Is online group work worth it?

Is it a copyright violation to copy your own work?

I’m currently slogging through an online course that prepares me to teach online. Although I’ve done this stuff before, it is fascinating how many issues and considerations cross between the face-to-face and online classroom. Below is a response I posted to one of our class discussions about online group work.

Is online group work worth it?

That’s a loaded question because it goes beyond online teaching, and F2F for that matter as well.

Half of the Social Studies teachers at my school are in their first two years of teaching. Each has told me the biggest surprise they’ve experienced at the start of their career in education is the workload. They say this despite having been specifically training for teaching. This either speaks to the tremendous incompetence of schools like Boston College, Eastern University, Rutgers and Gettysburg College, or it demonstrates the extensiveness of a teacher’s responsibilities. What they all must learn is what we all know, experienced teachers constantly engage in a work triage, regulating how much time they devote to planning, grading, teaching and reflecting. We all know our students would be better writers if we doubled the amount of time we spent grading their essays, but there is no way we could manage that. We all know that if we planned unit fully implementing Grant Wiggins’s UbD, our curriculum would be improved, but we couldn’t grade anything if we did that. So we borrow time from Peter to pay off Paul’s obligations, and in the end hope the sum totals up to be worthwhile for our students.

We’re so good at triage, we even use it to manage the amount of emotional investment will make in any one student. How many of us have gauged the possibility of success before really going after those disaffected students that blow off any attempt to connect with them?

So on one level the question is right up our alley, we always measure this stuff. On the other hand, we have no way to measure an accurate response because we have a failed metric. How can we measure the amount of work we have to invest in online group work? We are just learning technical details of choosing and creating the environments for that work and we have to write out the step by step directions used by the students to navigate what we have created. Our work load, which includes learning about the various options open to us to make the best choice as well as actually using it, will be necessarily extensive. But I’m inclined to think that work is front-loaded. I can’t see how a teacher in their third year of a course they have written would say that the work they put into creating collaborative assignments was not worth it.

In a much more vital sense, the work has to be worth it because the students’ need for this experience is so great. How often have you heard your F2F colleagues express their fears that online teaching will sap students’ ability to work with others? After all, they admonish us, these kids spend too much time online anyway, they’ll never learn how to deal with others face to face. Do these teachers realize that these kids will work in this environment as adults? Yes they spend a lot of time online, but no one is teaching them how to successfully collaborate in that environment. My guess is that none of these nay-sayers would feel comfortable locking these kids in a room by themselves and then letting them out into the world confident that they can work together because they have been locked in a room together. Students coming out of that room would have been without adult supervision or guidance and my guess is their behavior would reflect it. That is exactly what is happening online today. Unless some adults get the kids into a nurturing online environment that guides them through the habits of practice and basics of polite, interpersonal communication and cooperation, we’re doomed.

If we don’t do this, no one will. If we let the kids teach themselves how to interact online, we’ll spend our retirement more angry and bitter that our current critics, complaining about the degradation of civil behavior in our society.

Diigo Déjà Vu

This may be hard to believe, but trust me, it’s true.

While reading a story about a superintendent in a neighboring school district, I followed the link in the story to the district’s high school’s web site. A recent interest of mine is school and teacher site design because I think we underestimate the impression our sites make on parents and the community. I was impressed with the district’s site. Dead-easy navigation, tons of pertinent information right up front, and colorful and well-organized to boot. It was obvious that this was one of those popular corporate packages bought by schools to solve new responsibility of web site design. But the teacher pages within these sites are usually just shells, open space for the teachers to design and present their own content.

So I was flipping through the teacher pages when it hit me. Sitting in that familiar little yellow voice balloon, a Diigo comment was hanging on a teacher’s page. Clicking it open, I was shocked to discover it was my comment, made about ten months ago. I left a Diigo “sticky note” on this page almost ten months ago, and remember nothing about it. Rather then contemplate the diagnosis this implies for my quickly aging brain, I was more impressed by the pure serendipity of coming across the note. What are the odds that I would come across this particular teacher’s page on this particular site again by just trolling?

It took a moment or two for me to recreate the fact sequence of last year, reviewing different school’s web sites to share with our Tech Committee as we were shopping for a web site package ourselves. This particular teacher had an image of a nativity crèche on her site and the little Social Studies teacher in the back of my brain shouted “lesson plan”! Is there a legal difference between a crèche in front of a public school and one on a teacher’s page in a schools web site?

Interesting stuff and thorny issue – but that’s not the point. How many breadcrumbs have we left on the web? What’s the chance we’ll stumble across them later? What sort of digital flotsam and personal info jetsam are scattered out there?