Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Engaged Learners

Engaging learners is a challenge in any educational setting.  However, when you take away the physical presence of humans, you are faced with an even greater challenge.  No longer are you able to read the body language or even verbal responses a student may have to a learning environment.  The level of learner engagement in an online course is dependent upon the tools and approaches an instructor elects to use.  As approaches to instruction are considered, there are three focal points we must consider: content, communication, and collaboration.

To foster the development of content knowledge, an instructor has a vast array of tools available.  Among them are vidcasts, podcasts, YouTube, teacher created presentations, Google scholar search, on-line encyclopedias including Wikipedia, blogs, Twitter, webinars, and articles.  The interesting thing about these tools is that they could be the same tools that students produce as a culmination of their learning.  With an online course, I particular enjoy viewing available videos to help build knowledge.  They offer a distant physical presence.  The videos may or may not be of the instructor facilitating the course; nonetheless, they provide the human figure which often lacks in a distance learning environment.  It is also a strategy that helps meet the needs of the diverse learning styles of our students.  Beyond video, the internet is perhaps the largest warehouse of information in the world.  Google search options like Scholar, online encyclopedias like Wikipedia, and social networks like Twitter provide endless access to knowledge.

Instruction is much more than ensuring that knowledge is accessed and acquired.  In order to assess that the knowledge is ingrained in the learner’s thought process, it is essential that communication occurs between students and with the instructor.  Communication can take a wide array of approaches.  There are the discussions that take place in virtual spaces supporting the course which include discussion boards and course cafes.  These are public platforms of communication and they may also include Twitter, social networks, and peer or class blogs.  However, communication must also occur in safe places.  Emails, Skype video calls or chatting permit students and teachers alike to have more candied conversations regarding the course work.  In these spaces support can be offered without discomfort.  Peers can not judge feedback in this space.

Collaborative tasks are at the core of instruction that engages learners.  Without the content and the communication this piece would not be able to exist.    Most of us are familiar with wikis, my preferred wiki is Wikispaces.  It is user friendly and ads free.  In spaces like these students can create content together and the instructor can monitor who is doing the work.  It brings collaborative group work to a more accountable level permitting instructors first-hand to confirm the contributions each member offers a group.  Discussion features allow peers to provide discussion point, reflects, and concerns regarding a page or product.  Google offers collaborative opportunities for groups to produce documents, projects, and even maps together.  However, my preference for presentations is Prezi as it permits shared creation of a project.  Finally, a valuable collaborative tool I would like to use more with students and peers alike is DiigoSocial bookmarking is becoming a fabulous tool for students to share as they conduct research as part of a team.  Participants are allowed to highlight and level notes on a web page collectively.  These collaborative supports offer allow us to offer our students opportunities which span the spectrum of learning from information gathering to assessment.

Involving learners in building content knowledge, engaging in communication with peers and instructors, and working on authentic, collaborative, problem-based tasks in the online environment is readily achieved through the use of rich, web-based tools.  Everyday there is something new.  (I haven’t even begun to address the apps available to foster new avenues for content knowledge development, communication, and collaboration.)


Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. (2nd ed.). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Durrington, V. A., Berryhill, A., & Swafford, J. (2006). Strategies for enhancing student interactivity in an online environment. College Teaching, 54(1), 190−193.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Module 3 Post: The Assessment of Collaborative Learning

Collaboration is a vital skill for all learners to experience and find success. The challenge in any learning environment is to balance the individual skill and the collective skill assessments. Many of our students are assessed on their individual abilities, and often when they find themselves in an environment where they depend upon collaborative efforts of a group there is discomfort and anxiety.

Two years ago I was teaching a freshmen high school English class and ran into a situation that exasperated this scenario. In a multi-ability group students were assigned the task of translating a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into an understandable representation to share with the class. The group size was five. They were given expectations and a rubric in advance. Groups received individual participation grades that were determined based upon the rubric and my evaluation as well as the groups evaluation. With two strong, dominating individuals in one group and the collective mark of a "C," I found myself after school reviewing the group rubric with them. These top students couldn't collaborate with unlike individuals. They didn't try. They didn't work as a team, and the other members couldn't work with them. In a face-to-face setting with students who have been together in their learning experiences since kindergarten, collaboration was not a developed or even introduced skill.

(I am wondering if performing collaborative tasks online may be more effective than face-to-face collaboration among high schoolers. It could eliminate those preconceived judgments people have towards one another. But this is another realm of research.)

Scott Peck is quoted in Palloff and Pratt’s work: “‘It is our task—our essential, central, crucial task—to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed’” (2007). For this to become a reality, as educators we need to focus on elevating the value of collaboration through strong collective assessments.

Assessment of collaborative learning is a challenge. If collaboration is an essential skill, it needs to be required for all learners. Yet, we are challenged with the notion of meeting individual learning styles of our students. If learners are more comfortable with independence, do we require collaborative work? I believe that individual growth occurs when learners find themselves in situations of dissonance. If collaboration is the key component in learning, instructors need to value it, require it, and support it. The role of an instructor becomes one that “help[s] the team assess whether those goals are being met, and provide guidance for any changes that might be necessary” (Carroll, 2008). It is challenging but vital to collaborative group success. We need to keep in mind that all learners have varying experience and success in collaborative groups. As instructors we are the strongest supports for our learners.

Through the use of collaborative groups, assessment comes at many levels. Signs of successful collaboration are found when “individuals must engage in self-monitoring, team process monitoring, and proactive commitment to the work of learning” (Anderson, 2010, p.460). Along the same lines, Palloff and Pratt perceive “student self-assessment as a crucial component of performance in an online course containing collaborative activities” (2005, p. 24). Instructor presence and peer evaluation are also important features of assessment (2005, p. 26). “Empowering students to take control of their learning process” (2005, p. 30) makes the assessment of learning an investment on the student’s part. It helps promote ownership in the act of learning, as well as, the fair and equitable assessment of that learning. George Siemens reinforces this approach by presenting a model that sequences assessment: students assess peers, students receive feedback from online community, and educators assess using contribution logs (2008).

As Siemens states, Americans traditionally value individual abilities. What will place learners on a level playing field so that they can be vested in the success of a team? Future job experiences will depend upon their collaborative skills. How do we shift mindsets of teachers and community members to value the collective efforts of our K-12 learners? If we can share a common perception of collaboration, our future growth as a society will flourish as Peck describes.


Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. (2nd ed.). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Carroll, B. (2008, June 12). Assessing the quality of collaboration in virtual teams. Retrieved October 11, 2011, from Leading virtually: Leadership in a digital age:

Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer) (2008). Principles of distance education. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Startegies for the Virtual Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Siemens, G. (2008). Learning communities. (Vodcast). Principles of Distance Education DVD produced by Laureate Education, Inc., Baltimore