H808: Reflection on online collaboration and social presence

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This post is a reflection on Core activity 6.3: Evaluating elearning practice

(Warning: Long Post)

Week 6 of H808 The Elearning Professional asked us to take part in a collaborative activity spanning a 2 week period. The task was to read a series of case studies and articles and, working as a group, develop a set of principles as to what constitutes effective practice in elearning. The principles  had to be illustrated by examples from the case study research. The group was free to choose the format of the output. The requirements were posted onto the week’s forum and groups of 6/7 people were pre-alloacted. So, I knew who I was going to work with and what I had to do in outline form. The readings and resources were provided. While there is much to reflect on, I am going to focus on the activity as it progressed and the idea of ‘social presence’ as an important factor for group motivation.

The activity proceeded along the following stages:

Setting roles and tasks and a way forward

The activity got going when some members posted messages and questions on the tutor group forum that developed into a conversation about how the activity might be organized, how roles could be allocated, and how how the activity could be carried out. After a little bit of stuttering and polite hanging about, a way forward was developed in the form of a ‘road map’ placed on the group wiki which was collaboratively edited to flesh out the skeleton road map with tasks and deadlines. Members allocated roles to themselves and set about the first task which was to select a few case studies and then write notes on the group wiki. The idea was to read enough as a group in order to make an informed decision on which case studies would be selected. A further parallel task was to devise a set of principles of learning based on readings. This was done individually and posted to the forums for the group to review. The group also chose to use Powerpoint as the output format.

Decision making

Through postings on the discussion forums, a consensus was reached on both the two case studies (through voting for two out of those researched) and on the principles. The nature of the agreement was largely through default and majority agreement. I felt that at times there was an attitude of just getting through it so that some decisions could be made – this is not a criticism but strategic decision making on the part of the group that agreement had to be reached if deadlines were to be met. In a ‘real world’ situation, I think individuals would have more input and discussion about these core principles and how to phrase them, although I personally was broadly happy with them. The decision making was inclusive in the sense that the group added more principles to help satisfy most group members’ opinions, so the process wasn’t really a critical review of what was in and what was out. A more critical review and discussion might have resulted in fewer principles as there was some overlap (interaction and community) which I found when putting together the content.

Creating and collaborating

Following the groups’ decision on the 8 principles,  the ‘researchers’ (and I was one) analyzed the case studies to pull out examples of key practice. Personally I found this intensive and time consuming, but I also got a lot out of it, as I was immersed in the subject matter. This content was reviewed by the research team by way of reading and amending text, and then sent to the presentation team by email. Up to this point, most group communications had been asynchronous. There was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing to get this done which also involved me waking up very early on deadline day to do a further edit and review.

Deadline day was when the fun began. Suddenly, the team were talking to each other on Twitter about the presentation. A period of near synchronous, spontaneous and unplanned for collaboration began using a common hashtag. This hashtag had been set up for tweeting evaluation feedback after the presentation had been completed, but a few members started test tweeting  earlier and suddenly almost all members of the group were talking to one other about the presentation. This was unplanned for in the road-map and made the process of getting the final stages of the presentation easier. Although this was slightly frantic and hectic, it was a lot better than waiting around for people to reply to emails which had been the case up until now.

Social presence and group dynamics

I realized as the activity drew to a close that what had been missing for a large part of the two weeks from the group dynamics was ‘social presence‘. Social presence in the context of online learning is the ability of participants in a community to project themselves, socially and emotionally, as real people through a medium of communication (Garrison and Anderson, 2003). I came across this in H800 when looking at the value Twitter can play for enhancing ‘social presence’ and therefore engagement between students and their tutors. I saw how social presence makes a difference during the tail end of the collaborative activity when the group started to use Twitter. While I was reviewing the presentation in its final hours and giving feedback, I felt the social presence of my colleagues on Twitter, which is quite different from sending an email into the ether or posting to a discussion group in the VLE and not knowing when a reply will come back. According to Dunlop & Lowenthal (2009) regarding the use of Twitter, ‘This sort of informal connection between and among students and faculty is one aspect of cultivating student engagement and social presence’. There was also humor and a sense of community building which had not been there earlier. It demonstrated the power of web 2.0 tools for changing the dynamics of a group collaborating online.

Before I get too starry eyed about this, I am also cognizant that using social media tools can be exclusionary if all participants do not have access or are not there at the time, while there can be miscommunication afforded by 140 characters and the cognitive load of having so much coming in through different media. A tweet sent is immediately received and in mid conversation there is an expectation that there should be an immediate response. Despite this caveat, there is a growing body of research about the importance of social presence and engagement in online learning and group collaboration. Twitter isn’t the only option by any means; the same element of social presence can be achieved by being logged into Skype for example so that there is awareness of who is around and being able to check-in with others using the Skype chat feature is very powerful for remote team working.

Evaluation

The activity ended with a group evaluation using Survey Monkey, a Facebook page for capturing feedback and tweets to say the activity was complete and thanks to all who participated. The activity ended on a high for many participants and a feeling of relief of having met the deadline in good time and getting positive feedback from the wider student cohort and tutors.

Reflection

I learned a lot through this activity. The key points were:

  • Collaborative learning activity design is challenging. It can only be only be designed for a possible learning outcome, and the results may be unpredictable depending on a multitude of factors.
  • Collaborative working online is difficult especially if mostly asynchronous in terms of time (difficult to schedule if waiting for others to respond) and in terms of communication (due to lack of visble cues and
    potential for misunderstandings).
  • Motivation through social presence is important for groups to collaborate around a shared idea or goal.
  • Responsibility to the group is a motivating factor but it can also lead to ‘group-think’ behavior where strategic decisions are made to just get things done rather than do it correctly.
  • Group work can be surprising and satisfying but also time consuming. The costs-benefits have to weighed up in terms of learning design effort and the necessary outcome.

And the result of the activity? Here it is:

Key principles of_practice_for_effective_elearning

(Tip: click ‘View on Slideshare’ for a full screen experience)

References
Dunlap, J. C., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). ‘Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence’ Journal of Information Systems Education, vol. 20, no. 2., pp.129-135; also available online at http://bit.ly/nMOzLG

Garrison, D. R., and T. Anderson (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Gallery of Teaching & Learning ‘KEEP Toolkit case studies’ (online),
The Carnegie Foundation; available from: http://gallery.carnegiefoundation.org/gallery_of_tl/keep_toolkit.html

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