A role for peer teaching in online courses

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Image: Sujin Jetkasettakorn / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

We often focus on the advantages of online education being flexibility and overcoming the limitations of distance. One of the disadvantages is a potential of large numbers of students signing up and a perception that such scalability is to the advantage of the institution, but less so for the students and possibly less so for the instructor. Student engagement and a lack of personal connection, therefore, is missing. (It’s a moot point as to how much ‘student engagement’ and ‘personal connection’ exists in some classroom or face to face classes).

Therefore, one of the key challenges that distance education has to overcome is the degree to which ‘teaching’ from another human takes place. According to an article in Academic Matters called ‘The Massive Open Online Professor’,

‘There are not enough subject matter experts to meet the needs of learners, and education systems worldwide are straining to find enough qualified teachers.’

Many online courses have taken various approaches; some rely on self-directed learning, while others consider that the availability of other students in the cohort, of varying levels of ability will enable peer teaching and peer reviewing. Sometimes peer reviewing is built into the course activities. Peer learning and teaching is of course a valid approach; after all, we learn from each other. But this type of learning is one of self-discovery, of making mistakes together, of relying on volunteer participation and I’d argue somewhat subject to serendipity. I also have concerns about the about the quality of feedback from peers, and there’s evidence to suggest that peers and fellow students are often reluctant to offer critical feedback or have the skills to offer informed feedback. The type of interaction that I think is missing from very large cohort groups is of the mentoring or guiding type. Ideally, an instructor would do this. As courses become larger and more MOOC like, the role of the teacher/instructor/guide becomes more diffused. I think there still needs to be an identifiable role.

One idea that has been growing in my mind was sparked by comments made by Rory McGreal (Professor at Centre for Distance Education at Athabasca University and the UNESCO/COL Chairholder in Open Educational Resources)  at a University of Cape Town seminar I attended recently. In the context of a seminar about the future university and online courses, the possibility of peer teaching (yes the focus on teaching, not learning is intentional) by recent graduate students was discussed. He mentioned that at his institution (Athabasca University), he is thinking about/mooting the idea of allowing recent graduates of a module or semester to be peer teachers of new students and earn credit for this. I’m not sure if the credit would be optional or a mandatory part of the students’ own programme of study.

At first glance, this would have benefits for a number of players. First, for the institution, this creates essentially ‘free teachers’ while for the graduates, there’s chance to review again some of their own work and understanding. And learners would benefit from these senior students or mentors. In the context of how learning might look like in the future, the concept of reviewing the same topics but from a different level builds on the idea that learning is more than just a one-shot event: 

Like athletes, learners will not just learn once, but will maintain a level of performance ability in their chosen field through ongoing study and participation in learning communities. 

(Academic Matters)

Perhaps this is already happening on courses, but I wonder if it would work for the H8xx modules I am taking as my work my way towards the Masters in Online and Distance Education at the Open University (UK). In this particular context, the modules are not (as yet) very MOOCy and are part of a formal programme of module. On the modules I have taken so far (H800 and H808) the cohort is divided into small tutor groups with a dedicated tutor who provides a level of guidance (but not really teaching). I wonder what the introduction of recent graduates of the model would do to the dynamics of these tutor groups and the larger cohort. For me, the success of these modules is based on the quality and level of student and peer interaction and less so on the quality of the materials or course design. (On H808, the quality of the materials and papers felt somewhat out of date and I was myself able to often find more pertinent resources. That’s actually fine; we are talking about Masters’ level students who often bring their own context and are reasonably capable of searching online databases. In fact I found the dated quality of such materials as a bit of personal challenge and developed my own set of resources. But I digress)

I’d certainly be interested in being a ‘graduate reviewer’ on a module I had just completed. There are various themes and topics I would like to ‘review’ again, while peer facilitating on a module such as H800. Although this module has small tutor groups, the nature of the course design is heavily dependent on peer interaction, and I certainly learned from my peers. If the interaction had included access to recent graduates, who could play a facilitation or community building role as well as mentoring and support, I think the experience might have been richer. For other courses, including the increasing number of open courses and MOOCs, which are becoming part of the established fabric of education online, the role of such peer teachers might be the missing link to bridge together new students, self-discovery materials and web 2.0 learning approaches.

Another advantage of ‘graduate reviewers’ would be the continuing development of a curriculum and addition of new readings and resources. I know that I found many readings and papers that would have enhanced some weeks’ activities, and the organic growth or co construction of a curriculum is also part of the new mood of openness in learning.

If I was able to earn any credit as a result, so much the better. And this would be a motivation for doing a good job. Too many times, there is a reliance of altruism, of crowd-sourcing, of the wisdom of the crowd, of the generosity of the wikipedia mentality in peer learning and peer teaching. While this is very much part of the web 2.0 learning approach, other types of more formal peer teaching roles are worth considering.

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One thought on “A role for peer teaching in online courses

  1. Hi,I finally got to read this post. Interesting writings, as usual. Do you see the mentoring system as a way to expand something like the OU tutoring system to other learning environments such as MOOCs? I believe that the philosophy of MOOCs is that networks are formed among learners and that novice learners get support from more experienced ones. However, in practice it seems that a/ learners tend to connect mainly with learners of the same level and b/ all learners want to connect with the course facilitators. A tutor-like system, equipped by experienced students could be a way to increase student motivation and retention. However, as MOOCs are typically not-for-credit, I’m not sure how student-tutors could be motivated or rewarded.In the OU system tutors play the role of the more experienced learner who helps others find their way through the course, drawing on the experiences from previous years and other modules. I agree that some tutors could play that role more active, but I don’t see the direct value of adding graduated students to this structure. I also agree that sole reliance on altruism for creating support is insufficient, and that some form of credit (or at least acknowledgement) is required.

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