Assessment: it’s not the kind of word that makes students jump for joy. But did you know that it can be key to fostering and shaping collaboration in online learning?
This is a key finding of three education experts, who co-authored this paper for the Journal of Asynchronous Learning.
Professor Karen Swan of Illinois State University, assistant professor Jia Shen of Rider University, and professor Starr Roxanne Hiltz of the New Jersey Institute of Technology explain that what is assessed is what is valued. But the problem is that many online courses still rely on exams to assess student performance. This can lead to collaborative learning being undervalued and left aside.
Collaboration teaches students how to work together
The researchers explain assessment isn’t solely about examinations. It’s a broader practice, that rests on making inferences about students’ learning and development. What’s more, it’s an ongoing process that helps teachers not only understand students’ learning — but improve it.
When teachers value the right kind of collaboration in online learning environments, it’s chances of actually working greatly increase. Interestingly, exactly how collaborative learning is valued may be just as important. The researchers suggest some collaboration activities are developed purely because they’re seen as the best way to solve a problem or complete a project. In other activities, it’s the very collaboration itself that is critical — here, the project outcome matters less than making collaboration between people and groups more effective.
What’s the takeaway here? Collaboration is more about the journey than the destination.
7 signs of good collaboration in online learning
Here are some of the student behaviours that can boost collaboration, according to research cited in Hiltz, Shen and Swan’s paper:
- advocating more effort and perseverance among peers
- monitoring each others’ efforts and contributions
- exchanging resources and information
- explaining or elaborating information
- challenging others’ contributions
- giving and receiving assistance
- two-way feedback.
The challenge for teachers is to balance each student’s accountability with the class’s learning.
Hiltz, Shen and Swan say many fellow experts have learned students see online discussions as fairer than in-class ones. Why? It’s partly because the levelling nature of speaking to peers online. Put simply, more students speak, more students are heard, and everyone benefits.
Creating the right environment for collaboration
Great class discussions don’t just happen.
As the researchers explain in their journal paper, collaborative discussion needs to be created — and graded — for it to take off. That’s a challenge, especially if students know that the number, length, or frequency of group and individual contributions are being graded. Some may game this assessment process.
Here are two ways to stop that from happening.
- Goal-based assessment: One way to keep collaborative online discussions on the right track is to create an outcome or product for students to deliver. This could be a discussion summary, a collaborative case analysis, or a solution to a problem.
- Role-based assessment: Another approach is to assign roles within the group, such as discussion leader, facilitator, reporter, observer, or participant. These roles can be rotated among students, with separate assessments developed for each.
Community aids student collaboration
Lastly, don’t forget the role of community and camaraderie in helping students to collaborate.
Many education researchers and teachers agree that a strong group identity can help students work together better. Crucially, for collaborative online learning to benefit everyone as much as possible, this environment needs to be built ‘before serious collaborative group work commences’.
Do you want to act on the researchers’ findings to create and assess better collaboration in your online course? If you do, remember these three things:
- Collaboration improves how students learn when it’s set up well and assessed properly
- Practising how to collaborate is equally as important as the content being learned
- Goal-based and role-based learning assessment can empower collaboration.