Learning through Collaboration in a Distributed Education Environment
Pete Thomas and Linda Carswell
Since 1995 members of the Centre for Informatics Education Research (CIER) at the Open University have been running a number of trials to investigate how to support distance education electronically. The variants have ranged from partial inclusion of the Internet for student-tutor communication, to more expansive inclusion of the Internet in key areas such as electronic course registration, electronic assignment submission and marking, and electronic exams. However, it was clear when we performed an analysis of the whole educational process surrounding our courses that “Interneting” these key areas in isolation was not only inefficient, but lacked scale and frequently increased work loads, Petre (1998). Our purpose in applying technology in our courses is not to do the same old things faster, but to improve the overall service to students, tutors and administrators alike. Addressing the issues of a distributed learning environment has involved an abstraction of the entire process rather than an isolated teaching solution.
The trials culminated in a totally electronic presentation of an introductory computing course in 1997. This development is shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Trials of electronic presentation: 1995 to 1997
A crucial aspect of successful distance education is the quality of feedback on student assignments. The electronic assignment handling system pioneered in these trials has now been adopted by the University at large and will serve over 20,000 students during 2000. The majority of the ideas relating to collaborative learning have been incorporated into our main stream computing courses as shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Electronic collaborative learning in the curriculum
Distributed Learning Environment: OU style
Our investigations have led us to examine the idea that the educational process as a whole can be distributed. That is, the individual elements that constitute an educational process can be geographically distributed and linked by communications networks some or all of which might use the Internet, Petre (1998). While superficially it might appear that distributed education is the domain of the distance educator, we have argued that the aims of educational institutions are similar in ideology, it is only the implementations that differ, Thomas (1999). However, what distance educators bring to this arena is the experience of how to interact with students and tutors who are geographically and temporally remote from a campus as well as each other. The aim is to diminish and even remove the barriers that remoteness erects.
The Open University is a good example of how far such distribution can be taken. Figure 1 shows the main actors: both tutors and students are remote from the headquarters and work at home.
For each course that a student studies, he/she will be allocated to an academic tutor. Each tutor will look after up to 25 students although the number could be fewer depending upon the nature of the course (project-type courses will have smaller tutor-student ratios, for example). The role of a tutor primarily consists of:
Since Open University students study part-time and are mature (the average age is around 34), the Open University has always placed great importance in the tutorial role for encouraging students to complete their studies (often extremely difficult when the student has many other commitments to attend to). Over the years, studies have shown that, whilst not all students actively engage in all tutorial activities, a much greater proportion of all students complete their studies than would be the case if such activities were not available, Mason (1998).
Apart from face-to-face tutorials, the tutor’s role is performed ‘at a distance’ from the student and the traditional communication media of letters, email and the Internet are overtaking telephone and fax for these purposes.
Learning materials, designed specifically for distance education can be delivered to students using a variety of media including the Internet, Thomas (1998) although paper is still the most popular with students. More challenging is how to provide student-to-student and tutor-to-student (and indeed tutor-to-tutor) interaction.
Educational establishments have often viewed the Internet as an alternative mechanism to classroom-based activities that can improve their reach and effectiveness see, for example, Wallace (1997). However, they sometimes make the erroneous assumption that the activities confined to the classroom or lecture theatre all need to be replicated. However, there are many activities that take place outside this setting that contribute to the educational process. For example, the interaction between students at coffee bars provides an opportunity to discuss problem areas: this is an example of unstaged peer-group learning, see, for example, Carswell (1998). Such exchanges enable students to assess their progress against their peers, allowing them to judge their perceived class ranking and adjust performance accordingly. It is all too easy to overlook these activities as they happen outside a staged teaching activity.
Our research has been to see the extent to which traditional communications media can be replaced by electronic communication for the whole educational process and to assess its effectiveness in providing a collaborative learning environment. We want to be certain that this environment provides a useful support medium for students, and that tutors can perform their role at least as efficiently and effectively as before. We have found that tutor’s feedback to students has improved and that tutors are happy to work in the new environment, Carswell (2000). We have reported on electronic assignments elsewhere, Thomas (1998) and will concentrate on collaborative learning in this paper.
Collaborative learning in a distance education setting
A distributed educational environment is a natural catalyst for collaborative learning and discourse-based learning. In a distributed educational environment, face-to-face tutorials have been introduced to encourage collaboration and overcome a number of other problems, Baker (1996):
Tutorials operate on the principle of student-centred learning, that is, students should participate actively in the tutorial. The challenge has been to devise a structure and a way of working that encourages active participation and interaction between students while covering the essential academic points. The OU produces a useful document entitled Effective Tutorials as part of its open teaching toolkit that contains a checklist of the ingredients of a good tutorial. Here we shall summarise the main points from this document and see the extent to which the same objectives can be met with electronic communication.
In essence, an effective tutorial has three ingredients:
In terms of preparedness, students must be clear about the student-centred philosophy underlying the tutorial and should be clear about the aims and objectives of each tutorial.
A good tutorial requires a range of activities to be carried out so that interest is maintained and learning is consolidated. It is essential that the group is able to operate collaboratively. The following strategy is recommended (although variations on it are encouraged). Its aims are to give students the opportunity to reflect privately in order to understand how much they know about a topic or problem, and to allow them to share this understanding with others, usually through discussion. For example, students can be presented with a task related to the course and then work on the task in stages (often referred to as ‘snowballing’):
stage 1: students attempt the task individually;
The tutor’s role is crucial in stage 3 in drawing together and clarifying the work of the group and relating it to the course concepts and identifying the learning outcomes achieved. Although this is fundamentally a student-centred approach, there is value in providing direct explanation of difficult topics (identified through direct observation of student discussions) in occasional tutor-centred contributions.
Feedback comes in two parts. First, at the end of the tutorial, when the tutor summarises the learning outcomes. Such information, if written down, can be provided to those who were unable to attend. Second, obtaining feedback from the participants to discover what worked well and what didn’t and what the students’ needs are for the future.
A useful aim of the first tutorial is the establishment of self-help groups as a means of supporting collaborative learning. Whilst useful for those who can participate, there can be many students who cannot do so either because of geographical difficulties (travelling long distances in rural areas, for example) or temporal difficulties (the result of different working patterns, for example). Even in cases where distance and time are not factors, the simple task of finding a suitable meeting place can be a barrier. Thus, a physical meeting can be problematic for many students in a distributed environment. These constraints have therefore encouraged us to examine the effectiveness of the Internet for supporting collaborative learning. Our aim in this study was not to compare the media, as research has shown that it is difficult to disambiguate method from media, Mayer (1997). Instead, we aimed to establish whether or not the Internet could support collaborative learning at all, what form this might take, and to identify the advantages and disadvantages of collaborative learning in this medium.
Electronic collaborative learning
Our investigation of tutorials supported electronically has therefore concentrated on exploring whether or not students would be willing to participate, what the effectiveness of different models of activity would be, whether tutors would be willing to shift from face-to-face to electronic tutorials, and the extent to which meaningful electronic collaborative learning could be provided.
There are two fundamentally different kinds of electronic communication: synchronous and asynchronous. In synchronous communication, all participants are ‘on-line’ simultaneously interacting at the same time, Mason (1998). A synchronous event typically lasts for about an hour. In asynchronous communication, participants interact over a protracted period of time – days or even weeks – reacting to each other in their own time. We have concentrated on examining asynchronous communication because it overcomes most of the difficulties experienced by face-to-face meetings:
provided students have access to the Internet, there is little cost disincentive to holding many ‘meetings’;
We have used several computer mediated conference systems on which to run our trials of asynchronous tutorials. Currently, we use FirstClass (copyright 1998 SoftArc Inc., 100 Allstate Parkway, Markham, Ontario, Canada L3R 6H3) that has a client-server architecture which, in its basic form, requires the user to be on-line when reading and posting messages. However, there is a ‘personal’ version that allows off-line reading and another allows the server to be accessed from a web browser.
Fundamentally, an asynchronous conference consists of a sequence of messages posted by subscribers to a common area that is readable by all subscribers. A message is constructed using a template that also acts as an e-mail template. Thus, the user can post messages to a common area for all conference participants to see, or send the message to one (or more) specified member(s) of the conference as an e-mail.
In our teaching model, a tutorial is used as the catalyst for collaborative learning. Each tutor has around 25 students to support (the tutor-group) and, in a face-to-face tutorial, would meet just those members of his/her tutor-group. We have maintained this model for electronic group activities. That is, each tutor-group is supported by a single computer conference. However, the tutor is given a high level of access privileges that allow the creation and control of sub-conferences. Thus, it is possible for a tutor to divide the members of the tutor-group into smaller discussion groups or have separate conferences on different topics. It is also possible to combine two or more tutor-groups into a single conference. We make use of both sub- and super-conferences in our electronic tutorial strategies.
A model of an electronic tutorial used for collaborative learning
We have based our model on the technique of snowballing used in face-to-face tutorials. That is, on a specified date, the tutor posts a message to the tutor-group conference that specifies a task that all students are expected to attempt individually. A second message from the tutor explains how the tutorial will be conducted. Typically this message will indicate that students have a short period (a number of days) to think about the given task before submitting their conclusions to the conference. In the first stage, students are assigned to small groups (of around 4 people – enough to ensure that at least two students participate – see later) and are asked to discuss the task with the members in their small group, possibly using a sub-conference. It is helpful if each sub-group is given a different, but related task. Having agreed on a conclusion, each small group publishes their ideas to the rest of the tutor-group. During this period, the tutor is responsible for ensuring that each sub-group makes progress and keeps to the theme of the conference. The tutor also responds to individual queries from participants.
The first stage, of working in sub-groups lasts for about a week: enough time to allow all students to participate but short enough to maintain interest. The tasks set are usually quite ‘short’ in the sense that they require only brief responses that encourage participation from the perspective of both writing conclusions and reading other members’ contributions.
The second phase is inclusive of all members of the tutor-group. The tutor will pose a second task whose solution depends upon the work of the first stage. In this stage all members of the tutor-group are expected to discuss the problem and to agree on conclusions. Again, the tutor’s responsibility is to keep the discussion focused and on-track and to answer queries.
At the end of the tutorial the tutor is expected to summarise the main findings. Hence, the conference is a recording of both the solution to a problem and the way in which the problem was solved that all students, including those who could not participate, can review at a later date.
Throughout the tutorial period, which typically lasts for around two weeks, students are free to discuss problems with the tutor who can either publish the answers to the whole group or can respond by email to individuals depending upon the nature of the problem. Indeed, one of the strengths of this system is that the tutor (and each student) has the choice of publishing to the whole group via the conference or of engaging in one-to-one email discussion. This feature is extremely helpful in moderating conferences as we now discuss.
In a face-to-face tutorial, the tutor acts as a facilitator helping the group to discuss the questions in hand and to help individuals to participate. It is well known that it is possible for an individual to dominate a conference (whether electronic or face-to-face). In the latter case, the tutor’s responsibility is to ensure that all can contribute if they so wish. In the electronic version, it is less easy because of its asynchronous nature: the first student to respond could post a message that effectively ‘solved’ the problem leaving nothing for the remainder of the group to do. We also know that some students will read others’ contributions and feel that their own contributions are worthless by comparison and therefore refuse to participate. To overcome these problems we have instituted a brief set of rules of participation which seek to minimise the size of individual contributions, limit the number of original responses per individual and lengthen the time between responses from an individual. These rules are in addition to the normal etiquette rules that apply to all computer communications. Students who abuse the rules have to be warned about their conduct and this is the responsibility of the tutor when moderating the conference. The ability to send a private email to an offender to draw their attention to their behaviour is extremely useful and is often all that is needed. The ultimate sanction is to unsubscribe the individual from the conference.
An example of an electronic tutorial
Following the experiments in the trials we developed, with the aid of tutors, a model of electronic tutorial that is being used on our third-level course M301, Software Systems and their Development. In M301, students are introduced to software development, and are expected to gain a reading knowledge of large software systems. Therefore, their first electronic tutorial aims to familiarise them with the design of a item of provided software and to evaluate it critically. The software was quite substantial and had been provided on CD as part of the course materials. In fact, the software supports an integral case study that students interact with throughout the course and so the tutorial was perceived as highly relevant to students.
Students were provided with a framework for the tutorial. It was to be tackled in two ‘sessions’, each one taking place over about a week. Both parts ask the students to use the conference to discuss with the other members of their group issues related to the software. In the first session, students were asked to document part of the software, and in the second session they had to discuss the design of the software in order to draw up recommendations about the feasibility of making some suggested modifications.
The piece of software, technically known as client-server software, had a number of similarly designed components. Therefore, students were divided into small groups (of about 4 per group) and asked to collaboratively document (define) the purpose of one such component. Having agreed a suitable definition, each small group published its results for the other small groups to review. The tutor’s role was simply to ensure that each description was reasonable and to provide suitable documentation should a group not progress well. In one instance where several tutors had combined their groups, the tutors acted as a small group in order to illustrate the kinds of interaction that would be appropriate.
In the second session, students were asked to use the documentation produced in the first session to comment on part of the code and make suggestions about how easy or difficult it would be to amend the software in the light of a new requirement. Students were given two fundamental questions to address and they could comment on both or concentrate on either one. One question involved executing the software to see whether or not it met its specification and the other dealt with a proposed change in the specification. In this part of the activity, the whole of the group was responsible for agreeing answers to the questions posed.
Generally speaking, the whole activity consisted of a number of focused but open-ended questions that allowed students to offer opinion and hence encourage discussion to flow.
The main difficulties experienced with the model discussed above fall into two categories: the extent to which students are prepared to participate, and the perceived relevance of participation. We felt that, if an activity were closely allied to the course and in particular the course assignments, the activity would be attractive to students. Our findings were that, unless the tutors are highly active in encouraging students to participate, students perceive the activities as peripheral. Indeed, we did not observe a higher percentage of participation than in the earlier trials.
Despite the fact that the activity was directly related to the most significant part of a student’s study – the assignment – many students said that they could not see a priori the connection and therefore did not participate. Others, having attempted the exercise, still could not relate it to the assignment.
A major issue affecting participation in and usefulness of an electronic activity is the pace at which a course progresses. M301 requires students to study for around 15 hours per week for each week that the course runs. Effectively, students are meeting new concepts on a weekly basis. However, electronic tutorial activities typically take place over a two-week period (anything substantially shorter does not enable discussion to flourish) and normally deals with a restricted range of concepts. If the tutorial requires the student to have studied the course materials prior to the tutorial, there can be a mismatch between what the student is studying and the topics of the tutorial. Students have therefore complained of both the timing and the relevance of the electronic tutorials. It must be noted, however, that this is no different to experiences in face-to-face tuition - they are a feature of distance education.
The number of participants is significant when applying the snowballing strategy, since it is imperative to ensure that designated groups are sufficiently large to allow for non-participation. However, there is another phenomenon that must be taken into account: there is often a minimum number of participants in a computer mediated conference (a critical mass) required for interaction to occur, Wilson (1998). Therefore, care must be taken when working with small groups electronically to ensure that students will interact. For example, by tutors encouraging participation and providing students with meaningful tasks, Mason (1998).
Experimental details and data collection
The investigation into collaborative learning was part of a larger trial looking at a wide range of issues relating to electronic support for distance education. Data for the whole trial was collected from approximately 600 students and 30 tutors. Both students and tutors were asked to volunteer to participate in the trial. Two administratively separate concurrent presentations of a course were set up and students could opt for either one. Both presentations had the same materials, assignments and examination and differed only in tuition. Students were allocated to tutors randomly. The tutors who participated interacted with their student groups in one of three ways:
This enabled us to examine collaborative processes in electronic scenarios. Data was collected from a variety of sources:
The questionnaire revealed that the electronic presentation attracted a different cohort of students from the conventional presentation. The two groups of students exhibited different expectations about the level and kind of tutor-student interaction. Electronically tutored students expected faster interaction with all aspects of the educational process, for example, ‘immediate’ response to email queries and faster turnround of marked assignments, Carswell (2000). This supports the idea that there is an Internet culture that expects greater and quicker access to information, and more on-line support. Students reported that their rapport with their tutors developed using electronic communication and tutors said that they had more interaction with students using electronic communication as shown in Table 3, see Carswell (2000) for more details.
Table 3. Student contact with tutor and other students
Problems that an individual student would raise at a face-to-face tutorial did not feature in electronic collaborative discourse involving the tutor. Instead, students turned to email interaction for this help. Students were prepared to raise problems in peer group interactions, but these tended to be ‘factual’ in the sense of seeking clarification of the teaching materials.
An interesting phenomenon was the view expressed by students that email was more ‘immediate’ than the telephone. The reason given was that you were guaranteed to receive a response within a short period of time whereas with the telephone you were not guaranteed to make contact with the tutor at the time you wanted and, as a result, would not get a response to your immediate needs.
Electronic problem sessions require different models and mechanisms from conventional face-to-face tutorials. Attempts at running electronic problem sessions that mimicked face-to-face sessions produced disappointing results. However, tutors adapted and invented. They identified new structures for electronic tutorials that proved effective and engaging. For example, mixed-mode activities that incorporated both asynchronous e-mail discussion and synchronous Internet Relay Chat discussion, backed-up by logs and question-and-answer digests, see Petre (1998). It was found that structure matters: electronic activities that are presented in stages, with clear tasks and milestones, and a summary of the key points were often the most successful.
The number of active participants in an electronic collaborative activity was, at first sight, quite low consisting of no more than one-third of the tutor-group. However, this mirrors the behaviour of students who attend face-to-face tutorials. Table 2 shows the pattern of behaviour of students on one conference during the first two months of course M301 when activity was at its height.
The figure shows the number of postings made by each student. There were 327 students allocated to the conference of whom 97 posted at least one message, and a total of 402 messages were posted during the period of observation (9th January to 13th March). Thus, 30% of students participated (were ‘active’) and the average number of messages posted per active student was 4. Over half of the active students (53%) posted only one or two messages, and 20 students (6%) posted over half (57%) of all messages. It is important to recognise, however, that not all students studying at a distance can participate: Mason (1998) estimates that around 25% cannot participate for a variety of reasons related to their non-study activities. Thus, about 40% of those able to participate did so, at an average rate of one message every two weeks.
The interesting fact is that, in general, students prefer either face-to-face or electronic sessions: the same students did not as a rule participate in both. However, a well-known phenomenon in computer mediated conferences is the existence of lurkers – those who read the messages but who do not post messages themselves. Our student questionnaires showed that lurking was found to be beneficial despite the lack of active participation being frustrating to tutors. Roughly a third of students lurk. But, as a course progresses, student interest in all forms of tuition wanes, primarily because students see the time that must be devoted to these activities as time that they can better spend studying the primary learning materials: essential if they are to keep up-to-date with assignments. It is a fact of life that, despite their best intentions, part-time students often fall behind the course schedule and have to make choices about how they divide up their time. Participation in tutorials, of whatever kind, varies according to the students’ perception of their usefulness in meeting primary goals: answering assignment questions and passing examinations. We can report that there seems to be a general pattern of interaction which is highest at the start of a course and drops significantly after about a quarter of the course, rising temporarily whenever an assignment is due at at the end of the course.
A key issue is the extent to which any form of tutorial encourages social interaction. Greater student interaction is beneficial and encourages students to remain in contact outside the formal sessions. We set up informal 'chat' conferences where students could interact on issues of their own choosing. Again, there was a split between those students who found that social interaction could be achieved through asynchronous messaging and those who preferred face-to-face contact for this purpose. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that, in other courses, students are actively demanding chat areas because they see them as essential support mechanisms in which the social interaction is as important as academic support (although discussion about course content and assessment does appear).
Whilst student performance was not a major issue in this investigation, we were keen to discover whether or not collaborative learning that was attempted had a detrimental affect on students performance. We found that student performance, as measured by course results, was statistically comparable between electronically and conventionally tutored students, Carswell (2000).
Our experiences with collaboration in this environment have led to the development of a group project in our introductory course, M206, Computing: An Object-Oriented Approach. The course team was keen to incorporate an element of group work to reflect the collaborative nature of software development. While there are many obstacles to implementing group work in a distributed learning environment that can not be fully addressed when participants are remote, it was nonetheless a serious attempt at addressing an often-overlooked issue in software development. After initial reservations voiced by tutors the group project was included.
The basic model consisted of a modular structure. A number of small, separate tasks were identified which were performed in sequence by students working in groups. The tutor was responsible for dividing their tutor-group (25 students) into small subgroups (5 or 6 students) and each subgroup tackled the tasks co-operatively.
The group work was made compulsory by requiring students to submit an assignment based on their experiences. A part of this assignment asked students to present to their tutor evidence that they had participated. This included an example of a posting made by the student and a critique of postings made by other students in their group. In addition, each student was required to submit their group’s results together with their own commentary on the process by which the results were obtained.
The results of our trials and the effectiveness of students’ experiences on M206 have encouraged us to pursue the use of electronic tutorials based on collaborative tasks. In our new third level course, M301, Software Systems and their Development, we have divided tutor support approximately equally between face-to-face and electronic tutorials (about 9 hours of tutor contact time will be devoted to both types). There will be five electronic tutorials spread throughout the course and each one will use small group activities based around the idea of snowballing for collaborative learning.
Whilst tutors are formally responsible for devising and presenting tutorials, we are developing a number of different types of prototypical electronic activities that tutors can use and modify to suit their own needs. We aim to evaluate the effectiveness of the different models. We also want to look more closely at the collaborative learning that goes on in the informal 'chat' conferences and compare it with the more formal tutor-based activities.
In this study we have shown that electronic communication can be an effective tool for supporting collaborative learning that overcomes the difficulties associated with distance and time in a distance education environment. The medium readily provides easy access to students and tutors alike, not previously possible for students and tutors geographically and temporally remote from each other and the campus. The tutorial model illustrated, which espoused the virtues of the snowballing technique, provides an effective catalyst for stimulating collaboration in this environment. We have shown that this basic format can be applied to small-group asynchronous computer conferences for effective electronic tutorials. However, there are major differences between face-to-face and electronic tutorials that must be taken into account when designing electronic activities for collaborative working. For example, in an electronic environment the design must enable students to participate over time and as such the task designed must enable this. The rules of participation must also be clear to all participants to encourage an active and non-aggressive or exclusive discourse.
A major observation has been the extent to which tutor support and student-to-student interaction has increased by the introduction of electronic collaborative activities. It is also the case that tutors have been prepared to alter their behaviour to match the new environment.
For students and tutors who are involved in distance education the electronic collaborative learning environment has proved not only to be viable as a support mechanism for collaboration but also looks set to provide a mechanism for more structured collaborative production of artefacts not previously possible. The ability to read and comment on other’s work has never been easier with the barriers of time and geography disappearing. This development offers exciting new possibilities for students studying at a distance.
Many of the results of the Internet trials reported in this paper are due to the work of our research team which includes our colleagues Marian Petre, Blaine Price and Mike Richards, without whom the advancement of electronic tuition at the Open University would not have made such rapid progress.
We would like to thank the reviewers for their help in suggesting how the paper could be improved.