Initial Publication Date: July 30, 2010

Computer Collaboration
Interactive Activities in Online and Hybrid Courses

by Sean Cornell, Geography-Earth Science, Shippensburg University
Tim Heaton, Earth Sciences, University of South Dakota
Bill Hirt, Natural Sciences, College of the Siskiyous
Aurora Pun, Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico
Perry Sampson, Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences, University of Michigan
authored as part of the 2010 workshop, Teaching Geoscience Online - A Workshop for Digital Faculty

Jump down to: Practical Considerations| Individual Activities |Collaborative Activities |An Example of a Collaborative Activity


Research has shown that online instruction, including hybrid courses that involve some face-to-face instruction coupled with online components, can be just as effective as traditional face-to-face courses in providing high-quality learning experiences (Dept. of Education, 2009). Recent advances in technology, coupled with changes in how today's students interact with technology, require that traditional face-to-face pedagogies that often rely on visual and auditory cues be modified if they are to be effective in the online environment. This often requires that instructors:

  1. spend time learning a variety of software platforms that enable effective communication with their students;
  2. develop clear and informative directions and work schedules for students to follow; and
  3. follow a set of "best teaching practices" that will enable students to be effective online learners.

There are many resources on the web that speak to best teaching practices for teaching online. The resources in this best practices list emphasize that a very important pedagogical tool in teaching online learning is to make the learning process active rather than passive. Facilitating student learning in the online environment can be difficult, but here we explore the use of interactive activities in online courses to enhance learning outcomes.

Practical considerations

The interactive activities we describe below encourage students to learn by either engaging in an activity on their own or collaborating with their peers. Because individual and collaborative activities have different characteristics, we outline some points you may want to consider before adding an activity of either type to your course. We also provide one or more examples of each type of activity to give instructors a sense of what's available and how they may wish to structure activities that they develop themselves. Finally, if you decide to add an interactive activity to your course bear in mind that it will be most effective if it is:

  1. integral to the course, and directly supports at least one of the course's major themes or learning outcomes;
  2. enables students to learn about a topic or concept in a way that they could not by simply reading text or viewing a diagram; and
  3. includes an assessment or teaches a concept or skill that can subsequently be assessed using a related follow-up exercise.

Individual activities

Individual interactive activities should be both engaging and enlightening, and afford students opportunities to learn by using the concepts and methods they're studying to address practical "real-world" situations. Among their strengths, these activities:

  • engage visual, kinesthetic, and mathematical learners as they review animations, manipulate graphics, and solve both computational and non-computational problems;
  • have the potential to promote topical discussions as students who work on an exercise run into problems and turn to their classmates for help or advice; and
  • make the assessment of learning outcomes -- which are defined in terms of what students should be able to "do" -- easier because students actually demonstrate their understanding of a concept or technique by applying it.

Among their weaknesses, however, these activities:

  • may require students to load or purchase additional software, and so raise both technological (e.g., computer compatibility, slow connection) and cost issues;
  • demand considerable time and care to complete successfully, and so can frustrate students who underestimate the time required or try to "shortcut" an assignment; and
  • can lead to misunderstandings that may be more difficult to resolve online than they are in a face-to-face class, and so put a premium on developing well-written instructions, examples or both.

Examples of Individual Activities

There are many types of interactive activities that can be used to promote individual learning. We list examples of several types below, ranging from animations that can be used to promote close observation to more extensive exercises that include instructional and assessment components. For each type we provide some brief notes about how they might fit into your online course.

  • Animations: Many geologic processes that can be difficult to visualize through a series of still images "come alive" in well-designed animations, and these make great instructional tools. A key to making them truly interactive, however, is to ask students to (1) participate in a discussion about what they observed, or (2) closely observe some aspect of the animation that they can later answer a question about. Such discussions and answers can form the basis of follow-up assessments.
  • Concept application (without instruction or assessment): These activities can be used to supplement instruction on a topic, and provide opportunities to learn by applying new concepts or skills and receiving simple feedback. The skills addressed here can be followed up with similar questions in other assessments.
  • Concept application with instruction: These activities can serve as basic lessons in a course because they include instruction on a topic, such as river flooding or Rb/Sr ischron dating, as well as an integrated activity that gives students an opportunity to apply what they have learned. In the Virtual Courseware activities, individual questions provide formative assessments (students cannot progress through the exercise unless the answer them correctly) but a summative assessment on the topic needs to be developed independently.
  • Concept application with instruction and assessment: These activities can also serve as basic lessons on a topic because each includes instruction, an integrated activity that gives students an opportunity to apply what they have learned, and a summative assessment. Instructors can sign up for class codes on the Virtual Courseware exercises so that student results are posted to a gradebook that the instructor can access.

Closing Thoughts on Individual Activities

Individual activities may be used a "pre-quizzes" that enable students to begin learning about a topic prior to engaging in a full-scale activity. In this context, these activities first ask students to read, interpret, or study various written or graphical materials and then complete a series of questions that help them frame the content of upcoming collaborative activities or lectures. Pre-quizzes are "repeatable," so if a student does not do well on one initially he or she can do it again. Students are likely to be better prepared to participate actively in course discussions and other activities as a result of completing such assignments.

Collaborative activities

Collaborative learning involves two or more students synchronously building and interactively deriving a joint solution to a problem or jointly completing a common product to achieve shared learning goals. This collaboration places an emphasis on the extent and quality of the exchanges among students in order to develop a high quality product. Some of the essentials for successful collaborative learning cited in Barkley et al. (2005, pg. 9) include:

  1. "Positive interdependence: The success of individuals is linked to the success of the group; individuals succeed to the extent that the group succeeds. Thus students are motivated to help one another accomplish group goals.
  2. "Promotive interaction: Students are expected to actively help and support one another. Members share resources and support and encourage each other's efforts to learn.
  3. "Individual and group accountability: The group is held accountable for achieving its goals. Each member is accountable for contributing his or her share of the work; students are assessed individually.
  4. "Development of teamwork skills: Students are required to learn academic subject matter (task work) and also to learn the interpersonal and small-group skills required to function as part of a group (teamwork). Team work skills should be taught 'just as purposefully and precisely as academic skills.'
  5. "Group Processing: Students should learn to evaluate their group productivity. They need to describe what member actions are helpful and unhelpful, and to make decisions about what to contribute or change." (Barkley et al, 2005, pg. 9) (Find out more about these five key elements.)

Interactive activities that support collaborative learning engage students with one another as well as with the course content. Among their strengths, these activities

  • help students learn to work as "team players" as they struggle to achieve consensus despite their differences of opinion, cultural perspective and work ethic;
  • enable students to see different perspectives on solving a problem as they interact with their classmates and re-evaluate their own assumptions; and
  • afford opportunities for students to address each others' questions and concerns in real time rather than through the slower asynchronous discussion that may follow work on individual activities.

Among their weaknesses, however, these activities may:

  • diminish the learning experience for everyone if one team member is slow to respond or fails to participate;
  • decrease the benefits of the instuctor's "social presence" if he or she is not sufficiently engaged; and
  • make some students reluctant to depend on classmates for contributions to projects that will determine their grades.
  • be perceived as ineffective learning strategies if students are unable to communicate and relate to their peers.

However there are ways to overcome some of these difficulties by employing team building strategies before collaborative activities can begin in earnest. See the attached document Preparing Online Learners for Collaborative Learning Projects (Acrobat (PDF) PRIVATE FILE 16kB Jun29 10) for further details. It is distilled below for brevity.

Preparation for a Collaborative Activity

When students are in the same physical space for a face-to-face course, peer-group socialization happens naturally. In this setting, students readily develop professional and social relationships with their peers and can communicate naturally and initiate work without much difficulty. In online environments, the same peer networking activities are, for the most part, non-existent, so instructors need to facilitate peer networking.

Effective strategies that instructors can employ to help prepare students for effective collaborative work are those that help students establish peer-networks. These may or may not be tied directly to a assessment, but most students are generally willing to take a few moments to share something about herself/himself if they understand that these "team-building" exercises will help them on future assignments. A graded assessment is recommended for this activity if the time involvement is substantial or other learning objectives are tied into it.

  • The easiest way to accomplish peer netowrking is to ask students to meet face-to-face at least once at the outset of a course (this could be a brief field trip experience, an orientation lecture or discussion, etc.). Regardless of format, it is important to reserve an opportunity to engage student teams by assembling groups. The instructor should encourage student pairs to interview one another and then share what they have learned out loud. This technique could be applied to both small class sizes as well as larger classes, if TA's are employed in the process.
  • If a face-to-face class orientation is not possible, another option would be to ask students to prepare a one to two page personal profile scrapbook. Students should distill information about who they are, what they like/dislike, favorite sports teams/tv shows, etc., when they like to do work (i.e. course work and study), whether they are a morning person or not, what computer or other professional skills they have, what courses they have taken, and where they are from into a digestible format. Ask students to create a mini, interview-ready, cross-section of their semi-professional life. These should be engaging and formatted in interesting ways and at least partially relevant to the content of the course. These projects are useful not only for student interaction, but it also helps you get to know the students as well before they initiate collaborative work.

Example of a Collaborative Activity

Below, we describe a jigsaw activity that asks students to:

  1. research a specific dating technique;
  2. review others' research presentations to learn about different techniques;
  3. work collaboratively to decide which of several techniques would be suitable for dating a specific geologic site; and
  4. an individual assessment.

Any or all of these stages can be assessed as described below.

Part 1 - Collaborate to write a report on a dating method

Students are assigned to one of three teams and work together to develop a brief (~3 page) report on one of three dating methods: relative dating using stratigraphic principles (superposition, cross-cutting, etc.); radiometric dating (U/Pb, 14C, etc.); or biostratigraphic dating (floral-faunal succession, biozones, index fossils, etc.). Additional teams can be created, if desired, by subdividing one or more of the groups of methods. Each team creates and posts its report as a Google doc. Team members decide how to apportion the tasks of researching and writing the report, but the final product must include the following elements:

  • an explanation of how the dating method works and how it can be used for correlation;
  • a description of the types of geologic materials that it is possible to date using this method;
  • a brief discussion of the assumptions and potential pitfalls associated with the method;
  • and two links to websites that describe or document an application of this dating method, and that are each annotated with a brief description of what is on the website and why it is relevant to the topic at hand.

To encourage collaborative writing, the assignment can be broken up into manageable parts and to establish interim due dates to help teams facilitate their writing process and learn from each step. Students should keep the following basic protocol in mind as they work on their collaborative writing (Barkley et al., 2005, pg 256).

  • Once assigned to their team, students should work together to organize their ideas and create an outline for their research report.
  • Students should divide up the outline, deciding which sections each will write and write initial drafts individually.
  • Teams should then read the drafts and comment, discuss, and resolve any significant disparities in content, voice and style.
  • Individual sections would then be merged into a single document.
  • Teams would revise and edit their work, checking for content and writing clarity.

Part 2 - Review other teams' research reports

Students, working as part of their original teams, review the other teams' reports in order to:

  1. learn about the methods they did not research; and
  2. provide constructive feedback to members of the other teams about the clarity and completeness of their presentations.

Part 3 - Collaboratively decide which method(s) are suitable for a specific site

Students are now assigned to new teams, each of which includes at least one member who wrote one of the original reports. Together these new teams use their combined knowledge to:

  1. decide which of the dating methods can be used in a given situation and why others are not applicable; and
  2. work out the sequence of events and their absolute ages or age ranges (if possible).

To determine mastery of all of the dating methods, formative assessments using example problems where students are asked to determine viable dating methods for various outcrops are posted for students to solve collaboratively during online discussions. These discussions can be monitored for participation and to correct any obvious misconceptions. After discussion closes, the solutions to the example problems would be posted for student review. Two example problems are posted here Student sample problem- dating methods (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 207kB Jun27 10) along with the keys KEY-sample dating methods problems (Microsoft Word PRIVATE FILE 209kB Jun27 10). Questions could also be posed about what impact a potential error in one of the methods would have on their overall conclusions. Another option for this part of the activity would be to have individual group members attempt to solve the problems on their own and then compare their answers in order to promote discussion and active group learning.

Part 4 - Individual assessment

As a final measure of individual assessment, the students can be given a short quiz such as the following:

Dating diagram

1. Which dating method is not usable in this diagram?
a. Correlation
b. Cross-cutting
c. Inclusions
d. Radiometric dating
e. Superposition

2. Which of the following rocks is the oldest?
a. Ls (limestone)
b. Cg (conglomerate)
c. Sh (shale)
d. Ss (sandstone)
e. X (basalt)

3. Which dating method did you mainly use to make this determination?
a. Correlation
b. Cross-cutting
c. Inclusions
d. Radiometric dating
e. Superposition

4. Which of the following rocks is the youngest?
a. Ls (limestone)
b. Cg (conglomerate)
c. Sh (shale)
d. Ss (sandstone)
e. X (basalt)

5. Which rock unit has features available for correlation?
a. Ls (limestone)
b. Cg (conglomerate)
c. Sh (shale)
d. Ss (sandstone)
e. X (basalt)

6. Which rock unit is most likely to be datable by Uranium-Lead or Potassium-Argon?
a. Ls (limestone)
b. Cg (conglomerate)
c. Sh (shale)
d. Ss (sandstone)
e. X (basalt)

7. Which rock unit is most likely to be datable by radiocarbon?
a. Ls (limestone)
b. Cg (conglomerate)
c. Sh (shale)
d. Ss (sandstone)
e. X (basalt)

8. List the sequence of events from oldest to youngest.

9. Explain how you would estimate an absolute age for shale (Sh)

Assessment Rubric

Part I – Initial Research (30 pts)
_____ (10 pts) How well did the students research the assigned topic?
_____ (10 pts) How well did the students explain the methodology to the other students?
_____ (10 pts) Did the students provide adequate references to back up the explanations?

Part 2 – Teamwork (20 pts)
_____ (10 pts) Did the student provide constructive feedback to other group members?
_____ (10 pts) Did the student participate in helping the group solve sample problems?

Part 3 – New Groups (30 pts)
_____ (15 pts) How well did the group perform in solving a variety of dating problems?
_____ (15 pts) How much did the student contribute to the group's efforts?

Part 4 – Individual Assessment (20 pts)
_____ (10 pts) How well did the student score on multiple choice questions?
_____ (10 pts) How well did the student answer the open-ended questions?

A more comprehensive rubric could be employed such as this one: Interactive Learning Assessment Rubric (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) PRIVATE FILE 395kB Jun27 10)

This exercise could also be tied in with the historic development of the Geologic Time Scale, noting how the Time Scale was first developed using only relative dating techniques, and how the effort to pin absolute dates on specific boundaries has often been complicated by the inability to use a single method (since sedimentary rocks can rarely be dated directly).

Closing Thoughts on Collaborative Activities

The goal of this exercise is to enable students to move beyond a simple lab exercise to an investigation from which they can develop an understanding of the real issues involved in dating and correlating rocks and fossils. This exercise could also be linked to a discussion of the historic development of the geologic time scale that explores: (1) how the time scale was first developed using only relative dating techniques, and (2) how the effort to establish the absolute dates of specific boundaries has often been complicated by the inability to use a single method (because sedimentary rocks can rarely be dated directly).

References Cited

Barkley, E. F., Cross, K. P., and Major, C. H. (2005) Collaborative Learning Techniques, A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, pp.300.

U.S. Department of Education Study Finds that Good Teaching can be Enhanced with New Technology, full report: Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (2009)