Success And Inhibiting Factors Behind The Instructional Design Of Collaborative eLearning Activities: What eLearning Professionals Need To Know
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Success And Inhibiting Factors Behind The Instructional Design Of Collaborative eLearning Activities: What eLearning Professionals Need To Know

It is surprising that although, as instructional designers, we declare supporters of the constructivist approach to instructional design and we are all convinced about the power of social learning, very few of us actually use it in practice. We find it quicker and much easier to design an eLearning course without deviating from what we empirically know that will result in a successful eLearning course that follows our well-tested routine. This usually involves setting the learning objectives first, developing the eLearning content by using our favorite eLearning authoring tools, making it as much interactive as our time and budget allows, and finally providing some sort of eLearning assessment, typically a standardized multiple choice, true or false or matching quiz, usually automatically graded by our eLearning platform, to test whether our learners have actually mastered what they were supposed to master in order to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of our eLearning course. Collaborative eLearning activities, however, do not work like this. They need a different instructional design approach, as well as a different assessment method.

5 Collaborative eLearning Activities Success Factors

Research in the area has concluded that there are indeed some factors that can determine the success of collaborative eLearning activities. These are the following:

  1. Group composition.
    The composition of your online group seems to be the number one determinant for the success of your collaborative eLearning activities. Although, heterogeneous groups can contribute in many ways to the success of an online collaborative group, latest research has demonstrated that the more homogeneous a collaborative eLearning group is, the more effective it is [2].
  2. Synchronous vs. asynchronous technology.
    Asynchronous collaborative eLearning activities are more effective for reflection, as synchronous collaborative eLearning environments demand higher social presence and involvement. In any case, whether you will design the collaborative eLearning environment for your audience using synchronous or asynchronous technologies depends on the degree of complication of the eLearning material, as well as whether you are trying to achieve near or far transfer of knowledge.
  3. Near vs. far transfer assignments.
    Transfer of learning refers to the way past experiences interfere in and affect the learning process [3]. Near transfer involves the application of knowledge to similar settings. For example, you know that a specific piece of information can be applied in a specific context. Therefore, each time learners encounter this specific term, they know the context it can be applied in real life. On the other hand, far transfer refers to the application of the learned concept in different contexts, which at first sight may not seem so relevant to the initial context that the concept has been learned. As far as near transfer is concerned, research has demonstrated mixed results, as for activities that involve drill practice, mnemonic techniques, memorization of information, etc, a more controlled learning environment is usually required. On the contrary, activities that focus on far transfer take for granted that the first step, that is near transfer, has already been achieved. We can therefore say that collaborative eLearning may be more appropriate for higher level learning objectives that involve cognitive processes such as understanding, applying, evaluating, analyzing, synthesizing, and creating new knowledge. In other words, processes that help learners not only enhance their critical thinking and decision making skills but also their metacognitive skills, as through collaborative eLearning activities they need to force themselves to draw their own conclusions about the topic at hand, and learn how to learn. As a consequence, learners learn how to think and how to “transfer” the newly acquired knowledge in different settings.
  4. Unlimited vs. Constrained time.
    Another factor that has an impact on the success of this approach is time. In your instructional design phase, always keep in mind that collaborative eLearning activities always take longer than individual assignments, as you cannot estimate the time they need for completion. Facilitators need to set specific deadlines in order for collaborative eLearning activities to be completed, as well as e-mail notifications for upcoming important deadlines that specific online tasks should be completed. From practical experience, I’ve found convenient working with milestones, rather than assignment deadlines. By setting milestones, learners work one-step-at-a-time and, therefore, there are less chances to miss the deadlines of the entire collaborative eLearning activity.
  5. Incentives.
    Incentives may increase learners’ participation. You should therefore provide learners with both extrinsic and intrinsic incentives that will increase the motivation levels of your audience. Make sure that learners are aware that participating in online discussions and group activities is a requirement for successful completion of the eLearning course. By this way you also create a participatory learning culture that gives another perspective to your eLearning project.

4 Inhibiting Factors To Overcome When Designing Collaborative eLearning Activities

Have you ever thought why online collaborative activities are not frequently encountered in the instructional design for eLearning? They are usually limited to the good will of individual course instructors or facilitators who want to provide personalized attention to their audience. Here are 5 reason of why this happens:

  1. Who will be in charge.
    Online collaboration really involves extra work, and the biggest issue for the instructional designer is who will be in charge of the online collaborative activities. For any professional instructional designer, an instructional design for eLearning is perceived as a blueprint to be delivered to eLearning course developers; a detailed description in terms of content, structure, eLearning activities, online assessment and eLearning course interface. In other words, it is an autonomous entity. Rarely do Instructional Designers know about the clients’ human resources to be used later on, nor it is possible to be aware of the degree of their commitment in advance. Therefore, if Instructional Designers are asked to include collaborative eLearning activities, it is common practice to include them as optional activities as they prefer not to base the entire eLearning course on them.
  2. Priorities in Instructional Design & Time constraints.
    Another factor why Instructional Designers offer collaborative eLearning activities as optional activities has to do with the priorities they set in Instructional Design, as well as time constraints. Instructional Designers get paid to deliver a learning design plan that meets the requirements of specific learning content. Their job is to provide the optimum way for subject matter to be presented in the most effective and interactive way possible. The storyboard they present to clients, therefore, is usually designed to start form the most to least specific eLearning activities. What to be mastered becomes a priority for them, rather than how to be mastered, and this may probably explain the tendency and favoritism towards a constructivist rather that a social learning approach. Therefore, the first eLearning activities they design are the ones that can stand alone for autonomous self-paced highly interactive eLearning, as interactivity has become recently almost synonymous to effective eLearning design. Once such activities have been planned in accordance to the learning objectives of the eLearning course, then supplementary social learning activities that can reinforce the instructional message and enrich the eLearning course might be added according to the requirements and expectations of the client.
  3. Success depends on the ability of the online facilitator.
    Another reason why Instructional Designers provide collaborative learning activities as optional is due to the fact that, as the success or failure of such activities greatly depends on facilitator’s ability to monitor and spark interesting discussions, they cannot guarantee their effectiveness. No one doubts that effective online facilitators should be both task and people-oriented [1]. Their main responsibility should be to build relationships while facilitating at the same time learners’ progress with the collaborative eLearning activity they are provided with. As this requires special training in order for facilitators to develop special skills, Instructional Designers usually prefer to “play safe” and provide eLearning activities that offer more measurable results, which guarantee the effectiveness of the eLearning course.
  4. Different Type of Assessment is required.
    Last but not least, online collaborative activities require a different approach in terms of assessment. Although formative assessment, which involves direct observation and feedback on behalf of the facilitator is the assessment type most frequently encountered, other assessment approaches are also possible such as assessment through eLearning portfolios or peer-to-peer evaluation. Although we cannot underestimate the effectiveness of such methods, as they promote social learning to a large extent, special training is again required for both the facilitators and the learners in order to familiarize themselves with the evaluation process, the respective criteria and the development of special rubrics.

Want to learn more about different approaches of Instructional Design for eLearning? Do you perceive behaviorism as old-fashioned and by no means applicable in today’s digitalized world? Read the article Behaviorism In Instructional Design For eLearning: When And How To Use to find out all you need to know about behaviorism in instructional design for eLearning, as well as in which cases it may be the most appropriate instructional design approach for your eLearning course.

References

  1. Gratton L., & Erickson. T., (2007), Eight Ways to build Collaborative Teams, Retrieved from Harvard Business Review on August 17th, 2015: https://hbr.org/2007/11/eight-ways-to-build-collaborative-teams
  2. Pinto Yma (2012), The efficacy of homogeneous groups in enhancing individual learning, Retrieved from Journal of Education and Practice on August 17th, 2015: http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/JEP/article/view/1157 
  3. Wikipedia (2015), Transfer of learning, Retrieved on August 1st, 2015 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transfer_of_learning
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