Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Peer to Peer - be it students or staff it works

The last session I went to on Tuesday was a fascinating one, all three talks were about peer-to-peer support, but each approached the issue in very different ways.

The first was by Carol Wakeford of Manchester. Carol had been involved in supporting 30 students doing non-lab-based projects in their final year degree. As part of a CETL funded project the students were tasked with creating e-learning resources for their own curriculum. While each student had a one-to-one academic supervisor the programme was blended so that support was also offered by peers. This support was both in giving feedback to other participants on their project and responding to feedback received from others. Carol explained that the team used the Garrison, Anderson and Archer model of social, cognitive and teaching presence and focused on the first two areas.

Using NVivo the online discourse was analysed based on emergent themes (criteria). The analysis also looked at gender, programme of study and a few other factors.

The data showed that contribution per individual ranged from 0 to 65, and while the person who posted 65 times was male overall females contributed significantly more often then men. In terms of feedback there was twice as much feedback provided than there was response to feed back, an interesting distinction. The dyads and triads which formed among the students do seem to have been very useful for social engagement in the learning process, students said they felt they benefited from the process. However their was no improvement in project scores over previous years.

From my view the improvement in scores is less critical - as final year students those might have been driven by other factors, like the learning experience to date. The student impression that they were learning more would be enough to see me on this idea. Something to take to Glamorgan's Life Scientists!

The second presentation was given by Simon Walker from Greenwich. I'd had the pleasure of meeting Simon before at an event in Greenwich, so it was nice to see him again and find out what he has been up to.

Simon's focus was on a CAMELS project which was run at Greenwich, I was already familiar with the JISC Camel project Greenwich had hosted, Simon explained that this CAMELS project was focused on internal developments (intra-institutional) unlike the other CAMEL which had a inter-institutional remit. It was therefore housed on Greenwich's Moodle (if you clicked the CAMELS project link above you will need to sign in as a Guest to see the page).

The project involved a number of the academic schools and one of the Greenwich partner colleges - Bromley College as part of the Camels their were 'visits' to each of the parties in which a 'warts and all' presentation of what was going on in e-learning was shared. This approach, which is dependant on trust between the delivering school and those who visit allow for real two way learning, something which can break the silo pattern which can so easily occur in academic institutions.

Simon outlined some of the fruitful outcomes, highlighting in particular the engagement with Second Life which Bromley undertakes, leading it to inform the University of ways of using SL in learning and teaching - For more on this usage see the Bromley College SL blog.

In the spirit of CAMEL Simon highlighted the things that did not work in this process:
  • Not all partners gave their full commitment
  • Trust needs to develop it doesn't just happen
  • A community of shared interested was created but not really a community of practice
  • Lack of critique, the absence of trust meant people were not able to be as creatively critical as they might have been
From my perspective, having spent two years working to engage cross-faculty collaboration and bring faculty expertise out to the wider institution, I can see how this facilitated sharing from Faculty to Faculty can work. I intended to suggest this to our Faculty Blended Learning Champions at their next meeting to see if we could do something similar across faculties in the next year. A really helpful insight - if I had got nothing else out of the conference (and I have got lots) this would have made it worth attending.

The third session was by Peter Sloep (well I can spell it better than I pronounce it Peter) of the Open University of the Netherlands Peter's presentation was looking at peer-to peer wiki-based student support. Some of the initial work on the project had been presented in an ALT-J paper in Oct 2005 called

"Identification of critical time-consuming student support activities in e-learning"

Peter was looking at ways that the project had developed since then. The system works in a number of stages:
  1. Students post a question centrally
  2. A latent semantic analysis identifies (a) appropriate text (The OU being a text heavy delivery this would be easier for them than for other lecture-tutorial based institutions (b) most suitable peers from the former student group
  3. The system sets up a wiki with the question and text fragments identified by the latent semantic analysis
  4. System links question to three peer-tutors
  5. Answer is developed on the wiki by peer-tutors as a collaborative process.
Peter then used a UML diagram to show the process flow of the system - this was a little to technical for me but got a lot of interest from more technical people in the audience - the system is based on ad-hoc transient communities.

Peter reviewed the key features of the peer-student-tutors they were:
  • Content competent - they have completed the unit
  • Availability - Based on actual availability and past and present workload
  • Eligibility - The best results seem to come from the peer-students closer in study level to the student - linked to the joint zone of proximal development.
A piece of research was undertaken on a Basic Internet Skills course. The group was split into two - one where the peer-tutors were picked by the system, the other where the peer-tutors were selected on a random basis - the results indicated much greater take up for the peer-tutors selected by the system (100 questions posed to 80 for the other group) the system selected tutors were twice as fast as the random responders. Answers were rated higher (4 v 2.4 on 5 point scale).

The presentation was followed by a rich discussion with lots of interest about what had happened and how. In this example the system not only works to improve the process, but also the outcome - what more can you ask?

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