Affinity Groups in Self-paced Online Learning

Affinity group:
“as a sympathy marked by community of interest”.
(Webster dictionary)

Terry Anderson has an entry in his blog “Virtual Canuk”, on February 25, 2006, entitled Affinity Groups in Self-paced Online Learning, where he says that affinity groups popularized in informal learning may be an inspiration for developing, supporting and consequently measuring the impact of social support in educational context. He believes that “online affinity group provides a useful model that we can use and support to increase participation in and successful completion of self-paced, formal online courses.” The article aims to expose the way how self-paced learning can be too a mechanism to explore and develop that “sympathy” with others.

After examining the literature on collaborative and cooperative learning, he sees that affinity groups are both pedagogically useful and generally appreciated by learners. However, he says that members of affinity groups share interest and expectation to be working cooperatively on a common task, which doesn’t mean they seek for socialization. Affinity groups should be allowed to flow across tasks, activities and structures of the complete learning experience. So, he warns that learning designers need to create meaningful activities that respect learners’ limited resource of time.

Finally, Anderson argues that some organizational interventions must be taken (he suggests several in the article), because affinity groups may not “suddenly and spontaneously emerge from education models and systems based upon independent study assumptions.”

Considering that formal learning in any environment is complicated, the author concludes that only through systematic investigation of the variables discussed in the article, using a variety of methodologies, “will we begin to find proven ways to create, sustain and benefit from affinity groups in self-paced, networked learning”.


(retrieved October 20, 2009)


Educational benefits of social networkings

University of Minnesota researcher Christine Greenhow breaks down how her research has found that social networking sites like Facebook and Myspace can have an impact for learning and educational goals. [See the video here]

According to this researcher, students could resolve some personal problems (writting, express themselves, etc) by sharing their works or talking about their ideas on Facebook or Myspace (social networking sites). Their communication skills were improved too, because they received feedback from people ("friends they trust") with same carings and interests as them.

So, social networking might be a way to students (online education) connect each other and expand their learning skills. Since they have already the experience of being connected on Internet, they would know easily how to use technology on that path (learning situations).

Social networking

The concept of social networking is discussed in the article "Transparency in Cooperative Online Education" written by Christian Dalsgaard (Aarhus University, Denmark) and Morten Flate Paulsen (The Norwegian School of Information Technology, Norway). [Read here]

To understand better this concept, I found in Wikipedia the following explanation:

“The shape of a social network helps determine a network's usefulness to its individuals. Smaller, tighter networks can be less useful to their members than networks with lots of loose connections (weak ties) to individuals outside the main network. More open networks, with many weak ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and opportunities to their members than closed networks with many redundant ties. In other words, a group of friends who only do things with each other already share the same knowledge and opportunities. A group of individuals with connections to other social worlds is likely to have access to a wider range of information. It is better for individual success to have connections to a variety of networks rather than many connections within a single network. Similarly, individuals can exercise influence or act as brokers within their social networks by bridging two networks that are not directly linked (called filling structural holes).”
(LINK http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_network)

However, Prof. Morten concludes on the article mentioned above that, from the perspective of the theory of cooperative freedom, “social networking should be considered as a supplement to other tools. The potential of social networking lies within transparency and the ability to create awareness among students.” Maybe we should agree, in relation to learning, that people do not necessarily collaborate or communicate directly in networks. And we should have in mind that in learning communities, students’ interdependence success works well if individual participation is combined with collaborative or cooperative learning.

Then a question is asked: does networks support learning? As to answer it, some authors and their work that use concepts connected to “social networks” are cited too. Thus, we learn that this expression is still a challenge to online education investigators…


Flexibility of Online Learning

I found an interesting testemony about flexibility of online learning.

Diane was able to complete her Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership because of the flexibility provided by online learning. She says that continuing education is possible due to flexibility: "if you don't go to class one day, you can go another day".

Well, is this individual flexibility too? In this case, flexibility was the main factor so Diane could return to the University to study. But I think the "individual flexibility" proposed by Prof. Morten Paulsen is more than that...

You can see the video here.

Cooperative learning: new concept

Cooperative learning is a new education concept for me.

It will be discussed on PPEL and Prof. Morten Flate Paulsen [see his page here] has written some interesting articles about it. For example, in his "Cooperative Online Education" article we read that "Cooperative learning focuses on opportunities to encourage both individual flexibility and affinity to a learning community." (page 2) I understand that the online education process should consider individual freedom and cooperation so students may achieve their learning sucess. On the other hand, being a new perspective, tutors and students still need to learn how online communities may be combined with individual freedom. Though cooperative learning is a goal to be achieved by all, I believe that the role of tutors is different from the students.

But I need to see what this means...


Dimensions of flexibility

Dimensions of flexibility - Students, communication technology and distributed education

By Ståle Angen Rye (Lecturer at the University of Agder, Norway.)

"Flexibility is a frequent topic in any discussion of higher education in general and ”alternative” forms of education, such as distributed education, in particular. The term is usually associated with change, but there has been little attempt to analyse the concept in further detail. This is surprising, since flexibility is often seen as the distinguishing attribute of this type of education. It is therefore the aim of this article to clarify the concept of flexibility by relating it to students in distributed education and their study situation. In doing so, I hope to create a platform for further research and development in the field of distributed education."


This article tries to question some contributions about the student’s role (Nylehn’s, 1996), the role of technology in distance learning (Edward’s, 1997; 2002), the relationship between distributed education and social change, because "they fail to address the concept of flexibility as such". And stands up for others, like Sayer's (2000) flexibility from a scientific-theoretical point of view, or Nylehn's (1997) concept on the basis of what it means for organisations, because "each of these approaches affords in its own way a good starting point for a better understanding of flexibility".
According to Ståle Angen Rye, one still need to clarify the concept in relation to what flexibility means for students in distributed education. And to achieve it, he analyses those contributions in the light of existing research in the field of distributed education.

"The objective is to identify different aspects of student flexibility and to highlight factors that are influential in creating this flexibility. In this way I hope to make a contribution towards clarifying what we seek to achieve when flexibility is an objective, together with the factors that serve to increase/reduce flexibility, and to say something about the consequences of flexibility."
(Ståle Angen Rye)

Some conclusions:

  • Students’ possibilities, requirements and expectations in relation to the organisation of their everyday life, and thereby their flexibility, are determined by the students’ ties both to the educational institution and to principal actors in everyday life.
  • When the educational institution sets few rules and constraints, students following distributed education will always be dependent on their everyday environment.
  • The use of technology, from the foregoing perspective, must not be considered exclusively as a dimension in the relations between the student and the educational institution.
  • It may be useful to adapt the teaching programme, including the use of technology, to students’ everyday life and context in practice.
  • Not all forms of technology are advantageous to students.

LINK: http://www.seminar.net/current-issue/dimensions-of-flexibility-students-communication-technology-and-distributed-education (18 pages)
(retrieved October 19, 2009)


Online Education / Learning Freedom

Better Education blog posted an opinion article entitled "Online Education Offers Unparalleled Learning Freedom" that remind colleges and universities are offering now many online courses for students with busy schedules and lifestyles, and there are few limits to the level of education students can receive. "The truth is that online classes offer superior flexibility to those hoping to further their education. Whether you are hoping to earn a degree or simply wish to broaden your horizons by taking a few online classes, you just might find that the possibilities are limitless once you begin taking these courses from home."

At the same time, the article clarifys that distance learning may be the best option for many working professionals if it offers flexibility (freedom).

Thus, to combine distance or online learning with other important moments of their life, students need to see that the limits in the use of time and effort invested into their studies are in their hands too.

LINK: http://www.bettereducation.info/?Codx=10616
(retrieved October 18, 2009)

Cooperative Learning

Excerpt from Biehler/Snowman, PSYCHOLOGY APPLIED TO TEACHING, 8/e, 1997, Houghton Mifflin Co. (Chapters 4 & 11).

Main topics:

- Elements of Cooperative Learning
- Does Cooperative Learning Really Work?
- Why Does Cooperative Learning Work?
- Cooperative Learning in Multicultural Education Programs
- Suggestions for Teaching in Your Classroom: Using Cooperative-Learning Methods

"Over the past twenty years different approaches to cooperative learning have been proposed by different individuals. The three most popular are those of David Johnson and Roger Johnson (Johnson et al., 1994), Robert Slavin (1994, 1995), and Shlomo Sharan and Yael Sharan (Sharan, 1995; Sharan & Sharan, 1994). To give you a general sense of what cooperative learning is like and to avoid limiting you to any one individual's approach, the following discussion is a synthesis of the main features of each approach."

The learning strategies discussed in the excerpt go from individual interaction to group goals (in face-to-face learning process). Thus, we may conclude that cooperative learning, as a positive interdependence, motivate students to help each other to overcome problems or complete whatever task has been assigned.

This synthesis conclude that cooperative learning is sufficiently flexible and it can be used at all level of education. This perception is based on books and some articles that propose and discuss cooperative methods for specific grade levels (in face-to-face learning process).

According to the publications mentioned earlier, it seems that these methods (though used in face-to-face learning situations) showed to be effective in "increasing motivation for learning and self-esteem, redirecting attributions for success and failure, fostering positive feelings toward classmates, and increasing performance on tests of comprehension, reasoning, and problem solving". I believe that all these issues should be present on online education, because one student might be sucessfull if he feels he can easily cooperate with his colleagues also (positive interdependence).

LINK: http://college.cengage.com/education/pbl/tc/coop.html#1
(retrieved October 19, 2009)


Theory of Cooperative Freedom

Professor Morten Flate Paulsen introduces his Theory of Cooperative Freedom in online education.

Morten Flate Paulsen is on the Executive Committee and Vice President of the European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN) and on the European Association for Distance Learning (EADL) R&D committee.

He's regional editor for IRRODL (The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning) and EURODL (The European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning). He's also on the Editorial Board of seminar.net.

He has worked with online education since he designed NKI's first Learning Management System in 1986 and published many books, reports and articles about the topic. Many of his publications and presentations are available at his personal homepage at http://home.nki.no/morten.

His book Online Education and Learning Management Systems is available via http://www.studymentor.com/.

Cooperative Learning

In the Instructional Stategies Online page we find an introduction to Cooperative Learning as a key strategy to support students learning to value and respect one another, and educators understanding the practical knowledge needed to assure the success of group work (cooperative learning).
There are several different perceptions of the meaning of "cooperative":
- an instructional strategy that simultaneously addresses academic and social skill learning by students
- is one way of providing students with a well defined framework from which to learn from each other
- it's a team approach where the success of the group depends upon everyone pulling his or her weight
- can take place in a variety of circumstances:. brainstorming and tutorial groups, etc.
I think that if online learning process embrace academic knowledgments and personal characteristics of students, the cooperative strategy has a prominent place in the process. Having some time to explore the site, we can see that "students who have opportunities to work collaboratively, learn faster and more efficiently, have greater retention, and feel more positive about the learning experience."
As to guide us about this interactive method, the site page focuses in the following main topics:
- What is Cooperative Learning?
- What is its purpose?
- How can I do it?
- Assessment and Evaluation Considerations
The essential elements of Cooperative Learning are:
- Positive Interdependence
- Face-To-Face Interaction
- Individual Accountability
- Social Skills
- Group Processing
(retrieved October, 18, 2009)