Turning Students into Teachers, Online

I want to talk today about what I consider one of the major failings of our online course. Other people probably won’t consider it that way, because this wasn’t an agreed-on goal for our course (or even a discussed goal), but I was always hoping that it would happen.

(By the way, this is what happens when your “design” for something it “I sure hope it happens.”)

What I was hoping would happen was that, as the term went on, our students would help each other out more. I was hoping that our course staff – both on-campus and volunteer – would be able to pull back on our involvement in the forums, and that we would have students from the course who talked about physics, discussed concepts and problems with each other, and generally helped each other out.

This did not, as a whole, happen. Certainly there are some folks who helped one another, but for the most part our discussion board was hierarchy-driven and expert-reliant.

Part of this was the fact that we intentionally recruited Community TAs (see my previous discussion of the course staff), and they were seen as part of the staff. They weren’t viewed by the majority of forum-goers as regular students who were just friendly and helpful, these students became elevated in the eyes of others. Suddenly they had a green border around their posts, while others did not. They had a little tag that practically announced, “I KNOW PHYSICS so you should LISTEN TO ME!” I would have loved to change some students’ epistemologies from “receive knowledge from experts” to “learn and help to learn skills as part of a group.” I don’t think this happened at more than a background level.

Part of it was also the size of the group. There were about 300 people who introduced themselves in the forums, maybe 1200 who got certificates (we’ll know an exact number in two weeks), and 15000+ who registered for the course. In a group that size, you’re almost guaranteeing that most people don’t get a chance to shine. The folks who really are experts are likely to hand out answers when asked. The folks who aren’t experts (yet) are likely to receive and use them. That gets them points, which is what they want, so everything continues in that manner.

We didn’t create a system that encouraged expertise, collaboration, and mastery to the extent that I would have liked. I think that our pedagogy within the course materials has a better-than-background chance of pointing people towards expertise, but the way the students were able to interact didn’t reinforce that.

I think it’s a neat course design challenge.  As I mentioned, we didn’t intentionally design for it this time – the closest that happened was some encouragement I sent out to our volunteers, and that was only once or twice. I think it would be worth trying some intentional design in this area. We know that student interaction works as a teaching method. Bringing it to the online arena is clearly not just a matter of letting students interact. If we want to be more effective, we need to be more intentional.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on September 4, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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