Boosting collaboration in remote learning

Girl standing next to window looking at laptop

Remote learning has seen a sharp uptick in 2020, with greater appreciation for the platforms and tools that enable it. But for those educational institutions whose bread and butter has always been online learning, the recent surge in demand has reinforced the value of the service they offer and is a good opportunity to ensure that they have the optimal resources in place.

For the School of Computing in the College of Science, Engineering & Technology at Africa’s leading open distance learning institution, UNISA, having the optimal resources in place to facilitate remote learning has meant taking a complementary approach: using UNISA’s existing learning management system, MyUnisa, and Microsoft Teams – which it has been using for the past few years.

Teams is an integrated working and teaching collaboration platform that provides a virtual classroom which facilitates online face-to-face connections, assignments, files and conversations into a single place accessible on mobile, tablet, PC or web browser.

The School of Computing offers various programmes ranging from undergraduate to doctoral level – but specifically utilises Teams to facilitate a year-long postgraduate capstone module where students need to develop their final project. “The module is highly interactive and less teaching oriented, so Teams is a good fit,” says Dr Jan Mentz, senior lecturer in the School of Computing at UNISA.

“We are moving into an era where access to learning should be immediate – and our aim is to take a modernised approach and create a collaborative learning environment using platforms that are easy to access and use. Teams offers more immediate and easy access to resources than some other learning management systems, which use a multi-click system to sign-in and provide an arduous route to accessing learning materials,” says Mentz.

Fostering the natural blossoming of collaboration and peer support

Using the platform also supports the School of Computing’s scaffolding approach to learning: introducing students to the materials and resources, showing them what needs to be done and then stepping back and offering support as and when it is needed. This has proven to be successful in the capstone module, with students contributing, sharing and answering each other’s questions as they get more familiar with the work.

In this way, the platform has managed to overcome a real risk and challenge of distance learning. It’s easy for students to feel alone and isolated, but using Teams has fostered interaction, engagement and a sense of community. “It’s fantastic to see the natural blossoming of conversations, sharing and peer support on the platform – by answering each other’s queries, it becomes self-regulating and students are able to help and guide each other’s learning,” says Ronell van der Merwe, senior lecturer in the School of Computing at UNISA.

It’s not only peer support between students that the platform has nurtured; it has also brought students and lecturers closer together by establishing the social presence of lecturers and making them more available to students. Feedback from students has included that lecturers are more available and questions are answered more rapidly, typically within a matter of hours. Dr Mentz, for instance, spends approximately two hours on the platform each day, communicating with and responding to students.

“Lecturers need to understand that it is a collaborative platform, and should be proactive in their communications and interaction with students to better understand their frustrations and where they need help,” says Mentz. “This is why it’s important to know what you as lecturers and the broader department are hoping to achieve through the platform, so you can develop a plan, and adapt and design how you use the platform to create stability for students through a collaborative platform that enables learning.”

Part of this includes using Teams to evaluate students by using videos and the shared screen feature, as well as looking into how the School of Computing can use tools like live streaming and webinars to facilitate learning for students.

Distance or remote learning undoubtedly comes with its own unique set of challenges and opportunities – so it is critical to create a vibrant community centred around learning and sharing. This requires the right tools and platforms, which need to be complementary and collaborative – as well as easy to access and use – to help students learn effectively.

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