Online Learning as a Team E-Sport

Concurrent Session 2

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Brief Abstract

This hybrid online course methodology mimics competitive athletic training leading to “game-day” performances. The format duplicates the coach/athlete relationship: the instructor assumes the role of coach; the students consider themselves team members interacting with their peers to develop their collective abilities; the face-to-face class sessions become "game days."

Presenters

Bradley Bowers is Professor of English at Barry University, Miami Shores, Florida. His research interests include American Romanticism and Modernism, British Modernism, and Italian Futurism. In addition, he teaches in the University Honors Program and special topics courses on Ernest Hemingway, the short story, and American Dreams. He has been Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, the American Academy in Rome, and American University of Rome. He received his Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Extended Abstract

Overview of the Problem
Almost every university requires a course that provides a college-level introduction to the study of literature. I developed an online version of the existing freshman level English 210 "Introduction to Literature" course in a University-sponsored attempt to meet the diverse learning styles of our multicultural student body, which sometimes places them into the category of students at "high-risk" of dropping out.
Population
The most unique aspect of this experiment was that the course methodology was tailored to a particular sub-group of this type of student: the student-athlete. Athletes were recruited into the class because the format of the online course duplicates in part the coach/athlete relationship in the context of the coursework, i.e., the instructor works one-on-one with the student to develop the student's skills; the student interacts with a small group to develop the team's abilities collectively; and the results of each student's work is presented periodically with the support of class/teammates and their success or failure is evaluated in a public forum. As a result, the instructor assumes the role of coach, the students consider themselves team members, and the face-to-face class sessions come to be viewed as "game days." 
This presentation outlines the planning, implementation, and results of that course, the innovative techniques which were used, and the "five best practices" of this project. 
Major aspects: 
Tools: One of the most successful tools in this online course turned out to be made of paper and plastic: the course notebook. During the first week of class, each student was given a notebook, section dividers, paper, and copies of all assignments and handouts. As a team building exercise, each group assembled the notebooks in class, collaborating on how to label each of five sections and how to identify the group by choosing a name. Each group became a unique entity, and the notebooks were their personalized guides to the course. Students indicated that having a tangible guide with them while online made the assignments and deadlines easier to understand and the course easier to follow. 
During the other weeks, each group was responsible for online discussion board postings and for posting drafts and finished assignments, as well as responding to the other students' posted drafts and comments. A group leader was responsible for monitoring the discussions, and the professor participated in the discussions as well, to provoke and encourage a more lively debate. About half of the students communicated via email with the professor on a regular basis (several times a week) and this half also reported that they were communicating with other students in their group by email in addition to the discussion board postings. 
The face-to-face class sessions were primarily used for peer-editing and evaluation of drafts and for oral presentations of final papers. 
Methods: 
Initially, students were assigned permanently to a group of five students, with whom they collaborated on both their analytical and their writing projects. The small-group discussion was conducted both in class and on the Blackboard Discussion Boards only among the group members and the professor, effectively reducing the class size to five students. The Discussion Boards each focused on a specific question regarding the text and each discussion question had a deadline by which the students had to respond. 
Asvnchronous activities: 
Students visited the Blackboard Course Page often to get the up-to-date assignment as well as my adjustments or corrections. I also reminded them often (every two or three days at the least) of upcoming assignments and deadlines and class sessions. Students visited and contributed to the class discussion board generally at least one time in response to each topic and often as many as ten or twelve times. Students posted drafts of their essays on the Group Pages, and each student in the group wrote a critique of the draft. 
Interaction with the professor: 
The professor monitored all group discussions, entering the discussion when asked or when deemed appropriate. The professor initiated each between-class Discussion Board thread with a question and interacted in the ensuing discussion. The professor critiqued each draft of each essay that was posted by email with the student (after each student in the group had submitted a critique). 
Addressing diverse teaching/learning styles: The students currently at Barry University have extremely diverse learning styles, as well as diverse types of preparation for a college-level writing course. In general, in any given group of English 210 students, a professor encounters a wide range of skills development. Some students may be struggling with the grammatical construction of sentences, while others are ready to practice using alternative styles of discourse or more sophisticated rhetorical techniques. By allowing each student to progress and learn at his or her own pace, the needs of the individual student can be met. With the individual attention facilitated by online instruction, one student will not slow the progress of the entire class, while other students working at a more advanced skills level will not be hindered. As well, in online collaboration, students will be able to interact with those students working at their own level, rather than being forced into "peer evaluations" among students of highly disparate levels, which often leads to attrition of both developmental and advanced students dissatisfied with their progress. 
Retaining high-risk students. The students at most risk are those who are intimidated by other, more well-prepared students. These students, forced to work in peer evaluation groups, must expose their faults to other students and, rather than learning from the more advanced students (which is the idealistic theory behind peer evaluation), they often have their insecurities about their abilities reinforced. Writing is a very personal activity, and often it is difficult to separate an evaluation of one's writing from an evaluation of one's worth. Therefore, the team concept of online collaboration and interaction, as well as the more personalized attention of the coach/professor, should help to retain these students. Also, the more well-prepared students often feel hindered by the developmental students, and this method will allow collaboration with the professor on a one-to-one basis. 
Five best practices: 
1) the successful students' recognition of their own self-discipline: based on their comments during and after the course, including on the course evaluations, the students who were successful recognized their own ability to organize and complete the requirements of the course much more independently than in a regular course, and they indicated that they felt mature enough to handle this responsibility; 
2) the close interaction of the professor with the individual student on the discussion boards and by email: The students who were successful communicated frequently throughout the course, using primarily email but also the discussion boards to ask questions or receive feedback on drafts and papers. The students came to understand that they were supposed to communicate, that it did not constitute an interruption or additional burden for the professor, and that they would receive a prompt (often immediate) response, even during evenings and weekends; 
3) the use of a well-organized notebook to guide the student while working online: This was an idea that grew from my own need to organize the course extremely well in advance. A copy of all assignments and handouts for the semester was given to each student, which allowed them to see where the course was going and to locate the exact assignments and handouts for each date and deadline, also providing something tangible beyond the textbook to assist them while they worked by themselves online; 
4) the role of highly supportive constructive criticism: The students were told that they must comment critically on each other's drafts, which were posted on the discussion boards. They were also told that they should keep the comments positive, as in ''what was good or effective about this draft" and then "what could be added or changed to make it even better." The students responded in this manner and the positive feedback seemed to help the students as writers and to bond the group. 
5) the enhancement of face-to-face class time: Because they met only ten times during the semester, the students realized that each face-to-face class period was more important, so they focused on the tasks at hand in a spirit of cooperation. The limited amount of class time together greatly enhanced the use of that time, forcing the groups to collaborate toward accomplishing the goals of that day.