9 tips for successfully including peer collaboration in an online course

There are still many preconceptions regarding which types of tasks cannot occur online. Often when I ask new clients why they opt for a ‘blended’ program, they indicate the need for people to work together – implying that true collaboration can only happen face-to-face.

That’s not true.

Many of our clients run successful collaborative eWorkshops (mostly asynchronous, so no or few webinars). In fact, there might be more collaboration in an online version compared to its face-to-face equivalent because we’re giving people more time to think and formulate their contributions. Asynchronous collaboration often goes deeper.

If you have an online course or workshop where collaboration doesn’t work, this will most likely be due to one of these two reasons: (1) the course shouldn’t be collaborative in the first place because it’s a compliance course, or (2) there are issues with the design and/or facilitation of your collaborative task.

There are a few things that need to be done differently online to successfully include collaborative work.

1. Design a smart and inspiring collaborative task

Make sure the learning task is collaborative, not cooperative. If you mix this up, you will not get the outcome you expect. I have written a lot in the past about designing good team tasks, for example here. There is a narrated presentation about the same here.

2. Make the collaboration a stated course outcome

Be clear with your expectations. Sell the idea and explain why team work is so important for your eCourse or eWorkshop. (If you can’t come up with solid arguments, perhaps it shouldn’t be a collaborative course).

Some readers from the academic sector will want to add: make collaboration an assessable component. I’m resisting this vehemently, especially in the context of professional development I work in. In general, we’re totally off track when it comes to assessment in adult learning, but that’s for another blog post.

3. Guide learners on how to collaborate

Provide participants with tips on how to problem solve in remote teams, how to constructively criticize, divide and assume responsibilities, and organise their work. Give additional guidance to the team leaders. Don’t use a teacher’s tone when providing this guidance – we’re not at school.

4. Provide a plenary to nurture a ’whole group’ feel while teams complete a task

Just like in a face-to-face workshop the facilitator needs a space where general comments and guidance can be provided while teams focus on their work.

In a face-to-face workshop, the facilitator moves around the room, ‘listens in’ and would occasionally interrupt the whole group if she/he feels additional guidance is required. Similarly, it’s important to provide a plenary forum alongside the team forums to do this.

The added advantage online is that participants tend to use the plenary too – to share reflections that go beyond the team task itself or ask questions. It really helps with nurturing the ‘whole group’ feel and maintaining the ‘buzz’ as people can move back and forth between their teams and the plenary.

There should be a separate plenary for each team task. Put this forum very close to the team forums for any specific task if your LMS allows.

5. Keep all team work visible to other teams

Over the past 10 years facilitating/mentoring/observing eCourses and eWorkshops, I have noticed that participation rates are affected negatively when teams are hidden from each other. So we never hide teams in DynaMind designed eWorkshops.

Yet, out there this seems to be a preferred LMS setting (e.g. the Moodle ‘group’ setting) whenever collaborative work is being organised. Participants are then only able to see posts by their own team members. Suddenly contributions by other people become invisible to them.

Don’t be tempted to use this tool just because it’s available. It’s designed for the assessment-keen school environment where teachers find it important that small groups don’t get to see other groups’ work because students might copy their peers’ work.

eWorkshops or eCourses in the professional development sector – unlike typical school and university courses – are adult learning environments focused on empowerment. So we don’t mind if people have a look at other teams’ work. It’s encouraging and it’s all in the spirit of learning. Few people copy other people’s contributions when they work in open environments where there is a strong feeling of trust and partnership.

6. Shuffle teams

Don’t force participants to work in the same teams throughout the course. Some facilitators claim teams should remain intact to promote team cohesion – I disagree. This is too risky – some teams just don’t do very well for a multitude of reasons.

If you provide a plenary forum and you keep the team work visible, there will be ‘whole group’ cohesion too, so team cohesion is only part of that overall picture. When it comes to doing the course work, it’s important that people get an opportunity to work with different people. This is great for professional networking too.

From a facilitator’s perspective, reshuffling teams gives an opportunity to strategize around some aspects of group management e.g. mixing up people with different perspectives for specific tasks, or making sure all teams have a core of very active people.

7. Team size matters

If the collaborative work in your eWorkshop or eCourse has been designed according to good practice (see tip 1), then teams of 6-8 learners is ideal in a professional development context. Working with a partner (‘buddy’) or small teams of 3-4 people doesn’t work in asynchronous environments.

Unlike face-to-face workshops where you can be pretty sure that people who are present now will still be there two hours later, this is an assumption you can never make online. People come and go because of work commitments, etc. The design of an online workshop needs to be adjusted to that reality – we need to build in a level of flexibility that is not required in face-to-face environments.

The ideal team sizes don’t tend to vary much regardless of the task. We are more likely to adjust the task design to fit with the ideal team size.

8. Monitor closely but don’t interrupt

This brings us to e-facilitation. Supporting online collaboration requires a very different e-facilitation strategy than supporting a university course focused on content, for example. It requires a ‘guide on the side’ approach instead of a ‘sage on stage’ approach (I have written about what that means for learning design here).

While participants are engaged in team work, the e-facilitator monitors, encourages and steps in to offer clarifications if necessary. From the learners’ perspective the facilitator should have a strong ‘presence’ yet not ‘interrupt’. It’s a fine balance. The plenary (see above) is a great tool to maintain that balance.

There is a tendency out there to promote a hands-off approach “because after all we’re all adults and thus self-directed learners”. Keep in mind that a hands-off approach by an online facilitator is often interpreted as lack of interest and lack of commitment. The effect on participation rates is immediate. If you want to achieve online what you have achieved in your best participatory face-to-face workshop, then a strong human touch is essential.

9. Give comprehensive feedback

This should be the bulk the e-facilitator’s work. If you want your participants to make a significant effort, you need to work hard too!

The best method to give feedback on a collaborative task is ‘weaving’. There is a step-by-step guide on how to do this here.

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