Monday, January 28, 2013


Linked Online Courses?

Okay, I admit, this is crowdsourcing as a blatant attempt to save time.  Researching this formally would be quite an undertaking, but I’m hoping that some of my wise and worldly readers have seen something like this.

We’ve been experimenting with variations on “learning communities” and “linked courses.”  Different campuses define those terms differently, and not every nuance is relevant here.  For present purposes, I’m looking at two or three courses in which the students are the same but the professors and subjects change.  (Here, we call those “linked courses.”)  Everybody in Professor Freud’s Psych 101 is also in Professor Van Helsing’s Intro to Phlebotomy, say.  The idea is that the students are likelier to bond with each other, form support groups, and the like, if they see the same faces from class to class.

We’re running multiple variations on the format; right now the finding I’m comfortable sharing is that the model works best when it doesn’t take up every course in a student’s schedule.  A little variety goes a long way.  But when you offer, say, a bloc of three courses that students have to take in unison, the logistical conflicts multiply.  So many of our students work 30 or 40 hours a week for pay, often with variable hours, that the rigidity of a linked course model may defeat some of its possible gains.

In trying to figure out how to balance the “group bonding” benefit of a cohort model with the obvious need for flexibility, someone suggested including an online course in the mix.  

I was intrigued.  On the one hand, it would obviously introduce some flexibility into the scheduling.  On the other, I’m not sure whether the group bonding would carry over from the classroom to the screen.

Has anyone out there seen or tried that?  Does it work?

"Learning communities" strikes me as an attempt to muscle a little more peer support into mandatory structures. As such, I'm going to suggest turning the question around from "how much can you stuff into learning communities" to "what's necessary to get the peer-effect benefits?" If what you want is for students to call each other up on non-class days and keep in contact, encouraging each other, etc., then focus on that. If you want students on campus five days a week, you can try that, but, ... er, well, you know the problem.

More generally, the dilemma of cohort programs (and a learning community is a form of cohort program) is the obvious nature of attrition within 6 months. "We're all in this together... except for Lisa, Joe, and Steve, who dropped out." Or had life intervene in its myriad ways. As Grant Wiggins and many others would say, have you planned backwards from the goals?
Hmm, interesting. I've taught a linked course every fall for the last three years. I think the online course might work if the other course is a traditional course, or at least a hybrid course. However, our linked courses are all first-semester, traditional college students. For that audience I don't think an online course is a great option. Some first-semester students are self-disciplined enough to do well in an online course, but many aren't, and online courses don't cement a student's sense of connection to the school in the same way that face to face courses might. It might work better with a wider mix of students, though.

If you try it, I'd be curious to hear about the results.
They had that at my undergrad uni and called them "Freshman Interest Groups." Not only did the same students take both courses, some of the content was linked, too. (For example, you'd learn about something in your psychology class and then write about it in your composition class.)

I chose not to take any for a few reasons:
1.) It felt too "high school" for me. I thought part of the point of college was to *not* see the same people all day long.
2.) I didn't like the set schedules. As a commuter, I wanted a schedule where I didn't have to drive to campus every single day.
and 3.) I was in the honors program, and they didn't offer honors sections in these courses.

They didn't have online options for the FIG program then, but I'd be intrigued to see how they worked out. I taught a course once where they started f2f, had a couple of online meetings and ended f2f. The online interactions improved their f2f interactions, since it got them to learn each other's names better.

My previous employer did it especially in the nursing program. It was heavy in the traditional program where student would typically have two or three classes together in one day and move as a group. Same sort of thing in the accelerated program for adults but at night. The nice thing was that you could very easily predict course sizes and faculty needs and the students understood that their options were limited. Education did a similar process.
My Library Science degree was based entirely on a cohort or linked system where all the required courses were taken by the same group of students. I appreciated the cohesiveness of such a set-up, especially in-light of the large number of group projects required. Group projects are much easier to accomplish successfully if you are comfortable and familiar with the people involved. The cohort system is a great way to built this familiarity.
I just completed an online only MS (non-cohort) and am currently in an online MBA with two one-week residencies (in a cohort). I’m actually highly irritated at a current professor who is teaching the class as a typical in person class because of the way it is limiting interaction with other students. Online classes properly formatted should have at least--but probably more--student interaction than an in person classes, is my opinion. And creating a space where people have to interact online allows that interaction to more naturally spread. Everyone’s email addresses is right there, for example, so it is simple to click on someone’s name and reach out.

The cohort vs. non-cohort difference affected me very little because I am highly social online, but I did find that many of my classmates didn’t naturally socialize online. About half of them did not even have LinkedIn profiles. My feedback to both programs I participated in was that they needed to provide some education and encouragement in online networking. As soon as the class starts I go down the student list and LinkedIn everyone who is on LinkedIn. As I get to know people better I may go back to find their Twitter or send them an invite on Facebook.

Hope this is relevant to your question. I am very excited about online education and, done well, I think it can be very valuable both in terms of education and in terms of student connections.

Wow, I think this would be super-cool (forgive my inarticulateness). Online communities can be pretty tight, as witness the fact that we all show up HERE every morning, right?

Loafingcactus Mary has great point.
My M.Ed. program was pretty much all cohort-based (there were a few "choose from this list" electives, a few classes were subject-specific, and some of the summer classes were also taken by local teachers who already had degrees, but you'd have the same core group in most of your classes for the entire 15 month program).

Our diversity class did a particularly good job of having both online and in-class discussions. (The basic format for the online discussion was that they'd post one or two discussion questions each week and all students needed to post in response at least twice, one of which had to be a response to something someone else had said.) I found that different students were active online versus in class and it was a good way to get to know more of the cohort (that class was during the first term). I'm not sure if an entirely-online class would be quite the same, but the hybrid discussions were useful for getting to know different classmates. This was particularly true as the in-class discussions tended to be dominated by one particular student who always had something long-winded to share on any topic whatsoever and he was much less into the online aspect, but I suspect something of the sort would happen regardless because some people are just more into talking and others more into writing.

Perhaps having say, three linked hybrid classes that each meet in person less often and are taken as a set so there there's basically one "offline class" worth of class time and the rest of the work is done online would be a good model (for example, it might be a MWF class in a typical MWF class block but with each professor showing up one of the three class periods so that you'd have a 11:30-12:30 class with stats Mondays, comp Wednesdays, civ Fridays or whatever your linked courses were). From a student perspective, it'd be as logistically easy as scheduling one offline class and two unrelated online ones, but it would let each professor get some in-person time for their course so they could divide up their material into the things best covered in each format.
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