In reflecting on the presentation I gave earlier this week, I realize that I didn’t make it clear that just making it social will make activities lead to better processing. Of course, my goal was evangelizing, but I reckon I should followup with some clarity. There are some design principles involved.
First, the assignment itself needs to be designed to involve valuable processing activities. If it’s merely reviewing other’s comments (after you’ve had them either “restate the concepts in your own words” or “indicate how this explains something in your past or will influence your future behavior”), asking for a “contentful contribution” (where you’ve made clear that a contentful contribution addresses the substance of their post in an elaborative or constructively critical way) is fairly straightforward. If, however, you’re looking for discussion, you will need to strive for a topic that is likely to have different points of view, either from a base of values or from different conceptions. Areas where misconceptions are rife are useful as they can be used for constructive feedback.
If you’re asking them to collaborate to apply the knowledge to a problem (which I encourage), then you’ll want to find an application exercises the core knowledge in ways that is as closely related as possible to how they’ll need to apply it in the world. Choose appropriately challenging applications that will bring out differences of opinion that will need active interaction to resolve. Having teams submit intermediate representations gives the instructor a chance to provide guidance, ala Laurillard.
However, there’s more than just the assignment. For one, do not assume learners know how to interact well on a collaborative project. When I first assigned such to online learning teams, they questioned how to work together. I’m glad they did, as I was able to develop a set of guidelines for them that subsequently smoothed the process. Things like each coming up with their draft response, and then sharing before negotiating a shared approach are not necessarily obvious to learners.
Finally, you need to have an environment where learners understand the expectations about taking responsibility for learning and contributing sincerely on projects, as well as tolerating differences of opinion and tolerating diversity. Don’t assume it, engineer it by stating at the outset what’s appropriate, and always welcome inquiries on process.
Social learning does provide richer processing (next to an individual Socratic tutor, but that’s not very scalable), but it takes careful design as well. Design your learning experiences well, and generate powerful outcomes!