The Tennessee Department of Education (2014) states that 70% of Tennessee Virtual Academy’s 8th grade students report rarely working in small groups or pairs to discuss written work. This is 15% lower than Union County, 39% lower than the district of East Tennessee, and 46% lower than the state (see Table 4). Toten (1991) claims that students who engage in dialogue by actively collaborating and debating ideas within a peer-group are more likely to become critical-thinkers both in and outside the educational setting. With the push for Common Core standards, critical thinking skills will be more important than ever within our school systems.
Despite commitment and dedication, teachers at Tennessee Virtual Academy, a fully-online school, have difficulty facilitating significant and meaningful academic peer collaboration during live, synchronous sessions. The school, which uses Blackboard Collaborate to host online sessions, has not provided official or mandatory training for teachers on effective group interactions in the virtual setting. Now closing its third year in operation, observation and survey feedback suggest that teachers randomly assign students to groups and do not prepare students for effective collaboration.
Current Conditions and Desired Conditions
The current teaching and learning environment at Tennessee Virtual Academy does not consistently provide meaningful and dynamic teamwork between students in the virtual classroom. Over 80% of students surveyed believe that they are randomly assigned to groups (see Table 1), and only 33% of teachers surveyed believe they have spent sufficient class time training students to collaborate effectively (see Table 2).
Observations of teachers throughout the 2013-2014 school year have shown that despite having training in Blackboard Collaborate and its breakout rooms, teachers predominantly group or pair students at random in order to collect evidence for report cards rather than foster peer interaction and cooperative learning.
It is the desire of administrators at TNVA that teachers create unique opportunities, at least weekly, for students to work in partnership during synchronous sessions. It is also desired that teachers use Blackboard Collaborate tools and breakout rooms to assemble students into purposeful groups by learning style, ability, or interest. The students will understand that groupings are focused and that the success of each depends on the success of all. Student leaders will be present in each grouping, and sufficient class time will be used on training learners to collaborate effectively.
Data Collection Processes
Discussion of Data Collection Instruments Used
In order to determine if there is a need for instruction or training, teachers at TNVA were asked to answer 14 Likert Scale questions involving statements regarding collaboration among students in the virtual classroom. Educators were given access to...