Saturday, April 19, 2008

NACOL Webinar - Online Student-to-Student Collaboration

Thursday evening I had the opportunity to attend a NACOL Webinar presented by Susan Lowes from the Teachers College at Columbia University. "What Works in Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses" was attended by a number of virtual school teachers from across the country. I was able to ask questions in the chat room and learn a little more about online collaboration. Dr. Lowes presented the structure of interaction in threaded discussion. This was interesting to me because I've experienced some of the situations she spoke about in my online graduate courses. She explained that early posters in a threaded discussion get many responses. Those who post later get fewer and thus become "orphans" who may feel isolated from the rest of the class. This makes sense because early posters tend to move on, not returning later to read additional posts. So, the question becomes how to motivate everyone to post early enough in the thread and return to respond to others. One teacher on the conference gives additional points for students who post early.

Dr. Lowes also addressed the quality of student discussion threads. Respondents who question and challenge posts stimulate increased, deeper discussion. Cheerleading (attaboy) stops discussion. Somehow, students must be motivated to post quality content and thoughtful responses that facilitate the learning process. One teacher suggested only giving credit for substantive responses. Attaboys don't count. Another teacher designed a rubric for evaluating the quality of posts and responses.

Grading or rating posts seems logical to me, however Dr. Lowes pointed out that a minimum requirement for posts may lead some students to do a little as possible. I think this can be true of any assignment. I have found that many students will post much more if interested in the particular thread. Designing a good prompt is also important.

Dr. Lowes identified different types of "talk" in threaded discussions.
  • Disputational Talk - assertions are made in the post followed by counter assertions (arguments)
  • Cumulative Talk - post says something. Somebody adds to it.
  • Exploratory Talk - post presents new information. Different ideas are discussed before a decision is reached. This is the optimal threaded discussion talk, but doesn't happen often.
I'm thinking about how I will integrate threaded discussions into the courses I will be teaching next year. How will I create captivating prompts that motivate students to participate enthusiastically? Will these be graded? Will I require a certain number of posts and responses within a given timeline? How can I discourage cheerleading and reward thoughtful responses? What is the best way to design a prompt that encourages exploratory talk? This is a lot to think about. But, it helps to have some focus and direction when thinking about threaded discussion. I also wonder how these principles might be applied in the virtual school I'm observing.

Lowes, Susan. (April 17, 2008). What Works in Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses . Retrieved April 17, 2008 from NACOL webinar series in Elluminate at .

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Student-to-Student Interaction and Collaboration

In A Study of Student Interaction and Collaboration in the Virtual High School, Andrew Zucker's poses the following questions:
  1. Does encouraging online student participation through grading practices increase student interaction and thus increase the value of the course for students?
  2. How do teachers and students assess and value the role of interaction in online courses?
    (Zucker, 2005, pg. 49)
Zucker randomly selected 8 pairs of virtual school teachers who taught the same course. All teachers encouraged interaction between students. Half of them gave double point grade values for the following interactions: ice breaker posts, minimum number of responses each week, one or two small group activities, and a student lounge for socializing.

Measures included the number of posts to the student lounge, student grades, quality of communication as defined by the teacher, and value of communication and overall satisfaction with the course as reported by the students. The survey findings indicated high satisfaction with more than 2/3 agreeing or strongly agreeing that "communications with other students have been an important part of my learning in this VHS course" (Zucker, 2005, p. 51). The survey further indicated that interaction is important for getting to know other students, learning the material, and motivation.

Andrew, Z. (2005). A Study of Student Interaction and Collaboration in the Virtual High School. A Synthesis of New Research on K-12 Online Learning, p. 49-56. Retrieved Apr. 17, 2008, from

More in the news...

The Winterberry Christian Academy is under construction in Marco Island, Florida. It's on target to open in the fall even though construction will not be complete. The school will initially operate as a virtual school until the building is finished. It plans to continue operation as a blended school once students have been moved into the building. I can't help but think that more and more schools will be using blended learning options. We already know that virtual schools can supplement brick and mortar schools by providing a wider range of subject offerings, keeping students with illnesses on track, and meeting the needs of kids who travel or have special needs. The Winterberry solution is one more item to add to the list.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Collaborative Principles

I'm led to reflect on many aspects of the educational experience as I observe virtual school teaching strategies and techniques. It's clear that the virtual school applies solid principles of instruction to address the differences between face-to-face and online learning. Yet I continue to hear about the challenges of designing and delivering effective collaborative opportunities, especially between students. I've addressed some of the key obstacles to collaboration in earlier posts on this blog, the most challenging of which is student pacing. However, I think it's important to get a better grasp of the basic concept of collaboration before addressing specific issues. What makes online collaboration effective? Is it possible to design authentic collaboration into courses?

D.R. Garrison identifies the following online collaboration principles for design, facilitation, and direct instruction.
  • Establish a climate that will create a community of inquiry. In order to build trust, students should have formal and informal interaction with each other.
  • Establish critical reflection and discourse that will support systematic inquiry. Course design should support the students progression from awareness to knowledge construction and application, in other words through the proper stages of learning.
  • Sustain community through expression of group cohesion. Group cohesion is built upon a solid educational goal toward which each member is focused. Stronger bonds can be facilitated through calculated feedback.
  • Encourage and support the progression of inquiry through to resolution. The instructor facilitates conversations throughout the learning process.
  • Evolve collaborative relationships where students are supported in assuming increasing responsibility for their learning. It's important to define and communicate expectations and help students become more self-directed.
  • Ensure that there is resolution and metacognitive development.

    Recent research has begun to emphasize the importance of strong leadership to ensure discussions stay “on task and on track” (Garrison, 2008, p. 1).

    "Faculty may need to be more direct in their assignments for threaded discussions, charging the participants to resolve a particular problem, and pressing the group to integrate their ideas and perhaps, even, to prepare a resolution of the matters under discussion" (Meyer as quoted by Garrison, 2008, p. 1).

Bottom line - Design is critical in the potential success of online collaboration. Beyond that, instructors must monitor the collaborative process, provide calculated, balanced, timely feedback, and communicate expectations. I believe that making this work takes practice and experience. Like face-to-face teaching, it's also a bit of an art.

We as teachers are so influenced by our personal learning styles and the ways we were taught. I'm even more certain of this as I observe the virtual school. I find myself comparing the virtual online courses with those in my graduate program. As I continue to explore the existing research, I can see the foundation upon which our graduate courses are built. I can see how some of the techniques I've experienced as a student and online graduate facilitator might work in a k12 online environment. At the same time, I'm trying to be mindful of the unique challenges associated with teaching middle and high school students as opposed to college students. I have a much better understanding of the benefits and challenges of teaching in virtual school. I just keep wishing that I had the same understanding of the design component. I wish we had the opportunity to observe and interview the instructional designers.

Garrison, D. (2006). Online Collaboration Principles. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1). Retrieved Apr. 14, 2008, from

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Making Connections - What are you afraid of?

Yesterday, I observed another Elluminate session facilitated by a virtual school AP U.S. History teacher. The session was scheduled for Saturday afternoon further highlighting the need for flexibility in the virtual teachers' work schedule.

I've been focusing my recent observations on collaboration. This is a good time to differentiate between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration. Synchronous online collaboration takes place in real time with group members engaged via telephone, video conferencing, chat, or some other communication tool that allows real time conversation. Asynchronous collaboration takes place between a group of participants who provide input at different times. It might take the form of discussion forums or contributions to wikis or other shared documents.

Elluminate is a synchronous conferencing tool. About 13 students participated in the AP U.S. History session on the Japanese Internment of WWII. This was an optional session, however students were permitted to attend this session in lieu of completing an AP document-based question (DBQ). DBQs are a requirement of AP courses. Students are given an essay question that must be supported by primary sources or other documentation. Thus the motivation to attend the Saturday afternoon Elluminate session.

The teacher started the session with a question. What are you afraid of? Students wrote their answers on the Elluminate whiteboard. This was an excellent segue into the exploration of fear as a motivation for the Japanese Internment. The teacher did an great job of helping the students make connections. She gave a number of personal anecdotes throughout the session. Adding this touch personalized the experience for the students. All were engaged in the content. She also posed a question about the constitutional limitations of a racially motivated internment in the United States. Twelve blanks were posted on the whiteboard to represent the word c-o-n-s-t-i-t-u-t-i-o-n. Each student took turns guessing a letter. It was clear that one of the students was not paying attention during this process. This simple activity gave students an opportunity to collaborate while identifying those who were not on task. Virtual school teachers, like their traditional counterparts, find ways to ensure that all students are engaged.

Elluminate also has a tool that allows for small groups to meet in separate "rooms" to complete an assigned task. This feature was not used in Saturday's session, however we used this feature during the internship orientation. I can see this as another means for engaging students in online presentations.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Thank you to Jay and NACOL

A very big thank you to Jay for responding to my collaboration thoughts in the post below. One of the limitations of blogging is the inability to respond directly to those who post comments, especially when no website or email address is provided. But, Jay's response also reflects the power of blogging. What better way to compare collaborative activities between virtual schools than to get feedback from actual teachers.

On a related note, one of the news stories from my sidebar highlighted an upcoming webinar sponsored by the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL). What Works in Creating Student-to-Student Interaction in Online Courses will stream at 6:00 on Thursday, April 17. The webinar will include interviews with teachers at virtual schools who are using interactivity and collaboration effectively in their classes. I hope to attend to learn more.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Collaboration at Michigan Virtual School

Dr. Ferdig pointed me to a recently published article in which he, Meredith DiPietro, Erik Black, and Megan Preston discuss best practices at the Michigan Virtual School. I found it interesting that the state of Michigan requires all high school students to experience online learning prior to graduation. I'm assuming that this initiative significantly increased enrollment at the virtual school.

Putting students and learning first is a common theme at the Michigan Virtual School and likewise at the school I've been observing. Other similarities between virtual school teachers at both schools include a general interest in technological advances, the need for good organizational skills, extensive content knowledge, and alternative assessment strategies.

As I reviewed the list of best practices, I was most interested in collaboration and how this is facilitated at Michigan Virtual School (MV). "MV teachers encourage support and communication between students" (DiPeitro, Ferdig, Black, and Preston, 2008, p. 24). This appears to be accomplished via discussion boards. Discussion threads are not used in the courses I have observed. It's not clear how widely they are used in other courses. My supervising teacher explained that collaboration is difficult because individual pacing allows students to be at different places in the course at any given time.

"MV teachers understand the impact of course pacing on course design and the pedagogical strategies they use". The MV teacher quote continues, "in the Flex 90 courses we don't see the strong sense of community that we do in the AP classes" (DiPeitro, Ferdig, Black, and Preston, 2008, p. 19). The reason for this is not clear. Is it because the Flex students are working at a variable pace, or is it because the AP students are better organized and more participatory?

I wish I had a better understanding of the extent to which collaborative strategies are used in both of these virtual schools. At this point, I feel limited to my personal observations and those of my blogging classmates.

Dipietro, M., Ferdig, R., Black, E., & Preston, M. (2008). Best Practices in Teaching K12 Online: Lessons Learned from Michigan Virtual School Teachers. Journal of Interactive Online Learning, 7(1). Retrieved Apr. 10, 2008, from

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Facilitating Collaboration in Online Learning

Some of the upcoming posts will highlight a series of articles from the February 2006 issue of the Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks. This issue focuses specifically on online collaboration. I became interested in this topic because the virtual school I'm observing is trying to integrate more collaborative projects into the curriculum. Apparently, this is a challenge. I hope to research best practices for designing collaborative components of online courses and determine if those examples would address some of the issues at the high school.

In the article, Facilitating Collaboration in Online Learning, Caroline Haythornthwaite makes the following recommendations:
  • Be aware of the model students have of how class work progresses and work with that to ‘sell' the change from individual, proprietary, single-owner work to joint, collaborative work.
  • Factor in the extra time needed to collaborate and to collaborate online when establishing course requirements.
  • Make students aware of the collaborative process, including the need to get to know others, create common goals, and establish their own communication practices.
  • Make students aware of the differences between offline and online work and learning practices.
  • Keep message load manageable by limiting class or group sizes, and by creating ‘small within the large' both for groups within larger classes, and for message threads within larger topics.
  • Teach collaborative online skills as part of the practice of being an online student: e.g., use of conventions such as message subject headings, proper message thread use in bulletin boards, topic management. (Haythornthwaite, 2006, p. 1)
The themes that stand out to me include the need for time management, organization, and actively teaching students how to collaborate. If I were to guess, it's this last item that is most difficult for online instructors. Course designers try to incorporate collaborative activities. Yet teachers are already bogged down in the existing curricular requirements.

Considering these constraints, why is collaboration so important? Haythornthwaite points out that collaboration is more efficient than learning alone. It also supports a constructivist theory of learning. "The goal of the collaboration is to create a community of inquiry where students are fully engaged in collaboratively constructing meaningful and worthwhile knowledge" (Garrison as quoted by Haythornthwaite, 2006, p. 1).

In my brief observations I still see some of the same time constraints and limitations in the online environment that I see in the brick and mortar school. Change takes time. Once fully ingrained in the prescribed curriculum, there is just no time for teachers to think creatively. Yet effective collaboration requires time to plan, time to organize, and time to teach students how to do it properly.

Haythornthwaite, C. (2006). Facilitating Collaboration in Online Learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 10(1). Retrieved Apr. 8, 2008, from

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Facilitating Collaboration in Virtual School

Collaboration promotes a sense of community in online learners (Swan, 2006). The virtual school I've been observing is trying to encourage more collaboration between students in online high school courses. I hope to focus my research on effective methods of facilitating collaboration in AP curricula. My goal for the coming week is to get some details about the collaborative activities that seem to be working, and those that have been a challenge for the virtual school AP teachers. I learned in my meeting last week that it can be difficult to partner the students because they start the courses at different times. One student might be learning about Colonial History, while another has already progressed to the Reagan Era.

On a related note, this press release from 2003 highlights a program between the College Board and a virtual school to provide online study aids for the AP test. I've searched on the College Board Site for direct references to these aids, but only find study tips and sample questions. I'm curious as to the final outcome of the 2003 announcement.

Swan, K. (2006). Sloan-C - Publications - Journal: Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks - Vol10:1. Retrieved April 6, 2008, from

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Virtual School Observation and Interview - 3/31/08

I spent another hour on Monday evening with a virtual school AP U.S. History teacher. I have access to her online course, but not to the student view that teachers use for administrative duties. I scheduled the meeting to ask a few more questions and take a tour of the management side of online teaching. The discussion was extremely productive. We talked about many aspects of online teaching and learning. I reorganized the discussion a bit to try to bring some order to the interview.

Life of a virtual school teacher
The virtual school has a policy to hire only teachers with at least three years experience. Many teachers apply for positions at the school, therefore administrators are able to attract excellent candidates. However, they are finding that an experienced, accomplished face-to-face teacher does not necessarily make a good online teacher. In reality, the jobs are VERY different.

Virtual school teachers manage up to 200+ students. Students can register and join courses at any time during the year. This means that students will be at different points of the course at any given time. Regular contact is essential, especially with new students. Therefore, telephone contact is critical. Teachers work 12 months out of the year with minimal vacation. They are required to be available to students from 8:00 am - 8:00 pm, Monday through Friday. It's clear that this could be overwhelming for someone who is not extremely organized. There is definitely a learning curve associated with balancing the position. The inbox is never empty. Therefore, teachers compartmentalize tasks and create checklists for keeping on top of the workload. Some teachers are "chippers". Chippers chip away at grading and administrative tasks little by little. Others are "chunkers". Chunkers set aside large blocks of time for grading or conferencing.

The unique requirements of the job along with the work-from-home environment can create a feeling of isolation. In order to address this issue, new virtual school teachers are assigned a mentor. At least one face-to-face conference is scheduled each year in a central location. This gives teachers the opportunity to meet in groups across horizontal and vertical teams. Connections are made that continue after the conference. Teachers are encouraged to reach out to one another for help, guidance, and support.

Internships are new to the virtual school. Administrators are hoping to create an environment in which preservice teachers can learn about online teaching, consider it as a teaching option, and learn the ropes in a way that leaves them truly prepared for the realities of virtual school life. If successful, the school will consider hiring new teachers with the hope of supporting and mentoring them into long term positions.

The only constant is change
The virtual school strives for continual improvement. The rapid growth of the student population combined with the accelerated evolution of technology can create a less than stable working environment. Teachers are constantly reminded that change is constant at the school. Even the management hierarchy changes regularly as the needs of the school change. This can be unsettling for some teachers. It's another aspect of the position that makes it quite different from the brick and mortar school.

The unique aspects of virtual school teaching are not necessarily negative. But, they are very different. New teachers must be armed with realistic expectations about the position as well as sufficient support in their new role.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Virtual World Virtual School

I really should narrow the scope of my virtual school research. But, I just couldn't resist posting the Virtual Classroom Project on . Jokaydia is an island in Second Life. The Virtual Classroom Project goal is to "provide a platform for educators to experiment with designing spaces for learning".

I have some definite opinions about Second Life. I'm not sure it's quite ready for prime time, much less K12 virtual school. This comes from my personal inability to navigate without looking aimless and impaired (I run into things and people.) I've tried to visit a number of educational sites within Second Life, but I have yet to get much out of them. So why am I intrigued? Why do I pop in from time to time? Truth is, I wonder if virtual worlds are the future of virtual school. To some extent, I believe that the virtual brick and mortar buildings, avatars, and conversations provide a feeling of being there that doesn't come from discussion boards, blogs, and other virtual school assignments.

Collaboration is all the buzz within the virtual school I am observing. (More on that in a future post.) They are having a hard time getting students to collaborate. My experience in online courses indicates that online collaboration must be facilitated. Students don't do it unless it's required. (e.g. Post your response and respond to at least 2 classmates.) In Second Life, collaboration just happens. Frankly, it's difficult NOT to communicate when you virtually bump into someone. Once the conversation is started, other connections are made.

Check out this example of a Harvard Law course in Second Life. Is this the future of virtual school? Is this the future of teaching?

Kemp, Jeremy, and Daniel Livingstone. "PUTTING A SECOND LIFE “METAVERSE” SKIN ON LEARNING MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS." Google. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2008