All Online Students Can Benefit from Peer Support

All Online Students Need a Support Group (At Times)

Online students are often encouraged by their instructors to collaborate with each other, as a means of developing an academic community. This is typically accomplished through class discussions or group projects; however, those activities may not be enough to provide the support needed during times when school work becomes challenging and the self-motivation felt at the start of the class begins to wane. Even if this is a one-time occurrence – when frustration has set in over a particular assignment that is due – having someone to talk to or work with can make a difference in a student’s attitude, self-motivation, and engagement in the class.

What I’ve discovered as an online educator is that all online students need peer support with their studies at some point during their academic journey. When I talk to students about joining a support group, they often think of it as something that is needed only for extreme circumstances – without looking at the many options available. I encourage students to find study groups they can join, which provide a built in support system that can be called upon when help is needed. Many online schools provide resources for students and there are also numerous websites that provide access to other students and groups with similar interests.  

What Schools are Doing to Help Students

Instructors that teach on traditional college campuses know the potential benefits of utilizing group work as a learning activity. From my experience, group interactions can help students increase their self-confidence about talking in front of others because they begin to develop a perception of being connected with other students and part of the class. For online classes, group work can be more challenging to implement; however, this is changing. With the use of mobile technology and collaborative online tools, students can still collaborate and communicate without the need for meeting in a physical classroom. Group work helps build initial connections among students, which can lead to long-term support as they find common interests and goals with each other.

There are also disadvantages that can negate group work efforts. In Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment, some of the common issues that arise are discussed: “the dissatisfaction and reluctance that students express over mandatory participation in group projects often result from a sense of not having full control over the quality of the project and the subsequent grade assigned, particularly when someone in the group has less than satisfactory performance.”

The feedback I’ve received is that many students do not like being assigned to a specific group, some prefer to work on their own, and others feel resentment if the work is not evenly balanced and/or participants are not completing the same amount of work. Even if I have established guidelines and expectations in advance, and assigned grades based upon individual contributions, it does not change the fact that they do not have a choice with their involvement and, as a result, they may not view group work as a long-term source of support for their academic goals.

Purdue University has created something innovative for students with the launch of Mixable. While this has been developed for use by a traditional university, it demonstrates the importance of having alternate methods of interacting with other students. According to Kyle Bowen, director of informatics in the Rosen Center for Advanced Computing at Purdue, “Mixable also allows students to share their resources and discussions across courses – something that can be difficult to do with current systems." What’s unique about this resource is that students have an option to join (it is not mandatory) and they can set privacy levels, controlling the information that is viewable by members of the group. Bowen also states that Mixable was developed as a separate Facebook application that will “take advantage of the student's ‘native’ environment,” and it “is also available from many smartphones, including iPhone and Android mobile devices.”

Online schools are aware of the need to help students connect with each other and many are offering resources. The best place to begin looking should you need support is with the school’s student services department, to find out what’s available. Here is an example of resources available from University of Phoenix:
•    University of Phoenix: They have developed their own propriety community called the PhoenixConnect® Academic Social Network. It’s described as a network that will allow students (and faculty) to “interact in real time to discuss academic topics, meet new friends with similar interests, reach out to alumni or launch a professional group.”

How Students Can Connect Outside of Class

1. Join an online study group

In the Chronicle article You Are Not Alone, the benefits of working collectively are discussed and include, “the routine of logging answers to daily questions about my progress and stating my goals for the next day.” What makes the use of a study group one of the best options for students is the ability to develop connections based upon subjects. Instead of looking for a general student support group, students can find something specific whenever they want to ask questions or exchange ideas.

There are several online study groups available for students and the following is only a partial list:

•    OpenStudy – The website indicates that there are over “100,000 students from 170 countries and 1,600 schools” available. It is described as a social learning network and its mission “is to make the world one large study group, regardless of school, location, or background.” OpenStudy has been nominated for a 2012 Edison award based upon innovative excellence.

•    (un)Classes – This website has a goal of creating “an environment for fun people to explore mutual interests in stress-free social settings. And you are in charge: wanna learn something no one is teaching, create a class and recruit a teacher; have a hobby you love and want to share, offer to teach it and assemble some students.” There are options available that will allow students to connect with each other in a variety of ways.

•    CourseHero – It is designed as a peer-to-peer model, which allows students to make connections with other students in their class or worldwide, based upon similar interests. Students have access to flashcards, tutors, and materials. There are free and paid memberships available. It is also noted that CourseHero “helps 93% of its members maintain or improve their grades.”

•    Notelog – Users of Notelog are called “noteloggers” and consist of students, professors, publishers, and subject matter experts. The goal is to have a platform for “sharing academic knowledge on college campuses worldwide.”  

•    ThinkBinder – This website “provides students with an opportunity for group discussions, shared notes, and real time interactions online. Students can discuss any topic they are studying, share videos or websites or other resources that would be useful.” The features offered include built in text and a collaborative Whiteboard.

•    StudyBlue – It is a free online service that allows students to create, share, and study through the use of online flashcards.

•    Study Hall – Through this website students can search for materials that have been uploaded by teachers (and students). Access is provided “via an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, as well as some Android-powered devices.”   

2. Use social media

Students can utilize social media for interacting in and participating with academic-related communities, which can provide support when connections are made. In my post How Social Networking Relates to Online Learning, I discussed how the use of social networking websites by students can help them feel comfortable communicating and interacting with others in a technology-enabled environment, which translates effectively for online learning because of the communication and interaction skills acquired.

Considerations for Starting a Study Group

As students begin to form study groups, there are aspects of this environment to keep in mind. Educator and writer Melissa Venable noted in Starting a Virtual Study Group that “if you are considering joining an existing group or setting up a new one online, there are a few planning decisions to make before getting started, including the following areas:
•    Goals
•    Ground Rules
•    Access
•    Membership
•    Participation”

Before starting to interact with a study group, have a plan in mind. Here are questions to consider:
•    What are the ground rules for the website hosting the study group?
•    What are your individual expectations and goals?
•    How much time will you devote to the group?
•    What role do you want to serve with the group?
•    Do you need to discuss your thoughts about a particular assignment or the class in general?
Some educators are not comfortable with the idea of students joining a study group, believing that it may result in cheating or become an easy way out. From my perspective, a study group is similar to other support groups – it is a method of talking to and interacting with others who share the same interests and goals. Students who take the time to become involved with a group are those who truly want to learn. If students want to cheat they will usually not take the time necessary to sign up for a group where there are expectations for mutual support. In addition, online cheaters can use a search engine and look up almost any information they need – rather than take time for group work.

I encourage students to collaborate in a study environment and take advantage of the benefits that are possible, which includes the most important one of all – feeling a sense of being connected while working in a virtual environment. Explore your options now so you have some resources ready when you are in need of peer support.

Discuss your experience with study groups via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

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