Collaborative Learning in Education
We live in a world where resources are limited, time is of the essence and productivity in the workplace is key. Our methods and modes of communication are rapidly being completely transformed by way of social networks and online engagement. Too often we see the negative associations of people utilising smartphones or technologies in lieu of traditional social settings and protocols. However, it is an incorrect assumption to say we are less social than before. What is different is the way we socialise. Socialising and, by extension, teamwork may no longer mean physically being present and giving a friend a literal ‘helping hand’. Compounding the changes of this paradigm shift is that we no longer necessarily work in a fixed location with local community. Remote workplaces, work from home and non fixed location based jobs mean we are often thrown into a mix of languages, cultures, traditions and forms of discussion.
There is an old saying that ‘two heads are better than one’. Research shows that this is true for the workplace (1). A teamwork mentality, or collaboration as it is more formally referred to, was fundamental to many success stories throughout recent history. Bill Gates and Paul Allen (Microsoft), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple) , Brin and Page (Google). Research conducted by Accenture (2) shows that this is assumed to accelerate and become even more common in business.
Collaborative learning teams are often more effective in their research, with higher success rates regarding their solutions. Why is this so? It can be hypothesized that groups tend to learn through discussion, debate and assessment of topics and evaluation of other’s ideas (3). Information that is discussed is more likely to be retained in long term memory. Some academic research also suggests that students who worked collaboratively on math problems achieved significantly higher scores than those who worked alone. Additionally, students who normally achieved below average results improved when working in more diverse groups.
What is collaborative learning?
Collaborative learning is based on the view that knowledge is part of a social construct. To utilise group-based activities in education, there are three core principles:
- The student should be the primary focus of the instruction
- Interaction, engagement and involvement are of primary importance
- Developing solutions to real-world problems should be incorporated into learning to ensure a feeling of relevance.
Collaborative learning can occur within a framework from peer-to-peer up to much larger groups. Peer learning, or peer instruction, is a type of collaborative learning that involves students working in pairs or small groups to discuss concepts, or find solutions to problems. This often occurs in a class session after students are introduced to course materials. Students teach each other by way of discussion, addressing misconceptions and working together to find common understanding.
What is the impact of collaborative learning or group work?
Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning. The benefits of collaborative learning include:
- Development of communication skills, both talking and importantly, listening
- Self-management and leadership skills
- Increase in student retention, self-efficacy, and responsibility
- Exposure to and an increase in understanding of diverse perspectives
- Preparation for real life social and employment situations.
How can we implement collaborative learning?
There are many forms of collaborative learning, but regardless of the format, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind.
Establish group goals. This aims to keep students on-task with a clear understanding of purpose. These expectations and end points should be well understood before commencing any tasks.
Group size consideration. Very small groups can lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large create “freeloading” where not all members participate.
Keep in mind the diversity of groups. It is believed that mixed aptitude groups tend to learn more from each other and increase achievement of low performers. Rotate groups so students have a chance to learn from others. Allowing students to form their own groups will likely result in uneven groupings. In majority male groups, girls can at times be ignored or spoken over. In majority girl groups, girls tended to direct questions to the boy who often ignored them.
Group ‘Norms’. Interactivity and negotiation are important in group learning. A recent study (4) suggested that norms are pervasive and that the establishment of rules for group interactions for younger students is important. Older students might create their own norms. Norms should be flexible and adapt with situations so that groups do not become rigid and intolerant or develop sub-groups.
Role Assignments — For larger groups, decomposing a difficult task into parts saves time. The students might take turns to choose their own role and alternate roles by sections of the assignment or classes.
Consider the learning process itself as part of assessment. Many studies have considered how cooperative learning helps children develop social and interpersonal skills(5). The social and psychological effect on self-esteem and personal development can be just as important as the learning itself, allowing students to learn appropriate behaviour for social groups.
Varied Strategies. No one strategy is perfect. Consider using different strategies, like the Jigsaw technique. Many workplaces today, notably ones that work remotely in decentralised scenarios, require ‘jigsaw’ like solutions. It involves separating an assignment into subtasks, where individuals research their assigned area. This format of collaboration allows students to become “experts” in their assigned topic. Students then return to their initial group to educate others. This assists in them developing further skills in leadership, discussion and persuasion.
Use real world problems. Project-based learning using open questions can be very engaging (5). Rather than spending a lot of time designing an artificial scenario, use inspiration from everyday problems.
Focus on enhancing problem-solving and critical thinking skills. Design assignments that allow room for varied perspectives and interpretations. Different types of problems might focus on categorising, planning, taking multiple perspectives, or forming solutions.
Increasing Responsibility — At the beginning of a project, you may want to give more direction than towards the end. Serve as a guide, rather than instructor, such as by providing a list of questions to consider. Giving the freedom for your students to grow and organically increase their responsibility is a form of empowerment.
Technology -There are many free online tools for teachers and students to incorporate into their collaborative project toolkit (http://bit.ly/2sKasPK). It is important to ensure that the technology enhances productivity and efficiency and does not slow down processes with steep learning curves.
Collaboration in Digital Technologies Learning
ScopeIT Education have taken a pedagogical approach to our lesson and course planning. Collaboration forms the basis of all 24 courses and our 600+ lessons that are taught to 14,000+ students every week. Our curriculum involves a direct, deliberate and outcome-based collaboration format for every lesson. We call it (as many do) “Pair Programming”. We utilise groups of two, with very specific roles for each participating student to play. The “Driver” is the person who operates the computer, they have the mouse under their control and operate the keyboard inputs. The “Navigator” however is the person that leads the planning, direction and gives the instructions. In this way the pair must discuss, negotiate and implement tested solutions together. Paired students learn valuable oral skills, listening skills and consideration of others thoughts and input. This helps them not only in their immediate ICT lesson, but gives them valuable tools and skills for general social settings.
Collaboration of a species is what helps society thrive and with the continued efforts to educate and guide our students on effective teamwork, there can be immense social and societal gains.
Frank Lucisano is the founder and CEO of ScopeIT Education — Australia’s leading ICT education body. Founded upon the principles that technology, being used effectively along with the integration of ICT lessons for all students is now an essential part of all K-12 students education.