Interactive collaborative online learning for undergraduates

Author/Producer Mike Jeffries-Harris
Published in Newsletter No10 spring 2008
Date Published 28 February 2008
Pages 3


The University of Exeter received research project funding from ESCalate to investigate ways of using new technologies in the context of collaborative online learning in a blended learning scenario.


Ninety two first-year undergraduates from Education Studies and Childhood and Youth Studies degree programmes followed a new module ‘ICT and Learning’ for one semester, in 2007. The module consisted of weekly taught sessions delivered either face-to-face in a lecture theatre or online using WebCT, Exeter’s virtual learning environment. After each session students worked in groups using asynchronous discussion forums. Each group formulated and posted a response to a stimulus question based on the content of the lecture. The online discussion enabled them to work and collaborate at a time and place of their choosing.

After selected lectures, similar tasks were set using Digalo, a synchronous discussion environment. This software, based on a concept mapping approach, is intended to facilitate and map reasoned argumentation between participants. Digalo was only available to students using the campus computer suites and so workshop sessions were arranged for these discussions. A text messaging service was set up with a list of students’ mobile phone numbers provided by consent. General support was provided to all students using the text messaging service and half the group were targeted to receive extra specific text prompts.

An innovative approach to assessment was developed. A quarter of the total module marks were awarded for engagement with, and quality of contributions to, the discussions in WebCT forums. The remaining three quarters of the marks were given for an annotated electronic concept map created on a topic selected from the module. Freeware (CMap Tools) was chosen as the tool for the concept mapping assignment which students could download to their own computers.

The research set out to elucidate if and how a flexible approach to the use of a range of new technologies can promote engagement and raise the perceived quality of the learning experience of students. A comparison between two matched groups of undergraduates was to be made to find out whether the inclusion of mobile learning technologies, in this case SMS texts, encouraged engagement with online learning. It was intended that as a result of the project there would be an improved e-learning confidence for the undergraduate group, with better participation in online critical discussion and collaborative work and active engagement with course content throughout the module. An additional outcome was the development of online tutoring skills for tutors and the opportunity to trial a range of blended learning materials and methodologies.

An initial survey of the students indicated a wide range of technical confidence and competence. Some students had never participated in online learning; others were confident in their use of a variety of online environments. The tutors had prior experience of using online discussions in their teaching but the assessment of discussions and the use of electronic concept mapping as a major assessment submission was new.

The student feedback about their learning experiences was mixed. Many embraced the use of online learning and discussion tools enthusiastically, while some remained reticent in the use of ICT in the module. The concept mapping assignment caused some anxiety as this was an unfamiliar medium in which to work. However, with extensive encouragement and support, all students submitted an assignment and some of these showed high quality thinking. Overall, the grade distribution was as follows:


1st Class10
3rd Class22

Many of the online discussion contributions showed a high level of awareness of the issues and a high quality of reflective and critical thinking. Other posts were more descriptive or concerned with social and organisational aspects of interaction. The one student who failed showed a very low level of engagement with the online materials and discussions and submitted a poor quality concept map.

At the end of the module, students were invited to complete a questionnaire, where the response rate was 60%. The following patterns emerged.

To what extent have you found working with ICT in this module helped you to see the benefits of ICT in education? (Column 1 represents the non respondents)

(Please see attached download)

To what extent have you found working with ICT in this module helped you to improve your ICT skills?(column 1 represents the non respondents)

(Please see attached download)

Data collected about the effect of SMS on students’ activity in WebCT showed that there was little effect on the level of engagement between the experimental (extra text messages sent) and control (general text messages sent) groups. On reflection, one factor that may have been significant in this was the lack of familiarity of the tutors with using this technology. Messages had to be channelled through the team member who administered the system and while he made good use of it for the sessions that he taught, other tutors failed to engage with the opportunity.

This project represents a pilot study related to the development of a new module that used electronic tools for both teaching and assessment. The overall findings from data collected during and at the end of the module indicate that many students found the use of digital technology contributed to their learning. Others felt less positive about ICT. The use of text messaging was not developed to its full potential and this will be addressed in the next running of the module in the second semester of 2008. We will continue to use both synchronous (Digalo) and asynchronous (WebCT) discussion tools and the discussion evaluation and concept mapping assignments will remain. Module entry and exit surveys of the students will be conducted to evaluate the lessons learnt from the pilot study.

Overall, the group showed good engagement with e-learning and the discussion forums were actively used (2,800 postings). Many students felt more confident and positive about using online resources and discussion groups at the end of the module than they had at the beginning. Use of the text messaging service will be developed further and specific feedback will be collected from the students about this tool. Tutors were able to develop new approaches to assessment and gathered valuable and important insights into how to organise and support blended learning that included innovative use of a variety of digital technologies which will be implemented and the results evaluated in the next run of the module.