Incentivize participation – If students are taking the time to write good feedback for their peers, this work should be rewarded. Personally, I include “quality of feedback” on my grading rubrics (and sometimes I have students rate the feedback from their peers). It’s also helpful to just validate good work when you see it—it shows how you’re remaining engaged with their conversations and are invested in the outcome.

 

Crowd-Sourcing Course Content

In her post earlier this week, Heather pointed to some software that is great for producing content for an online course. Another potential resource is your students themselves. Beyond the asynchronous discussions that happen on discussion boards or blogs, carefully designed group projects where students work together to collect, synthesize, and present information to their peers can reinforce course outcomes and enable students to contribute to the broader conversation of the course. Activities can range from low-stakes assignments that involve the entire class to more traditional small-group projects.

  • Assign students to help build content into your course – Instead of spending time populating an online course with content that anyone could find with the right Google search terms, why not pass this task along to students? For instance, when I teach students about MLA citation, I’ll ask them do online research and post links and examples to a class discussion board. This also works well for having students do collaborative note-taking for lectures or readings, developing a class glossary, or troubleshooting technical challenges as well.

  • Use teamwork to reinforce new skills  – When I teach students about information literacy and how to utilize the online resources at our institution’s library, I start by having them work in small teams on a scavenger hunt activity. The scavenger hunt might include things such as finding an online tutorial for generating strong search terms, a journal article downloaded from a university database, and the contact information for a subject librarian related to their research topic.

 

Resources for being a better online teacher

If you take a look at the GradHacker archives, you find a bunch of great posts that deal with many of the ins and outs of online teaching. For example, Andrea has a great post about teaching strategies including designing tutorials and providing timely feedback to students. During my planning process I’m also finding it really helpful to consider some of the takeaways from Heather’s post on fostering an active online discussion including modeling the kinds of online participation you expect from your students. Liz gives some great practical advice about digital pedagogy including the best strategies to communicate with online students with clarity, but also the benefits of NOT responding to emails as soon as you get them. From all these different perspectives, as well as my own experiences in facilitating online activities for my in-person classes, I find that what you put into a class has a big impact on what you can get out of students, especially with how you give feedback on their work. At the core, success in online teaching seems to hinge on having clear expectations for student participation, processes in place for when students have questions or challenges in the course, and activities that are thoughtfully and purposefully designed around course outcomes.

 

Have you had success keeping students engaged and collaborating while teaching an online class? What kinds of strategies or activities do you like you use?


[Image by flickr user IvanWalsh and used under Creative Commons license]

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