ALT-C 2019 Session Bites #1

Session title: Facilitating peer-led group research through virtual collaboration spaces: a multi-year action research study, Richard Walker (E-Learning Development Team University of York)

Conference Theme: Creativity across the curriculum

Synopsis: This compelling session presented findings from a study using ‘peer-led group learning’ to support research tasks and the development of problem-solving skills in a 3rd-year undergraduate Biology module at York University. ‘Peer-led’ teaching is nothing new; it’s using an expert peer, in this case a postgraduate researcher, as a learning facilitator and resource. However, what was novel was how they used a collaborative technology platform as a virtual meeting and workspace to overcome challenges in more traditional approaches to project supervision such as:

  • tend to be one-to-one
  • problematic timetabling of meetings/supervision
  • little/no benefit to/from peers
  • propagation of solutions is slow
  • issues coordinating multidisciplinary projects

The app they used for the collaborative hub was Slack (a commercial product, similar to our O365 Teams). Using a channel for each student, for planning, and for questions, the ‘always-on’ collaborative hub fostered greater interactions in asking questions, sharing solutions and displaying data.

Their findings indicated this approach supported effective student collaborations, which promoted peer-to-peer learning – with a focus on interaction and creative problem-solving, thus reducing dependency on the instructor for guidance and control of learning processes. Students enjoyed the quick responses to queries and the ease in keeping a record of what’s been said through the conversation feed structure: “We were working as a team; although we have different projects, we have the same problems and were solving them as a team.” See this link for a case study of the initial pilot.

Comment: The app of choice here, Slack, by the University of York was down to the institutional license held for it at the time of the pilot. IT Services have just rolled out the analogous app in Office 365, Microsoft Teams, to the student cohort here at St Andrews, which could be a platform for similar types of collaborations. Given the prevalence of project-based coursework across disciplines, this is an approach worth trying for increasing engagement, not to mention the possible collateral benefits of improved efficiency and productivity.

Session presentation slides available here (thanks to Richard). A short paper of recent findings is in production.