Ownership in the OMS

In our talk to the GVU Brown Bag a few weeks ago, one thing I mentioned was the amazing level of ownership that students in the OMS seem to have in the program. I’m basing this only on my perception, of course, but my experience with these students has been fantastic. Any college or program develops its reputation largely based on the students it generates: Georgia Tech’s strong reputation comes from decades of strong graduates reflecting well on the university. The OMS program is new and unproven, but the students appear ready to give it a great reputation.

But what do I mean by ownership? In some ways, it’s superficially obvious. OMS students have created their own communities surrounding the program; the Google+ and Facebook groups for the OMS are entirely student run, and we’ve started interacting with students in those communities simply because students developed them into great places to reach one another. From student-run resource sites to unofficial surveys on course and instructor quality, it’s remarkable to me how much OMS students are doing that has traditionally been the responsibility of staff. This is great for scale as well: if we want to grow the OMS program to far beyond its current size, we’re going to have to leverage the size of the community rather than traditional ways of supporting a growing student body.

But in administering a course, what was interesting to me is that ownership takes on a different form. The ownership I’ve seen in OMS students isn’t just over the program as a whole, but also over the pedagogy and teaching of at least our individual course. Students propose their own discussions, carrying them out over several weeks. Students bring articles, news stories, and research in from external sources separate from any suggestion by the instructor. Students introduce the ways in which their real-life experience helps them think about the material of the class; numerous times in our class, students commented with how their families or kids displayed principles we talk about throughout the course. All of this is self-driven: while we do create discussions on our own from time to time, the vast majority of the discussion in the class is student-initiated, student-maintained, and student-owned. On a personal level, I can say that when I advise other TAs to check Piazza multiple times a day, it’s not because it’s a chore: during the Fall semester, checking in on student discussions was earnestly the best part of most of my days.

So where does this come from? Without a doubt, it comes in part from the students themselves: they are a motivated, self-selected group of students with enormous industry and life experience. In my opinion, however, a lot of it comes from the unique affordances of the medium as well. In our Brown Bag talk, I recounted an event in our class where a student introduced a discussion topic that spun up into a conversation involving over 40 students and 10,000 words of well-thought out posts with no coaxing from the instructors. In an in-person class, it’s difficult for a student to propose these kinds of discussions: class time is limited, and online forums like Piazza tend to be seen as complements to in-person discussions rather than replacements for them. Online, however, time is relatively unlimited, conversations occur asynchronously, and discussions can splinter. In an online class, a forum like Piazza becomes the classroom rather than complementing a separate classroom, and because of this, the unique types of discussion it can facilitate shine through. Put simply, the structure of this online course allows students to take ownership of the course in a way that is difficult to do in person.

Of course, this requires a great deal of comfort and confidence on the part of the instructors. We must be willing to loosen the reigns a little bit and let students teach one another. We must be willing to let our classes develop into communities of practice rather than “sage on the stage” instruction. This can be intimidating: what do you do when a student in the class you’re teaching knows more about some of the material than you do? But by loosening our grip and allowing our classes to be communities more than isolated students, we can truly start to leverage the size and diverse backgrounds of our students.

How will Georgia Tech OMS students change over time?

This morning, Ashok and I presented our talk at the GVU Brown Bag titled “Putting Online Learning and Learning Sciences Together”. You can watch the talk in its entirety here.

In the talk, one of my main reflections is that the student body of the OMS are incredibly engaged, driven, and invested. They’ve really taken ownership over the success of the program in a way that, in my opinion, in-person students don’t. Perhaps I’m wrong about the students, but I can earnestly say interacting with them has been the most satisfying and stimulating experience of my educational career.

In the Q&A afterward, however, we received a good question: the current OMS students are a highly self-selected group. They were willing to apply and pay to join an experimental (although accredited) program. It’s not surprising that a group of students that is willing to be the “early adopters” are more engaged and driven to participate.

Over time, however, will this change? On the one hand, it is easy to see how the shine of the early adopters could fade as the program becomes more routine and respected. In my opinion, the early adopters feel (and rightfully so) that they reflect on the program as much as the program reflects on them because they’re the first cohort of students that will advertise the OMSCS’s greatness to the world. Five years from now, however, will the 10,000th student feel as much ownership of the program as the 10th student did? It’s reasonable to think they won’t, and that the students in the OMS will come to resemble in-person students over time.

On the other hand, could it be that the excellence of the OMS students is not due to their status as early adopters, but rather due to their demographics and industry experience? The OMS students are largely professionals with families, and it is reasonable that this will remain the target audience as time goes on as well given the undergraduate prerequisite for the program. This audience, with its superior industry and life experience, may be what is leading to this increased engagement and  sense of ownership. These are students that are used to have responsibility and influence rather than just being pushed through a system to get a degree, and it is entirely possible that this audience will remain this invested as time goes on.

But there are other possibilities as well. Maybe the excellence of students in the program is actually a product of the medium itself. The asynchronous online interface provides some rich opportunities for students to ownership over the class. In person, for example, it’s rare for a student to pose a discussion that dominates the class period; after all, the professor typically enters the class with a lesson plan in mind that ought not to be entirely derailed by student questions. Online, proposing a discussion does not take away class time from the lessons. Thus, perhaps it’s simply the online medium that brings out the best in the students. If that’s the case, then the online environment may have a powerful opportunity to not only be a useful alternative to traditional education, but may even provide some advantages over it.

Peer-to-Peer Feedback: More than Just Scale

In our efforts to scale up education to reach more students without investing more resources, we often make the mistake of trading scale for quality. This was one of the initial major criticisms of MOOCs: sure, they’re massive and accessible and free, but they aren’t actually good educational experiences. There’s often no feedback, no assessment, and no interaction. MOOCs might appeal to the most self-driven, self-regulated learners, but to the vast majority of students their usefulness is limited.

One of the things we’ve experimented with in trying to improve the scale of our OMS class is peer-to-peer feedback. Students receive the assignments of their classmates and evaluate them, sending their feedback back. Primarily, this helps scale by providing students an alternate source of feedback that doesn’t take away from our limited grading resources. It can also help scale by giving graders some starting information on what to look for in incoming assignments, directing graders’ attention to those students that need more support, and even offloading parts of the grading process onto the students altogether if peer feedback becomes peer grading.

However, the more interesting thing I’ve observed is that while peer feedback may help with scale, it is also a useful activity in and of itself. We’ve observed four pedagogical benefits to peer-to-peer feedback in our OMS class:

  1. Increased feedback. The most obvious benefit of peer-to-peer feedback is that students receive additional feedback beyond what they would have received from graders. This feedback often also brings other perspectives, views, and ideas, especially in the OMS class where students come from such diverse professional backgrounds. But increased feedback is the least  surprising of these benefits; what else do we gain from peer-to-peer feedback?
  2. Learning by example. We’ve asked students for a lot of feedback in our course. On the topic of peer-to-peer feedback, the top piece of positive commentary we’ve gotten has had nothing to do with the feedback students receive or given, but rather the value of simply seeing others’ work. Students comment that seeing the way their classmates approach an assignment helps them understand the strengths, weaknesses, and assumptions of their own answer. This provides some implicit feedback without using a second of grader time.
  3. Learning by teaching. Asking students to give each other feedback also leads to a bit of a role reversal. Students are no longer merely students; they are also teachers, asked to help one another out. This means students must read assignments with an analytical, critical eye, and picking out the flaws, assumptions, and strengths of others’ assignments is a powerful learning exercise in its own right.
  4. Authenticity. Generally, students in the OMS program are looking for careers in software development or some kind. Nearly all software development involves working on a team. Team members are constantly asked to evaluate and use one another’s work, as well as take critique and feedback on their own work from other team members. The peer-to-peer feedback exercise is an authentic replication of one of the higher-order skills students in our program will be asked to do professionally.

There are, of course, challenges to overcome. Students reflected in our class that they often do not get good feedback from their peers. The amount of time students actually spent giving feedback to their classmates was often dismal. However, the fundamental structure of peer-to-peer feedback has some powerful pedagogical advantages that are worth pursuing; and, as a happy side effect, it may also help us address the pervasive question of scale.