Peer Learning in Virtual Schools

By Johnston, Sam Catherine; Greer, Diana et al. | International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Peer Learning in Virtual Schools


Johnston, Sam Catherine, Greer, Diana, Smith, Sean Joseph, International Journal of E-Learning & Distance Education


INTRODUCTION

In the United States, the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) emphasize the importance of, and the increasing requirements for, peer-to-peer learning. For example, the English Language Arts (ELA) speaking and listening standards require "academic discussion in one-on-one, small-group, and whole- class settings. Formal presentations are one important way such talk occurs, but so is the more informal discussion that takes place as students collaborate to answer questions, build understanding, and solve problems" (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010). This new requirement for peer-to-peer learning is significant because the CCSS, a set of educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) in mathematics and ELA, have been voluntarily adopted by 45 American states (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2012).

Other pedagogical approaches used nationally also have new requirements for K-12 students to actively participate in the learning process and to engage in learning activities with peers. For example, inquiry- based science instruction is not conducted through completion of solitary work pursued separately by individual students; instead, it is a constructivist, collaborative, discourse-based process rich with opportunities for students to learn from and engage with the experiences of their classmates (National Research Council, 2012).

As in many other domains of pedagogy and educational practice, the technologies for online learning are potentially disruptive for traditional peer-to-peer learning (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2008). In this regard, no population is more susceptible-both positively and negatively-to changes in the patterns of peer-to-peer learning than students with disabilities. Students with disabilities, in fact, have often been enrolled in online learning precisely because of their difficulties with peer relations in the social learning environment of traditional schools (Edge Research, 2013; Reiner, 2012; Rose, Monda- Amaya, & Espelage, 2011). The study discussed in this paper-part of a much larger body of research examining the benefits and liabilities of online learning for students with disabilities (conducted through the national Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities [COLSD])-is among the first to examine the effects of online learning on peer-to-peer learning per se. The case study method (Yin, 2008) described here was designed to provide the first "close reading" of what peer-to-peer learning looks like in these environments and for these socially vulnerable students.

A paucity of research in this area is of considerable concern in light of two new policy requirements. The first pertains to the requirements for peer-to-peer learning that exist in curriculum frameworks being implemented nationally in the United States (e.g., the Common Core State Standards, National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010) and The Board of Science Education's 2012 framework for science education (National Research Council, 2012). The second policy area involves the increasing requirements for all schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE1 for students with disabilities (a requirement under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). Federal and state government agencies, legislators, and school districts are in the process of determining what an FAPE entails in a virtual public school (Martin, 2011; Rhim & Kowal, 2008). To ensure an FAPE, administrators and teachers in virtual schools will need to understand how students with disabilities can meet new curricular requirements for peer-to-peer learning.

The shortage of research on peer-to-peer learning in virtual schooling (Cavanaugh, Barbour & Clark, 2009), especially as it relates to students with disabilities, is concerning for other reasons as well. …

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