How to design an online course is such a way that it leads to the meaningful learning process for students? And how to make this process collaborative? — By collaboration, I mean here a truly engaging work throughout the course, not just a group work assigned to students.
I think that it all should start from making a distinction between two pairs of words, often misinterpreted: cooperation vs. collaboration and group vs. community. The first pair, cooperation and collaboration, are often used interchangeably in academic context, both in teaching and in research. I would say that collaboration is more meaningful, and thus, it requires more effort from all collaborating parties. In pedagogical practice, this can be a collaboration between teachers (challenging, but rewording) and collaboration between teacher(s) and students as well as among students. In the last case, a semantic distinction between group and community also comes to the forefront: in a group work, students need to, at least, cooperate, but in order to create a (learning) community —they need to collaborate.
How can the teacher help students to create a learning community and enhance learning collaboration? First of all, the course has to be designed around the idea of peer-learning, not simply as a (number of) group works with the divisions of tasks. The most efficiently, we learn from each other, because our human nature is social. However, in order for students to learn together, they need motivation and encouragement. Both of these can and should be generated and strengthened by a good facilitator of learning, namely, the teacher.
Finally, the aspect that requires the most re-thinking is assessment. In a community collaborative learning, there is a need to look at both the result and the process of learning. For the purpose to assess a result — a rubric can be created; but assessing a learning process is more challenging. An ideal option will be to collect peer-feedback and students’ individual summative assessment of their learning. However, if students are not used to such forms, but are more familiar with exams or course essays, their reflection on the learning process may not be that meaningful. And yes, now I am coming to the key point: reflection as a learning tool. I am still discovering it, both as a teacher and as a student, a long-life learner. I have experienced it in its various forms, including student’s learning diary, teacher’s reflective diary, a blog post, and a reflection on my teaching practices through analysis of my video-recorded classes. Thus, I also know how difficult it is to reflect on one’s own learning. However, the more conscious we are about our own learning, the more effective a community learning process can be — and so the collaboration will be more productive, when learners are more conscious about their learning goals.