A network perspective on the use of cooperative base groups as a technique to improve collaboration in distance higher education

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Abstract

Internationally it has become vital to integrate the development of a group of core skills, also known as 21st-century skills, into higher education curricula to prepare students for entering a rapidly changing working world. In this paper I report on the way I have integrated the development of one of these skill sets, namely teamworking skills, into the curriculum of Instructional Technology and Multimedia in Adult Education (INTMAEU).

INTMAEU is a postgraduate module offered by the University of South Africa (Unisa). This module forms part of the Diploma in Higher Education and aims at preparing lecturers to use technology and multimedia effectively in higher education classrooms. Traditionally, opportunities for the development of teamworking skills were limited, since the students do not attend classes. Currently, technologies can be used to create opportunities to develop teamworking skills.

The 2015 INTMAEU class (N = 77) was randomly divided into 11 cooperative base groups with seven members each. For each of these groups, a discussion point was created in Arend, an online learning environment for teachers. The agenda for participation was based on the three primary tasks of a cooperative base group, namely academic support tasks, routine tasks and personal support tasks. The efficiency of collaboration in each of these base groups was investigated within a simultaneously nested mixed methods framework. For the purpose of this research the quantitative method (Social Network Analysis or SNA) was nested in the qualitative method (netnography).

The netnographic investigation showed that two to seven members of ten of the eleven base groups took up the tasks of a cooperative base group. The eleventh group never participated. Various members of all base groups took up the tasks in other base groups as well, indicating that they were able to transfer the newly acquired skills to other social settings. The nested social network analysis confirmed the findings of the netnographic research and showed that various students had weaved themselves into whole development networks. During the analysis of the whole development network of each base group it was found that eight of the base groups collaborated, since none of the members became isolated after their ties with the facilitator had been discontinued.

The most important finding is that the use of cooperative base groups presents a useful technique to improve collaboration in distance education. As Johnson, Johnson and Holubec (2008), Schul (2011) and Gillies (2007) also found, the students trusted one another, respected the perspectives of fellow students, and learned to voice their own perspectives. The research also supports the finding of Johnson et al. (2008) that students became devoted to the success of one another the longer they worked together. The students used the newly acquired skills when they participated in the discussions of other base groups. As I have reported in a previous paper (Van Staden 2018), a group of almost half of the class formed a WhatsApp group when I left Unisa and took up the tasks of a cooperative base group. Therefore; it can be concluded that the students were able to transfer their newly acquired skills to other settings.

Secondly, Lubbe’s (2015) finding that cooperative base groups provide students with opportunities to identify fellow students as resources was supported. The decision to allow the students to participate in the discussions of other base groups allowed them to expand their personal development networks across the boundaries of their own base groups to learn with, from and on behalf of the members of their own base groups, as Jackson and Temperley (2006) also found. One of the students, K1, reflected as follows on the value of networked learning (all student comments given verbatim, various errors left uncorrected):

Learning occurs in many different ways. Some of which result in strangers becoming friends and it is really amazing when this occurs in an open distant learning environment. I have learnt and been guided by my peers, who I do not know or have not met.

I have learnt to respond to subject matters with leaving a little in the air, just to stimulate a thought from peers. This allowed for promotion of contributions. I had picked this up from another peer amongst the group as she always left something in her response that would awaken a desire to respond to. These tactical responses merely sprang most people to respond and even if they were not too interested at the beginning. I will take it further both in my teaching and also self learning to bring cooperate learning in as part of good education.

Thirdly, as Moreno (1934), Philip (2010) and Van Staden (2012; 2016c) also found, an analysis of the sociograms of social networks, referred to as whole development networks in this paper, provided a useful technique to investigate the effectiveness of collaboration in each base group. It was found that eight of the base groups collaborated since none of the members became isolated when the ties with the facilitator were discontinued. However, it also showed that some of the members of the base groups did not collaborate effectively due to the presence of various one-directional ties. One-directional ties impact negatively on access to information since resources can only low in one direction. Various leaders were identified. Although cliques formed, it was not due to a we-against-you attitude, but rather as a result of the development of positive interdependence. This research supports the diagnostic and evaluation value of sociograms (Philip 2010; Van Staden 2012; 2016c). Based on these values, a remediating, facilitating and monitoring value was also implied. It is recommended that social network analysis be used in follow-up studies to investigate the effectiveness of collaboration in base groups.

Fourthly, it was found that the academic results of those who collaborated were on average better than those who isolated themselves. As Johnson et al. (2008) also found, higher rates of participation in the base groups helped the students to identify problems and solve them collaboratively. The academic success of the collaborators can be ascribed to improved motivation and the development of social and metacognitive skills (Johnson et al. 2008; Cavanagh 2011; Johnson and Johnson 2013; Lubbe 2015). The encouragement of fellow students motivated the students to attempt challenging learning tasks, improved interest in the learning process and created an expectation of success (Johnson et al. 2008; Van Staden 2018). It is recommended that the technique be used for the duration of a course to study the impact on academic success in more detail.

Lastly, it must be mentioned that some of the students did not participate in the discussions, even though the establishment of cooperative base groups was a formal learning task. According to student G4, who achieved high marks for the first assignment and later dropped out, learning in groups was a waste of time since the students asked unnecessary questions and the questions were repeated. Based on the academic success of her fellow students, whose marks for the first assignment were lower, it can be deduced that these questions contributed to the success of her fellow students. It is recommended that isolated students be identified in time so that activities can be created to improve their academic success.

Regarding contribution to the research field, two important contributions are made. Firstly, previous research focused on the development of the five elements of cooperative learning to investigate the effectiveness of the cooperative base group technique. In this research the focus was placed on the whole development networks that formed during the uptake of the tasks of a cooperative base group to investigate the efficiency of the technique. Secondly, previous research insisted on small groups. In this research the students could participate in the discussions of other base groups. As a result, up to 22 students collaborated in two of the most active base groups. Therefore, as I found in a previous paper as well (Van Staden 2018), the idea that there is an ideal size for a cooperative base group should be questioned. It is recommended that the emphasis should not be placed on the size of the group, but on the effectiveness of the technique.

Regarding limitations, it should be mentioned that research could be conducted only during the first six months of the year while I was the lecturer. My successor cancelled this assignment, therefore the sociograms could not be provided to the students to support group reflection. It is recommended that the sociograms be distributed at least once in the year to allow for group reflection.

Two recommendations for further research are made. Firstly, it is recommended that the whole development network of the class be studied as well. Secondly, it is recommended that the research be repeated in other settings to investigate the impact on academic success in more depth.

Although the use of cooperative base groups has not yet been identified as a high-impact practice, this research shows that it can indeed be regarded as such. The students were actively and meaningfully involved in the learning process, deeper forms of learning were promoted and the collaboration in groups had a positive impact on the academic success of distance education students.

Keywords: base groups; cooperative base groups; distance education; netnography; networked learning; personal development networks; social network analysis; whole development networks

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans

’n Netwerkperspektief op die gebruik koöperatiewe basisgroepe as tegniek om samewerking in afstandhoëronderwys te bevorder

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