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Mediated collaborative online learning: a brief discussion

by David Lindley, 0 comments

Definition of Terms

For this discussion;

  • mediated means active participation by a teacher, tutor or facilitator throughout the learning process,
  • collaborative means students combining their experiences and capabilities to bring both breadth and depth to their learning, and
  • online learning means delivery of education materials and associated communication and administration via a learning management system such as Moodle or Blackboard.

Benefits

Consistent with online education in general, an obvious benefit of mediated and collaborative online learning is flexibility, especially in terms of a student’s geographical location and competing time demands from employment, family and social obligations.

In addition, it is flexible in terms of a student’s intellectual and professional interests and their (probable) need for individualised support.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it has the benefit of an overarching, externally imposed study discipline.

Considerations

socialisation, learning style, academic capabilities, structure, assessmentAs with all forms of learning and modes of education, mediated collaborative online learning has characteristics that must be carefully weighed and balanced. First is the process of student socialisation; which is to say, the process of introducing students to, and helping them feel comfortable with, the learning environment. The five stages of Salmon’s Model of Online Learning describe this well; beginning with Access and Motivation and then progressing through Online Socialisation, Information Exchange and Knowledge Construction, until reaching the stage of Construction where students take personal responsibility for their learning.

A second important consideration is learning style; which is to say, the need to provide appropriate, or at least multiple media and delivery methodologies (eg text, audio, audio-visual, contemplative, reflective, interactive etc). Variety in the learning environment raises the potential to maintain the attention of students with differing learning preferences.

Academic capabilities is another issue. Where the poorer a student’s academic capabilities, the greater the need for an imposed study discipline (eg tasks with follow-up assessment by specific dates). Similarly, the poorer a student’s academic capabilities, the greater the need for continuous feedback on performance, focussing not just on absolute performance but also on performance change (eg performance improvements since previous feedback).

Structure is an issue sometimes not recognised as important by non-educators. Online learning, typically, can be structured either by topic or time, but to be effective, mediated and collaborative online learning should be structured by time (perhaps weekly).

Finally, there is assessment, perhaps the most challenging, but sometimes the least considered, issue in education. In formal academic and professional environments, assessment processes are not just for students and not just about achievement of their learning objectives, but should also be used to identify the effectiveness of an education methodology and its application in a particular context.

In an online environment, assessment, whether formative or summative, can be visible or hidden. Where a student produces and submits a piece of work for assessment it is visible, but assessment can also use hidden activities such as whether a student accessed a particular learning object and the time the student spent reading postings to a discussion forum.

Hidden assessments, to be hidden, can not be defined in a subject outline or similar public document, and therefore can not be used to justify a student’s grade. They can, however, be used to understand a student’s work rate and method, and thus can be a guide to the possible depth of their understanding and to identify opportunities for remedial intervention.

Hidden assessment methods, possible in online learning environments, are most useful in subjects where the expected academic capabilities and quality of assessable artefacts is relatively low.

Discussion

To illustrate aspects of mediated and collaborative online learning, take as examples two semester-length subjects; a university first year undergraduate subject for recent school-leavers and a postgraduate subject for professionals in full-time employment. The undergraduate subject might be built around a textbook (ideally available in both electronic and hard-copy formats), whereas the postgraduate subject might have no textbook but numerous online readings the total of which is too great for a student to read; meaning that they must select just those readings relevant to their personal interests.

Associated with the undergraduate textbook could be pointers on how to take notes and identify key points, whereas in the postgraduate subject the readings are followed-up with questions such as “what and how can you apply what you have just learnt to your current work environment” or “how can you use what you have just learnt to progress your career as a …”

Sometimes useful is for students to find materials themselves which they then must introduce and justify to their student colleagues. This has the benefit of introducing the students to self-directed study which they can continue after completing their formal coursework.

Both types of subject are supported by audio visual materials (perhaps published through YouTube or similar) though the undergraduate videos are typically how-to type instruction videos whereas the postgraduate materials might be interviews and conference presentations published by universities and other research organisations

In terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the Cognitive Domain, the intellectual skills developed in the undergraduate subject are probably limited to knowledge recall and evaluation, perhaps sometimes to the level of concept evaluation; whereas the postgraduate subject might consistently involve skills for meaning synthesis and the evaluation of ideas.

Both subjects will use regular discussion forums (perhaps weekly) which should be assessed; both for formative reasons and also to ensure students post regularly and appropriately. In both subjects the discussion forums are the principal tool for student collaboration so the seeding (in the form of meaningful questions) and support (by providing mid-stream direction to conversations or to motivate participants) is critically important. The difference between the subjects is primarily in the types of question used to seed conversations and the intellectual quality of the subsequent discussions. In the undergraduate subject, discussion forums might be supported with elementary, perhaps multiple choice, quizzes focussing on knowledge recall and precision.

Conclusion

This has been a very brief discussion of mediated and collaborative online learning. It has argued that a key benefit of the method is flexibility in terms of student location, time and interests. In addition, and most importantly, it has the benefit of an externally imposed study discipline.

The most important take-away message from this discussion is that mediated and collaborative online learning, like all formal education, it is not a trivial activity. To be effective it requires  serious consideration by professional educators familiar with different types of learner, the significance of assessment, the methodology itself and the technologies over which it can be delivered.

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