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.
Working with two basic tensions in collaborative learning
I have just been to a presentation by Chris Reading, who is from the Centre for Cognition Research into Learning and Teaching at the University of New England in Australia. She mentions two tensions one encounters in statistics teaching, which I think may be fundamental to learning situations generally:
A tension in terms of purpose: On the one hand people want to arrive at a simpler view of things, but on the other they don't want to ignore the inherent messiness of things.
A tension in terms of process: On the one hand people want to be told concepts directly (by experts), but on the other they want to discover and invent their own categories.
"Formal" teaching has in the past often operated to drain away the creative energy stemming from these two tensions by assuming that a) knowledge is only about making things simpler, more abstract; and b) learners should always be provided with ready-made abstract categories so that they can apply them to the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of the real world. More recently there has been a swing both towards emphasizing the rich, messiness of things (for example, an aim of our undergrad community psychology modules is for students to be able to represent the multiplicity and diversity of apparently homogenous communities) and towards learning about things by grappling with them oneself rather than simply being given a ready-made set of analytic categories.
Collaborative learning is obviously a valuable strategy in this move towards "messy engagement". When groups get together things get messy very quickly, and simplistic, pre-fabricated understandings often don't stand much of a chance.
However, we shouldn't be seduced into wishing away the creative tensions of education by now unilaterally concentrating on the messy side of things, nor should we imagine that collaboration is only good for messy types of learning. Collaboration is about highlighting messy complexity, but is also often an attempt to achieve simplicity and clarity; and many types of collaboration involve clear-cut, question-answer types of interaction.
A political example: The negotiations leading to democracy in South Africa became possible in part because we were all sick of various ready-made answers and wanted to embark on a more open-ended, collaborative quest for new categories of understanding. The negotiations themselves were nothing if not a messy process, and in South Africa today there is still much (good and bad) 'messiness'. However, there is also now daily, unproblematic collaboration around the simple, clear principles (such as human rights) that emerged from the negotiations. We don't have to keep re-negotiating the constitution - in many everyday situations we can and do simply work together in the knowledge that this is the law of the land.
A technological example: The development of standards in the computing world is very often an acrimonious process (as is demonstrated again now by the controversies around RSS), with little agreement on what is to be achieved or how to go about achieving it. However, the sorts of collaboration that flow from such standards are models of streamlined, convergent interaction. Despite the various unresolved issues, an RSS aggregator has a very good idea of what to expect from an RSS feed and is happy to interact with it in an entirely linear manner, and it is exactly because they enable predicatible interaction that standards such as RSS have proven to be such powerful collaboration tools.
I am aware that the above examples relate more to the 'real world', than to educational situations per se, but I am finding it harder and harder to tell the two apart in any case. It would be interesting, however, to have a look at a range of collaborative techniques used in more traditional educational contexts and to try and judge if they work creatively with the two fundamental educational tensions I started this posting off with, or if they tend to dissolve the tensions in a sterile, uncreative way.
posted by Martin on Wednesday, August 06, 2003Portable skills, portable tools
Sebastian Fiedler and I have been thinking about very similar issues lately, both partly in response to Elizabeth Lawley's ideas and experience. Here is how Sebastian explains why using tools with application outside of education is a good idea:
"I would rather spend my time mastering skills for the use of personal Webpublishing technologies than working my way through one of the industry packages that I will never be able to afford for any small scale project I might be interested in. Personal Webpublishing is about the empowerment of the individual and small teams... what do you personally get from mastering WebCT, BlackBoard, etc.? Will they travel with you? Will you be able to use them for your own interests once you have left your R1 institution?"
posted by Martin on Tuesday, August 05, 2003An example of using generic software for e-learning
I just found a nice example of one of the points I made in yesterday's post - about using software that has a life outside the educational world, rather than purpose-designed "courseware". Elizabeth Lane describes how she is using MovableType (a very widely used blogging system) in putting together and presenting a course on multimedia.
posted by Martin on Tuesday, August 05, 2003Why we don't need a collaborative learning system
Over the past 9 months or so I have had some fun (with the help of colleagues and students in the psychology and other departments at Unisa) looking into, downloading, trying out and programming various bits and pieces of software that might help us build collaborative learning environments. Some of what we have learnt in the process is reflected in the Collaborative Learning Environments Sourcebook.
One thing I think I've learnt from this is that buying into (or developing) a single "juggernaut" system would be a bad idea. Why? Because increasingly learning happens in the context of real-world networks, projects, agendas; and even where it can be distinguished as a separate activity, learning is now more likely to be of the just-in-time rather than the just-in-case variety. In such a world, people do not want to go through long, complicated sign-up procedures to gain access to (or subject themselves to learning the arcane conventions of) specialised educational software. They want to use the regular tools of the knowledge trade; and when new tools are introduced, they want to be able to continue using them long after they are no longer officially signed up as students. So Blackboard or WebCT (or their excellent open source equivalents) won't do - not even with added "collaboration features". So what should we be offering students? Here's my partial list:
Functions built on top of generic tools they already have. Computer-literate students can do the word processing and e-mailing thing blindfolded and we should use this, while also pointing them to advanced functionality already built into the software (and perhaps offering some useful add-ons/plug-ins). For example, few students (or anybody else for that matter) fully exploit the functionality in the address book functions of e-mail programs. Creative use of the distributed database formed by students' address books can be more powerful than some centralised course-specific student database, plus students gain contact management skills and tools that have value beyond the course environment.
Protocols to be applied with generic tools. Simple things like encouraging (or enforcing) a set of conventions for the subject lines of e-mails that pass between participants in a course (or showing students how to use more than one software communication channel in parallel) can do a lot to facilitate collaborative learning.
Easy access to and instruction in using widely-accepted, but less well known tools. Some very useful collaboration tools, such as blogs for example, have not yet reached the level of popularity where most computer-literate students are familiar with them. When we use such tools in our courses, students do have to go through a learning curve, but they're not learning how to use some education-specific system. They are becoming part of a much larger community of people who use the tool.
Course or institution-specific indexing, networking and linking tools. In a collaborative learning environment, students want to interact with others working in the same field of enquiry as themselves - so need some means of finding or forming a cluster of people within the larger universe of students in a course, or in a university, or in the world; they also need to be able to keep track of developments in the cluster. The wrong way is to force everybody in a cluster to be post their contributions via the same educational software system. The right way is to use everyday tools such as blogs and RSS syndication, which make contributions available in an interoperable way. What we as collaborative learning environment developers might profitably do, is to devise useful ways of indexing and grouping and routing this information, so that participants can link up with others at those points that are most relevant to them. So, concretely: In a research methods course each student (or group of students) could maintain a blog about their research project, each with its own RSS feed. A simple indexing system would simply be a list of links to the blogs of all the students in the course - not very sophisticated, but it does add some value. A more useful index would group blogs together where students are researching similar topics or using similar methodologies. We could do this by hand, but could also develop automated aggregating tools that read each blog's feed and distill everything into a smaller number of topic (or methodology) specific feeds. There are of course many such indexing, linking and aggregating services already, but most still use fairly crude forms of aggregating. I expect to see more and more specialised and novel ways of linking and grouping learners and their learning products - and that a key differentiator for 'quality' courses will become the level of sophistication of the networking tools they offer.