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Visual Classrooms: Collaboration and Community While Students Are Physically Apart

In today’s remote learning reality, enabling students to work in groups, share their work, and provide feedback to each other is of utmost importance. As Abrami and Bures (1996) have stated “some students in distant learning programs and courses report feelings of isolation, lack of self-direction, and management, and eventually decrease in motivation levels” (as cited in Ludwig-Hardman & Dunlap, 2003). Visual Classrooms is an online computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) platform that allows students to interact virtually and thus mitigate these issues. An example of the application of Visual Classrooms in an Organic Chemistry course illustrates how.

I teach Organic Chemistry (FDSC 230), a course typically taken by U0 or U1 students, with an average enrollment of 80-100 students. I assign students different types of problems to solve. These problems are of increasing complexity, so I also give students scaffolded practice activities to help them develop their problem solving skills. Individually, students post solutions to their problems in Visual Classrooms. The posts can be in different formats, for example, text, sketches, pictures, and videos. Peers then provide feedback. This feedback, which is not a graded activity, follows a process whereby students correct peers’ posts by identifying errors and suggesting ways to fix them or by commenting on correct solutions and explaining why they are correct (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Examples of peer feedback.

Students are asked to provide feedback on at least one correct post and one incorrect post. The feedback is also supported in a variety of formats, including annotations. Indeed, the beauty of Visual Classrooms is that it allows students to provide feedback by annotating each other’s posts; hence, feedback can be specific and targeted (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Example of student annotation directly on a peer’s drawing.

Students’ feedback annotations on both correct and incorrect solutions provide me with insight into students’ thought processes, which is crucial for guiding my teaching. The feedback helps me assess whether students understand the concepts they’re learning and know how to apply them.

I have used Visual Classrooms over four semesters. This semester, I’ve noticed a difference: student feedback is much more detailed than when we use this tool during in-person semesters. Students tend to learn better with personalized attention. Since I’m not able to provide the same kind of personalized attention in an online environment as I can in the physical classroom, peer feedback interactions might be filling this gap. Also, peer feedback in an online environment—both giving and receiving—can help students studying the sciences build a sense of community (Kay, Hardy & Galloway, 2018). I have observed that students who offer feedback to each other tend to study together online and sometimes come together to remote office hours. This helps incorporate more student agency in the process of learning, which will also lead to greater student engagement. Feedback that focuses on growth and learning rather than grading is preferred by students (Sadler, 1983). Peer feedback empowers students to take responsibility for and manage their own learning. It also enhances learning through knowledge diffusion and exchange of ideas.

Indeed, in a moment where we need to be physically apart, Visual Classrooms is a pedagogically rich way to foster collaboration among students so that they can learn new concepts and practice applying them with the support of a community of peers.

References

Kay, A. E., Hardy, J., & Galloway, R. K. (2018). Learning from peer feedback on student-generated multiple choice questions: Views of introductory physics students. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 14(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.14.010119

Ludwig-Hardman, S., & Dunlap, J. C. (2003). Learner support services for online students: Scaffolding for success. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 4(1). DOI: https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v4i1.131

Sadler, D. R. (1983). Evaluation and the improvement of academic learning. The Journal of Higher Education, 54(1), 60-79. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.1983.11778152

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