Student learning is enhanced through online peer learning activities aligned with the subject outcomes and actively facilitated by an online teacher. These activities may be conducted synchronously or asynchronously and student participation and learning benefits are highest when they support the completion of assessment tasks. This element supports enhanced learner-learner engagement.
In face to face learning contexts studies going back to the 1980s have consistently found that well designed cooperative and collaborative learning strategies can lead to substantial learning benefits in both school and university contexts (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998; Slavin, 1996; Hattie, 2008). One of the key benefits of such approaches is the way in which they support students in obtaining regular and timely feedback from their peers as they construct and articulate their own personal representation of the ideas and concepts within a subject. While years of empirical research have demonstrated the learning benefits of one-to-one tutoring with individual feedback for students as consistently the most effective teaching strategy with the highest effect size in terms of student achievement (Bloom, 1984), cooperative learning and peer teaching strategies have been repeatedly found to be the most effective alternatives (see for example Fuchs et al, 1997; Hattie, 2008). In a higher education context where individual teacher support is always going to be limited, the latter is clearly more feasible (Boud, Cohen & Sampson, 2014).
In a distance education and online learning context, the importance of interaction between students has been advocated by a number of seminal authors (e.g. Moore, 1989) and has been a key element of seminal models (e.g. Garrison’s Community of Inquiry Model, Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 1999). Kreijns et al. (2002) suggest that social interaction facilitated by computer supported cooperative learning has the capacity to encourage shared understanding, critical thinking and the social construction of knowledge. In a meta analysis of 74 studies comparing examples of distance education and online learning which included and did not include interaction between students, those including interaction between students were found to have a significant positive impact on learning achievement (Bernard et al., 2009).
Aside from the well documented effectiveness of peer and cooperative learning strategies for achieving a broad range of subject learning outcomes, such strategies can also contribute to the achievement of more generic outcomes relating to collaborative work. At CSU, skills such as “teamwork”, “collegial practice” and “practice in teams and in partnership with other people” are key elements of the Professional Practice Graduate Learning Outcomes (GLO) expected to be achieved by all undergraduate students. The use of online platforms to house collaborative activities also supports the development of capabilities expected within Digital Literacy GLOs such as “effectively communicate and collaborate using digital tools environments and social media to synthesise create, integrate and share information in multimodal contexts”. See the CSU Graduate Learning Outcomes.
Interactive learning activities may be conducted synchronously or asynchronously. Early online learning designs tended to allow only asynchronous communication or synchronous communication restricted to text chat due to the bandwidth needed for video or audio conferencing. More recently, widespread availability of broadband networks have led to video conferencing tools such as Skype becoming ubiquitous, and have also made the use of synchronous web conferencing tools such as Adobe Connect much more feasible. Despite the removal of some of the technical barriers to synchronous online communication, it is important that the relative strengths and weaknesses of each are considered (see, for example, Hrastinski, 2008), including the environment differences within text-based, audio-based and video-based communications (Hrastinski et al 2010).
While peer learning activities are important in addressing online students’ sense of isolation, it is important to remember that the need for flexibility is one of the key reasons for choosing to study online or via distance (see, for example, Rush, 2014), and so there are arguments for using asynchronous communication tools over synchronous, or at least allowing a combination in order to ensure that the inclusion of these activities does not impact negatively on student flexibility. In some situations online asynchronous communication can be superior even to face-to-face communication because asynchronous written communication can provide a better site for reflective and precise communication than the “spontaneous and fleeting” site of real-time verbal communication (Garrison, 2000b, p. 10). Importantly, Bernard and Rubalcava (2000) demonstrate the importance of carefully considering the learner characteristics and the learning context in the design of online collaborative learning activities if the potential benefits are to be realised.
Consistent with Biggs’ (1996) notion of constructive alignment it is well known that student participation and consequently learning benefits are highest when collaborative and cooperative learning activities support the completion of assessment tasks. Further, the importance of designing learning activities incorporating structured opportunities for students to interact and collaborate, rather than assuming that incidental interaction between students will lead to the same benefits is also well established. Borokhovski et al. (2012), for example, describe a meta analysis of designed versus incidental online student–student interaction finding clear benefits for designed interaction. Cooperative learning research over many years has also demonstrated that unstructured group work is inferior to designs which ensure individual and group accountability along with positive interdependence (see Putnam, 1998, Slavin, 1991).
The following paragraphs describe some more specific examples of interactive learning activities and strategies for supporting them.
The Interaction Between Students element is exemplified by:
- Synchronous and asynchronous discussions that allow students to share their experiences, knowledge and perspectives.
- Peer-to-peer teaching activities.
- Collaborative small group projects.
- Online reflective journals including video or audio blogs, allowing peer comments and feedback.
- Co-operative inquiry-based or problem-based learning activities.
- Co-creation of authentic learning products.
The TOL Learning Experience Framework, while encouraging designers to draw upon the OLM in a way which best meets the learning needs of the particular cohort, also recommends that the Interaction Between Students element is enacted in a way in which students are supported through online communication tools, subject design and teacher facilitation but with flexibility in frequency and modality of engagement.
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