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An Introduction to Collaborative Learning
Economides (2008) describes Collaborative learning as an educational method wherein a group of learners work together to learn and improve themselves. They team up towards a common goal, exchange and share ideas, information, knowledge, resources, tools, products, work, and results. They combine their efforts and capabilities to execute the task and achieve the desired outcomes. Hence, Smith and MacGregor (1992) would summarize collaborative Learning as an umbrella term for a variety of educational approaches involving joint intellectual effort by students, or students and teachers together. Usually, students work in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. Thus collaborative learning represents a significant shift away from the typical and traditional teacher-centred or lecture-cantered milieu in college classrooms to a more group oriented, peer-based learning methodology. Instructors who use the method believe that learning is essentially a social process and that their role is not simply to impart their own knowledge to their students, but that the acquisition of knowledge comes mostly through discussion and negotiation (Romney, 1996). The instructor's role is that of a facilitator, organizer, and occasionally of a resource person.
Benefits of Collaborative Learning
In-depth Research by various authors such as Vasiliou and Economides (2007) on collaborative learning has revealed its long-list of benefits.
Firstly, active and collaborative learning has been shown to enhance learning by stimulating stronger interest in the subject matter (Totten et al. 1991; Siegfried et al. 1996) and improve satisfaction (Alavi, 1994; Hiltz and Wellman, 1997). Active learning usually emphasizes active participation of students, who have a lot of difficulties in traditional school learning, in discussions and problem solving (Hakkarainen et al., 1999). Competition fosters a win-lose situation where superior students reap all rewards and recognition and mediocre or low-achieving students reap none. In contrast everyone benefits from a CL environment. Students help each other and in doing so build a supportive community which raises the performance level of each member (Kagan, 1986). This in turn leads to higher self esteem in all students (Webb, 1982). When students are successful they view the subject matter with a very positive attitude because their self esteem is enhanced. This creates a positive cycle of good performance building higher self esteem which in turn leads to more interest in the subject and higher performance yet. Additionally, collaborative learning enables students achieve higher level of thoughts and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals (Johnson and Johnson, 1986).
Secondly, collaborative learning interventions ought to develop and enhance students' critical thinking abilities as they develop higher competence levels in their writing and oral presentation skills (Gokhale, 1995; Hansen, 1998). Students at various performance levels collaborate to achieve a common learning objective by working on exercises or conceptual experiments in small groups within and outside the classroom setting. The small group interactions are usually problem-based and are intended to encourage critical thinking. The collaborative learning activities may culminate in written reports and oral presentations and are believed to increase the quality of these learning outputs.
Thirdly, it is necessary for cultural development (Bruner, 1996). Students are exposed to multi-cultural diverse groups and are encouraged to share their understanding of the task based on their cultural values and also understand the impacts of cultural diversity brought about by other students on the task at hand. Students become familiar with other cultures and are able to come up with a diverse and broader set of solutions. On a social level, the students' level of tolerance and acceptance of other people's viewpoints is increased, a skill which no doubt is beneficial in real-life situations where one also often has to be prepared to compromise.
Thus, such collaborative learning interventions that explicitly account for interdependencies across classes via collaborations between instructors and among students have the potential for enhancing student learning outcomes and helping to achieve important learning objectives such as the development of skills that engenders critical thinking, clear economical writing, clear argumentation, and competency in oral presentations.
Challenges of Collaborative Learning
While creating a collaborative classroom can be a highly worthwhile opportunity, on the flip side it also posses serious challenges and dilemmas both for the students and the teachers.
Designing group work requires a demanding yet important reconsideration of the existing syllabus, in terms of the included course content and allocated time constraints. The essential question to be considered while implementing a collaborative learning methodology is how to ensure that students are actually learning and mastering key skills and ideas in the course, while at the same time addressing all the material of the course adhering to the imposed time-constraints? Teaching in collaborative settings puts front and center the tension between the process of student learning and content coverage. Collaborative learning challenges and reshapes the conventional assumptions about teaching and learning. It represents a significant change in the roles classrooms play in the learning experience: both, teachers and students take on more complex roles and responsibilities (Finkel and Monk, 1983; MacGregor, 1990). The classroom no longer confirms to a one to many relationship with a single teacher and many individual students. Rather it starts behaving like a more interdependent community with all the joys and difficulties and tensions that circumscribe communities. This degree of involvement often questions and reshapes assumed power relationships between teachers and students, (and between students and students), a process that at first can be confusing and disorienting (Romer and Whipple, 1990). Not only does course content gets reshaped, so are the conventional definitions of student competence. Owing to the nature of group work which makes student learning a largely continuous process, collaborative learning not only enriches but also complicates the evaluation process. These challenges, at the classroom level, are compounded manifolds by the traditional hierarchy, structure and culture of the institution, which continue to propagate the teacher-centred, transmission-of-information model of teaching and learning.
Cultural differences of individual learners also greatly affect their collaboration methodology and thus their learning. Culture can be viewed as a set of shared values, beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, rules. It is the individual's way of looking at things to assimilate and analyse a given scenario. Culture is composed of "beliefs, norms, assumptions, knowledge, values, or sets of practice that are shared and form a system" (Rapport and Overing, 2000). Hence, a learners' cultural background can greatly affect his or her participation, motivation, satisfaction and performance during collaborative learning initiatives. Learners with diverse cultural background portray divergent modes of communicating, interacting, and working. They may have different views of the world. They may also develop different feelings and thoughts during the collaborative learning activities which may or may not confirm with thoughts and feelings of other learners in the group. Therefore, collaborative learning methodologies must consider cultural aspects of the learners in order to support every individual learner as well their efficient interaction and goal accomplishment.
At their best, collaborative classrooms stimulate both students and teachers. In the most authentic of ways, the collaborative learning process models what it means to question, learn and understand in concert with others. Learning collaboratively demands responsibility, persistence and sensitivity, but the result can be a community of learners in which everyone is welcome to join, participate and grow.
- Alavi, M., 1994, "Computer-mediated collaborative learning: an empirical evaluation", MIS Quarterly, Vol. 18 No. 2, pp. 159-74.
- Bruner, J.S., 1996, "Culture of education", Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
- Economides, A.A. 2008, "Culture-aware collaborative learning", University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece, Multicultural Education and Technology Journal, Vol. 2 No. 4, pp. 243-267
- Finkel, D. L. and Monk, G. S., 1983, "Teachers and Learning Groups: Dissolution of the Atlas Complex." in Bouton, C. and Garth, R. Y., 1983, (Ed.) Learning in Groups. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 14 San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Gokhale, A.A., 1995, "Collaborative learning enhances critical thinking", Journal of Technology Education, Vol. 7 No. 1.
- Hakkarainen, K., Lipponen, L., Jarvela, S. and Niemivirta, M., 1999, "The interaction of motivational orientation and knowledge-seeking inquiry in computer-supported collaborative learning", Journal of Educational Computing Research, Vol. 21, pp. 263-81.
- Hansen, W.L., 1998, "Integrating the Practice of Writing into Economics Instruction." in Becker, W.E. and Watts, M.E., 1998, (Ed) "Teaching Economics to Undergraduates: Alternatives to Chalk and Talk", Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1998.
- Hiltz, S.R. and Wellman, B., 1997, "Asynchronous learning networks as a virtual classroom", Communications of the ACM, Vol. 40 No. 9, pp. 44-9.
- Johnson, R.T. and Johnson, D.W., 1986, "Action research: cooperative learning in the science classroom", Science and Children, Vol. 24, pp. 31-2.
- Kagan. S., 1986, "Cooperative Learning and Sociological Factor in Schooling"
- in Cortes, C., (Ed)"Beyond Language: Social and Cultural Factors in Schooling Language Minority Students", Los Angeles, California State University Evaluation, Dissemination and Assessment Center.
- MacGregor, J. "Collaborative Learning: Shared Inquiry as a Process of Reform." in Svinicki, M., (Ed) "The Changing Face of College Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning", No. 42, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.
- Rapport, N. and Overing, J., 2000, "Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts", Routledge, London, NY.
- Romer, K. and Whipple, W., 1990, "Collaboration across the Power Line." College Teaching, 39 (2).
- Romney, C., 1996, "The benefits of Collaborative Learning", New Currents in Teaching and Technology, Vol. 3 No. 6., Information Services and the Teaching Development Office at the University of Calgary.
- Siegfried, J.J., Saunders, P., Stinar, E., and Zhang, H., 1996, "Teaching Tools: How Is Introductory Economics Taught in America?", Economics Inquiry 34, pp.182-92.
- Smith, Barbara L. and MacGregor, Jean T., 1992, "What is Collaborative Learning?", National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Pennsylvania State University
- Totten, S., Sills, T., Digby, A. and Russ, P., 1991, "Cooperative Learning: A Guide to Research", Garland, NY.
- Vasiliou, A. and Economides, A.A., 2007, "Mobile collaborative learning using multicast MANETs", International Journal of Mobile Communications, Vol. 5 No. 4, pp. 423-44.
- Webb, N. M., 1982, "Group composition, group interaction and achievement in small groups", Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 74 No. 4, pp.475-484.
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