Faculty developers were challenged to design learning activities for online student collaborative work. The design focused on creating a social network to enhance instructor and student presence in a wiki-mediated learning environment. Students showed improved learning outcomes compared to similar traditional activities.
The SUNY Empire State College Center for Distance Learning offers online undergraduate courses for adult learners. Because the courses are completely online, creating an environment for collaborative work is challenging. There exists a stronger need for open approaches to interactive learning. Three faculty developers from different disciplines faced this challenge in revising and designing learning activities for student collaborative work. The developers all wished to engage students in a real-world problem. Each course required small group interactions and close communication amongst students and instructors.
The design approach for each of these initiatives focused on promoting a social network to enhance instructor and student presence in the online space so as to support effective collaborative work. A wiki-mediated learning environment model was designed that suited each learning activity with minimal modification. The social constructivist learning model was used with the hope that the enhanced social network would promote a community of inquiry. In the wiki-mediated environment the students drive the content. As they co-create artifacts they are sharing knowledge and collaboratively writing. The wiki-environment accommodates student creation of multimedia content. The students are encouraged to recognize the diversity of gender, age, expertise, and learning approaches among their peers and their wider audience of the World Wide Web. The instructor serves as co-collaborator, facilitator, and content expert. The features of increased student and instructor "presence", student freedom to choose a real-world topic based on their own logic, and the directive to create content that holds value for their peers will promote the habits of mind for improved cognition and improve the learning outcomes of the students.
By using the wiki-mediated environment, students created a community of learners which collectively designed and synthesized content as a shared experience. Because students had choice (of content) and freedom (of expression) within the process, student buy-in was high and enhanced creativity and involvement were noted. The reliance on peers to "think interdependently" may have also contributed to the motivation of group members. Students were encouraged to apply past knowledge and lived experiences to the current situation, which elicited a deeper understanding of content. The ability for social networking within the wiki-environment was supported by the discussion format of the site. Themes that emerged from the discussion threads included: reflective thinking about individual contributions; persistence in working together toward a final outcome; and negotiating on subject matter content. Additionally, the discussion board provided a format for formative and summative peer review and feedback. This environment also allowed students to pose additional questions or problem statements to one another and fostered the opportunity to seek and understand their peers' perspectives. The wiki-mediated learning activity allowed students to demonstrate collaboration and flexibility in presenting a unified project with clear meaning. Outcomes showed improved quality of work from similar activities conducted in more traditional learning environments.
Instructors were able to witness student growth and development of habits of mind due to the transparency of the wiki environment.
Teresa Smith joined the nursing faculty of SUNY Empire State College's Center for Distance Learning in March 2009 as an Assistant Professor in the RN-BS in nursing program. She graduated from the Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing (1980) in Troy, New York, and then received a Bachelor of Science Degree with a major in Nursing from SUNY Institute of Technology, Utica/Rome, in 1982. Her Master's Degree, as a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Community Health, is from Sage Graduate School (1996). Much of Ms. Smith's career focus has been in the design and implementation of programs which support role transitions of students and graduate nurses. Often drawing on the work of Pat Benner's Novice to Expert, Smith has worked to help nurses pursue and progress in academic and professional goals. In the RN-BS program, Ms. Smith teaches several of the core nursing courses and also developed and instructs in the capstone leadership experience.