Tag Archives: online study groups

Peaceful co-existence – Social networks and niche communities

Last Saturday, I went on a Deutschlandradio Wissen talk show to discuss online communities. The other two speakers were Sarah Krohn, moderator at hungrig-online.de, and Mark Ralea, community and marketing expert. What it came down to was an interesting discussion of large social networks versus smaller niche communities. Continue reading

Learning and Technology – Give a voice to those who learn!


Together with a bunch of LSE Media & Communication students, I attended the “one-day international conference” on “Maximizing Opportunities for Young Learners in the Digital Age” in Oxford today.

As young learners that we consider ourselves to be, we had hoped to get an overview of the latest research regarding technology and learning. Our hopes were not entirely disappointed, but it turned out that the debate was about some bigger questions that go way beyond the role of technology. In fact, what was really at stake was the (power) relationship between teacher and student, as mediated by technology.

After writing the post, I decided to go straight into my thoughts on what was said at that conference, moving a summary of the presentations to the end.

What it was all about

To be critical, all of the presentations raised more questions than they answered. One of the reasons for this is that the research is not specific enough about what is meant by “young learners”, by “technologies”, and (most crucially) by “learning”. Just these three variables can be configured in so many different ways that generalizations seem very problematic.

The conference also left some people in the audience wondering what the debate was actually about. If you didn’t know that it was about technology and learning, you could have assumed at times that it was the entire schooling system that was up for discussion.

All arguments quickly led to questions about the nature and purpose of learning, the role of schools in learning, and even about the nature of knowledge itself. What is it that we want our children to learn and know?

What was really at stake at this debate was something that no speaker at the conference explicitly talked about: the relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher is supposed to have the ultimate authority over knowledge. That defines his identity and professional self-understanding as a teacher.

If technology enables students to go out and discover (possible more recent or conflicting) information by themselves, the position of the teacher is undermined. Her role would have to change from preaching knowledge to guiding students in finding it themselves. Teachers would have to be accountable for what they teach and their teaching would be more transparent. Do they like that? Most of them probably wouldn’t.

I couldn’t help the feeling that some of the researchers in this field also don’t fully embrace such a change in the way the teacher-student relationship works. If we think about the many interviews they conduct with young people as a discourse (as Foucault would like it), then the patronizing undertone in their questions and the way they frame their studies possibly reinforces the powerful position of teachers and lecturers (that they are) as the ultimate source of knowledge. Those who this research is about – the young learners – are not given a loud enough voice in this discourse.

What was said

Justine Cassell, Northwestern University in Chicago, opened the conference with an intriguing presentation of the Junior Summit project, which she was involved in. In short, the Junior Summit was a global online community that was set up to be run by teenagers themselves. Given this opportunity, the young participants actually managed to establish a strong sense of community and activism. One of her findings was that adults should stay away as much as possible. “We need to build communities, not classrooms.”

Ole Erstad, University of Oslo, continued from there by questioning the notion of a “digital generation”. Teens and their media habits are in many ways quite “normal”, he suggests. He also questions any distinction between “formal” or “informal” ways of learning. To understand how young people use technology for learning, we should adopt a “learning lives” approach that focuses on learning in everyday life, across many different contexts and places.

Sonia Livingstone, LSE, gave a concise summary of current empirical research on technology and learning. Does technology improve students performance in the usual school subjects? Yes, no, maybe. There is no conclusive empirical evidence for this relationship. Maybe technology allows for new ways of learning, like experimentation, tinkering, social learning, and so on? Yes, no, maybe. The problem with empirical research in this area, she suggests, is that we don’t seem to know what to look for. “The pedagogy of the Internet has not been worked out yet.”

Finally, John Furlong and Chris Davis, University of Oxford, asked “Do young people need help in using technologies to maximize their learning out-of-school?” They made the distinction between formal, quasi-formal, and informal learning settings (that Ole Erstad had rejected), providing quotes for each of them, taken from their interview research. They suggest that adults need to better understand young people and technology in order to guide the youth.

Computer-based examinations – Writing exams my marker can read

I found it very paradoxical that after a year of taking electronic notes and handing in neatly typed essays, I had to take handwritten exams. We’ve complained a bit, as students do, with no real hope that this anachronism would disappear anytime soon. Turns out, there is some hope – although it’s a bit down the line. According to the Guardian

Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, said that traditional examinations are likely to disappear within 10 to 15 years, to be replaced by computerised testing.

Really? That would be a huge relief for all of us, for a number of reasons. First, it would spare us the pain of having to write for three hours straight. Every time after 15 minutes may hand would be suffering from cramps, looking like some alien claw.

Second, it would mean that markers and students themselves can actually enjoy reading exam answers without having to decipher what it might say in between those two crossed-out paragraphs and the scribbles on the margin.

Third, and most importantly, it would improve exam answers because computers allow students to write them in a way that reflects the way they think – non-linear, in creative outbursts, at first incoherent, and always wanting to change it around.

A global thing

Interestingly enough, this seems to be some kind of global trend in the “examination industry’, if you want to call it that (it actually is an industry, by the way).

The moves are part of a global shift towards computerised assessments. The US is leading the way with multiple choice and computer marking, while South Korea is rapidly developing new e-assessment models. Denmark is piloting the use of the internet during some essay-based exams, seen as the equivalent of the move to allow calculators in maths exams.

Are there problems with this shift to computer-based examinations? Of course, as always there are. I will not mention again the skill requirements for operating a computer comfortably (not just operating it, but feeling at ease with it) and how they are far from equally distributed.

What I might find more disturbing is that computer-based exams are a temptation to introduce computer-based grading. I am a firm believer in the argument that when people have data available, they will want to analyze it – even if it’s just because they can. And then the question becomes whether we can program computers to grade something as complex as an essay. Most of the markers I’ve ever encountered wouldn’t be able to tell you how they do it…

Cloudy Skies over Online Study Groups

Whenever, in the long history of schooling, students collectively faced the same unpleasant tasks, they responded in the most obvious way: they joined forces and pooled their resources, passing on notes, sharing reading summaries, or discussing potential exam questions.

Students are still joining forces today. But now they are deploying the latest digital services available for online collaboration. Everyone can participate, everyone can upload, everyone gets access to all the notes and summaries ever written. The average mark will inevitably go up. We learn with each other and from each other. A common knowledge repository emerges, open and free for all, available as a living archive long after the last exam has been written.

Or so the story goes. As MSc students at the London School of Economics (LSE), we fell for it. We set up a Wiki (based on Google Sites) and exchanged numerous Google docs. But as the Wiki took on a life of its own and the sharing of Google docs became a complex web of give and take, some frustration kicked in. This left some of us wondering. What are the success factors for online study groups? What social dynamics should we watch out for?

Who’s in?

In the pre-Internet days, the number of people you studied with was limited by the amount of photocopies you were willing to distribute. Times have changed. There is virtually no limitation to the number of Wiki contributors. In fact, for many communities aggregating knowledge (for instance, Wikipedia itself or any open source software project) the quantity and quality of knowledge increases as more people contribute or report mistakes.

Such reasoning also drives online study groups to invite ever more students into their Wikis, or whatever else they set up. It certainly led us to extend the scope of contributors from students within our MSc programme in New Media to dozens of other Media & Communications students at LSE – and eventually even teaching staff. Oh well, there is nothing wrong with pooling all the resources available, right?

Well, there might be. In our case, we quickly lost track of who had access to the notes on our Wiki. Not knowing who the audience was, some people quickly felt discouraged to post their notes and refrained from leaving questions or comments. They didn’t know who was reading and judging them. This problem became more urgent once teaching staff had been added to the group, without giving notice to all student contributors.

So one conclusion from our experience was that online study groups are not necessarily scalable, even if the technology would allow them to be. You still need to know who you’re studying with. In other words, the group boundaries need to be visible and access to group membership must be transparent. Arguably, the value added through each additional contributor also sharply declines – or may even becomes negative, as the amount of information thrown in becomes overwhelming.

Who said that?

The days are gone in which you could recognize the author of some lecture notes by their hand writing. Everything is typed up. Platforms and services for online collaboration allow you to comment on each other’s writings, to edit them, or to reorganize them. Indeed, we observed some useful discussions, when we elaborated on the points made by someone else or cross-referenced related information. Our notes were truly a common good, open for everybody to change around.

But that became a problem as well. Once people make changes to a document, it is no longer clear who the author of that document is. Several contributors would add remarks and quotes, highlighting them with all the colors Google has to offer – but without adding their name. To be fair, our Wiki did allow us to trace the changes made to each site and the number of collaborators on any given Google doc was small. However, this is cumbersome and after several weeks of exam preparation you no longer knew what the source of some argument or quote was.

And so a second conclusion was that contributions to online study groups should carry a name tag, for the sake of accountability and clarity. Interestingly, many of the members of our online study group returned to making their private notes in the days before an exam because they wanted to structure them according to their personal needs, without the risk of having them rearranged by somebody else.

Social ingredients

As these points on group boundaries and authorship already indicate, the success of online study groups depends a lot on the underlying social dynamics. You may compile notes as much as you want, but if the necessary social ingredients are missing, the online study group is likely to be ineffective. Three ingredients should not be missing: leadership, norms of reciprocity, and – most importantly – a good amount of trust underneath it all.

The role of a group leader is an ambiguous one in any online community. After all, these communities are supposed to be based on egalitarian principles and absolutely flat hierarchies. So why should we need leaders? In our case, they helped us to create some momentum in the early days and to spread the word. The group administrator also took on the role of setting up the Wiki structure and explaining the functionalities to “newbies”. In other words, it’s good to have somebody to provide guidance and structure. However, the tricky thing for leaders is to stay in the background and to allow other contributors to develop their own ways of using the resources. A leader who is also by far the most active user of the Wiki and exercises too much control over the submission and structure of content may deter others.

Secondly, some norms of reciprocity should be in place, reflecting another key feature of voluntary online communities. You give what you take, as they say. Again, this is not as straightforward as it may sound. For example, it doesn’t mean that you need to share some of your google docs, the very moment you are given access by somebody else. And it may well happen, that the person you share with never gets the chance to return the favor. In fact, it should be respected when somebody chooses not to contribute with her notes. Perhaps some people stayed away from our Wiki because they were afraid of the obligations of group membership. Perhaps granting somebody access puts them in an awkward situation of having to face the expectations of the group.

Finally, all of this is essentially about trust. Trust in others to contribute, trust in their works, trust in their judgment, trust in leadership, trust in people to follow the norms of the group. And so the question really is: Where does this trust come from? I will leave a detailed discussion of this for later and to all those books that have been written about it. Of course, any such discussion should take into account the complex interplay between online and offline interaction.

And so…

And so we see that there is way more to study groups than just uploading notes or sharing Google docs. The process of setting up and running an online study group taught us some valuable lessons already. It is important to know who the group members are and what they contribute. This seems obvious but is oftentimes overlooked when online study groups are extended beyond any meaningful boundaries. Moreover, the social dynamics that online study groups can give rise to may become a major obstacle to their success, or even frustrate their members.

Whether our Wiki helped us get better grades is yet to be seen  – they haven’t been published yet. It also remains to be seen what happens to our Wiki after we all graduated. Will it continue to be a useful knowledge repository, or will we quickly loose interest? And who owns the content, anyways? Ownership seems to be a trivial question, but none of us is able to control how and where the content is used – although I currently cannot think of a way in which it might be abused. Maybe more crucially, only the site administrator is able to manage access or shut down the Wiki entirely.

There’s no doubt that online means of studying together will continue to be popular among students when they face exams or essays. But they should be aware of some of the pitfalls mentioned above. And, as a teacher would say, no essay or exam will ever write itself, and no online study group will replace studying all together.