Dan Davis talks collaborative online learning with the KIE

Last week, the KIE held a workshop on positive collaboration in online learning environments, led by Daniel Davis, a Georgetown Communication, Culture, and Technology alum and PhD candidate in Learner Modeling & Learning Analytics at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. The session focused on promoting effective collaboration and discourse among students in online learning environments.

A key problem in online learning is how to promote civil discourse, without the benefit of face-to-face interaction.

“Online discourse can be madness – and often is,” Davis said. “If it’s not madness, at the very least it is unproductive.”

In order to better understand this “madness,” Davis shared some research findings about online discourse on Twitter. A recent study analyzed 500,000 tweets, rating each tweet on its political leaning, and found that ideas, especially those that used moral-emotional language, spread within like-minded groups but not beyond them. This concept, called “moral contagion,” is a key contributor to divisive online discourse.

Davis then narrowed his focus to online classrooms, specifically MOOCs (massive open online courses), where the majority of his research is currently focused.

The goal of many online learning environments is to promote deliberative discourse, featuring integrated discussion threads with convergent, rather than divergent, language. Davis outlined three key means of promoting such this kind of conversational learning environment:

  1. Increasing discourse in face-to-face (f2f) learning
  2. Increasing group diversity
  3. Mitigating identity threat

While f2f learning can be difficult in online learning environments, it was found to have the highest levels of achievement and engagement among study participants. According to Davis, the benefits of f2f learning and interaction may also be achieved through f2f discussions among participants, such as small group discussions using Google Hangouts, Skype, or Zoom platforms.

A key to success is ensuring that each group is relatively small (six participants or fewer) and includes a diverse set of participants. According to one study, “the more geographically diverse the discussion group, the better students performed later on quizzes,” said Davis.

The importance of faces in digital learning was also corroborated by research on course materials where the teacher’s face is included on screen. While studies found that there is no significant difference in actual learning, students displayed a strong preference for with-face video as opposed to without.

Davis ended the presentation with a discussion of identity threat. In online courses, particularly MOOCs with a diverse array of participants, a clear achievement gap is present, with participants from developed countries achieving higher course completion rates than those from less developed countries. Davis found that when implementing a short intervention before online courses formally begin, such as a five to eight minute survey on value affirmation and social belonging, this achievement gap is greatly reduced and in some cases reversed.  

The conversation closed with introspection on what is next for MOOCs and how one can use online learning platforms to measure learners’ motivation for class participation.

For more information on Davis’ work, please visit his website.