Friday, July 17, 2009

Develop Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

"Learning is enhanced when it is more like a team effort that a solo race. Good learning, like good work, is collaborative and social, not competitive and isolated. Working with others often increases involvement in learning. Sharing one's own ideas and responding to others' reactions sharpens thinking and deepens understanding. " (Chickering and Gamson)

If your Confer class is large, consider using the Breakout Rooms feature. Virtual “rooms” can be created into which you can distribute participants, and from which you can return them at will. This tool allows small groups of learners to work together or hold a discussion in which everyone has ample opportunity to participate.

As Ruth Clark observes, “Spending a few minutes in a breakout room allows a group of three to five participants to actively engage with each other in ways that can lead to greater individual participation and consequent learning.” For one thing, there are less voices to contend with, so each student's audio time is more accessible. For another, research seems to indicate that group cohesion is a by-product of this kind of virtual separation and group formation.

Like every educational tool, though, breakout rooms are only effective if they're used appropriately. Since we know that this feature is designed to facilitate collaboration, we should use it to promote group activities: create a situation in which "students introduce each other, work on homework, problems, projects, research, brainstorming, and other related activities in small groups and then share the materials from the group sessions with the rest of the students” (Zeina Nehme).

Assign a group leader and/or a group scribe before you send students to breakout rooms. The scribe can enter group responses on the whiteboard and summarize group discussions when everyone reconvenes. Find a student who's comfortable using the Confer technology and ask them to lead in the breakout room.

Remember that your ability to control what happens in the online classroom will be compromised when you send students into breakout rooms. PLAN, PLAN, PLAN ahead of time to make sure you haven't introduced chaos into your well-ordered session. Create your breakout rooms ahead of the session, with all relevant information pre-loaded. Explain everything to the students before you send them into their rooms, and even consider having technical and exercise instructions on a file you transfer to them so that there are no misunderstandings. Migrate between rooms so you can be sure students are interacting and collaborating as you would hope.

Jennifer Hoffman recommends these participant "ground rules":

  • If you run into technical problems, contact the facilitator or producer. Don’t waste a lot of time trying to solve them yourselves.
  • Assign someone to manage the exercise, someone to capture information, and someone to report back to the larger group.
  • Don’t leave the breakout session just because the trainer isn’t "watching' you.
  • When using collaboration tools within the breakout rooms (whiteboard, chat, application sharing, web browsing) the ground rules for those tools apply.

I'm interested in how you use (or why you don't use) the breakout rooms feature. Feel free to share your experience here.

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