New Research Explores Social Learning and Collaboration in Online Courses

Across the country, colleges and universities are either starting to offer MOOCs (massively open online courses) or strategizing about how they might do so. At the same time, teachers and scholars of education are increasingly aware of the importance of collaboration and peer learning.

How can students work together in this new generation of online courses? And how can the online systems support and encourage peer learning? A new School of Information research project aims to answer these questions and more.

I School professor Marti Hearst and Ph.D. student Seongtaek Lim have been awarded a grant from Google as part of its Social Interactions research program. Hearst and Lim plan to investigate how and why subgroups of people choose to collaborate remotely while using online systems, with a focus on large online courses.

Seongtaek Lim is a first-year Ph.D. student who is interested in both social computing and entertainment computing. He has degrees in cognitive science and computer science, and is interested in studying users’ experiences and connections in multi-modal communication and in rich media environments. Professor Hearst’s research interests include human-computer interaction, computer-mediated communication, and user-interface design.

Encouraging collaboration isn’t just an educational concern; it’s also important for technical and financial reasons. In order for online courses to scale, students need to learn from one another as well as from their instructors — but a better understanding is needed for how to encourage peer discussion and collaboration on group projects in online learning environments.

“There has been some success with online discussion tools like Piazza for encouraging students to contribute to one another’s understanding,” said Hearst. “But less attention has been paid to the question of collaboration on class projects in virtual learning situations.”

Rather than focusing on collaboration in the abstract, Hearst and Lim plan to look specifically at cases where the collaboration is centered on students’ work products, or artifacts. As a case study, they hope to explore groupwork in an online design course in a field like architecture or engineering. The two will develop a prototype system for online design collaboration and observe how the system supports and encourages student collaboration.

The free-form, student-directed nature of a design course would provide a perfect opportunity for Hearst and Lim to explore students’ self-directed collaboration. When do students choose to work alone, and when do they choose to engage with their fellow students? And which elements of the online system trigger social learning?

Online learning systems are sometimes criticized for a low level of interactivity and individuation. Hearst and Lim hope their research will help solve these problems by providing a deeper understanding of student-initiated peer learning — and how to design online systems to spark that interaction.