This generation has never-before opportunities to receive education in an online, asynchronous environment. Along with the clear advantages of being able to complete a college degree in their own timeframe from anywhere in the world that has Internet capability, this non-physical environment has presented a challenge for some students.
To an online student sitting behind his computer screen, perhaps even feeling that he or she has no college friends at all among the other students, asking them to make the effort to communicate and connect with their classmates in group assignments is in opposition to their day-to-day approach within their enclosed environment. Even though online students are given ample opportunity to connect in the classroom through class discussions, they still may feel disconnected and isolated. However, forming a connection is important because fully participating in group discussions enhances and accelerates learning for the online students.
For some students, the payback for their efforts at connection is not apparent to them intuitively. Especially at the beginning of the class, he or she can feel no advantage in doing it, and the credit offered in points still does not provide sufficient motivation. They cannot see that it is for the general well-being of everyone to establish mutual relationships where every student contributes to the discussions.
The typical student group begins the coursework with a wide range of previous experience in the technology classes that I teach—fundamentals of technology, business analysis, information security, and project management— and I find that one or two students in virtually every class roster have many years of previous on-the-job experience in information technology. On the other hand, some students are a blank slate where the terminology and concepts are brand new to them.
In the short term, as eventually happens with virtually every student at some point in the course, he or she will have difficulty grasping some key concept in the course material. This could be because it is unfamiliar material or even because it conflicts with some previous understanding that they picked up informally. No matter how often they read and re-read the textbook, it will not click for them. Before that happens and the student’s individual assignment scores take a steep nose-dive, the student already must have established himself with his classmates and instructor as his support system.
Because of the wide spectrum of knowledge in the classroom group, the shared contributions from each individual, in addition to that provided by the instructor, can provide valuable clarification, different perspectives, and real-world examples that can make all the difference in firming each student’s grasp of the material. In addition, expressing their own comments on the discussion topics helps them internalize the concepts and broaden their thinking and communication skills. If each student becomes comfortable with the fact that the coursework is not a competition—every single student having the same possibility to earn a high score—the personal experiences and thought-provoking questions from their classmates can provide invaluable perspective to the entire class, and this is the most important reason that participation in group discussions enhances and accelerates student learning.
Students that participate fully in the class discussions often demonstrate a firmer grasp of the course concepts, improved analysis capabilities, and can express themselves more clearly on the topics in their individual written assignments. To go further, not only can working in a group and feeling a connection with his or her classmates help a student with their own individual learning, but it can translate to his or her relationships with society in general outside the classroom.
In the last week of the class, the students have an opportunity to provide open feedback on their classroom experience. Some students report that their efforts at connecting in class discussions not only helped them to do better on their individual assignments, but gave them more confidence to communicate their thoughts with others outside the classroom. It happens occasionally that a student has a valuable opportunity to use their new-found skills and confidence to solve a problem or offer suggestions for improvement on the job or in everyday life. When this happens, sharing that experience provides an enormous boost for the classroom group as a whole.
In conclusion, although some online students resist connecting in class discussions, participating in a classroom group does enhance and accelerate student learning for two main reasons. First, as the students present with a wide range of previous technological experience, the comments shared provide invaluable perspectives to the entire class. However, most importantly, there are strong demonstrations of the students’ grasp of the course concepts on individual written assignments and an increase in confidence to apply their knowledge on the job and in their everyday lives as reported in the discussions and the end-of-course feedback from the students themselves.