Conventional wisdom holds that smaller classes yield better results for students. However, smaller classes (especially at the college level) also yield much higher prices. Online learning changes this formula by allowing one instructor to reach many people effectively (no worrying about fitting them all in a lecture hall!), but the question about how online learning should be structured remains. If there are 200 students enrolled in an online class, should they have traditional TA sections? Should class blogs be open to groups of 20, or to whoever stops by? Online learning has to have some sort of scaling, or it becomes less and less useful for students because quality control drops.
The worry with online study groups is that, if completely open, there’s no way to check answers for quality or to keep a discussion on track–this is the problem with Yahoo Answers (which has inspired a Tumblog of best/worst questions because of this). Clearly targeted study groups and classes for online students should have a group size smaller than, roughly, the entire internet.
So, should students then be grouped the way that they would be in real-life class sessions? That’s the strategy behind Blackboard‘s discussion forums–students enrolled in a single class have access to the group’s discussion board; people outside the group don’t have access and there’s no differentiation between people in the class. But this has a few issues of its own–though it’s easy to cut out chatter from outside of the classroom, it may be difficult to have a useful study session if the entire class is trying to post comments on a few posts (especially if the class hasn’t been subdivided).
In addition, there’s no way for students to identify themselves as being at a certain level of comfort with the material–students who are really struggling can get lost in a free-for-all forum, and students who don’t feel like they need the help may be tempted to ignore the forum, which means that the class loses their help. Clearly there needs to be a way to both break students down into small-enough groups that no one’s contributions are lost, and make students feel like their needs are being met by the discussion.
Because online learning is not constrained by the difficulties of face-to-face learning (there’s no need to reserve a room, and discussions can be asynchronous), the next big distance learning product will be one that is able to serve as a hub for professors and students to organize student study groups which are smaller units of larger classes–maybe 15-20 students. These groups can be student-managed–but the professor will be able to see which posts in each group are most actively discussed (indicating that students might be struggling or that a topic needs to be reviewed in class).
Students could use the service to manage their own message-board discussions, but perhaps these could be in the form of blogs (with each individual question standing alone as a post, rather than a less user-friendly forum tree). Students could make their own avatars, because study groups at any size benefit from easy-to-recognize identifiers for group members. The service would even serve as a hub to organize group chats, video conferences, or private messaging between group members. Professors could highlight the best discussions each week in class to share things that of broad interest to all of the class’s students.
A system like this would allow students to feel like their voices were being heard and would allow professors to passively manage a very large class’s study groups. There is no tool yet which organizes these online study groups as well as is needed–in part because people are used to traditional education, where these groups arise organically from face-to-face class time interaction. If online learning is able to harness this small-scale hybrid between a TA section and a study group, it will have embraced something truly innovative, rather than just an online copy of traditional learning.
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