Homework that encourages socializing and learning from each other

In Engineering classes it is common to allow (and encourage) students to work together and collaborate on homework assignments. This clearly provides a great opportunity for students to learn from each other. But, in  my mind, more importantly, it simply makes doing homework more fun and builds social communities. Anyone visiting Kelley Engineering Center can observe small groups of students huddled around tables working together on homework and, at least outwardly, seeming to be having a good time. Sometimes you will see emissaries sent from one table to another to share insights.  I worry that moving more and more work online will impact the wonderful social aspect of being a student.
Two years ago, the publisher of the textbook for one of my classes encouraged me, and eventually convinced me to use their automated, online homework system. For the instructor, this obviously has the clear advantage of not needing to grade hundreds of homework assignments by hand every week. The publishers also loaded me up with studies showing better learning outcomes. But, I wondered, is it still fun to do homework and do students have reduced social interaction.  Anecdotally, I find fewer students from this class working together in the atrium.
Some will argue that these social interactions now occur online on discussion boards and social media. I am not convinced that this is a good substitute! Perhaps there are social scientists out there that have studied this, but from what I have found, most focus on the development of on-line social interactions rather than the decline of human-human interactions.
Thinking ahead to designing the hybrid course for ECE390, I am adamant that homework assignments will remain firmly in the real world, on tree-killing paper, handed in coffee stains and all. How can students effectively discuss complex, three-dimensional problems online? We need to sketch, point, model, laugh, cry and pull out our hair. Is there an app that does all that?  I still much prefer the “my dog ate my homework” excuse to the “my computer crashed” excuse.
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2 Responses to Homework that encourages socializing and learning from each other

  1. hyrapies says:

    I agree! As a social scientist myself I have always questioned this aspect of online classes. I have often wondered if we are moving toward producing a socially awkward generation. As I think about my Hybrid course, I am considering using online tools such as discussion boards and wikis to facilitate discussion among the students in the class. I think that these tools give everyone a voice unlike in a Face to Face setting where only some students might speak up. I intend to use class time for presentations of group work.

  2. Anne-Marie says:

    I ran into this thought too right away – when I was thinking about out-of-classroom learning experiences I thought of just as many that would be face to face as online. That’s partly because of the U-Engage common content, which emphasizes exploring OSU, but not totally.

    As someone who is in the library every day, I can attest to the importance of these in-person, f2f study groups and homework parties — we absolutely cannot buy enough whiteboards to meet the demands of those groups! It’s fair to say that OSU students are as interested in our whiteboards as in our computers 🙂

    It seems like that is one of the advantages of the hybrid model – that it can include a variety of out-of-classroom assignments and activities, and that it’s not limited to online substitutes for activities that would normally happen in the classroom?

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