Collaborative Learning

Martin Terre Blanche

This is a diary of my involvement in a project on collaborative learning in the psychology department at the University of South Africa. Most recent posts below and links to previous posts on the left.

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How not to collaborate II

OK, so I work my way down the cascade of attached e-mails and get to the document I'm supposed to comment on. Its rather off-putting title is "Criteria and guidelines for short courses and skills programmes discussion document". I'm a bit scared of the standards mania that's gripped South African education (and also find aspects of it a bit exciting), so decide to at least read the excutive summary and send in a quick comment. Problem is, the executive summary is not a summary at all. It gives all sorts of detailed background information (a kind of pre-introduction introduction), but does not say what the main proposed principles, criteria or guidelines are. In these days of soundbytes and chunked information things like executive summaries can be useful, but only if they actually summarise the document.

posted by Martin on Friday, January 24, 2003
How not to collaborate I

Just got one of those typical e-mails from the head of department saying (in red capitals) - IMPORTANT DOCUMENT! PLEASE COMMENT! It had trickled down to him from the dean and before that from the university's central administration and before that from the South African Qualifications Authority. OK, so that's point one - trickle-down collaboration doesn't work. A sure sign of trickle-down collaboration is when an e-mail consists of multiply-embedded forwarded e-mails (each with its own little bureaucratic "please collaborate!" message) so that one has to keep clicking to drill down to the original thing you're supposed to collaborate on. If the only real context being provided is the sad history of how a message trickled its way down the bureaucratic ranks then you can be sure that most people will ignore it.

posted by Martin on Friday, January 24, 2003
Does information want to be free?

Stephen Downes' wonderful Online Learning Daily today has a link to an article by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba - Napsterize Your Knowledge: Give To Receive. I agree with the general sentiment of the article ("the more that a company shares its knowledge, the more valuable it becomes") and I also like their examples of people and organisations who benefit from giving away knowledge. However, I suspect that giving away knowledge/information may not always be a good idea and wonder if anybody has some sort of taxonomy of situations when giving away might not work. An example: A friend who runs a specialist search service regularly gets requests along the lines of "please send me your database on a CD". It seems like a bad idea to comply. Is it? Another example: Everybody's favourite company, The Great and Good Google actually have quite stringent rules against doing any kind of automated querying via them (see their terms of service at This includes (it would seem) the very useful popularity rankings provided by sites such as Is this a case of Google succumbing to the paranoia of the lawyers and money-men or are they just being sensible?

posted by Martin on Thursday, January 23, 2003
My friend Brandon Hamber started a blog - and invited me and some other people to join. I'm ashamed to admit that even though my blog is supposedly about collaborative learning I never even thought of inviting collaborators on board. Naughty-naughty. Ah well, at least I started my blog four days before his.

posted by Martin on Thursday, January 23, 2003
Apostrophe Protection Society

posted by Martin on Tuesday, January 21, 2003
MetaFilter - an interesting "community of users that find and discuss things on the web". "Self-policing since 1999".

posted by Martin on Tuesday, January 21, 2003
Externalling as a wasted collaborative learning opportunity. I am often used by colleagues from other universities as an external examiner for MA and PhD theses. What bothers me about the process is that, at best, my report is seen by the student and her supervisor. Some universities (like the University of South Africa where I work) even have strict rules (routinely broken) against letting students see the external examiner's report. Even at universities with more enlightened examination policies there is no mechanism for the student and supervisor to talk back to the external examiner's report. I almost never get any feedback. What I would like is for students to have a right to reply (and a mechanism for implementing it) and for there to be a repository of examiners' reports (and replies) so that people working on their theses can see what issues such reports typically focus on.

Externalling as a way of earning "academic frequent flyer miles".Externalling also raises the issue of compensation for collaborative work. Most universities pay examiners a token amount (although I'm glad to report that the University of Natal now pays R450 - about $40 - for an MA thesis), relying instead on goodwill - i.e. on an informal quid-pro-quo system of "I'll external your students if you'll external mine". What I'd like to see is some kind of formalised token economy where one earns credits for this kind of work, which can then be used to "purchase" favours from other academics. Some online journals already work on such a system for reviews. It would be nice to have a central broker for keeping track of the "academic frequent flyer miles" one earns from doing things like externalling and reviewing. I know that one does benefit (in terms of reputation and networking opportunities, and quid-pro-quo arrangements) from doing this kind of work, but I also suspect that some academics (the ones who find it hard to say no) put in more than they ever get out.

posted by Martin on Monday, January 20, 2003
Vasi van Deventer sent me a reference to a new book: Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making, edited by Paul A. Kirschner from the Open University of the Netherlands. It also has a companion site at The focus on argumentation (rather than e.g. "brainstorming") puts me off a bit - people don't collaborate to settle arguments or solve puzzles, but to produce things. Nevertheless, I'm sure there's a lot to learn from the book.

I've been thinking for a while that very different approaches are needed for different phases of collaborative work and that we need to learn to recognise what phase we're in and use the right way of collaborating for that. I often see people getting frustrated because they don't know how to move a collaborative project from a brainstorming to a producing phase or because they skim over the brainstorming part too quickly. From the preface to the book (available on the web) it looks like the collaborative visualizing approaches they describe are indeed intended for when issues are still ill defined. "Simulations, spreadsheets, and other modelling approaches can typically be deployed only after the problem has been sufficiently defined, bounded and constrained by assumptions, in other words, after much of the most intellectually demanding work has been done." What they want to do instead is to create spaces for more open-ended problem solving becuase "people need spaces – temporal, physical, cognitive, emotional, formal and informal – to simply talk and share ideas with colleagues...[but]...much of the energy poured into talking is often wasted, poorly channelled, never treated as a knowledge resource."

The reference is Paul A. Kirschner, Simon J. Buckingham Shum and Chad S. Carr (Eds.) (2002) Visualizing Argumentation: Software Tools for Collaborative and Educational Sense-Making. London: Springer-Verlag.2002. ISBN 1-85233-6641-1

posted by Martin on Monday, January 20, 2003
I like the name of Dave Winer's blog at Userland -

posted by Martin on Monday, January 20, 2003
Nice quotes from a talk by Jay Cross given to the Harvard Business School Alumni Association of Northern California:

"Learning is social. 90% of corporate learning is informal yet 80% of corporate investment is in formal learning. Building community, fostering collaboration, and setting up virtual water coolers returns a bigger bang for the buck than loading on more courses."


"Learning is ephemeral. Wait a day or two before applying what you’ve learned and half of it will have disappeared. It’s best to integrate learning into work. Unused knowledge atrophies."

posted by Martin on Monday, January 20, 2003