Online Collaborative Learning Activities in CSE courses

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1. Summary

In our course, we will have a couple of online collaborative learning activities. One of these will be on Piazza, the other will be on CONSIDER. Each activity will be graded (probably worth 20 points each) and will be part of the overall grade for the course.

2. Background

Many students tend to dislike "group activities" in courses. But the online collaborative learning activities that we are going to have in our course are very different from typical group activities you might have gone through in other courses. First some background.

Research with children has shown that the best way for people to learn something deeply is by discussing it with their peers. You might say, isn't that obvious? What is so unusual about that? Two things: First, the discussion must be among peers and should not involve someone like a teacher; the reason for this is that if a teacher is involved, then most students in the group simply accept whatever the teacher says and don't think deeply about the topic. But when it is only peers, you have to listen to what the others in the group are saying and try to understand them and analyze what they are saying because you might be wrong and one of them might be right; but you can't blindly accept anything any of them says because they might all be wrong and you might be the one who has the right idea/answer! So you have to evaluate what everyone is saying, then decide which answer is best; in the process, you develop deep understanding. Second, the group of peers must involve students who have different ideas about the topic/problem being discussed. After all, if they all had the same idea/answer (independent of whether it is right or wrong), there would be nothing for them to discuss, right?

One other surprising point: it turns out that even if everyone in a group starts out with a wrong answer (but different wrong answers!), then, by the end of the discussion, several of them will get to the correct answer! How is that possible? It seems that when you analyze other people's wrong answers to see why they are wrong and you listen to their analysis of why your answer is wrong, that forces you to fundamentally rethink the whole thing and, in that process, you often get to the right answer.

3. The CONSIDER Approach

But there are numerous problems in having such a discussion in a college classroom, such as: we will have to form these small groups of 4-5 students each with each group including students with different ideas about the given topic, make sure that one or two people in a group don't dominate the discussion in the group (as often happens), devote (scarce) classtime to the discussion which means the groups can't really get into extended discussions, etc. People have tried this in some college classrooms but, because of all these and other problems, with limited success.

Can we have these discussion online to work around these problems? The idea behind CONSIDER is that, depending on how the online discussions are organized, not only can these problems be addressed but there can be some additional important advantages as well. The CONSIDER approach and the web app works as follows:

The instructor posts a suitable question on the CONSIDER web app and tells the class about it. Each student is required to log in (by some specified time; for now, you must use your Google id to use the app) and submit his/her answer to the question. If you submit your answer at some point and then decide you want to change it, you may do so up to the specified deadline (usually 24/48 hours from the time the question was posted). The instructor (maybe with the help of the TA) then divides the class into groups of 3-5 students each, trying to make sure that each group includes students who submitted different answers to the question (or at least provided different details in explaining their answer even if their answers were superficially the same). The discussion starts at this point. But the structure of this discussion is *very* different from what the typical discussion you might have on, say, Piazza. Specifically:

  1. Each group is separate; that is, you only see the posts of the students in your group. The instructor can see the posts of all the groups but does *not* participate.
  2. You do NOT know the identities of the other students in your group. Instead, the students in each group will be labeled, say, S1, S2, S3, S4.
  3. The discussion will be organized as a series of "rounds", each lasting 24 hours. In a given round, each student will make exactly *one* post; but he/she can edit that post as many times as he/she chooses up to the deadline for that round.
  4. The other students in the group will not see the post made by a student in a given round *until* that round ends. So, e.g., in the third round of the discussion, student S2 will see the posts made by S1, S2, S3, and S4 in the second round (and earlier rounds) but not any posts that the other students might have made so far in the current round.
  5. In his/her post for the third round, student S2 is *required* to state, for the second-round posts of *each* of the students in the group, whether he/she agrees with that post, disagrees with that post, or is neutral with respect to (perhaps doesn't understand) that post; and *why*. Note that S2 is required to respond to his/her *own* post from the previous round; this is because S2 might find the second-round post of one of the other students so compelling that he/she no longer agrees with his/her own second round post! In fact, *this* is the key. It is when this happens that we know that the discussion has helped S2 see the light! Anyway, each student makes one post in each round, stating agree/ disagree/ neutral with each of the posts from the previous round, the rationale for this, and his/her current position.
  6. The "agree/disagree/neutral" choice is made by clicking a green/ red/ yellow button; if you press "red", you better include an explanation why you disagree! (By the way, the web app is usable on a smart phone, tablet, laptop, or desktop; most current browsers should work; but using it on a phone to make it posts is probably not a good idea because of the size of the screen.)
  7. For the first round of the discussion, what S2 will see and respond to will be the individual answers submitted by each of S1, S2, S3, S4 to the problem. If it is an easy problem and S2's individual answer was wrong, he/she may already see the light and realize what the right answer is, pick the red button against his/her original post (i.e., his/her individual answer) and the appropriate buttons for the other students' posts, and submit the correct answer and why she changed his/her position ... if it is a more complex problem, it may take several rounds of discussion ...
  8. Each round will last 24 hours and you can edit your post for the current round as many times as you wish until that time expires. And then the next round will begin. Once a round ends, you can see the posts of all the students in your group in all the previous rounds but not edit any of them.
  9. How many rounds? The instructor will decide that in advance. Typically, two or three (max: four) rounds should be enough.
  10. Once the last discussion round finishes, each student will submit his/her individual *final* answer to the problem; and he/she will also be required to submit a clear summary of the group's discussion.
  11. The grade that the student receives will depend *only* on the correctness of this final answer and the quality of the summary he/she submits. So even if the student's original answer was incorrect, that will not affect his/her final grade; only his/her final answer and the quality of the discussion summary he/she submits. So each student has every reason to carefully consider the other students' answers, rather than blindly defending his/her original answer.
  12. One important point: unlike in the case of group activities that you might have engaged in as part of other courses, it is *not* the goal of the discussion for the entire group to arrive at a consensus answer. It is conceivable that all group members will come to the same final answer but that is not at all required. The key goal, instead, is to help *each* student develop as deep an understanding as possible by engaging in serious discussion with other students who have conflicting ideas about the topic and do so in a structured fashion.
  13. The reason for keeping the student identities anonymous is that it allows a freer expression of ideas without students having preconceived notions about who might be right/wrong. The point is that if S2 thinks S3 is very smart and S4 is not, S2 may not analyze S4's post carefully and may blindly accept what S3 says and both reduce the effectiveness of the learning. So by having anonymous groups, we avoid this problem.
But some of the above are just (hopefully, plausible) claims, not established facts. It is possible that small-group discussions on Piazza without all of this structure would be equally (or more!) effective. So, depending on how things go, we will have one/two activities on Piazza and one/two on CONSIDER.

4. Some Details

  1. Why is it called "CONSIDER"? It is an acronym for Conflicting Student Ideas Discussed, Evaluated, and Resolved (or Refuted!); of course, the name is intended to suggest that each student should carefully "consider" the ideas of the other students in the group.
  2. How do we use CONSIDER? CONSIDER is implemented using the Google App Engine. That means you must have a Google id to complete the CONSIDER activities for the course. If you don't have one, create one for use for this course.
  3. There is a CONSIDER tutorial here.

5. Other

  1. Who is involved with CONSIDER? CSE faculty: Neelam Soundarajan, Swaroop Joshi; Jeremy Morris a few students are working on implementing an improved version of the CONSIDER app.
  2. How do I get more information on CONSIDER? Here is a paper that Neelam and Swaroop wrote some time ago. It contains a lot of detail about the approach.
  3. Can I work on CONSIDER? Absolutely! Please send mail to Neelam ( explaining what you are interested in and we will try to get you involved. The project uses Python 2.7, HTML5, Javascript, Bootstrap and Google App Engine (GAE). Moderate experience with one or more of these, e.g., web development using Python, is required; prior knowledge of GAE is not required.
  4. Do others know about CONSIDER? We have published some papers about the idea in some conferences. But in order for it to be widely CONSIDER'ed, so to speak, we need to be able to present results on how well it worked in actual courses. So we plan to collect data from our course on the discussion activities using CONSIDER and Piazza. We will first anonymize the data to completely eliminate all information identifying individual students and then analyze the data to see what, if any, correlations there are between the use of CONSIDER and/or Piazza for discussing a specific topic has on student understanding of that topic. To do this, even though the data will be completely anonymized, we have to get your permission to include, in this analysis, data from your participation in the discussions. This will be done via a "consent form" that will be available soon on the Carmen/Canvas site for the course and in hard-copy in class. Please take a look at the form soon and consider permitting your anonymized data to be used in our analysis and provide feedback via an anonymous survey that we will send you; that will really help improve CONSIDER!