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Learning Cubes: A Model for Online Education

William P. Messier Coordinator, Multimedia Management and Production McLennan Community College, Waco, TX, United States wpmm@cox.net

Abstract: This paper describes how a faculty development project was designed for the World Wide Web. The paper also describes interactions that took place between faculty to illustrate how collaborative learning and problem solving can be facilitated and implemented by the web. The project assignment content focused on instructors (students) being immersed in an authentic learning environment. The students actually experienced a form of technology based learning while undertaking specific tasks. The paper concludes with some pedagogical discussion about the use of cooperative learning as a teaching strategy for online education.

Introduction

Online learning is a relatively youthful field, which is still being classified as a discipline. As Administration and faculty members struggle with decisions about how to structure online courses for collaborative, cooperative learning, faculty perspectives of successful strategies can provide valuable insights for decision-making. Few studies have been conducted that examine the impact of the collaborative teaching/learning strategies in the distance-education setting (Hardwick, 2000). This paper presents general research findings pertaining to collaboration in online learning along with personal insights into what makes a project-based online assignment successful as a collaborative learning experience.

While online learning offers administrators, faculty, and students many advantages over traditional campus-based learning, problems do exist. Attrition is one such problem for online learners. Attrition is brought about in large part by a sense of isolation (Adelskold, Aleklett, Axelsson, & Blomgren, 1999). One teaching/learning strategy, which can improve this sense of isolation, is cooperative or collaborative learning. Collaborative learning involves students in social communication, as groups work together to discover knowledge, think critically, communicate effectively, reflect, and solve problems. Social interaction among learners plays an important part in the learning process, in fact, it can have a significant impact on learning outcomes. (Jonassen, et. al. 1995, Eastmond and Ziegahn 1995, Berge 1995). Students in online education programs, though separated spatially, can gain a sense of community as they distribute and simplify ideas, actively contribute to a team, and cooperatively solve problems (Cecez-Kecmanovic & Webb, 2000).

With progress in telecommunications and computer technologies, it is now possible to offer collaborative learning experiences in a cost-effective way. In the past, collaborative approaches to distance learning were limited by the cost and sophistication of the technology. Recent advances in technology coincide with a general shift in educational theory to a collaborative origin of learning, which recognizes the learner's need to share control and assume responsibility for problem solving in the context of a peer group (Anderson & Garrison, 1998). Collaborative learning is an outcome of cooperative learning, in that students must develop cooperative learning skills in order to use them in self-directed, high-performing teams. These collaborative groups conduct free investigation and members jointly discover and solve problems. Success in cooperative learning is grounded in the skills students develop within the context of the academic organization provided by the facilitator/instructor. More importantly, in distance learning, students must possess or develop the technical skills necessary for online communication, as well as acquire and practice social skills necessary for collaboration (Kemery, 2000). Cooperative learning involves requiring individuals be accountable so that each participant does a fair share. It involves effective cooperative social skills, effective and appropriate communication skills to bring the task to completion. Research shows that such cooperative learning practices lead to more efficient and effective processing, increased achievement, positive relationships among students, and efficient exchange of information (Johnson, Johnson & Smith, 1997).

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