Engaging sport and exercise science students via participation using online collaborative learning (ocl)

НазваниеEngaging sport and exercise science students via participation using online collaborative learning (ocl)
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Engaging sport and exercise science students via participation using online collaborative learning (OCL)

Theme: Innovation

Geoff Walton Research informed Teaching Project Co-ordinator, Staffordshire University. Email: g.l.walton@staffs.ac.uk


The project discussed here was initially funded by a Research informed Teaching grant. In brief research informed teaching projects at Staffordshire University aim to highlight innovative ways of demonstrating and promoting the research-teaching link as identified by Jenkins, Healey & Zetter (2007).

This paper seeks to argue that the lessons learnt from the research described in the case study can be harnessed to provide a generic template for managing online discourse, in effect, a protocol for using any online social networking Web 2.0 application for educational purposes.

The use of e-learning within the HE curriculum in the UK is now well established as part of the suite of pedagogical tools particularly through VLEs (Jenkins, Browne & Walker, 2005). This e-learning landscape continues to change as social networking software tools become more easily available (Beetham & Sharpe, 2007). E-learning is now used across all subject areas (Jenkins, Browne & Walker, 2005; Beetham & Sharpe, 2007). Jenkins, Browne & Walker (2005) observed that the majority of VLE usage tends to supplement traditional delivery rather than exploit the full range of features available such as discussion boards. The use of e-learning is growing in FE in the UK (BECTA, 2006; 2007. Finlayson et al (2006) note that the use of e-learning in the curriculum such as, searching for materials, e-mailing and using discussion boards, appears to have a positive impact on students in that it contributes to the autonomy of learners, that is it enables high interactivity and student control. Finally, the private sector has also begun to harness e-learning as a training tool for example in the oil industry Collis & Moon (2005) which uses notions of communities of practice as its pedagogical foundation enabling participative learning. Indeed, recent research supports the view that engaging students in online discourse, whether it be student to student dialogue or student to tutor or both, fosters active involvement and thereby promotes effective learning (McConnell, 2006; Nicol, Minty & Sinclair, 2003, Salmon, 2002 & 2004; Webb, Jones, Barker & van Schaik, 2004).

The module which forms the focus of this study is Research & Professional Development (RPD), a Sport & Exercise study skills module delivered by a team of subject based tutors. Information Services at Staffordshire University (UK) delivered the information literacy1 (IL) element of the module in traditional face-to-face format for five years. A working definition of IL is offered for the purposes of this study. It is argued that, in essence, IL is the ability to find, evaluate and use information in order to complete a task. In this paper the initial focus centres on how students used online collaborative learning (OCL) to understand how to critically evaluate information sources more effectively. The subsequent focus is on how students OCL to carry out peer assessment.

In the IL face-to-face sessions (the focus of the first round of this case study) this was realised via a scaffolded framework (following resources developed for this purpose by Bordinaro & Richardson, 2004) where students (individually and collaboratively) were encouraged to identify their research focus, find, evaluate and use information within a specific subject related context and reflect on the process (following structures suggested by Cowan, 2002). Thereby creating a more subject orientated motivational atmosphere.

In the second round the scaffolded OCL process was maintained but the topic of discussion shifted towards peer assessment where students examined fellow students’ draft assignments using a set of criteria.

It was of particular interest whether this positive motivational context, as suggested by Keller (1983), could be further enhanced (and learning improved) by using OCL via the Blackboard VLE. Goodyear (2001), Mayes & de Freitas (2004), JISC (2004) and Littlejohn & Higgison (2003) indicate that, in the online context, learning only takes place when students are encouraged to engage in dialogue with peers and tutors and these authors regard this as e-learning best practice. E-group etiquette guidelines set out by Alpay (2005) in tandem with notions regarding reflective practice (following Teles, 1993; Hung & Chen, 2001; Cowan, 2002; Walker, 2003) and communities of practice espoused by Mayes & de Freitas (2004) were followed.

It was argued that by using Blackboard Discussion Board in this way the ‘tertiary courseware’ function (Goodyear, 2001) where learners produce materials during the course of their discussions and assessment of their own learning would be created. For example, online dialogue between learners outputs would be captured and made available to all in the group.

Case Study

First round

The research informed teaching project first round (2005) comprised a pilot study (described in Walton et al, 2007a and b) and a main study (2006) described in Pope & Walton (2009) and Walton (2009). The first round centred on examining how to deliver IL by OCL.

Whilst the project findings are discussed extensively elsewhere as mentioned above it is worth dwelling on the main findings which informed the second round of this project.

Two central finding were made:

One: OCL appeared, via the e-learning structure that emerged, to promote critical thinking. In this instance the critical thinking was evidenced through students’ ability to engage with and use information2. Critical thinking was demonstrated at four distinct levels:

Information discernment level 1: Unaware or unconcerned regarding the need to evaluate information and may tend to use information without checking its quality and is characterised by statements such as:

I didn’t really know about what type of things you should look for when you are looking at web sites to get references.”

I didn’t know what the things at the end like .ac. org meant.”

Information discernment level 2: Emerging awareness of the need to evaluate information which is expressed weakly through notions of detail, suitability or quantity:

I have learnt to go into more detail with my work”.

There were so many books it was hard to choose the right ones.”

Information discernment level 3: Aware of the need to evaluate information for quality but sees the process in black and white, true or false, either/ or terms;

when I’m looking at references in the future I’m going to look and see whether it is from a big company where it’s very probably going to be factual or whether it’s from someone’s own personal website or something that’s less formal and I’ll be able to tell whether to take information from it or not”

[…] what references will be real and not real […]”

Information discernment level 4: Aware that evaluation isn’t simply a matter of black and white, recognises the need to judge each source on its merits and talks about balance, deciding and using a range of criteria in the evaluation process.

[…] have learnt how to judge how good a book or journal is […]”

I have learnt a lot of new knowledge from the Berkeley website regarding evaluating information. I know about scope, audience, timeliness, scholarly vs. popular, authority documentation and objectivity.”

Furthermore, students operating at this level can talk about the nature and relative value of evaluation criteria in a given setting:

Some of them initially are important like reliability […], obviously if you are going to reference something in an essay etc you need to know that the source is reliable […]”

[…] authority, I don’t find as important. It could be written by the government or the FA or something and they could make a pretty stand up point, but you could have a 3rd year student from a university make just as good a point.”

[…] relevance as well, you’ve got to stick to the question or what ever you need to do needs to be relevant to the point you are making.”

It is argued that these levels of information discernment identified here present the foundations for a possible rubric for assessing students’ ability to evaluate information or a framework for diagnosing levels of ability.

Two: a structure for managing online discourse was devised which was envisaged as follows:

Second round

The second round of delivery not only took OCL to the whole cohort but it also moved to look at essay writing skills more generally with the IL element subsumed within it. The process shown in Diagram A was used but in modified form. For the roll out to the whole cohort it was decided that a question would be set each week rather than use an extract from a student posting to iterate the discussion. This meant that the discussions were ‘forced’ in a particular direction namely to discussing the essay introduction (OCL activity 1), the essay main body (OCL activity 2) and the essay conclusion and references (OCL activity 3).

The study skills elements of the module concentrated on: the essay writing process, avoiding plagiarism, planning and structuring essays, writing in the third person, understanding learning styles and critical thinking.

The IL skills element delivered in this framework concentrates on finding quality peer reviewed material. The assignment was topic based on a subject of interest to the student which was intended to foster participation and inquiry.

For the 2007-08 level 1 entry the whole cohort of 112 students was organised into in 7 online tutor groups (based on the seminar groups)

For the 2008-09 level 1 entry the whole cohort of 111 students was organised into in 7 online tutor groups (based on the seminar groups).

The module took the following structure:

Induction week: introduction to library and IT and writing on a topic of your choice

Teaching week 1 Reflecting on the essay process

Teaching week 2: What is my Learning Style and why is it important?

Teaching week 3: Using Library Catalogue, ebooks and SportDiscus full-text to find information.

Teaching week 4: Critical thinking and developing an academic approach

Teaching week 5: Understanding plagiarism and APA referencing

Teaching week 6: Writing style: OCL Activity 1:

Discussion concentrated on the Essay Introduction.

Within each group students were initially expected to post comments to a partner and then engage more widely. Students posted their draft essay, read criteria for good structure as stated in the Assignment Survival Kit (ASK3). Made comments, gave feedback to fellow students and discussed issues

Teaching week 7: Writing style: OCL Activity 2:

Discussion focused on the Essay Main Body.

Teaching week 84: Writing style: OCL Activity 3:

Discussion centred on the Essay Conclusion and references.


Table 1 below shows that the number of postings for 2006-07 were very low. This was because only one seminar group took part in the first round of the case study. It can be seen that for the next two years (years 1 and year 2 of the second round) the numbers are substantial. Indeed it is interesting to note that participation is much greater in 2008-09.

Table 1

Examples of student postings made during each 50 minute session are furnished here. For these activities students posted their draft essays to the discussion board and then fellow students made comments.

Example postings by students from OCL Activity 1

A good effort, all aspects covered and concise and condensed! Perhaps state what the aim of the essay is.”

[…] you have said what area you are focusing on, however possibly expand on other topics, such as physical aspects. Good effort :)”

You state clearly what factors combine in order to make a good athlete. You give examples of these but you don’t talk about what you are going to focus on in your main body.”

Very effective opening sentence. It grabs the readers attention, making you want to read on. Try to elaborate on what factors make a good athlete e.g commitment. You state that physical and psychological factors involved in making a good athlete but try and give examples.”

Your introduction clearly states what you are going to be talking about and the explains the basic structure of your essay. More expansion on the details of your argument could have been included to properly highlight what you think contributes to the making of a good athlete.”

Example postings by students from OCL Activity 2

cant (sic) really see many major faults, some good detailed info on funding, and many quotes/journals to back your argument up.”

good arguements (sic) and structure to your work, possibly could use some more references to support your points.”

Looks good, however if your (sic) going to use examples of great athletes, dont (sic) constantly use Tiger Woods. Think about Roger Federer, whos (sic) won numerous grand slams. Or Ronaldinho whos (sic) won almost ever (sic) major trophy available for him to win.

Fully understood what you were trying to get across. […], if you had stayed specific to either psychology or nutrition etc you would have been able to go into abit (sic) more detail.”

[…] I think that using the williams (sic) sisters is a good example of coaching. There does not seem to be many referances (sic) in the opening paragraphs. The final paragraph starts to conclude the main body which is good, showing structure and progression.

You describe one idea in each paragraph and use good examples to support these. However, it is not clear what factor you are talking about in your second paragraph. Try to immediately state what you are going to talk about as it is a bit general. […]”

Example postings by students from OCL Activity 3

good conclusion however four of your references have not got the place and name of publishers.”

the references are in the correct order and may by a few need the page numbers or issue number?”

*Referencing needs to be developed to suit APA style.”

Your whole reference list is websites. could you use books as its easier as you don’t have to worry if they are credible?”

Good conclusion. Maybe need to try and use books or journals as well as internet sites. It will add depth to your essay.”

[…] references need to be put into alphabetical order.”

[…] don't put initials for authors, title of book, and edition when referencing in the text, only in the reference list […]”


In general all seminar group tutors noted that there was a high level of engagement and this is evidenced in not just the large number of postings but also more importantly in their content. Another interesting observation made by a tutor was that students were still working at the end of the session and some ran over time. This is a cultural shift compared to pre-OCL when students were often ready to leave well before the session ended and their general demeanour was of boredom and dis-engagement. A significant by-product of the OCL activities is that students now readily draft and redraft their written work before submitting it.

In particular it can be seen that students are prepared to be critical of their fellow students work for instance, “Try to elaborate on what factors make a good athlete e.g commitment”, “However, it is not clear what factor you are talking about in your second paragraph. Try to immediately state what you are going to talk about” and “Good conclusion. Maybe need to try and use books or journals as well as internet sites. It will add depth to your essay.” This critical aspect of the discourse is of interest as it could be used as the basis for assessing students’ engagement in the study skills process. It can be seen that there are very general levels of critique for example, “Perhaps state what the aim of the essay is” through to highly specific technical points such as, “dont (sic) constantly use Tiger Woods. Think about Roger Federer, whos (sic) won numerous grand slams. Or Ronaldinho”. This is perhaps the clearest indication that there is a sufficient breadth and variety of output to warrant its assessment in a more formal way.

It is interesting to note how students discuss their peers work in that they almost always start with a positive comment for example “good effort” and “you state clearly”, then they tend to weave in their criticism for instance, “however four of your references have not got the place and name of publishers” before finishing on a positive comment in the style of positive feedback for example, “good effort” and “well done” etc.


It can be seen that online discourse in the form of OCL engages students in successful learning and critical thinking. It is because student participants proved remarkably articulate and honest in both Pilot and Main Studies that such a rich picture of online discourse and its implications could be revealed. Whilst it is recognised that the findings from this study may not be generalisable to other situations and levels, as mentioned above other research notes similar findings.

The blended learning approach appeared to foster a number of positive outcomes and the face-to-face activity usefully commenced this process. However, it is in completing the OCL activities described here students readily demonstrated an ability to take control and become actively engaged in the process. This begs the question, is this unsurprising given that OCL replicates, albeit in an educational context through the deployment of sound pedagogy, some of Web 2.0 technology’s social networking aspects, an environment with which new students are becoming increasingly familiar? This is an important question worthy of further thorough investigation. From the student perspective, in the first round, it is apparent that students developed a set of robust critical thinking skills and became information sceptics enabling them to engage effectively with the information and in the second round this critical approach was sustained in the peer assessed work. Hence, it is proposed that OCL facilitates critical thinking which enables deep learning to take place. It also appears that this form of output may lend itself to being assessed in a more formal way. It would appear that online social networked learning in the form of the new OCL model devised here may be the e-learning ‘holy grail’ enabling students to achieve the higher order critical thinking skills recommended in learning theory and e-learning scholarship alike. However, in the ever changing technological world, it must be asked is it really possible to resolve the tension between the theoretical ideals discussed above and the practicalities of developing workable learning and teaching interventions? Probably not, any approach to resolution is only provisional in the context of an ever changing learning environment and information landscape.


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1 It should be noted here that whilst the topic of IL is in itself interesting a discussion of this is beyond the scope of the paper presented here.

2 Evidence was gleaned from students assessed work, questionnaire responses and interview transcripts.

3 ASK can be found at www.staffs.ac.uk/ask

4 Subsequent teaching weeks are beyond the scope of this paper.


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