Cosy bedfellows? Independent learning and peer interaction online

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Independent learning is usually envisaged as something that students do alone. But on ‘A329, The Making of Welsh History’, an online distance-learning dissertation module at the Open University, the situation is quite the reverse. Launched in autumn 2017, A329 was in late 2018 the subject of a Scholarship of Teaching and Learning project supported by FASSTEST, the OU’s Scholarship Centre for the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. That project looked at the efficacy of various pedagogic innovations introduced on the module and found that the two most far-reaching of these new approaches, in terms of student experience and outcomes, were: 

(1) the embedding of external found content directly into online module materials to promote independent study habits, and 

(2) the frequent use of online research activities through which students form a tight-knit community of learners by offering constructive feedback on both formative and summative pieces of their peers’ work.  

Students studying entirely online and at a distance traditionally suffer in two important respects. Firstly, they do not have access to the kinds of physical learning resources that their counterparts at conventional universities do. Secondly, the norm is to study in at home in isolation, with only occasional interactions with peers. As a result, at the Open University the standard approach to Humanities curriculum has until recently assumed that students will habitually study alone. In addition, the use of external found resources to foster independent study habits tends to be peripheral rather than central to the student experience. 

‘The Making of Welsh History’ uses innovative techniques to address these two deficiencies, using frequent online interactions to create an environment in which students help one another to develop the skills needed to successfully conduct an independently researched dissertation based on externally hosted sources and scholarship available online. The module thus successfully enables the social construction of knowledge and understanding via remote, online, and asynchronous means, built around extensive engagement with pre-existing online resources such as eBooks, journal articles and primary source databases. That is achieved by creating the conditions in which students’ feedback on one another’s arguments and interpretations, on short pieces of formative work involving found resources, and also on longer summative assignments in the earlier stages of the module. Whilst marks are always awarded for students’ own work, they also rest in some part on the extent to which students have helped their peers as well as on the quality of the academic work they produce.  

The skills gained through these bite-sized research activities, and by the ongoing rounds of peer comment associated with them and with some of the formal assessment points, equip students to produce a 7,000-word dissertation on a Welsh history topic of their own choosing. More broadly, the project examining A329 found that:  

Online learners do not need to study alone; they can access all the benefits of social constructivism and peer interaction that students at traditional universities take for granted. 

  • Online learning materials do not need to be, and in fact should not be, written from scratch. Found scholarship and resources online can be made central to the study experience in the same way as a physical library at a traditional university.  
  • Getting students to work together online, by engaging constructively with the work that their peers are doing, is an optimal way to prepare them for conducting their own research independently 

The project also found that the first presentation of the module achieved a satisfaction rate of 88%, a completion rate of 91.5%, and a pass rate of 89%. These statistics are impressive given the OU’s open entry policy and the fact that the module attracts more than 100 students each year. The figures were the highest in the OU’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for academic year 17/18 and are largely the result of the two new approaches outlined above.  

‘The Making of Welsh history’ therefore represents a potential paradigm shift, not only in how online distance learners’ study but also in terms of how they develop broad academic and subject-specific skills. The model discussed here is to an extent taken as read at traditional universities but has proved a real challenge for online distance learning. However, that challenge can now be addressed as distance learning moves away from printed materials to the digital sphere. Indeed, A329 has been the inspiration for several similar dissertation modules at the OU, in subjects such as geography, sociology, criminology and art history. Moreover, the OU is far from the only provider of distance learning in the UK, and the approaches discussed here may be of relevance to anyone teaching Humanities or Social Science subjects online.  

Richard Marsden

Richard Marsden- Director of Teaching for Arts and Humanities, FASS, Arts and Humanities

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