Engaging Independent and Collaborative Learning

Hauke, E. (2014) Engaging independent and collaborative learning – encouraging students to use a virtual learning environment for group work. In: Designing Learning Landscapes: Mobile, Open, Inclusive. Learning & Teaching Conference. Goldsmiths, University of London. London, UK.


Imperial College offers science, engineering, maths and medicine at degree level, but has implemented a new co-curricular studies programme. This includes courses in humanities, languages, business and global challenges being offered to all undergraduate students (the students are taught in interdisciplinary groups in protected timetable slots on a weekly basis). The programme has encouraged the implementation of novel and innovative teaching and learning strategies, with use of our virtual learning environment being a mandatory component of all sessions.

Global Challenges is one of our newest fields of learning, and the courses have been developed with the VLE as a central component of the learning experience. A case study will be presented from a first year undergraduate course successfully run in Autumn 2013.

Case Study

Over one hundred students signed up and participated in ‘The World Today’. The course encourages the student body to work together to carry out a critical assessment of the state of the world, focussing on ‘global challenges’. The students are allocated to working groups of around ten students per group, and the groups negotiate for their preferred topic of study (this term we had students working on: War, Conflict and Terrorism; Energy; Hyper-Industrialisation; Poverty; Education; Gender Inequality; Cyber Security; Resource Management and Diseases).  As the course topic is so vast, the students need to rely on each other to contribute different aspects of the work for the term, so that we can create a complete picture by the final week.

In each session the students come together as one group to explore a concept such as ‘measuring on a global scale’. They then move into their groups to apply this concept to their own area of study. All the group work is documented on their group wiki on the VLE. Each student is expected to contribute something to their own wiki each week (we encourage the students to collaborate on creating pages with multiple authors). The students can edit and change each others’ work within their groups. In addition we ask the students to read the wikis of other groups, and to leave them comments and questions.

The students are responsible for directing their own learning both in terms of selecting their topic and by choosing how to focus to the applied concept to their topic each week. They are also directly influencing the learning of their peers – both within their own group, through their collaboration, and across the other groups by asking questions and stimulating enquiry and discussion.

The students this term have taken ownership of their learning in ways that we have not previously achieved using other online methods. On average, the students have made over 3000 contributions to the wikis each week, and their engagement with the material is excellent. Additionally we have never before achieved so many levels of collaboration within and between groups.

The students are assessed using a skill-based rubric that they are familiarised with during the first week. We assess a range of skills both in terms of their weekly performance in class, and of their contributions to the wikis. We are able to analyse the participation and collaboration of students by reviewing multiple page versions and summaries of metrics such as numbers of words changed. They also have a final poster presentation assessment that is derived from their online work.


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