Ruth Best, Ed.D., MBA
Assistant Professor and Director, Office of Clinical Practice
Graduate School of Education, Touro College
Imagine an online course where the participants are in different states or countries. How does one engage students in the learning process? How do we ensure that all students meet the learning outcomes? How do we facilitate project-based activities inclusive of oral presentations in the virtual classroom? These are questions I have asked myself on occasion.
Reflections on Experience
Over ten years ago when I began teaching at a distance, facilitating collaborative learning projects was a challenging feat, as learning management systems were not as advanced as they are today. At that time, Skype, Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, Go to Meeting, and WhatsApp were still emerging technologies. Today, students and faculty use these newer tools daily to connect locally and internationally, while engaging in synchronous instruction and project-based learning activities. Student-to-student interactions have expanded beyond the discussion board and chat features of yesteryear. It is much easier to facilitate learning activities that require students to collaborate on a group project and make oral presentations.
Rationale for Synchronous Collaboration at a Distance
As Dr. Marian Stoltz-Loike, Touro College’s Vice President of Online Education and Dean of the Lander College of Women highlighted in a recent US News and World Report article (2018), the opportunity to collaborate and engage in project based learning experiences, allows distance learners to develop skills transferable to the work place. Today’s worker must be competent in digital communication beyond written forms of social media – Twitter, Facebook, and instant messaging. They must be prepared to host and lead meetings using various technologies and multimedia. They must be able to capture and engage a virtual audience; they must be ready to work in cross functional teams to engage is data driven decision making, as well as gain consensus as a group.
What better way for a student to practice and develop 21st Century skills than in the web-enhanced or virtual classroom. So, what does it look like in practice? Well to ensure that online students have experiences similar to their peers who take courses in the brick and mortar or face-to-face (F2F) environment, faculty have to remain visible while creating a community of inquiry – social, teaching, and cognitive presence (Bigatel, Ragan, Kennan, May, and Redman, 2012).
In terms of design and delivery, course developers and subject matter experts must consider opportunities for students to engage and interact in synchronous sessions, including oral presentations. Online students and faculty in the early 2000s utilized programs such as Kaltura, Jing, Voice Thread, and similar multimedia and video capture programs to create and embed audio and video for individual and group assignments. Today, in addition to YouTube and Screencastomatic, we can use conferencing tools to engage in more authentic learning experiences that simulate what happens organically in a F2F setting. For instance, rather than using the LIVE chat feature in Blackboard for reviewing concepts in real time in quantitative based courses (as I did in the mid-2000s), we can now schedule a Zoom or Skype meeting, share screens, and record sessions to enhance conceptual understanding.
Application to Practice
So how can we include meaningful synchronous sessions in our online and hybrid courses while meeting course learning outcomes? How and when can students plan, prepare, and present in the virtual classroom? Furthermore, how do faculty facilitate experiences that promote teamwork, especially if the stakeholders live in different geographic regions? What is the faculty’s role and what are the students’ roles?
Faculty need to do the following:
- Provide clear guidelines (in writing and orally) about group assignments/assessments. It may be helpful to hold a synchronous session to review the assignment requirements, deadlines, share sample work, and discuss the rubric that will be used to assess student work.Create a discussion forum where students can pose clarifying questions of the faculty and each other following the synchronous session.
- Prompt students via frequent announcements regarding the assignment components and due dates. For instance, if students have three or more weeks to work on a group project, it may be helpful to provide reminders to help them plan and pace themselves wisely.
- Involve students in determining the team participants by using Doodle or other means of self-selection.This allows them to take some ownership in the selection and decision-making process.
- Direct students to collaborate to assume different roles as part of the team, i.e. Team leader, record keeper, document controller, and progress chaser.
- Provide students multiple opportunities to access the conferencing tool to practice their oral presentations to ensure familiarity. In doing so, students also get to work on flow and may develop a contingency plan in the event a teammate experiences technological issues on the day of actual presentations.
- Ask students to complete a peer assessment to monitor each member’s actual involvement in group work.
- Motivate students by giving ongoing feedback as they progress to complete group work.
- Hold students accountable to deal with group dynamics and resolve any ensuing conflicts.
- Ensure there are multiple means of expression, representation, and engagement in line with Universal Design for Learning principles.
You are probably still wondering about the value and feasibility of synchronous sessions, considering myths that you may have heard about students’ ability or inability to participate in virtual group work (Demaria and Bongiovanni, 2010). However, in my experience, online students welcome the opportunity to collaborate on group projects. Following group presentations, in addition to assessing each member’s contribution, students should be given opportunities to highlight areas of challenge and growth. As it relates to transferable skills, my students recognized communication, time management, planning, organizational, and problem solving as key skills for successful collaboration in the virtual classroom and workplace.
When students can find relevance in coursework by connecting to everyday work experiences, they are more likely to engage in learning. Furthermore, providing the opportunity for distance learners to connect in real time can simulate what is happening in the typical on-ground classroom. So, the next time you deliver a course in an online or hybrid format, consider facilitating an activity that allows students to work together in teams. You may just be surprised by the results.
Bigatel, P., Ragan, L., Kennan, S., May, J., & Redmond, B. (2012). The Identification of Competencies for Online Teaching Success. Online Learning, 16(1). doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.24059/olj.v16i1.215
DeMaria, R. & Bongiovanni, T. (2010. September 22). The 10 Biggest Myths About Synchronous Online Teaching. Educause Review. Retrieved from https://er.educause.edu/articles/2010/9/the-10-biggest-myths-about-synchronous-online-teaching
Stoltz-Loike, M. (2018, January, 5). Gain skills in online courses requiring group work.US News and World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/online-learning-lessons/articles/2018-01-05/gain-skills-in-online-courses-requiring-group-work.