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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Beyond the consumer mindset

Another bit of wisdom from Sebastian Fiedler's always-interesting blog on "Weblogs, CMS, and personal Webpublishing for learning and education":
"Frankly, I don't care much if a good number of personal Webpublishing projects die after a while and people find other things to play with. One lasting effect of such an experience might well be the insight that one can actually use the Web actively and creatively for one's own purposes and pleasure. Going beyond a mere consumer's mindset, realizing that there are ordinary individuals out there who do something interesting with networking technologies, getting the feeling that one could actually contribute in some meaningful way, chance meetings with the writings of folks from other continents ... all this is enough reason to take personal Webpublishing seriously. It's an important step towards Tim Berners-Lee original vision of a two-way Web for everyone."

posted by Martin on Friday, August 15, 2003
"Sage on the stage" collaboration?

Sometimes I wonder how far one can stretch the term "collaborative learning". A press release by DyKnow brags about how the University of Southern California's Distance Education Network will be implementing their collaborative learning software. DyKnow's main product is an electronic whiteboard that, according to them, "creates a rich, collaborative environment where instructors make dynamic presentations from an electronic whiteboard and students receive and create information on individual video tablets." Maybe not all that rich, though. Basically its a system for the instructor to display pre-made notes plus on-the-fly annotations on a whiteboard and for these to be automatically reproduced on students' computers, and a main selling point is simply that "being relieved of the burden of copying notes frees students to focus on the discussion and can prevent delays waiting for students to finish copying". There are some sort-of nifty features though - students can annotate their notes, the system uses http as a transfer protocol so students need not be physically present (e.g. they can participate via the internet) and the instructor can pass partial control to a student so that other students can see her notes. This last feature is where things could become interesting, but it looks (from the company's website) like the instructor is still very much the one directing things and that only one student at a time can have access to the common screen. Even if the feature is not as clunky as I suspect it is, we're still talking about a "stage on the sage" type of environment, with some nice added features. I have recently been seeing references to "augmented meetings" where participants collaboratively edit shared text files (e.g. Wikis) or whiteboards as the meeting progresses - which sounds more like collaborative learning to me.

posted by Martin on Friday, August 15, 2003
Problem based learning

Nice, crisp article at elearnspace by Jennifer Gurrie on Increasing Student Motivation and Quality of Participation in Discussions through Problem-Based Learning. "Your first time teaching an online course isn’t going as well as you had hoped. You thought you posted interesting reading materials and asked students good questions to respond to in the discussion area. But so far, the quality and quantity of their participation has been low, and you aren’t sure why. What really has you concerned is the fact that future investments in online learning at your institution depend heavily on the success of this first-ever fully online course, and you know this lack of student engagement will be reflected in student evaluations and learning outcomes. What strategy will you employ to try and turn things around for the remaining 10 weeks of the semester?" Her answer, problem-based learning, is all about having students work collaboratively in small groups on realistic, open-ended projects. Nothing earth-shattering here, but a very clear (and motivational) introduction to learner and issue-centred (rather than teacher and content-centred) educational strategies.

posted by Martin on Thursday, August 14, 2003
More corporate-style collaborative learning

Hyperwave is another company selling collaborative learning to the corporate world (see also their latest press release). Their products have names such as "Smart Collaborative Workspace", "Smart Collaborative Learning" and "Interactive Knowledge Center". Why all this focus on collaboration? Because - "Collaborative knowledge sharing can improve the investment selection process by ensuring that recommendations are consistent across the firm, with each advisor having the backup to understand and convey those recommendations to clients. The benefits can be significant including higher client and advisor retention rates, reduced costs of providing advice, and increased client acquisition rates." The field that they're touting this in is the "wealth management market", i.e. investment advisors and the like.

posted by Martin on Tuesday, August 12, 2003
Selling collaborative communities

I recently made the point in a post on why we dont' need a collaborative learning system that educational institutions may have to start concentrating more on adding value by indexing, linking, clustering learning objects (and learners) rather than on creating content.

The Hackett Group provides an interesting commercial example of this. What they're selling, in essence, is access to their network of leading companies "that openly share business process intelligence" (via nothing more special than databases, web casts, conferences, and so on). They're selling access to their network of knowledgeable people and useful information, and to the tools for interacting with this network - not courses. And they're not talking arty-farty academic ivory tower stuff, but about learning how to manage hard-edged business functions such as "Accounts Payable" and "Payroll".

Another example is Saba Collaborative Learning Solutions . What they're selling is not so much the network, but systems (Saba Dialog and Saba Collaboration) that will supposedly 'capture' the "learning [that] often takes place during informal, point-to-point interactions, such as conversations and e-mail exchanges" and make it available when needed in other contexts. I'm certainly not touting this sort of all-encompassing 'solutionware' - I think one should be wary of becoming locked into a particular vendor, and am in any case unenthusiastic about the idea of 'capturing' informal knowledge. However, I do see it (and its many commercial rivals) as a clear indication that those who make money by selling learning to corporates are starting to get the message - the value lies in helping organisations to make learning connections (internally and between themselves and others), not only in selling courses.

Of course there will probably always be money to be made (and fun to be had) from putting together packaged courses and selling them to corporate training departments. But the really interesting learning doesn't happen in courses, it happens in communities.

posted by Martin on Monday, August 11, 2003