Suggested Practices for Online Group-work

–Dr. Timothy Kochery–

Incorporating group work assignments for online learning is considered a valuable practice to provide social affiliations and build a sense of learning community. However, implementing group work in an online environment is often very challenging and requires more attention to some useful instructional strategies.  This session will provide some prominent guidelines and models for facilitating online group-work that help overcome many common group inhibitions and effects

There are many special concerns that influence the increased importance of interactions for online learning situations. One of these, is the fact that many distance learners feel isolated, alone, and disconnected from the essential social transactions that are manifested in most educational settings. These learners not only feel separated from interactive feedback with the instructor, but they also feel removed from meaningful exchanges and the sense of shared experiences with their fellow students. This sense of isolation and the lack of social support have frequently been cited as significant reasons for the higher failure and drop-out rate, plus lower student satisfaction scores that occurs in many online courses. Distance learners feel the lack of emotional intimacy that exists for personalized constructive feedback and they are often frustrated by the “unapproachable” physical condition which separates them from the instructor and their peers.

Many strategies have been suggested to “maximize interactions”, however most are still dependent on a teacher-centered design and delivery of instruction. The true “distance” of the communication problem remains the same: the teacher is still viewed as the central figure who controls and transmits knowledge to a receiving audience. Effective learning is dependent on active negotiations and explorations of “meaning”, not a passive individual experience based on mere exposition, reception, and retention. Distance learners frequently feel detached and removed from their educational experience which is in direct opposition to one of the primary tenets of many educators that learning is essentially a “social process” (Brown & Duguid, 1993). In essence, it is considered to be a fundamental part of the learning process that people actively construct and reconstruct their worlds during interactions, communications and connections which are facilitated by social affiliations.

 

To help meet these needs, online courses can realize many benefits by utilizing one of the most direct methods of increasing student involvement, participation, and interactions with their own learning experience – cooperative learning and group-work. Indeed, one of the primary effects of cooperative learning is an increased sense of social support and constructive feedback. This is manifested through instruction that emphasizes the benefits of helpful peer interactions and positive group experiences. Formal cooperative learning, or well-structured group-work, has the interactive qualities to help overcome the “transactional distance” and feelings of alienation, while positively effecting student performance and satisfaction.

By creating an environment that advocates peer interactions, social support, and interpersonal communications, cooperative learning strategies can help attain the sense of a learning community which is frequently lacking in online education experiences. Group-work also increases various types of scholarly interactions, and stimulates active learning by purposefully engaging students in dynamic participation with their own educational process. In addition, well-structured group projects can promote important intellectual and social skills that help to prepare students for a work world in which teamwork and collaboration are increasingly expected and valued. These two instructional design issues both emphasize that distance education requires more attention to strategies that promote interactions: questioning techniques, discussions, and active learning. The instructional methods that are most frequently cited as successful all involve plans which stimulate active learning by using procedures that purposefully increase a dynamic student participation with their own learning process.

 

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