Bill McCollum says he thinks student interaction is an integral part of learning. The problem is finding a place for such interaction in online education.
So Mr. McCollum is experimenting with different ways of getting his students to participate in study groups in his online courses at Baker University, in Kansas, where he is an assistant dean for administration and an adjunct faculty member of the School of Professional and Graduate Studies. Although he isn't completely satisfied with the results thus far, he says that with a little work, he'll have an online course in which students will be able to interact and solve problems together -- just as they do in conventional courses.
This past semester, he divided the students in his online courses into e-mail discussion groups. The goal was to have students work on problems together and learn from each other online, he says.
But students had trouble opening up to, and working with, people they had never met, Mr. McCollum says. Another problem, he says, is that online students tend to act more independently than their traditional counterparts.
But Baker's School of Professional and Graduate Studies has a strong tradition of having students work in groups to complete coursework. From the day of their orientation on, students are put into study groups for their required courses and remain in the same groups until they graduate. The curriculum is set up to promote collaboration.
The purpose, Mr. McCollum says, is to train students for the business world, where they will most likely work in groups with people whom they may or may not get along with. Because much of the work may take place on the Internet, it's important that students learn how to collaborate online, he says.
Online courses at Baker are usually electives, so students aren't working with the usual groups from their required courses. "Because they have a new mix with every online course, they never develop that type of camaraderie with an online program," he says.
One of his recent students, Cathy Jenkins, says she enjoyed the collaborative environment Mr. McCollum attempted to build in his online course. "You always learn from others," she says.
Ms. Jenkins is finishing her bachelor's degree in management at Baker. As a student who has participated in both face-to-face and online study groups, however, she has noticed some drawbacks to virtual discussion.
"There are obvious obstacles because you don't see the person face to face," Ms. Jenkins says. "The written word doesn't communicate the same things that body language and voice do."
Mr. McCollum thinks he has a solution. The online study groups have usually been made up of four students, like groups in the university's traditional courses. Mr. McCollum wants to reduce the size of the groups to two, so that the students will be more likely to get to know each other. Also, he plans on requiring more projects in the courses to be completed in a group format, essentially forcing the students to work together.
"I don't see this as a failure on the part of students," he says. "I see this as a failure on the part of me. Somehow, some way, we're going to make it work online."
By: Dan Carnevale