IST researcher explores student online collaboration

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- At Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) and many other institutions of learning, an increasing number of classes are being conducted in a blended learning format. Blended courses are classes where a portion of the traditional face-to-face instruction is replaced by Web-based online learning. Marcela Borge, a senior research associate/instructor at the College of IST, recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will enable her to explore the nuances of student online collaboration and develop learning models that can be adapted to different educational settings.

“We hope that this project will contribute to higher quality collaborative environments for students in online and blended learning environments,” Borge said.

Borge and Carolyn Rosé, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, received an award of $500,000 from the National Science Foundation for a proposal called “EXP: Collaborate Research: Fostering Ecologies of Online Learners through Technology Augmented Human Facilitation.” The funds, which will be split evenly between Penn State and Carnegie Mellon, will support a three-year project that Borge said will “merge what we know from the fields of Human Computer Interaction, the learning sciences and computational linguistics to support an online collaborative learning environment.”

The award is the first major grant for the Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL), which was established in 2012 to support faculty research on inventing, implementing and investigating new ways to use technology to improve online education. The College of IST, the College of Education and the World Campus are partners in the center.

“This is very important for the College of IST and especially for COIL to have such a prestigious award in the center’s first year,” said Fred Fonseca, associate professor at the College of IST and co-director of COIL.

As part of the project, Borge and Rosé are developing a collaborative environment to support the development of students’ understanding of what high quality collaborative knowledge building entails and how to monitor and regulate it. The online environment will allow the students to store a variety of media — videos, documents, links to websites, etc. On the backend, the system will be able to interpret what the students are posting and will evaluate their ability to plan, build on ideas, evaluate ideas and make progress. Based upon the system’s evaluations, embedded agents will prompt the students with suggestions in the chat environment, such as thinking more deeply or using different strategies. The instructors will be able turn features on and off and see how the teams are interacting with each other. The environment will also allow researchers to study whether different types of prompts and feedback are more effective than others.

“We’re developing a collaborative environment to meet the needs of the whole student by providing opportunities to develop cognitive, metacognitive and relational skills,” Borge said. 

During the first year of the project, Borge and Rosé will be conducting analysis on previous studies on face-to-face and online learning environments. By the end of the year, Borge said, they will implement a working prototype without the backend features, in which the students will reflect on their own progress. In the second year, they will test the backend features. In the final year of the project, the investigators will add the backend features, and seek to improve and revise the system based on field-testing and feedback from students and instructors.

A major advantage of the system that Borge and Rosé are developing, Borge said, is its flexibility. Many educational milieus include a collaborative and/or online component, so instructors from a variety of backgrounds may be able to integrate the system’s features into their curriculum.

“The goal is to develop a system that can be used to support collaborative learning in any educational context,” Borge said. “This poses many challenges, but we are confident that our team can come up with innovative solutions.

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Last Updated December 11, 2013