Creating and Evaluating Online Learning Communities

Education is undergoing a makeover. Whether or you are a teacher using 1950's style teaching methods or joining the ranks of educators trying to transform education by way of tech infused, problem solving communities, it is happening whether you like it or not. The attitudes and opinions for both arguments are becoming more entrenched. Personally, I would be more impressed by an applicant stating on their CV how they brought people together to solve a regional problem rather than earning a 3.5 GPA. Although the latter does show grit and persistence, the former shows the outcomes of skills needed to be the change we want to see in our graduates and future citizens. How many people are saying: "Our goal is to produce graduates with high GPA"?

There are many people that are advocating for the change. Steve Denning from Forbes talks at great length of how our model of learning is modeled on a "factory output model" that can be replaced by outputs to outcomes, and changing the roles of teachers to facilitators. The MacArthur foundation has some great examples of how schools have started to pilot new approaches to learning wherein students work collaboratively in teams to solve a real world problem and Adam Renfro offers a fantastic approach to how educators can bring students together, aided by technology to implement this shift.

Creating such communities is no problem. They're modeled on cooperative learning models of group investigations were everyone has a specific job for which they are accountable. Serendipitously, I was approaching the end of a chemistry unit and a collaborative project through CIESE which I've done for four years now where classrooms can collect and share data in order to develop understandings and even solve regional problems like pollution and energy consumption. The driving questions I put forth for this project were:
  1. What is the most important variable that affects the boiling point of water?
  2. Can we engineer a distillation apparatus with everyday materials to purify water for the poor?

Evaluating Collaborative Communities

Although I'm a big advocate of creating collaborative communities, I have yet to see a good example of how they're evaluated. It's inspiring to see students working together, and utilizing a strength in their skill set to develop or engineer something, but often, I see teachers with rubrics giving "rubber stamp" grades based more around group skills rather than standards related to a specific discipline. As some one who has really looks at assessment, I think that much of the interest in creating collaborative communities is to mimic what real world adults do when working on a project or problem. Much like the superheros in "The Avengers" where each a specific talent that no other one has.

The problem with this, is that schools are meant to educate everyone in all skill areas not just have them reinforce their particular strength. Adults are hired for their skills, schools develop them. It might seem in-vogue to allow students to differentiate their own understanding by choosing what they want to work on, but the real backlash is whether the contributions of that particular student have really "taught" other members of the group. This is not often a consideration of adults in real world situations. For instance, if you have a project and you designate one of the roles is that of a "math expert" you will probably have a student or two that has above average math skills and can thus integrate their math skills into showing that "the group" has an understanding of the mathematical principles in the project.

For my chemistry project, I discussed with the grade level math teacher in meetings over which math skills are currently being taught and thus relevant and he informed me that they had been working with percentages so that was a current standard for which I could easily include. While I would have a student focus on this particular area for the presentation, I was most interested in whether the other members of the group would "learn" from this piece and not have it serve as an illusion of group understanding. If only one student from the group knew how to do this skill, the product would be another smoke and mirrors example of window dressing eclectic skills and not enough group nexus. For this, formative assessments still have a place in the classroom and give teachers insights to whether learning objectives were actually met, as instructed either by teacher or peer.

In the case above for this project, each group created a documentary of the process with a few of the objectives that I would individually assess later. Explain everything is a great app for this, but I'm still learning on what the best way is to create content in classrooms. In this case, slides were "similar" between groups, although their data was different. A conflict I'm grappling with now is whether I should or shouldn't inundate the world with educational content that is so similar. My colleague Zach Post has done some dynamite work with this in mathematics wherein students don't create the same content necessarily, but all focus on a different type of problem or principle. Such work serves as review material for later. Here is one example of his students focusing on algebraic properties.

Approaches to Assessment
Each group received the same grade for my project although is was not weighted much to not create serious distortion. As we near the end of the unit, I'm making this content available for students to review which will undoubtedly come in handy when students are reviewing. Some tips that I've come to regard in evaluating collaborative communities are as follows:
  • Groups grades are easy to assess but be careful that they don't overly distort an accurate appraisal of a student's individual grade.
  • They may not have enough time, so don't deflate their grade for lateness. They may require only 10 minutes more which can be done during the next class.
  • Debriefing is so important. Regardless of how the group did, sit down with them and share your appraisal of their work based on what you "saw" and how that compared to the expectation.
  • Don't write off (compact) an individual if their group demonstrated a skill. There is no way of really knowing if that was done by others or that student. Continue to use individual formative or summative assessments.
With regards to formative assessment, here is where a classroom blog comes in handy. By having this media and project on a blog which is accessible to students, students can comment on the post which can then be approved or asked to be revised. This gave me the opportunity to have all students develop their own conclusions (a huge science standard) and do it on their own terms in a non-threatening way. For our warm-up at the beginning of the next class, I asked students to review data submitted from other schools and answer this question: Which variable is most responsible for boiling point? Here were some of their responses:

Commenting can serve as a formative assessment in a 2.0 environment and develop netiquette

Commenting can serve as formative assessments in the 2.0 classroom. Here, students draw conclusions on generated data.[/caption]   Some made excellent observations. Some did not disregard outliers. Still, we were able to wordsmith a number of the student's observations to prepare our final report. Furthermore, the act of thoughtful commenting compliments our schools ICT benchmark of "Communication and Collaboration" in that students can propel thinking forward in online environments and collaborate together. Although Renfro doesn't spell out this example in the reading, here, simple web 2.0 tools can facilitate the same learning targets as intended and give students multiple ways to show their understanding.  

Sharing this Work With a Larger Audience
Could this work serve as a model for reform? 5 years ago, I would say "no". So often teachers work is done in isolation and "wow" moments are shared with a small few. Now, having a classroom and professional blog has helped alleviate this problem. Following this project, I was able to draft up a post which was sent out to my parents appraising them of what and how the students were learning. The parental response was awesome. Furthermore, as a networked educator, I was able to share this post to my online teacher communities at Edmodo and Twitter to get feedback, help refine my assessment methods and give them some ideas of how they could implement this in their classroom.

Now, more than ever, we can collectively share our successes in the education world and help develop this pedagogy. As teachers network with other great teachers, parents and students, I think the role of a teacher will evolve to facilitate learning communities that share work with others and develop connections. As educators develop their comfort levels and facilitation skills, the global classroom will rise.

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