Peer learning in a virtual world

Better together: The ability to work with peers is highly valued in workplaces. – 123rf

UNIVERSITIES in this day and age face all manner of challenges – some of which are funding cuts despite growing student populations, and academicians’ race against time to equip themselves with appropriate skills amid unprecedented digital acceleration, due to a pandemic that has reshaped the way we work, play, live and study.

In light of this, higher education institutions should seriously consider peer learning (students learning from other students) as one of the solutions to these challenges. In fact, research and literature have offered three main factors that make a convincing case of why we should consider peer learning.

Firstly, academic staff are expected to equip themselves with the skills to teach more students without diminution in the quality of student learning. This phenomenon has prompted a search for teaching and learning strategies which could potentially increase or maintain student learning with less direct input and involvement from academic staff. Thus, peer learning is promising as it is an instructional strategy which helps students to accelerate their learning through active discussions and exchange of ideas.

Secondly, employers are seeking candidates who not only have higher education degrees, but are also able to demonstrate an aptitude for lifelong learning. This is aligned with the concept of peer learning, which encourages undergraduates to become lifelong learners, as well as involve students working together to develop collaborative skills and practise teamwork in the learning community. These are essential transferable skills which can go a long way after graduation.

Lastly, the advancement of technology is a significant driver in promoting the use of peer learning in teaching and learning activities more than ever. It provides students with more open access to information and makes participation more effective. It also offers shy students more opportunities to interact with their peers and have dialogues that don’t require face-to-face communication.

As information technology develops, geographical barriers are no longer an issue and communities get closer.

With classes being conducted online in the wake of lockdowns, students and universities can utilise existing virtual learning environments, such as the Moodle Learning Management System (Moodle LMS) that is widely used around the world, to ensure students gain the most from learning with their peers.

Using Wiki for collaborative assignments

Take for example, the use of Wiki for collaborative assignments. Similar to how Wikipedia works, a Wiki is a flexible and collaboratively designed webpage that is formed as a result of online collaboration among peers. Each time a student makes changes to a Wiki page, each of the edits and amendments becomes a revision. This “mini-website” allows peers to keep track of the changes made and the contribution of each peer. Whenever needed, it allows the users to “roll back” to the previous version based on the “historical” information kept in the system. Therefore, it is an engaging tool enabling peers to own their shared responsibility in producing a shared resource.

Empowering peer marking using Workshop

Universities can also empower peer-to-peer marking using Workshop in Moodle LMS, which administers the submission of assignments and then allocates these assignments to peers for reviews. This tool allows students to assess the submissions of their peers using structured assessment rubrics shared by the course instructor. In addition, it allows students to learn from the perspectives of others by evaluating their peers’ answers. Instructors can also use Workshop to empower students to assess and evaluate their peers’ performance in a collaborative manner. In Workshop, instructors will be able to allow their learners to report if another peer is not contributing to group work.

Enhancing peer learning through digital badges

A reward and gamification system is useful to promote positive reinforcement of specific behaviour among students. Digital badges may encourage peer learning in a virtual learning environment as they capture and communicate what students learn and what they can demonstrate. As learning today becomes increasingly ubiquitous, digital badges are being used to “celebrate” learning upon completion of a milestone, in addition to rewarding exemplary behaviour and supporting lifelong learning endeavours. When these badges are published in the students’ social media platforms, their learning becomes more gratifying as they can share achievements instantly with their peers. This, in turn, increases students’ success in learning.

Since the ability to work with peers is highly valued in workplaces, peer learning activities need to be included as formal components of university courses. Formalising peer learning provides a way to develop well-rounded graduates who can display a consistent ability to collaborate with others towards a shared educational goal. This is a useful skill for both university learning and the future workplace.

This major shift in educational goals towards equipping students with a broad range of skills has also been recognised in Target 4.7 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore, it is crucial for universities to translate these educational goals into practise by focusing on life skills development among graduates.

Dr Lim Chee Leong is the director of learning innovation and development at the Centre for Future Learning in Taylor’s University. He has been in the education industry for more than 20 years, with experience both in teaching and administration. He is passionate about exploring, evaluating and integrating various emerging classroom technologies in teaching, learning and assessment activities. At the national level, he is the first notable individual from a private university in Malaysia to be awarded the prestigious National Academic Award (Anugerah Akademik Negara, AAN) in 2013 by the Education Ministry for his innovative teaching methodologies. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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