Online Collaboration & the Benefits Beyond Distance Learning


Online collaboration is becoming a must have technology.  Often thought of as a distance learning facility, more and more universities are finding ways to use it to link teaching staff, to support students and to improve the entire education experience.

Take Higher Education institutions, for example, and their need to share ideas and link study groups that goes beyond best practice and can be a requirement for research funding.  When research teams are geographically dispersed, using a technology platform as a forum for discussing ideas is an efficient way to keep the necessary people up to date, tracking and recording progress across multiple related programmes.

Or think about the flipped classroom concept, which has been a hot topic for a while, and the many people who are advocating the trend for sharing content in advance of face-to-face lectures or classroom sessions.  The key to this approach is not the content itself (although relevant) but the way it’s used – and reused – by the student or member of staff as they learn, revise, prepare for exams and, ultimately, enhance their careers.  Short recorded videos can be sent around to the team in response to frequently asked questions, creating a self-help resource that can be used for on-boarding new staff, or referred to by existing staff if a question arises.

These tools benefit teachers as well as students but it’s often the teachers that need convincing of their usefulness.  Most teachers didn’t experience technology as part of their own educational experience and some are reluctant to use the facility as anything more than a way to share their notes.  However, the best use of technology for teaching employs imaginative ways of engaging students, providing learning material that requires interaction and making use of the face-to-face time for debate and analysis.

There’s much talk about the distance learner but what about the distance teacher? There’s evidence that teachers are using online collaboration technology to cover sessions if they are traveling or on sabbatical, delivering lessons and engaging with students from anywhere.  This is popular with the university as replacement teachers don’t have to be resourced, as well as the students who prefer the continuity of their own teacher on a certain subject.

Of course, online collaboration is powerful for international students in a number of ways too, especially when technology creates virtual classrooms, as well as sharing content and recording sessions.  Some cultures, and learning styles, prefer to review material multiple times—and in private.  By having recorded material to refer to, the student is at liberty to re-watch and re-work their course content as necessary.  Another area where this feature is beneficial is with students who speak English as a second language.  Many of these students require additional teaching support across all disciplines.  The ability to access and share material across subjects online means course material from the student’s main subjects can be used as part of the language lessons.

It’s not just for the learning but also for the assessment trialling and student retention that online collaboration is proving popular. In this case the system allows peer-to-peer engagement and support, which has been proven to have a positive impact on those who feel they are not coping.  Those on teacher training courses or taking part in sandwich courses (where they leave for a year before returning to complete their study) can keep in touch with regular updates and teaching materials – maintaining the relationship over the duration of their time away from the university.  The online facility acts as a virtual office and, being 24/7, is convenient for students studying for a year in another time zone, or a trainee teacher, trying to squeeze study into a busy work schedule.

Online collaboration is undoubtedly a vital distance learning tool. However, it’s much more than that.  It is a community-enhancing platform for sharing content, experiences and support and building relationships across the university.

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