Collaboration and Publication in Hybrid Online Courses

by
Marshall Soules, Ph.D.
Coordinator Media Studies, Malaspina University-College
Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada
soules@mala.bc.ca

Computers, Performance, and Protocols of Improvisation: Some Background

Hybrid web-based courses, as used in this context, combine technologies of distance delivery with face-to-face interaction. This combination of modes poses special challenges for instructors who hope to foster collaborative learning environments based on (inter)dependencies [Bourdeau & Wasson, 1998]. Problem-based learning and adaptations of constructivist pedagogy are central elements of the approach described below. Observations and recommendations are based on the delivery of a number of online courses offered since 1996, mainly in the fields of Media Studies and Computer-Mediated Communication (English). (Websites for these courses can be viewed at http://mala.bc.ca/~soules/.)

Broader theoretical contexts for this discussion have been explored in previous papers, also available online:

These earlier papers explore how online learning takes place in a distinct performance medium--certainly distinct from traditional classroom learning--and how it is important for instructors to reflect on the new expectations, demands, and social dynamics resulting from the new medium. In Protocols of Improvisation and Online Communication, I describe how the particular performance style associated with improvisation has many points of reference to online learning. Following Laurelís analysis in Computers as Theater (Laurel 1992), I suggest that the human-computer interface is not only essentially dramatic, but also requires a considerable degree of improvisation for its successful negotiation. A study of cross-cultural practices shows that the play of improvisation occurs within a matrix of constraints, and these limitations can be considered "protocols of improvisation" (Soules 1997). As a mode of performance, improvisation relies on a kind of "voluntary discipline" (Chaikin, 1972) to provide a sense of membership, while still providing a high degree of expressive freedom for individual members of the ensemble. For Bourdeau and Wasson (1998), membership in an ensemble of learners is effectively stimulated by encouraging (inter)dependencies; and the literature on computer-assisted learning offers a number of other fruitful approaches founded on problem-based or constructivist principles--most of them consistent in their recommendations for collaborative learning conditions and a refiguring of traditional instructional hierarchies and practices.

Instructional Technology, Membership, and Online Learning

Research on video-conferenced courses we delivered in 1996 and summarized in Enhancing Capacity with Video-Conferencing (Soules 1996), reveals that "student satisfaction and success are highly dependent on [a] sense of membership, or engagement by the learner in the educational process. Our research found, for example, that unlike the membership construct, the technology itself does not lead to high satisfaction rates: once the purpose of establishing clear and reliable communication has been met, further efforts to develop more sophisticated systems are not likely to result in more student satisfaction. Similarly, once basic student support services have been provided, more elaborate administrative functions do not significantly increase student satisfaction or success" [Dolan 1996; Soules 1998].

What we soon discovered in our attempts to create a feeling of membership, or conditions suitable to collaborative interdependencies, was the need to supplement classroom lectures and discussions with web-based learning resources. Students at the remote video-conferencing site felt they were missing something that those in the host classroom were experiencing, and asked that lecture notes and resources be available to them through other means. For this video-conferenced course, then, we evolved a hybrid mode that combined synchronous delivery technologies with supplementary, and sometimes redundant, web-based technologies to foster greater course participation and a feeling of involvement for an "ensemble" of learners.

Hybrid Online Courses

Since 1996, I have delivered a number of courses which combine elements of face-to-face and online, web-based delivery techniques:

In some cases, all course participants were expected to attend classroom discussions, and then accomplish certain online learning tasks in lab sessions. In other course configurations, there have been two sections of the same course: one section met in the classroom, the other was solely for online students studying from a distance. All course materials were provided on websites, and assignments for both sections were submitted electronically. In still another version of the hybrid online course, I accepted students who wanted to take completely online a course which had been scheduled as a traditional classroom session. Finally, I have delivered courses completely online, with no scheduled classroom meetings. In all of these instructional scenarios, the hybrid nature of delivery posed specific problems, and revealed important insights into the dynamics of online learning.

Adding Value: Hybrid Courses and Educational Politics

Before reviewing some of the features of hybrid online courses, I want to comment on what I consider to be the educational politics of these courses. While three of the courses listed above were originally supported by Innovations grants from the B.C. Ministry of Education, Skills, and Training (or its equivalent), the hosting institution was not willing to continue their support as funded online courses. I have been able to offer online features by arranging computer lab time in conjunction with regular classroom scheduling. The hybrid nature of these courses allows them to exist within a system which seems ambivalent about widespread online delivery until funding conditions change.

Experience has shown that online delivery requires more development and maintenance than regular courses, but the learning opportunities for all participants, including myself, are worth the extra effort. I think of hybrid online courses as having value-added features, or offering two courses in one. And even though the institution may not officially support online course delivery in the examples cited here, it is accruing additional data on which to base future decisions. The hybrid courses in effect test the computing infrastructure of the institution: student accounts and support for email and webpages; instructional use of computer labs, software, and the network; online registration and student services; library resources; student and faculty computing support. Even though the institution where I work does not have an official policy of support for online delivery, I have been extremely lucky to work with computer technicians and instructional support staff in our IT department who enable these hybrid courses to exist at all. This is an unofficial network of instructors, administrators, and computer support staff--working in a temporary autonomous zone--who recognize that online delivery is ultimately healthy for the system. It constantly tests limitations, boundaries, policies, and capacities. Not to mention that both instructors and students are immersed in a challenging learning experience.

Something Missing, Something Gained

As one might expect, those students at a distance from the face-to-face classroom often express the suspicion that they are missing something. Not only are they missing what they might learn from any material presented in class that is not included in the online resource materials, they are also missing the learning that comes from participation in discussion and interaction. Additionally, some people feel that it is not as easy to ask questions online. There is validity to these concerns in my experience: students do seem to benefit from classroom discussions, from the clarification of difficult material, and from interaction with an instructor about assignments and other matters related to the course. The online students do not participate in the process that a group goes through in the construction of a commonly-held understanding of material--not that everyone has to have the same understanding, only that the group has collaborated on an exploration of the material from which they take their own conclusions. This collaboration defines, in effect, the condition of interdependency.

These impressions that something is missing in the educational experience is most keenly felt by students who take a course completely online and know that there is a group of students who meet regularly in the classroom. If all the students are online, the feeling that something is missing is less common.

Many of the strategies discussed in the section below attempt to reassure students at a distance from the physical classroom that the content of the course is sufficiently available online, and that there are ways for them to participate in the learning of the ensemble. As a writing instructor, I emphasize to students how the publication of their work--in newsgroup postings, an electronic journal, and their own websites--allows them to communicate with the other members of the class. The most radical innovation of hybrid course delivery is not the use of technology, but what the technology enables: the usual communication model of the traditional classroom is revolutionized when participants begin writing for one another, not for the instructor alone. What is often missing in the traditional classroom is an audience of one's peers. My research suggests that student writing shifts focus when the audience changes, and generally becomes more engaging; the style and tone of the writing become more authentic and sincerely motivated; the level of editing improves; and students are more able to respond to the ideas and issues of concern to their cohort.

Strategies for Collaboration

Self-motivated online students are able to compensate for their distance from the classroom by using email and newsgroups to communicate with both instructor and other course participants. However, for students who are less sure of themselves or their abilities, I am discovering that there are a variety of strategies that can be used to foster membership in the course and its activities. (An earlier paper, From Video-Conferencing to the Cybercafé discusses how "protocols of improvisation" can guide and stimulate online learners, in effect giving them an individual voice in a collaborative activity.)

  1. Online Resources: One obvious strategy for promoting a learning synergy in hybrid courses is to ensure that the resources available from the website are up-to-date and as engaging as possible. All course participants are thus assured that they have, at least, the same foundation of information to work from. (The time and skills required for site maintenance can add considerably to an instructor's preparation time and workload for an individual course. I estimate that online delivery adds 20% to the initial instructional workload, and something less than that when the course materials and delivery techniques are established.) It should not be assumed that the medium of classroom lecture notes or other instructional materials can be directly transferred to the web. There is not the time in this presentation to explore the importance of design and presentation of content for web-based courses. Suffice it to say that the web is a different performance medium and requires different strategies for effective communication.

  2. Clear Assignments: Hara and Kling (2000) report that students' distress with one web-based course was largely related to the ambiguity of the instructor's guidelines, descriptions, and expectations for assignments. It is important that instructions for assignments be clear, and do not require further in-class explanations to give fuller direction. For most of my online assignments, I specify the form and goals of the assignment in detail, give general parameters for the content, and allow course participants considerable latitude in their choice of approach to the content. These assignment parameters require that students engage in problem-based learning, and learn to improvise within the protocols of the assignment.

  3. Responsive Email: I respond to all email queries as quickly as possible to demonstrate that someone is responsive to participants' needs. Email--and the art of electronic correspondence--is the glue that holds an online course together. While newgroups, or some form of conferencing, are important for sharing information and making announcements, all students in the hybrid courses need to have regular and reliable access to email. Unless a student asks me not to, I list the email addresses of all course participants on the Student page of the course website. As assignments are completed, I link them from the Student page in the hope that some informal interaction will occur between participants.

  4. Newsgroups: After the earlier video-conferencing experience, I have used mainly asynchronous technologies for online courses--email and distribution lists, newsgroups, and websites. My use of newsgroups has evolved considerably, and become more structured. Where previously I asked students to participate in a newsgroup discussion over a period of time and graded them on their level of participation, now I assign short weekly assignments which are posted to the course newsgroup. Participants are thus encouraged to access the newsgroup regularly throughout the course; they can see one another's work; and they can respond to the work of others whenever they are moved to do so. These short assignments reflect on the course material, provide writing practice, and generate the kind of focused discussion that many of us wish would occur in newsgroups that we have participated in. These weekly assignments allow me to monitor who is actively participating in the learning of the course. Collectively, all course participants (including myself) are building a tangible dialogue about the course content.

  5. The Exquisite Corpse, or Newsgroup Narratives: In various hybrid courses I offered in 2000-2001, participants collaborated on an improvised newsgroup narrative loosely based on the surrealist idea of le cadavre exquis. Starting from a sufficiently vague opening sentence, course participants develop a story over a two-week period by posting their contributions to the narrative thread. In an effort to encourage narrative continuity and coherence, I recommend the following guidelines:
    • All participants should take some responsibility for the coherence, and the tone and style of the narrative.
    • To effect a change of style, ease into it, or project the narrative through the consciousness of another character.
    • Try to provide the characters with some options or choices.
    • Please donít kill off the main character!
    • Avoid blocking the initiatives or leads of other participants; if you donít want to go in that direction, develop a parallel thread.
    • To maintain the challenge of developing a story, let's avoid dream sequences as being too easy.
    • If you are offended by someoneís writing or content, donít judge it. Move off in another direction, or devise a way for the offended character to experience some justice. Thereís no need to be politically correct--weíre not writing social policy. This is a story and people do wonderful and frightening things to one another every day.
    • If you are so inclined, use humour, irony, and sarcasm to keep the mood of the story playful.

    The newsgroup narrative assignment demonstrates in graphic terms how and why collaboration can work or fail. At the same time, participants are learning how to use a newsgroup, especially when the threads of the narrative become complex and convoluted.

  6. What Students Know: Stephen Ehrmann, the Director of Flashlight Project for the American Association of Higher Education, suggests that effective learning is fostered when instructors hear and understand what students already believe about a certain subject; when their "preexisting theories" remain "invisible" to the instructor, these notions are often left untouched by instruction (1997). The implication of this seems far-reaching and recommends that instructors make every attempt to allow students to express their own understanding of a subject as a basis for further learning. Early assignments in a course might ask students to describe their views on a topic, and subsequent assignments can build on or respond to those beliefs. In online courses, newsgroup postings can explore these beliefs, and the resulting archive of responses becomes a profile of the current levels of understanding. Most importantly in the case of newsgroups, everyone in the learning cohort, not just the instructor, has access to the collective responses. Students are given more opportunity to learn from one another, and the instructor's role may shift towards facilitation and collaboration, and away from instruction.

  7. Learning Skills, Learning Software: Ehrmann also recommends the use of "worldware"--software which is suitable for learning, but which was not particularly designed for that purpose. Worldware includes word processors, computer-aided design programs, email, the internet, and graphics programs. Not only are worldware programs more widely available, "They are in instructional demand because students know they need to learn to use them and to think with them. Faculty already are familiar with them from their own work. Vendors have a large enough market to earn the money for continual upgrades and relatively good product support. New versions of worldware are usually compatible with old files. Thus faculty can gradually update and transform their courses, year after year, without last year's assignment becoming obsolete" (1997). Ehrmann further elaborates by suggesting that "to make visible improvements in learning outcomes using technology, use that technology to enable large scale changes in the methods and resources of learning. That usually requires hardware and software that faculty and students use repeatedly, with increasing sophistication and power."

    In my own hybrid courses, I require the following applications: email, newsreader, internet browser, text editor, word processor for attachments, and a graphics program. While Usenet is often not as user-friendly as web-based conferencing software, I continue to take advantage of it for newsgroups. I am most enthusiastic about the internet as a publishing medium for student work, and thus concentrate on those applications which support students to display their writing, images, and sounds online. Even though the initial learning curve is steeper, I encourage the use of a text editor for creating webpages: this method ultimately gives learners more flexibility and a deeper understanding of hypertext mark-up language.

  8. Electronic Publishing: Since most of the courses I deliver online emphasize writing skills, I ask participants to collaborate on the production of an electronic journal which includes the best writing from the course. Examples of these student-produced journals can be seen at the following URLs:

    The production of an electronic journal promotes membership in the course through the collaborative activities involved, and it provides tangible evidence that all course participants can contribute equally to the learning experience. This assignment requires students to learn basic html skills, including uploading files to a server. I make copies of their files and move them to a journal folder linked to the course website. With the accumulation of these journals, we have a searchable archive of student performance and interest. Students are more likely to learn from one another, and hopefully to learn from the most successful amongst them.

    Tangible Evidence

    Strategies for creating membership in hybrid online courses should acknowledge that we are operating in a unique performance medium with its own protocols for effective interaction. The relative abstraction of much online interaction--disembodied as it were--challenges expectations about what is being accomplished in a course, who is being heard, and what is visible. The use of structured newsgroup discussions related to course material, and the production of electronic journals of participants' writing offer tangible evidence of interaction and collaboration. Participants are able to build dynamic documents testifying to their participation, and thus their rightful membership in the course. They are able to make themselves visible, or heard, both to the instructor and to the other players who constitute the ensemble of the hybrid online course. Finally, the hybrid online course is a opportunity to test the deluge of theory about the supposed benefits of instructional technology, theory that is often speculative and unproven in practice.

    References

    Bourdeau, J. & Wasson, B. (1998) Actor interdependence in collaborative telelearning. Ed-Media/Ed-Telecom 1998 Proceedings. Charlottesburg, VA: AACE.

    Chaikin, Joseph. (1972/1991) The presence of the actor. New York: Theater Communications Group.

    Dolan, N. (1996) Interactive television course delivery. Victoria, BC: NJ Dolan Consulting.

    Ehrmann, S. (1997). Asking the right question: What does research tell us about technology and higher learning? Annenberg/CPB: Learner.Org. www.learner.org/edtech/rscheval/rightquestion.htm. 2 February 2000.

    Hara, N. & Kling, R. (2000). Students' distress with a web-based distance education course. Center for Social Informatics Working Paper. www.slis.indiana.edu/CSI/wp00-01.htm. 1 March 2000.

    Laurel, B. (1992). Computers as theater. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

    Soules, M. (1998). From video-conferencing to the cybercafé: Membership, performance, and online learning. Ed-Media/Ed-Telecom 1998 Proceedings. Charlottesburg, VA: AACE.

    Soules, M. (1997). Protocols of improvisation and online communication. LETT '97 Conference Proceedings, 1997, Leading Edge Training and Technology, Victoria, BC.

    Soules, M. (1996). Enhancing capacity with video-conferencing. Nanaimo: Malaspina U-C.

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