MOOCs, Group Work, and Instructional Design

English: Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union So...
Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union Society (Wikipedia)

Everything Old is New Again
In my last post I pointed out that all the arguments about MOOCs sound so much like the old arguments against online education in the 90s. One of the main arguments for authentic online learning in the 90s was the possibility of making online classes social environments. This fit well with the pedagogy of Constructivism. Constructivism says that knowledge is constructed when new information comes into contact with previous knowledge and evaluated against experience. Social Constructivism is an outgrowth of Constructivism that “extends constructivism into social settings, wherein groups construct knowledge for one another, collaboratively creating a small culture of shared artifacts with shared meanings” (Moodle). The instructors goal then was to facilitate these connections. In the 90s, this learning theory seemed to fit what was happening with effective teaching online. The goal of online assignments was to give students the opportunity to receive new information, hold it up to previous knowledge and experience, share that with a group, and then together, coming to new conclusions or new knowledge. Educators and researchers like Palloff and Pratt with their emphasis on learning communities, promoted group work and discussion forums as the solution to the badly performing classes that were basically online repositories of documents and maybe multimedia files. Over and over again, from the early days of online learning, the research shows that the greater the engagement in an online class, the higher the success and retention rates. Engagement does not mean clicking a link, widget or consuming media – it means actual interaction with students and instructors as well as content.

English: George Siemens at TEDxNYED.
George Siemens

Everything New is Old Again
Today, we have learning theories that are evolving towards a more complete accounting of how we learn online. I am thinking here of George Siemens and Stephen Downes‘ theory of Connectivism. I am not ready to throw out the Constructivist baby with the pedagogical bath because Connectivism is still in the Copernicus vs. Relativity explanation for gravity stage – I believe logically and experientially that the theory is right, but I am not ready to use it to put a satellite in orbit. This doesn’t make the theory wrong. We need to be doing more research; it is just a matter of time. For myself, I am satisfied that this new theory accounts for much of what is going on with Constructivism. I am going to let the Phd’s battle out the details: instructional designers have courses to create, assignments to design, and faculty to work with. A good working theory is a good working theory. A lot of what we are doing with online classes and MOOCs is testing the viability of Connectivism.

What Then Should We Do?
So this preamble is really a way to point out that everything that makes authentic learning work in a brick-and-mortar classroom are the same things that make online learning work. And as a teacher and instructional designer, I have a really practical end in mind. To my way of thinking, there is no difference between an online discussion forum and the Debate Chamber of the Oxford Union Society except one is more expensive and acoustically louder than the other. They are just different platforms. A MOOC is just another platform. George Siemens wrote back in March that MOOC providers were going to have to rely more on group work to be successful. I find this sentence especially funny and pertinent here: “The ‘new pedagogical models’ (A Silicon Valley term meaning: we didn’t read the literature and still don’t realize that these findings are two, three, or more decades old)….” But what kind of group work should we use and how can we ensure that it is successful? Siemens points out that there is a high dropout rate in MOOCs that could make group work a problem, but I believe that group work is one of the engagement pieces that is missing from many of these MOOCs (especially those using content delivery model rather than the content creation model).

Ensuring the Success of Group Work
Faculty and students have often told me about problems with group work. What do you do about the alpha student who needs to be the leader and do all the work? How should instructors handle the student who has little motivation? I have a blog post coming about this but essentially there are eight things needed for a successful group work project:

  1. Clear objectives
    Students need to know the exact purpose of the assignment. Let the students know where they are going.
  2. Detailed instructions
    This is particularly important in a MOOC because students tend to have less contact with the instructor. A detailed instruction document accompanied with a video and some examples are very useful here.
  3. Give each student a specific role
    This prevents one person from taking over the process and helps with assessment too.
  4. Communicate expectations in advance
  5. Use collaborative tools
    Model the means for useful collaboration. Give students instructions for setting up a wiki or a Google site for collaborating
  6. Facilitate and model leadershipSometimes good leadership is not getting in the way of good work. Leadership in MOOCs means that you live the model: you are connected and engaged in your course. You cannot disappear for two weeks and expect this to work. 
  7. Encourage networks
    Having the students using social media tools allows them to bring other subject matter experts into the project.
  8. Provide assessment and closure
    You would not want to participate in a MOOC with an endless series of unconnected assignments with no sense of closure. Assessment in group work gets interesting. I liked to use a blank form for the students to divide up participation points.

I will be posting a short article on how these components work here on this blog.

Kinds of Assignments:
The ubiquity of internet access and the proliferation of collaborative tools and platforms makes collaborative learning more available than it has ever been. This allows us to design a wide variety of assignments that are ideal for MOOCs or standard online classes. These are just a few ideas here:

  1. Group Research Project
    Group research projects are opportunities for students to get together and literally construct knowledge. Having students work on a research project and publish their results together on a wiki or a group blog benefits the students and the class. 
  2. Group PresentationsStudents can work on presentations with one another remotely and create slide presentations with audio or even a film and work on the 
  3. Media Projects
    Students learn a lot from content creation. Jim Groom’s DS 106, a class that some would call a “task based MOOC” is an excellent example of students working together to create media. Students can create videos or podcasts. When they graduate from college, no one is going to ask them to write a 20 page paper; they will be asked to work in groups, use technology, and create media.
  4. Debates
    One of our instructional designers here at Humboldt State University is using online debates in discussion forums.The debates are carefully structured and each participant has a role. This kind of prior attention to details is essential to online group work.
  5. Role Playing and Simulations Role playing and simulations have never been easier because there is so much data online now that can be used to build simulations (I am thinking here of epidemiological data, for instance). 
  6. Concept MapsTypically these are solitary projects but having a group negotiate what should be in a concept map and how concepts relate to one another are a good way to allow the students to clarify those concepts with and for one another rather than having the instructor spoon-feed “meaning” to them.
  7. Infographics This is a good project for groups because the roles can cover a wide-variety of learning modalities and abilities: some students can gather data, others develop art work, and others can write interpretive materials.

Any of these assignments can be created in advance and given to small groups. The students benefit not just from following the steps of the projects, but through sharing the end results with other groups. 

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