Allaying fears and building confidence: preparing students for on-line group-work
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1 April 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.