About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Defining collaboration in a learning context

In response to a question raised Britt Gow on the workplace literacy site, I'd like to address the idea of "collaborative learning". Britt's comment was based on a post she read about "drop box" collaboration. In the post, Mr. Rezac, a 7th grade teacher in Illinois brings up a legitimate question as to whether an international project in which students video tape "what it is like to live where they do" is a collaborative learning project or rather just a "drop box" assignment. He questions where the collaboration is in the project.

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.
Internal, external, tacit, and explicit learning

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.


Mrs Gow said...

Hi Virginia,
Thanks for your comment and linking to my post. I guess I have exposed my limited experience here. I have found it very difficult to engage year 7 students in effective collaboration (both within the classroom and between classrooms). I have created an 'on line science fair' for students to share and present their work and have four classes from three continents working on similar projects. They are enjoying the process, but I am yet to see any thoughtful feedback, problem solving and intelligent discussion between stduents. I am very hopeful of a positive outcome and I will be rcycling the bath water with next years class - tweaking the project with what I have learnt this time.
Thanks again for your input, Britt Gow.

V Yonkers said...

Brit, I found it was necessary to make my students focus on their collaboration process by creating activities/discussions about what they were doing. For example, I ask them about what their impressions are of others in which they are collaborating. It is surprising what comes out when you prod them!

I also give them the following questions they must include in their final presentations on the collaborations:
What assumptions did your team make when beginning the project? How did that change? What was your plan for collaborating with the other team? What did you have to change? Why? If you were to do the project again, what would you do differently? Why? What did you learn from your team? What did you learn from the other teams?

I found that I needed to rely on my classroom to direct the learning. The online groups and collaboration was a jump off experience from which we could have thoughtful discussions in class. This way, if a group does not connect, if there are circumstances outside the control of your own classroom (ie. one of the schools we were working with was flooded out and lost access to their computers for 4 weeks, another group only had computer access once a week), you can still use it as a basis for learning. We would discuss what this meant for doing work internationally. Our class troubleshooting sessions would come up with some very inventive means to overcome problems. But it was controlled by each of the teachers to fit their individual classroom goals.

I worked with first year university students and had to give them a lot of structure. Your level of education would require even more context and scaffolding for learning to take place. I would recommend that you look at Vicki Davis's flat classroom project for more guidence on how to get more learning out of your collaborative projects.

Daniel Rezac said...

One of the things I've learned is that the beginning of a project is very important. I've just started a couple new projects with my kids, and I have year 7 students, too. Of utmost importance with these projects is that- it must be their choice. They must feel that somehow they've had a choice in choosing the topic or shaping it.

Last year it seemed like the passion I felt for the project just wasn't the same as the kids'. That's because I created the project. So this time around, I made it "feel" as though the students were calling most of the shots, just guiding their hands along the way. It's going much better.

I've been writing more about collaboration and participation at my new blog:

Thanks for a good discussion.