Help Students Build Bridges: Promote Active Learning and Collaboration Online Through Innovative Course Design

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

Online programs face special challenges promoting active learning and collaboration. New thinking is required. Empirical data collected over several semesters provide insight into student behavior when given the option to work individually or in a group. Engage with others to brainstorm ideas for promoting active learning and collaboration online.


Karen G. Conner is Director of Academic Innovation for the Raymond A. Mason School of Business and Adjunct Professor in the School of Education at William & Mary. She has 15 years' experience in higher education. She received her PhD In Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership specializing in Higher Education from William & Mary. She holds an MBA with a concentration in Information Security and a BBA in Computer Information Systems from James Madison University. Her research interests include online student connectedness, digital learning, building community, SoTL (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), and student persistence and satisfaction in online programs.

Extended Abstract

This presentation includes both a prescriptive approach to course design and an extensive analysis of data collected to assess how the design was implemented and received.

Importance of Topic

Adult learners in business programs must acquire mastery of subject material while grasping how the knowledge is applied. The important challenge to address is how to create a course design that employs active learning and collaboration. Active learning strategies engage the learner with the material through carefully designed submissions. The case method is one common example that seeks to engage the learner in actively identifying with and resolving issues that integrate a variety of topics to which the learner is exposed. The addition of group work offers further opportunities for learners to engage with one another and develop a deeper understanding of the material (Arbaugh, 2010).

Group work simulates applying knowledge in an organization. With group work, there is the potential for learners to benefit from diverse perspectives and sharing of experiences. Learners can also undertake more challenging assignments in group work. Indeed, students may have selected a particular online program because of the qualifications of the student body and the peer group associations available to them. Despite the numerous benefits of group work, obstacles exist. Demanding schedules, different time zones, the potential free-riders, and conflicting personalities are examples of significant challenges for online learners (Chang & Kang, 2016). These challenges are particularly significant in an asynchronous online program.

Not all group interaction must require that the group produce a single work product. If students in the course have multiple interactions within their small group, some assignments can be designed to allow the options of working individually, working with the entire group or a subset of the group, or simply consulting with others in the group while making individual submissions. This layered approach to course design achieves the goal of building bridges between peers while providing learners the flexibility to customize their approach and express their preferred approach to learning for some important submissions.

A prescriptive approach to achieve a flexible course design is incomplete without consideration of how learners actually behaved when given options. The data included in the presentation were collected to assess the choices actually made by the learners and to validate the design objectives using feedback related to motivation and level of satisfaction.

Session Outline

This session aligns with the “Teaching and Learning Practice” track and the “Present and Reflect” session type. Our time together will include a 30-minute introduction where the participants will evaluate the elements of a course in an asynchronous online MBA program designed to promote active learning and collaboration along with data related to how the design was implemented and received by the learners. After 5 minutes of individual self-reflection, participants will engage in 10 minutes of Q&A where they can role play and discuss the challenges of innovative course design,

During the first 30 minutes, Dr. Karen Conner, Director of Academic Innovation in the Raymond A. Mason School of Business at William & Mary, will describe:

  • the overall design of the online program and the assignments within one course that offer an innovative and learner-centric approach to online group work. For six important  assignments within that course, learners had the option of individual work, group work with a single work product, or consultation with some or all of the members of their small group;
  • the criteria used to place students into groups and the guidelines for group work; and
  • the data collected to assess the behavior and attitudes of learners when given options for collaboration including their perceptions of depth of learning and satisfaction with the learning environment created by the course design.

Karen will begin with the following prompt for self-reflection:

  • Choose a role of either instructor or learner (or both) and consider what challenges or responses you might expect when implementing an online course designed to foster active learning and collaboration.

During the 10-minute discussion, participants will share their idea(s) from the 5-minute reflection and brainstorm about how to encourage new thinking in an asynchronous online environment to promote collaboration and active learning. Participants may tweet their ideas using the hashtags: #OLCInnovate #OnlineGroupWork

Karen will share all presentation materials with conference attendees and will post to the conference website.

Arbaugh, J. B. (2010). Online and blended business education for the 21st century: Current research and future directions. Oxford, UK: Chandos.

Chang, B., & Kang, H. (2016). Challenges facing group work online. Distance Education, 37(1), 73–88.