Creating opportunities for online collaboration is easy. Ensuring collaborative activity takes place is much harder. The challenge is establishing communities of practice where by students take on the learning process through shared discussion and debate. I’ve recently completed a two week online course called Designing for Collaborative Learning. The course was part of the JISC-funded P2.0PLE project (Peer-2.0-Peer Learning Enhancement) at the University of Leicester. There were a number of drivers to my participation. I’m involved in writing a short postgraduate module which will be offered as part of the university’s Teacher Education Programme. The working title is Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age and it’s designed to give staff the experience of being an online student while engaging in contemporary approaches to digital pedagogy and open education. It’s been several years since I completed my MA in Open and Distance Learning so this seemed a useful reminder of the potential advantages and disadvantages of the medium. Also the course was being delivered through Coursesites; Blackboard’s contribution to open education. This is a free platform for constructing and delivering online learning. Very similar to Blackboard in look and style it offers a professional look and feel to academic study at no setup cost; see http://www.coursesites.com
Based around Gilly Salmons five stage model, the course proved an effective application of theory to practice with additional unanticipated learning curves. The first week I had a poor, at times non existent, internet connection. Frustrating as this can be, it remains a valuable reminder of the reality for students in low broadband areas and all education developers should have the experience of working under these conditions at least once a year. The course ‘e-tivities’ all contained learning opportunities with the most effective being the sharing of practice which is an inevitable by-product of a group of professional practitioners getting together. Overall the most striking part was my hesitancy in contributing to discussions. this is often under estimated yet barriers and resistance to online conversation are well documented by Salmon in her books Etivities and Emoderating. These books are nearly a decade old but the issues remain the same. The permanence of online comments can be a formidable deterrent; on the one hand you can practice and cut and paste into the forum but it must take extreme amounts of confidence to never be concerned about potential mistakes and responses.
One the most useful discussions was around assessment for contributions. This concluded the motivation factor overcomes any potential diminishment in quality. The moderator is often key to effective collaboration and again Salmon’s advice has never been bettered in terms of setting up and maintaining online groups. The current interest across the sector in transferring face to face courses to online delivery should also be opportunities to remind us this is never an easy process. The one hour lecture format works poorly online but lecture capture is still seen as a key tool for content creation. Not everyone can access video yet too few examples include transcripts and its the same for audio files. The technology that enables learning is always the same technology which can exclude it unless inclusion is first and foremost in people’s minds. Discussion forums are these days supplemented with blogs and wikis which offer powerful tools for learning but providing them is not enough. Too often a forum is created and nothing happens because there is no moderation process. Designing for Collaborative Learning was a useful reminder the key issues to establishing effective online learning opportunities have changed little over the past decade. Until staff become students it is unlikely the current view of online learning as transference of content to Blackboard will be challenged. Hopefully the new course, Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age will go some way towards achieving this.