Home > My Thoughts > Online student interaction – a waste of time?

Online student interaction – a waste of time?


Someone tweeted a link today that caught my eye to a recently published paper by Sharon Watson of the Chifley Business School in Melbourne. This paper was presented at the HERDSA 2009 conference at Charles Darwin University, Darwin.

The paper is entitled Distance education students’ attitudes towards increased online interaction: desired change or unwanted imposition?

As an online educator who builds his entire teaching philosophy around the concept of collaborative learning (or social constructivism), I was very interested to see what the paper had to say. I found it very interesting – have a read and see what you think. I had not thought much about whether interaction amongst students online was a bad or unwanted thing before, and perhaps this has something to do with my design background, where open conversation, peer review and critical exchange of ideas is not only encouraged, but a necessity – especially in the education process. It made me wonder if I have been inflicting my views of collaborative learning onto my students, or if I have been taking for granted that open sharing of ideas and knowledge is an essential part of the learning process…

The main conclusion of Watson’s paper was, that a student’s attitude towards online interaction with their peers seemed to be linked with their nationality in the context of the research that was conducted. Both Indian and Australian students made up the bulk of the study, and it seems that there was a marked preference for more interaction from the Indian students, and the Australian on the whole would’ve liked to keep things as they were with little peer interaction. She does also say that the courses were not well designed when it came to including discussion into the course structure, and that the study was done before any redevelopment to ensure changes would be received well by those studying the course.

This surprised me somewhat, because I know a colleague of mine, Ian McArthur, has done significant work with running online courses between Australian and Chinese cultures (through his Collabor8 projects) – and he has found that the Chinese students seem to find it more difficult to contribute effectively to online discussions in comparison to the much more active Australians, due to cultural differences in how they communicate and and how learning is usually conducted (In fact you can see an interesting presentation he has done on this topic here).

This to me suggests that perhaps it is not culture alone that influences preference for collaborative learning and student interaction online. Of course issues such as language, and cultural differences play an important part, but primarily I think we to begin with, the way the courses are designed and taught have to be examined first…

A Learning Community vs Distance Learning – decide what you’re aiming for from the get go!
I have always disliked it when anyone refers to ‘distance learning’ in relation to what I do. To me, the distance learning model is usually designed around the (dare I say antiquated?) concept of a student’s solitary involvement with the course content and perhaps their teacher, and is a completely different premise to what online learning these days really can be.

You just have to look at the abundance of social networking communities, online forums, social bookmarking out there to know that people love to interact and collaborate when it is relevant to them and when they can learn more from the experience to make the time invested worthwhile. Interacting with others online can lead to extremely rich learning experiences – but a student has to feel that interacting with their peers will give them a much higher level of personal satisfaction and a better learning experience for this to work.

I think a teacher has to decide right up front whether they want their online class to be community or a conduit for individual learning. If interaction is desired, then the course has to be designed to encourage this from the ground up.

My point is, that if you have designed an online course using a ‘distance learning’ mentality (students work individually to complete course assignments and get feedback from only their teacher), then of course interaction between students can become superfluous and pointless. Online students often choose to study online because of time constraints with their busy lives, so conversations that lead nowhere or serve no purpose are a road to disaster.

It is crucial that an online teacher establish a community, and engender a culture of collaborative enquiry amongst students from the start. This requires assessment to be designed such that discussion and review are necessary in order to reach the goal. Students should also have a space for unrelated social chat, and be shown what constitutes valuable contributions in a discussion. One of the most valuable uses of interaction in a class I have used is using general discussion (after a lecture usually) to help students build a set of collectively defined criteria about a concept that helps them make sense of the new information. They then take this into their project work, where they can apply it to their approaches in completing the task. Following this students present their work back to their peers, who review it based upon the criteria they established a a larger group earlier on. I have found this type of discussion is purposeful, and also allows students to apply what they have learned in constructive analysis of their fellow students’ work.

I definitely don’t think increased online interaction is a waste of students’ time – but these are of course my personal and therefore biased thoughts on the topic, but I would like to hear what others think. Perhaps I am too focused on collaboration and am running my students ragged – any of my students out there!?

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  1. January 22, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Simon, the greatest experience I have had as an online student (now teacher) is when I went back to school to get my teaching license. After an undergrad in business and a few years of teaching elementary behind me, I decided to get my license through a state university program. I chose online due to the location of the university from my house. Nearing the end of a class on technology in education, I was given “access” to view other students’ projects online. I was absolutely astonished at the low level of work, not to mention lack of effort or creativity by my classmates. Obviously I could not know what grades they earned. With access to quality of work from those whom I would graduate from this program with, it allowed me reconsider the program as a whole. I dis-enrolled and sought a better school.

  2. January 22, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Great to hear from you…

    This is a great example of the isolated style of distance online education I was talking about. I think there is incredible value in students seeing each other’s wrk all the way through the development process. I think it can boost the quality of the final outcomes as ideas can be shared and multiple viewpoints shared in constructive feedback along the way. I’ve had a couple of students ho were initially aghast at the idea of anyone else seeing their work before submission, but once they saw the benefits a more open approach can bring to improving their own ideas, they got used to it.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Randall Fujimoto
    January 22, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    Nice, thought-provoking blog post (again), Simon. I fully agree with you that it is “crucial that an online teacher establish a community.” Have you read Building Online Learning Communities by Palloff and Pratt? It’s a very good book about the importance of building a community of learners to create an effective online learning experience.

    Your thoughts about different cultures is interesting. I think that at first culture may make some people open up more or less than others in an online environment. However, after a little while, given that there is good support, rules, procedures, etc. provided, I think that a person’s cultural (and any other human difference) subsides into the background in an online learning environment. The online medium really can, to a good extent, “level the playing field” among students and allow students to collaborate as equals.

    Thanks again for an excellent post. Keep ‘em coming!

  4. January 30, 2010 at 1:07 am

    I would be interested in hearing more about how you create an atmosphere of collaboration that works well. I think that collaboration is an absolute necessity when learning. We can learn a great deal from each other and students are no exception. When I use online learning in my classes, the collaboration comes rather naturually without too much direction from me. My situation is different, students work together in person all day and they view the online learning environment as an extension of my physical classroom. They are eager to collaborate and seek it out.

  5. Jodie R
    January 31, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    After reading the study you refer to, it seems that a big part of what attracts students to online learning is the self-paced aspect. A way to learn on their own time and at their own pace. As a high-school online teacher, I’m finding that this idea of learning is attracting students, but realistically many students find it hard to motivate themselves. I agree that it is so important to create a learning community where students feel a part of a greater whole. My students might start at any time in the year, so real collaboration is almost impossible. Instead I am at least trying to create assignments like asychronous forums, peer-editing, wikis, and publishing and commenting on each other’s work. I like the idea of creating as much choice as possible and have thought of offering “workshop” formats where if students are inclined they might commit to a collaborative option for part of a course instead of the “regular” unit of study.

  6. February 1, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Hi Kelly, the fact that your students know each other already from a face-to-face context would perhaps take the task of building a level of trust that enables collaboration out of the equation.

    With our fully online students, many of them are in different countries, so will never meet face-to-face. To get the ball rolling we have a task where students must create a visual essay about themselves… The upload images, movies, animations, whatever they think represents them best in relation to a few different categories we specify – such as their current location, their personal history, their inspirations and their own current art or design works.

    These visual essays in effect then become the students’ extended online profiles.

    We then ask students to read and review each others visual essays – giving them a couple of points to think about when reviewing to help get them started. One of the best pieces of feedback I have received from a student who undertook this exercise was that at first he thought it would be a pointless and labourious task, but when he started to get into it he found it was amazing just how much personality came through, and how much he was able to make human connections with his fellow students. They became more than names on the screen and he was able to begin to identify those with similar skills and interests – future friends…

    I’ve found that taking time to make these personal connections right at the beginning gives students a feeling of connection, and also a responsibility of not wanting to let their peers down in tasks…

  7. February 1, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    Thanks for posting Jodie – great to hear from you.

    Interestingly, our courses are not entirely self-paced… Yes students can log in at any time of night or day, BUT they do work as a collaborative group, and this means they must participate regularly, contribute to current discussions, work within a team, and meet set deadlines for assessment. So whilst there is a level of flexibility, in order to get the most out of the community, they must still have a regular presence. We encourage students to change the way they are used to using time to learn – from large blocks, to several smaller portions of time spread out over the week.

    Your approach of using a variety of different ways to collaborate is a great one I think as long as you have a collective thread through the different options. I also think that a lot depends upon one’s definition of ‘collaboration’. For many, lurking silently in online collaborative spaces is a very powerful way to learn. I do this a lot myself, I contribute to perhaps 30% of the threads I frequent in various online spaces. I guess it would depend on what one is really trying to teach their students. For me there is a heavy emphasis on the formative process, so open and transparent collaboration is very important, whereas for others the goal might be more summative in nature, where silent participation is a more acceptable process as long as the knowledge is being absorbed.

  8. Anita
    February 8, 2010 at 9:41 am

    Hi Simon…

    One of your students is out here in an uncharacteristically idle moment. I have a few comments to make here.

    First, much of my experience online was positive and I gained a great deal of knowledge and expertise through the Master of Cross-Disciplinary Art and Design (McDAD, as we PREFER to call it). The degree and its structure certainly brought me up to speed with much of the technology that was passing me by in my little enclave down on the South Coast of NSW.

    Other students were overwhelmingly generous with their knowledge and technical expertise, and while you and I know that I am always playing catchup with the new methods of communication, my peers down here think I am a technical whizz kid…which really is quite funny. This is the first time I’ve ever replied to a blog, so the process has emboldened me, in any case.

    As for collaboration, I’ve almost never enjoyed it. All of my past experience, going way back to school years, has been fairly negative with regard to collaborative efforts, and has often resulted in me doing the whole project anyhow, just with the added nuisance of having to try to discuss it with others, rather than getting on with it.

    Many times during the Masters I encountered similar difficulties. Some of the problems were different work methods, different reactions to looming deadlines, language barriers for some group participants and, as always, that percentage of people who consistently allow other people to carry them. In many ways, this is actually more difficult to deal with online, than face-to-face, because you are often not sure whether the other participants are there at all.

    I recall one of the first collaborative projects I did for you in which we had the usual two weeks or so to submit. It took over a week to discover that two members of the group had probably dropped the course. By this time we had wasted over one week waiting to choose a topic, so as to be ‘fair’ and not impose control on the rest of the group. That left three of us. One member said he would contribute, then produced nothing. Then came in with a couple of days to go and said “Seriously, wait for me, I am contributing something”, so we waited…and waited…and waited. Apparently he dropped out with two days to go, but didn’t tell us. So there were two of us, waiting…waiting. At the last minute we decided to go ahead without him and suddenly I had to write not only my own contribution, but the bit he was supposed to do as well. Then, right near the end, as we were in a dreadful rush to try to do the thing, the other team member had a death in the family. That left me!

    Now, this would be fine, except that if I were going to do it alone, I would have liked to have had the benefit of the whole two weeks to do it, not one and a half days to do my bit and everyone else’s. I received a credit for the project, which I feel in no way reflected the fact that I had a day and a half in which to do everybody’s work.

    I can’t say that most of the other projects I collaborated on went much better. Eventually I and a few others, just set to work on the projects long before the deadline, and presented it as a fait accompli to the group. Members who contributed nothing were thus allowed to ride along on the coat-tails of our high distinctions for no actual contribution…oh well!

    Bear in mind, we do not know the other students and are often collaborating with people we meet for the first time online, in the collaborative group. As groups are allocated randomly, one group may have a well-rounded spread of diverse talents, including, skills in writing, design, publishing and technology, and another may consist entirely of people who have little experience with computers and are unable to prduce slick presentations…and indeed, do not own the programs to do so.

    Also, while designers appear to love the whole collaborative buzz, SOME artists are solitary and work alone. The degree always seemed quite skewed toward the designers, from my perspective.

    Now, having said all this, I did have one truly remarkable collaborative experience, right at the end of my degree. In Creative Thinking I was fortunate enough to land in a dream team. Everyone was intelligent (apparently the three of us were getting highest individual marks as well), everyone had a serious and dedicated work ethic. Each of us started work as soon as the project was released (not 2 days before deadline), and each of us was absolutely committed to doing our best and producing something wonderful.

    Finally I tasted the elixir of that collaborative buzz. I can honestly say that this is the only time in my entire life where I feel that the team output was superior to what I could have produced on my own…and it really was. In general, collaboration can be a great leveller, and although I don’t think of myself as mark-obsessed, these things become important when you are trying to get scholarships.

    In any case, if all collaborations could be like this one, I would embrace it whole-heartedly. The problem is, it is a totally random experience as it stands, and you never know what you are going to get.

    I feel that in general, with the exception of this fantastic collaboration right at the end, collaborations caused me much unnecessary stress, and brought my marks down in general (marks were usually okay if two of us just did the project, while the others went off and had fun elsewhere). I came out of the degree just under two marks short of a High Distinction, and feel that it was often the collaborations that brought me down (as well as having art projects marked by designers, who evidently have different criteria for marking – mmm that’s another point, you really need to have an artist on the marking teams for the core subjects, as it is unfair to have art projects marked by people who are totally focussed on design and design criteria…anyway, that’s for another rant).

    So, with all this in mind, I did feel as if collaboration were ‘rammed down our throats’, and that little account was taken of those people who prefer to work alone, whatever their reasons. I felt that it was almost heresy to say you didn’t like collaborating. The projects which worked well, from my perspective, were those in which we did our own work, but discussed it with, and presented it to, our peers for feedback. This was very valuable and I enjoyed it very much. I am more than happy to work like this, and I have made some enduring friendships through these discussions. It is these sorts of activities that actually developed a network and a feeling of community.

  9. Ben
    April 1, 2010 at 3:14 am

    “My point is, that if you have designed an online course using a ‘distance learning’ mentality (students work individually to complete course assignments and get feedback from only their teacher), then of course interaction between students can become superfluous and pointless. Online students often choose to study online because of time constraints with their busy lives, so conversations that lead nowhere or serve no purpose are a road to disaster.”

    Simon – this is really key in my opinion in setting the differential between a vibrant collaborative/community for online learning vs. the classic ‘distance learning’ model you mention. Even if every intention is towards the peer-to-peer interactive model of learning, that same plague of unchecked tangent conversation and non-relevant discussion can subvert the overall value and focus of the online conversation. When this happens not only is the quality and momentum of the overall learning experience degraded, but the level of interest and desire from contributing students with “busy lives” is diminished as well. This is where active, regular, interaction (and intervention) from the instructor is critical for continued interest and growth.

    Any mode of learning both online or in-person requires an individual investment of time and effort (not to mention $). If the return on that effort and investment in contributing to an ongoing collaboration isn’t there, it’s rather predictable how such an experience could quickly become pointless.

  10. April 2, 2010 at 5:02 pm

    Nice to hear from you Ben, and I couldn’t agree more! Teacher presence is key to keep conversations on track. Although sometimes a bit of tangental discussion is actually healthy, as new or unexpected ideas can come up that actually end up enhancing the original thread of conversation.

    The trick as a teacher – or facilitator is balancing your presence and guidance to allow freedom of ideas and exploration, while at the same time keeping the entire thread on track so the conversation is meaningful to the related projects or tasks…

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