There’s no question about it: peer-to-peer learning is more efficient than lecture-style classes. Going forward, students and teachers are going to have to figure out how to organize themselves to take advantage of this, both online and off. Should groups be teacher-led, all working on the same material at the same time? Should students work at their own pace and pair with students who get the material at the same rate that they do? Or, should students who master the material quickly teach their peers? Questions like these–coupled with uncertainties about what size these groups should be–will determine the direction higher education takes in the next 5-10 years.
Films like Waiting for Superman have taken swipes at large public schools, encouraging the creation of smaller-scale charter schools to increase student test scores. Though large schools can be and often are subject to a host of problems, a recent New York Times article on Brockton high school in Massachusetts indicates that this doesn’t have to be the case. The high school has 4,100 students and, until recently, most of them were doing poorly on state exams and 1 in 3 dropped out. The school has managed to change its performance dramatically in the last 10 years–this year its students outperformed those at 90% of schools statewide. Administrators attribute the success to incorporating writing in all areas of the curriculum and getting teachers on board with the program–making sure everyone had the same goal.
Sharing a deeply-held common purpose can make even the biggest groups productive learning spaces. The key–and this is the most difficult part, it seems–is getting everyone in a large group to hold to that goal. As critics of Waiting for Superman have noted, cash-strapped public institutions–whether k-12 or university-level–usually don’t have the option to downsize. But, even at large state institutions or online schools, it is possible to create communities motivated to head towards a common goal, and it’s perhaps by focusing on ways to make that happen that education reform can have the greatest success.
Within these larger, goal-driven organizations, however, students benefit from forming smaller groups outside of the control of teachers. This is the motivation behind traditional study groups–the question is the form these will take in classes of hundreds of students who may not live near each other. This article, from Utah State University, explores the benefits of “self-organizing” student communities–groups of students who come together without a teacher to lead them. The authors have observed that the best self-organized online communities come from places with relatively decentralized management: blogs where anyone can post, rather than a mailing list.
One of the benefits of this kind of organization is that it doesn’t require any one person to keep the community vibrant; instead, generation of new content is under the control of all community members and the burden is spread equally. Even more usefully, in spaces where moderation is based on user input (a system in which participants can vote comments up and down, usually), the need for a team of dedicated moderators is diminished. The researchers suggest that those interested in education reform take a gander at the blogosphere–they point out the success of decentralized moderation on Slashdot, an internet phenomenon if ever there was one. Their point is well-made; in educational spaces, where the primary point is mastering new material rather than watching blog comments, this can reduce the workload for community managers so that everyone can instead focus most of their time on learning.
On the whole, people forming educational communities online would do well to look at geeky online spaces–open source software discussion groups, for instance. Discussion groups for open source software provide an excellent example of how a community of learners with mixed levels of proficiency can move forward to create something useful. These communities benefit from the above-mentioned common purpose–in this case, software development–and a community expectation that those who understand material will then go on to share their expertise with others who do not. This advances the knowledge of the overall group, without having to set anyone up as a full-time moderator. If someone is able to answer a question, they do.
In a classroom space, this might look like a blog where students could publish their own findings or questions for everyone else in the class. Classmates could respond to the questions they were able to answer–and the most useful answers would be voted up by the original poster and everyone else who looked at the entry. Perhaps a TA or professor could keep an eye on the blog so as to correct any completely off-base assumptions (or questions that stumped everyone), but this system would reduce the need for a dedicated tutor working one-on-one with stuggling students and instead allow the community’s knowledge to benefit multiple students at once. Tutors will likely become something more like community moderators than people who focus on one-on-one tutorial hours. This is surely a more efficient approach for tutorials and studying in classes with hundreds of students. There is typically enough variation in subject aptitude within a single class that students can answer most of each others’ questions. This is, in essence, the principle behind OpenStudy.
Allowing students to control their own communities by contributing and self-moderating gives them a greater sense of ownership and shared purpose, even in large groups. Allowing them to answer each others’ questions when possible reduces strain on teachers and tutors. This collaborative learning style is suited for the web, and going forward we expect more and more schools to adopt models based on it–it’s worked for tech geeks, it’s working for open source developers, and we think it will work for students.
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