Mar 02 2017

Collaboration and Discussion Tools Help Make Online Courses More Social

California community colleges take part in chatbot tool pilot aimed at getting students to interact and help each other with coursework.

Community college students struggling in a college course are 2 percent more likely than their higher performing peers to drop out. In online courses, this number is 4 percent, the Community College Resource Center reports.

And while these numbers, admittedly, aren’t huge, DeAnza College in suburban San Jose, Calif. and five other community colleges statewide looked to address the major difference between course types: social interaction.

“We hadn’t been thinking about how to bring in collaborative work into our online courses,” says Barbara Illowsky, DeAnza’s chief academic affairs officer and a mathematics professor.

Representatives from the six colleges worked together to create online labs for introductory statistics courses using a collaborative tool developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University.

Bazaar, the tool developed in Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, is essentially a chatbot that helps facilitate discussions and labs after students complete a lesson, reports EdSurge.

After a lesson, the tool groups students using algorithmic matching so that they are put into the best collaborative groups possible.

About 200 students at DeAnza and the other colleges were part of a pilot program conducted last fall using Bazaar, reports EdSurge.

Illowsky says the tool had somewhat mixed results.

“It’s a challenge for students taking online classes to find the time to meet with other students, even virtually,” she says.

But the benefits of encouraging social interactions and collaboration outweigh the cost of the time students give to them.

Online Collaboration Leads to Course Satisfaction and Real-World Skills

Researchers have long been testing benefits of interactivity in online courses.

“Online students tend to withdraw more often and earn lower grades, compared to students in traditional classrooms,” writes Rebecca A. Glazier in an article in the Journal of Political Science Education. Glazier argues that interaction and high-rapport relationships are key components of student success in online courses.

A research paper published in the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning argues that interactions like online discussions can help students to “share task-related messages, such as concern about the difficulty of a task, progress on a task, support of others’ learning processes, and their own strategies for completing a task.”

The researchers found that students who even chatted casually in online courses felt more connected and had a higher degree of course satisfaction.

Tests of the Bazaar tool at Carnegie Mellon also found that students who were put into a discussion group with other students had a 70 percent lower rate of attrition than those that didn’t participate in the group or only talked with the chatbot, EdSurge reports.

Though the pilot with Bazaar is over at DeAnza, Illowsky appreciates that it allowed her and her peers to collaborate on how to make online statistics courses more collaborative.

“The collaboration is more reflective of what the real world is like,” says Illowsky. “My job is to prepare students for careers, not just to make sure they understand elementary statistics.”


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