COLLABORATION = COMMUNITY (IN ONLINE COURSES)
A. Nadine Burke
INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
I began exploring the Internet in February, 1994, by joining various professional discussion lists and learning to navigate through gopher. At that time, my most rewarding experiences were the lively and informative discussions that occurred on various lists. I am not sure on what list I first encountered the idea of teaching composition over the Internet; however; the idea immediately interested me. How better to improve student writing but to have them write? I researched various Internet-delivered composition courses for nearly two years, and in the Winter, 1996 semester, I offered College Composition II, the second required composition course in our college sequence over the Internet.
My first attempt at college composition online met with marginal success. I had fourteen students begin the course, and only five finished. At first, I thought that incorporating a synchronous chat element would help students feel a sense of community with others in the course. In the spring semester, I added optional IRC sessions where the students and I met to discuss the readings and the issues in the course. Twenty-two of twenty-seven students successfully completed the course.
Initially, I thought that students built a community through these chats; however, after reading course evaluations and talking with students about their experiences online, I realized that it wasn't so much IRC chats that I organized which kept students motivated, but the ones that they organized to complete the few, and loosely structured, collaborative assignments. These assignments were the most popular and successful.
Based on this success, I wanted to see if collaboration was really the key to helping students in online instruction, so for this semester, I have organized my newly created American Literature course upon a collaborative model. Halfway through the course, I am already seeing groups work closely together, build a group identity, and have a deep investment in the course.
MY TEACHING BELIEFS, AMERICAN LITERATURE, AND THE INTERNET
American Literature, while a popular course at Delta College for education majors and other liberal arts students who transfer to four year universities, most who enroll view the course as a requirement that must be fulfilled. Students are not invested in the course. Their motivation is to "get through" the course, not to reflect and examine the ideas and concepts I am trying to introduce. To combat the negativity that some students might bring to my classroom, I rely on a strategy which embodies some of my key beliefs about education to fulfill the course objectives: collaboration. Let me explain some background:
COLLABORATION: After my American Literature students read the literature, they work in small groups in the class on various assignments that help them to understand how the literature relates to the time period, the themes that the course is covering, or its contribution to America's literary heritage. These assignments are many times presented to the class as formal presentations; at other times, the groups submit a written product to me for evaluation.
I use collaboration in the literature class to increase student understanding of the literature. I find that many students struggle with the early American readings because their grasp of history or their reading abilities are not what they should be. By working in groups, students solve many of the basic comprehension problems they have with the piece so that the other objectives of the course can be met.
Now I was going to try to teach American Literature over the Internet. As I mentioned earlier, students do not enthusiastically enroll in American Literature on my campus. The course is required for most of my students. As I planned the Internet-delivered literature course, I knew that I wanted it to include collaboration, because this element caused students to become invested in the course, but how would I accomplish this?
How was I to incorporate the type of collaboration I used in my literature course into a distance learning course?
From my experiences with teaching Internet composition, I knew that incorporating a collaborative element through using synchronous chat had increased student retention and enthusiasm for the course. The first semester I used IRC in composition, twenty-three of twenty-five students completed the course; twenty-two did so successfully. The previous semester, only five of fifteen students completed and only four of those were successful. I also knew that this fall, students who attended IRC regularly completed the course successfully; those who didn't either did not complete or failed the course.
My conclusion was that collaboration is crucial. Yet how did I translate that to literature? I wanted to sacrifice neither student choice nor collaboration. I wanted to adapt these two elements to the Internet delivered course. In a composition course, students have control over the topics they write about. Collaboration happens through the sharing in brainstorming sessions, initial drafts, and peer reviews using e-mail and IRC exchanges. The course naturally translated to the Internet. How could I make the literature course translate as naturally?
WHAT I HAD LEARNED FROM TEACHING OTHER INTERNET SECTIONS: Many students are not aware that I am trying to construct a virtual classroom and assume they will be working alone most of the semester. They need a frame of reference for the activities that will occur in the Internet classroom. This would be even more crucial to communicate if students were to be able to work together to complete the collaborative elements of the course. First, they need to be aware that the course is not a correspondence course; the Internet tools they will use will simulate a classroom situation.
Before the course begins, I send a letter in the mail that explains my expectations for the course as a virtual classroom:
I want you to be aware that although this course uses e-mail and the World Wide Web as its primary means of delivery, this is not a correspondence course. Specific deadlines must be met. While these deadlines fall into a range of time rather than a specific date, the assignment must be completed within that time range. Remember that, some assignments ask that you meet through e-mail and chat with a classmate and with me. Additionally, the class will meet at IRC to discuss course readings and assignments. Not everyone will meet at IRC at the same time; however, a number of us will. The difference between this class and a traditional classroom lies in the fact that we all do not meet at the same time. It does not mean you work autonomously on the course. This course allows a greater flexibility in finding times when five to ten people can meet rather than a group of eighteen to twenty finding a time to meet.I also include with this letter a list of expectations to facilitate the course participation:
While times may vary depending on individual learning styles and the amount of effort you put into the course, this is the minimum expectation:I further explain my expectations on the syllabus:
It is a myth that reading and writing occurs best in isolation. Readers need an audience with whom to share their insights. Writers need an audience to be able to write well, to see if their message is being received. In addition, prospective employers often mention that they are disappointed that students are not able to work in teams on a project or to produce a piece of writing. In fact, some states have mandated that humanities courses have a collaborative component in response to businesses in their states demanding this skillDuring the face-to-face orientation, I explain that I envision:
the course discussion mailing list as the classroom where class discussion occurs and questions about the class and assignments are answered the course web site as the syllabus where assignments are found a supplemental textbook where additional information about course material is found
IRC is where small groups gather to create their group assignments where the class can meet to start or extend discussion from the discussion list e-mail is a place for groups to gather when a distribution list is created where you can always find the instructor (her office) when you mail her a private message
Students seem to understand the analogy and come to use the tools in these ways.
By preparing the students in this way, I then am able to organize the collaborative portions of the course.
THE COLLABORATIVE PROJECTS: Two major collaborative projects are required for the course: the collaborative journal and the collaborative research project.
THE JOURNAL: The collaborative journal is a seven week project. Students are assigned weekly readings from the textbook. As part of a small group, they are to read the assigned readings and post an writing to their group members that reflects upon the ideas presented in the readings and the theme the group has been assigned to comment upon. After each person has posted, the group is to spend the next week discussing each other's writings and creating one piece of writing that will become an entry in the collaborative journal. At the end of the seven weeks, the group should have seven entries that they write an introduction and conclusion for and post to the course discussion list for the entire class to view.
On the syllabus students receive these instructions:
Each piece of literature that is assigned to be read must be included in the journal.
For each piece of literature, there must be a explanation of how it pertains to the theme the group is discussing. This writing can be imaginative in nature.
As a group, you will need to decide who will be responsible for each portion of the scrapbook/journal, keeping in mind all group members must write some portion of the project.
You can create an address book in your e-mail account to easily send your assignments tot the group and to me. By e-mail or by meeting in an IRC, you can work out the details of who is responsible for each portion.
All work for the journal is to be shared through e-mail that is sent to each member of your group and to me. As you send your work back and forth to each other, you will need to read and review each other's work, asking each other for clarification of their ideas and giving suggestions for revision.
On the date your group's journal is due, one group member will be responsible to post it to the course listserv to share it with the entire class. (Another option would be for the group to create a web site for the journal. This would be up to the initiative of the group and whether or not any of the group members were comfortable using HTML.)
Grading of the Journal
The collaborative journal will be worth 20% of your grade. I will grade the project based on a 100 point scale. Each member of the group will receive the same grade; however, each member of the group will evaluate the participation and contribution of the other group members confidentially for me to review as I assign the grade. Using my discretion, I will make the final grade determinations. The evaluation criteria for group members are attached.
The second collaborative project begins after the students complete the journal and lasts about seven weeks. It involves that the students research an author of the nineteenth century. My class is just beginning its work on their research so I will be unable to assess its success, but for your information, I am including the instructions that I give the students:
Collaborative Research Project Requirements
Your group will choose one author from a list that I will supply. No two groups can do the same author. You will create a paper that has, at least, the following items:
A biography of the author
A detailed accounting of the time period in which the author lived and wrote
For one piece of literature that the author wrote, you will need to explain the literature's importance to our literary heritage, an interpretation of the piece, and it significance
An annotated bibliography of the sources used to compile your project.
A works cited page.
Finally, your project will be presented to the class on the class listserv on its assigned date. (Your group may choose to create a web site or to hold an IRC discussion instead.
The collaborative research paper and presentation will be worth 20% of your grade. I will grade the project based on a 100 point scale. Each member of the group will receive the same grade; however, each member of the group will evaluate the participation and contribution of the other group members confidentially for me to review as I assign the grade. Using my discretion, I will make the final grade determinations. The evaluation criteria for group members is attached.
Mid-term has just passed at my college, and I can begin to evaluate the successes and problems with the collaborative journal upon which I will base the remainder of this presentation.
Three of the four groups worked well together and produced successful journals of varying qualities by the deadline. A fourth group never was able to communicate well with each other; eventually, one person took charge of the few messages that had been posted and assembled as best she could an acceptable journal.
Quite honestly, I felt that the experience of the fourth group might become the norm, but it was not. I observed the following behaviors:
Although I had asked one person to assume responsibility for the group, to keep track of the final entry for journal, and to post the final journal to the course listserv, another group leader in three of the four groups emerged. Interestingly enough, the leader was female in all cases. The leadership style of each leader varied.
In the group that produced what I would rate as the highest quality journal, the leader was more assertive than the other groups. If a deadline was missed by one person, a message was sent out immediately to the offender. The others in the group were instructed to begin the collaboration without the entry. However, the entries which were submitted did reflect the group's ideas. The leader did ask for one person to assume primary responsibility for each week's entry. The person in charge of the entry would post an entry that had elements of others' ideas. Then the remainder of the group would respond to it and make suggestions. One other group essentially operated under this model.
In another group, the spirit of mutual cooperation seemed more apparent. No real leader emerged until the end until the person who I assigned to post the journal asked for final suggestions for each week's journal entry. A mad scramble ensued with many messages flooding my inbox that suggested which of the various "collaborated" entries emerge as the one to be posted. In their attempt to include everyone's ideas each member would take someone's writing, and rather than make suggestions, rewrite it. Three versions of a week's entry might have existed. Because of this flurry of activity and the ability to look at all the entries together, the group developed a journal that had more coherence than the other journals. In fact, the journal had an introduction and conclusion, something I had not required, but which I will in the future.
Individual participation varied.
In the group that did not work together, lack of participation caused significant problems. Factors relating to Internet use may have contributed; however, I am convinced that when certain Internet "excuses" are used, they are students' new versions of "the dog ate my homework." This group had five members in it to begin with. One of the five dropped the course in the first week, one who had not realized it was an Internet-delivered course. Two of the four remaining members struggled with what they labeled as connection problems. One was relying on using her grandparents' computer although I had specifically cautioned everyone in the face-to-face orientation that relying on someone else's machine usually resulted in poor participation. With her, this is exactly what happened. Also, even though I had sent materials to the class explaining the need to check e-mail at least three times a week, she tried to do the assignments on one day. Many times her mailbox became full; messages from her group to her bounced. (I equate not logging in more than once a week to non-attendance; it is like only attending a class that meets three times a week only once per week.) The other student missed the face-to-face orientation and did not meet with me until three weeks into the course, citing conflicts with her work schedule. When she did finally begin the course, she too checked her mail periodically, never made up the first three weeks assignments (and wondered why she had to), and complained about the busy signals at America Online, even though she could have opted to use the Delta server at no charge. Another member of the group posted periodically. Only one student posted consistently. She, however, made a crucial mistake trying to force others in the group to take some responsibility . When it came time to post the final journal to the listserv, she asked how in the group would volunteer to do so. One of group volunteered and she never posted it.
Even in the successful groups, not all members were equally as active. In the three most successful groups, one student from each group posted periodically. Some students who were actively posting were reluctant to comment on others' writing. In the group where the assertive leader emerged, I noticed the other members tended to defer to her lead.
I cannot explain the behaviors that I observed as Internet-induced behavior. While teaching the Internet course, I also had a section of American Literature that I taught traditionally. They too were required to create a collaborative journal and were given the same requirements as the Internet class. One class period a week was devoted to time that the students could spend working on the journal, whereas the Internet class had to collaborate through e-mail.
I found that virtually the same problems that I had with collaborative groups in the traditional classroom were mimicked in the Internet section. While all four groups in my traditional section produced high quality journals, similar leadership styles emerged. Some group members stopped attending class or came periodically. Even some who came consistently contributed little to the final product. I read the same comments type on the Internet evaluations of group members as I did on the traditional students evaluations of their group members. I am wondering if the problems with the assignment might not be the incorporation with the Internet but problems with collaboration in general.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
THE COLLABORATIVE EXPERIENCE: Although some groups did not experience ideal collaborative experiences, collaboration via e-mail was a viable way to keep group interaction and build community on the Internet. All the students who posted regularly to their groups and some who did not, all posted the weekly response to the discussion questions and contributed to lively and informative conversations about the materials. The group IRC which I had was regularly attended, usually, by the same persons; however, individual groups held their own IRC. In fact, in the one group that held IRC regularly for their group, the leader of the group was never really apparent to me until I started receiving private e-mail from her about certain group members.
I know that I must further define the requirements of the collaborative experience, but I am struggling with providing enough structure to guide students, yet not too much to stifle their own creativity and initiative. I know I haven't given them enough direction in getting started in the collaborative groups.
All the groups struggled with the first entry. While everyone posted the first entry, the first responses to them were general comments such as, "I like that," or "We could use that." I had to jump in and direct the flow of conversation. I am wondering if there was more I could have done to give guidelines as to how to begin the collaboration.
RETENTION: When I called the three students who officially dropped the course, two said that the course demanded more time than they were willing to give and one said that she did not realize it was all Internet-delivered. The remaining seventeen are still in the course. I have not heard from one of the seventeen since early February, although I have called, written, and sent electronically inquiries.
When I first delivered a course using Internet tools, I taught a composition course with fifteen enrolled and only five completed. I did not have a collaborative element nor did I have a synchronous chat tool. Once I added those two components, I found my attrition rate to move from 66% to 10%. I have no hard evidence, but I feel that using collaboration and synchronous chat in the literature course has caused it to be successful even though it is the first time I have offered it. However, the literature course is a sophomore level course whereas composition is freshman level; experience in school and maturity probably play a role. I did not see a difference in the number of students with Internet skills between freshman composition students and the literature students. About one-quarter in both classes have fairly sophisticated skills, about three-quarters have sent e-mail, and the rest are fairly new to the Internet. (I do require that all students at least have word processing skills.)
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