I believe the real question here, however, is what is collaborative learning. We have had this debate in our department in that some insist there is a difference between collaborative and cooperative learning. In the first case, collaborative learning is when students take a piece of a project and learn from interacting with the group on the piece they have studied. Cooperative learning is when students work together in supporting each others learning.
Just in my own work and research, I see a number of different ways that collaborative/cooperative learning could be manifested, including:
- Learning from a collaborative event: students collaborate on a project, then have directed/facilitated individual learning based on that collaboration. In other words, they learn from the collaborative process and individual reflection after.
- Learning from others on a process they all undergo individually: students go through the same experience or individually do the same project, then learn from each other through discussions or collaborative activities designed around the project. In this case they are sharing meaning and creating shared cognition. This is especially useful when the group is distributed (as the example that Mr. Rezac uses).
- Learning through collaborative problem solving: students work on a team to achieve a definitive goal. The collaboration requires that students use each others expertise and learn from the problems that are created through the collaboration process. There may need to be a facilitator that helps students to focus on each others expertise, to learn how to create shared knowledge for the group, and access that knowledge when needed.
- Synergistic learning through putting pieces of the puzzle together: in this case, individuals work individually on parts of a collaborative project, but then learn from others as each of the pieces are put together into a whole.
One of the major problems with collaborative learning, especially in the formal educational process, is how to measure individual learning. One way to approach this is to ignore individual learning and only look at the group learning. However, this devalues collaborative learning.
Tacit learning outside of the collaborative process is difficult to measure. I believe, though, that this is the real power in collaborative learning. As we move deeper into the 21st century, it is important that we recognize that collaboration is a vital skill in the workforce and may not necessarily be a natural instinct (and definitely is not part of the American culture-or any of the Anglo cultures).
I am not sure how to measure this learning and hope there are some ideas out there as to how to capture the level of learning collaboration presents. However, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater just because we don't know how to measure its impact yet.