UPDATED 19 OCTOBER 2013
Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about education, teaching and learning and what I can do as a teacher to help my students in their learning process. Since I myself enjoy learning and collaborating online, I want to provide the same tools for my students. So far, however, I’ve mostly used our online learning platform pingpong to provide structure for the course, share information and documents, and support my communication with the students. Very much from my perspective – how can I use the platform as a tool to get my messages across?
In a sense, I think I continue to have a rather traditional approach in my online teaching practice and perhaps it has to do with process of developing as a teacher described by Kugel . Kugel identifies 6 stages, separated into 2 phases, where the first phase focuses on teaching (i.e. the teacher’s role) and the second phase on learning (i.e. the student’s role). The six stages are;
- self; when professors being their teaching careers their main concern is their own role in the classroom,
- subject; when they have mastered this role their concern shifts to their understanding of the subject matter they teach,
- student; in the third stage focus shifts from the teacher to the student and their “ability to absorb what they have been taught” and how the teacher can help them in this process. This third stage also marks the bridge to the second phase where focus moves from teaching to learning,
- student as active; concern then typically shifts to helping students learn to use what they have been taught – to be active, and finally
- student as independent; where focus is on helping them to learn on their own. 
Probably we all move more or less between these different stages, but I find the idea that becoming a teacher in higher education is not something that happens overnight quite comforting (although pedagogical education will probably help you move more rapidly across this process). My reflection so far, is that while in the classroom, I have moved on to stage 4 (and perhaps touching on stage 5), my use of e-learning tools have remained in the first phase, focusing very much on how I as a teacher can use these tool to communicate knowledge to my students. I believe there is great room for improvement here, finding ways to use e-learning tools to help students becoming more active and independent in their learning.
I have provided the students with areas where they could (in theory) collaborate in their respective groups, but so far they haven’t used these facilities much. Today I’m pondering why… so far I’ve come up with a number of reasons:
- the courses I teach are not exclusively online, and students do not have to use the online facilities to complete their group work assignments
- pingpong is not the most easy-to-use and accessible tool – many students are more comfortable communication through e.g. facebook – perhaps they are using online tools to collaborate and I just don’t know about it! Not necessarily because other tools are easier to use than pingpong, but because they are more familiar with them?
- pingpong provides opportunity for us as teachers to monitor activity and follow discussions – perhaps this is a reason why students prefer to use other tools? Autonomy is an important part of work and if you feel constantly watched it may decrease your motivation. On the other hand, having support and facilitation from teachers would probably be considered very positive by most students – so perhaps this should rather be emphasized as a benefit.
So, in the future – how could I support my students in using online collaboration and communication tools? First of all – is it necessary? Well, I actually think that many of the students would appreciate being able to collaborate when and where they want to – even if it’s not a distance course. Every year there is some conflict about some students not contributing enough – and perhaps by enabling more flexible ways of collaborating some of these issues could be resolved.
Secondly, do I need to monitor their work? This is a trickier question. I don’t think I necessarily need to monitor everything they do – I don’t have the time anyway… but I need to be accessible as a facilitator. So perhaps different fora/platforms are needed. Some room where they can actively collaborate without me watching over their shoulder, and a common area where issues can be raised and results presented.
Many of the issues discussed above relates to the different roles of the teacher as described by Harden and Crosby ;
- the information provider in the lecture, and in the
- the role model on-the-job, and in more formal
- the facilitator as a mentor and learning
- the student assessor and curriculum evaluator;
- the curriculum and course planner; and
- the resource developer, both of resource materials, and study guide producer.
So far, I’ve mostly used the e-learning tools to support my activities as an information provider, planner and resource developer, but not as much to develop my activities as a role model, facilitator and assessor. We do have some discussions online (acting as a facilitator) and they do submit assignments and are given feedback online (acting as an assessor), but I do think these aspects of my teaching practices could be strengthened. This I hope to explore more in the future.
 Kugel “How professors develop as teachers” Studies in Higher Education Volume 18, Issue 3 1993 , pages 315 – 328
 Harden & Crosby, “The good teacher is more than a lecturer – the twelve roles of the teacher”, Medical teacher, 2000, vol 22, nr 4, pages 334-347
Dear Maria, here are my immediate responses to your reflections. 1. I like Pinpong. I find it relatively easy to use and very accessible compared to the online learning tools we use in the FDOL course. Perhaps because you have everything in the same place in Pingpong..? 2. As a learner, I don’t see the teacher’s ‘presence’ in the online learning environment as a problem. In the online courses I’ve participated in, I see it only as a strength that the teacher monitors progress and overlooks what is happening and is able to correct if I/we lose track. I have never felt the need for discussing or posting reflections that the teacher can’t see!
“So, in the future – how could I support my students in using online collaboration and communication tools? First of all – is it necessary? Well, I actually think that many of the students would appreciate being able to collaborate when and where they want to – even if it’s not a distance course. Every year there is some conflict about some students not contributing enough – and perhaps by enabling more flexible ways of collaborating some of these issues could be resolved.”
It is interesting to read that – from your point of view – online collaboration and communication is not a MUST for learning of intended learning objectives and there are different preferences and approaches to learn that we have to take into account when teaching a diverse group of students. I completely agree with this. Interestingly, I was initially quite sceptical spending a significant part of a e-course with collaboration, communication and defining rules and learning objectives having less time to focus on the topic of the course.
In the second part of your paragraph you describe the frequent problem of having students “not contributing enough”. I think there might be an important difference between collaboration and contribution. The key question is how we assess contribution. Will the student pass when contributing essays, reflections and other tasks or is active collbaboration and interaction in the e-group required to pass. If collaboration in the group is not a prerequisite for learning (although fascilitating learning of the large majority of the students) – do we have to demand active collaboration? A provocative – but for me interesting question. What is your view?
Thanks for your comment, Stephan, it made me have to think about what I actually mean… again 🙂
I guess it depends a lot on context of a course. In my case, the courses I teach are mainly traditional f2f courses with classroom lectures, seminars and a lot of group work in between. So, it is a requirement for the students to actively collaborate to produce their group work assignments, but it is not a requirement for them to do so online, since they can meet in person instead if the choose to do so. However, I have seen the need for establishing rules for group work and collaboration early on in a course, whether it’s online or not – group work is challenging and can be filled with conflict. If it is, both students and teachers end up spending much more time and effort than expected to solve the issues that occur as a result of non-functioning group work.
Returning to the final question you ask – if collaboration in the group is not a prerequisite for learning, do we have to demand active collaboration? In one of my courses it is actually a requirement that they actively collaborate. This is due to the fact that health informatics is a very inter-disciplinary field and our students have very varied backgrounds. In their professionals roles, they will need to be able to collaborate with diverse groups of people, so it is imperative that they are prepared to do so. Therefore, the group work assignments which they are continuously faced with throughout the program are very important. Whether or not these are done online however, is another question. I agree with you that it’s important to distinguish between assessing collaboration and contribution – and I’m not sure this is done as good as it can be in my courses… what I’m thinking is that perhaps if the students are required to use collaborative online tools it could be easier for me to assess both their individual contributions and their collaboration. However, since it’s a blended course I hesitate to demand this.
Not sure this answers your question, but thanks for making me reflect some more!
Thank you very much for detailing your point of view! Indeed; I was maybe a little bit provocating. Nowadays, collaborative work is a prerequisite for solving complex problems – paraphrasing your statement. That´s one reason why we should demand collaborative work and include this into our assessment. Thank you.