Allaying fears and building confidence: preparing students for on-line group-work

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Catherine Lee
1 April 2015

Narrator:

I tutor on a first year inter-disciplinary arts module on which part-time students undertake an on-line group exercise using a wiki to produce a piece of collaborative writing.  Previous evaluation had shown that many students find this task challenging, less from its technological aspects than the ‘soft’ skills required. It has been known for students to forego the assignment and the grade because they find the prospect of online communication and negotiation with relative strangers, together with the editing of one another’s work, so daunting.  

Situation

A face to face day school provided the opportunity to design a session to allay these fears. Attendees were from several tutor groups and may or may not have met each other before.  The physical space was a seminar classroom but specific room allocation/set up was not known until the day. The specific beliefs and desires of this particular group of students were not known, but assumptions were based on the fact that they had signed up to attend the session and on experience of previous groups. These assumptions were that they were interested in learning about how to approach the task, how to feel comfortable doing it, and to achieve success.

Task

I was trying to: help students develop confidence, to feel positive and enthusiastic about the task, and to see the technical skills that they would be required to put into practice as straight-forward.  The session was designed to be informal and participatory in line with its objective. The measures of success would be: immediate informal feedback from observation of students’ willingness to participate in small group discussion, to feed back to the larger group, general demeanour, and longer-term positive engagement with the task.

 Actions

I introduced the session as an interactive and informal exploration in to encourage interruptions and questions.  This was effective in that students did do so.  I used powerpoint slides to outline the purpose of their task, what research shows about the benefits of groupwork, and the reasons for the choice of a wiki as a vehicle for the task.  I then invited students to share any previous experiences of groupwork they had undertaken in other contexts, for example their professional lives.  I then used screen shots of an invented forum discussion to prompt discussion of interpersonal skills. Finally, I projected a live wiki onto the screen to demonstrate basic functions.   

Results

I sat students in their tutor groups in order for them to get to know the people they may be working with online. This had the unintended outcome that small group conversations broke out as I was speaking.  The invitation to share experience had the unexpected effect/obstacle that one person who responded proposed an approach that we are unable to take in the context of the module.  As measured by informal observation of students’ behaviour, body language, and willingness to engage, the session was a success. As measured by subsequent developments, since the first three students on-line were those who had attended, it would appear to have been successful. 

Reflections

The success may reflect that activity design matched desired outcomes.  Participation in a face to face session enabled students to transfer positive momentum from a face to face situation to an on-line environment.  I would repeat a session like this again, though in an ideal world there would be scope for students to have more ‘hands-on’ practice.

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My Learning Design using Compendium LD

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Damien Drohan
10:25am 1 April 2015


I do not think the author is assuming as she is basing her design on past student evaluations and experience. Apart from the beliefs of the students, which she notes and takes account of. 

The claims of effectiveness are grounded in observational evidence of students. I would reccommend undergoing a survey to gather further evidence for improvements. 

I find it postive that the author was flexible enough to allow small group work to take place even though it was unplanned. Responding to needs of students is an important part of Learning Design. 

Regards

Damien

Robert Lomax
12:46pm 1 April 2015


Hi Catherine

Interesting stuff! I think in many ways your piece outlines how face to face contact can a) reduce anxieties about subsequent online contact, and b) sustain future contact online between people who may have only met briefly face to face. 

I did find myself wondering if the collaborative online exercise was appropriate for the module if it required  a face to face session to explain it and, in effect, facilitate it in advance. Having said that Level 1 students are a particular population who may need more 'hand holding' than most. 

Was the activity about learning new ICT skills, subject based (creative writing?) or maybe both?

It sounded fun, I would have enjoyed being in the session!

Rob

Catherine Lee
8:04am 6 April 2015


Thanks Rob;

Yes, I think you're absolutely right about the 'hand-holding'. It's not so much that the session was specifically set up to support the on-line exercise, as that there was a conveniently timed session and this seemed a good topic to include since previous experience with other groups had identified high levels of anxiety.  (A colleague elsewhere in the country has just reported two students have dropped out of her group completely due to the on-line groupwork!).

The activity itself was subject based (material culture) and so had a dual purpose; not group-work for the sake of it but also formative assessment of module learning.

peter arnold
2:47pm 6 April 2015


i think it ws a god idea to bring everyone together. submitting a written piece in a course where students are being graded does seem to have an element of 'finality' about it, even though your activity was a collboration-where i assume their work could be changed? it sounds like the main issue was the feeling of being 'judged' by their peers. 

by getting everyone together you get the opportunity to find out what is causing the stress thereby be in a better position to act on that.

peter

Catherine Lee
4:48pm 8 April 2015


 it sounds like the main issue was the feeling of being 'judged' by their peers. 

I think that's it, Peter, exactly.  At first level confidence is a significant obstacle for many students.

Plus, perhaps, it's also in the nature of e-learning?  In a face-to-face situation we have the opportunity to 'suss' everyone else out; we may conclude that, whilst there are some who appear to be stronger students than we are, others appear less so. But in a distance learning environment it's easy to assume that everyone else 'gets it' when we are struggling. So to be asked to put work out there, when students are still constructing their own understanding, makes them feel vulnerable, I think.

 

Deborah Meakin
9:52am 28 June 2015


Hi,

The plan to 'induct' students into using an online space is very supportive, I believe. An opportunity to have face-to-face time is ideal and this session appears to have resented this opportunity and  have a 'hopes and 'fears' aspect to it.

I recently planned a similar session for bloggin and included proformas in it so that the students had an activity whichhleped them identify what to write.  I have found structuring in this way can work where there may be blockages and might support your 'hands on' practice.

Good confidence building session.

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