Cultivating online collaborative learning in mathematics6 min read

Online learning has permitted a great deal of autonomy and independence in today’s educational climate: you now choose what you want to learn, how you want to learn it and in what pace you want to learn that in, anywhere. Yet we don’t focus enough on the opportunity that it creates: the coming together of people and their ideas.

Steven Johnson set out to answer the question – Where do good ideas come from? In this remarkable quest, he discovers that creativity and innovation evolve when small ‘hunches’ collide and combine to form bigger ideas.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of the most viewed TED speakers to date and a prominent educator and creativity expert, in his speech on Changing Education Paradigms, lamented the need to stimulate learning between people. He advocates that “most great learning happens in groups. Collaboration is the stuff of growth.”

Collaboration has grown massively from its earlier definitions – having two or more people working towards a task or a goal. Instead, it has shifted to open, learning relationships and innovation. With 21st century learning competences leading the talk on educational change, how does collaboration come into play?

Large online courses make it impossible for teachers to answer every student’s post, question or assignment. To add to that, student anxieties in subjects like mathematics increase because of the lack of a ‘personal element’ in their learning. Nonetheless, learning environments like SOWISO, have another excellent resource to tap into: its students.

Learner to learner engagement is the foundation of collaboration and we might be missing out by not harnessing online collaborative learning. Students have shown high levels of satisfaction, learning and performance with increased student interaction (Swan, 2002; Beaudoin 2001). Learners can have a healthy discussion with other students and are presented with different perspectives of the same material. Alongside this, they can provide and collect feedback of their work from their own peers.

But how do we do that, online?

As student to student interaction happens organically in a natural classroom environment, an online setting may necessitate you to build certain formal and informal engagement opportunities throughout your course. We’ll run through some tasks and activities that you can use in your online course as well some key points to remember:

Opening activity – For your course, you can start things off with an opening activity to connect students through a simple forum question or encourage students to upload their own avatar to build a sense of belonging.

Asynchronous forum – These discussions encourage continuous participation while problem-solving and provide insights for you as a teacher on the current collective and individual understanding of your class. If your students attempt to ask you a question, ask if they have already asked this same question to their peers. I’m sure you’ll be tempted to respond often. Sometimes, you must trust the process and let your students engage in conversations with one another. This can be more fruitful if you model your expectations and explain clearly how you would like them to engage. It’s important to be there to facilitate and come to intervene when necessary.

In SOWISO, students can ask questions or clarify certain concepts from a theory page or an exercise – make sure to discuss with your students the possibility of supporting their peers or even provide certain incentives when students help each other.

Encourage sharing – Allow your students and provide space for them to share data, information or content from other sources through the forum or a separate channel. This engages students in healthy conversations and gives them the chance to share resources with one another. This can be trending, statistical or historical data, impossibly difficult problems to solve, latest research or a new graphing tool to help in their coursework – anything under the sphere of your course to make their learning more interesting and efficient.

Group assignments and activities – Provide a chance for students to bring together their individual ideas to complete a task. This strategy is best done for courses that are completely online (distance education), when they don’t have any chance for face-to-face interaction. Supply a small group of students with a mathematical concept to explain or a problem to solve and ask them to present it through a report collaboration, a presentation, wiki page or an online debate.

Case Analysis – For a more purposeful learning experience, give your students a case to analyse. These discussions can proceed in cycles of developing, evaluating and revising of models to produce a mathematical model for issues that students can find meaning and deem worthy of their time and effort.

You can post this in the forum and track their discussions in groups. It’s another option to give partial credit for individual work or group participation. We previously wrote about real-world applications and math modelling scenarios which will be great to adapt for a group. Have a look at some of our ideas here.

You can also combine group assignments or a case analysis with peer assessment to drive student accountability. But this means more than just earning a mark. It’s the process of evaluating what one intended to learned against what was learned, the quality of the outcome and the series of decisions made to reach the outcome or the solution.

Before you engage in any of these activities, make sure to remember the following:

  1. Set a goal – Whether we are conscious about it or not, students prepare for their learning in several ways. Make sure to establish these learning objectives and desired outcomes at the beginning of your learning task.
  2. Provide clear instructions – Define how a specific learning experience is relevant to the students, what is expected from the course and why being part of the group will work on their benefit. Elaborate on different ways to ensure maximum participation.
  3. Have low-stakes opportunities for teams to work together
  4. Keep group sizes neither too big nor too small – Ensure more active participation and better tracking when you keep groups small.
  5. Give ample time to accomplish the task – Provide enough time for brainstorming, application and summarizing of information. Make sure to set the due date when you give out instructions so your students can plan their time wisely
  6. Provide logistical assistance when necessary – If you are assigning the groups yourself, you should consider their interests, time zones if they are in different parts of the world or if they’re working students or what they’re majoring in

Of course, there are other ways to engage your students online such as through student to instructor or student to content interaction. We found that student to student interaction is the least exploited but holds great potential if implemented thoughtfully.

SOWISO supports collaborative learning through our ‘Forum’ feature. Engage your students and let them become active participants and authors of their own learning experience. There’s a lot of value in creating and participating in knowledge creation. You never know what big ideas might come up!

Written by Alexis Joson