The ONL course blog says: “The ONL course design builds on open, collaborative and networked learning practices …”. In this short post, I will focus on the collaborative part of the course. It is perhaps the most difficult of all learning types to learn through collaboration. Recent empirical studies have shown that students do not know the difference between collaboration and co-operation, and they do not necessarily collaborate when they are being put together in a group. So why does this course builds on collaborative learning? Moreover, what is it?
In the ONL course, we want to develop a kind of community of practice that can explore the possibilities to collaborate on, create and present knowledge and solutions to various problem areas. Every second week we get a new topic to discuss and work on, towards building a shared public presentation.
What is collaborative learning?
The simplest definition of collaborative learning is “a situation in which two or more people learn or attempt to learn something together”, but saying this is not enough. Collaborative learning is more about taking part in the process of building knowledge “through participation and negotiation with peers” and to share this knowledge with other people.  Of course, all of this could be done both synchronously and asynchronously. The collaborating group has to coordinate all this work from the starting point to its conclusion; it has to make all necessary attempts in order to succeed; the group develops and constructs, together and individually, their ideas; and finally, they has to agree on a shared conception – and present this conception in one way or another. All parts of this process are important. Not the least the final part: to share a common conception about a problem. Each member of a group could learn from how other members of the group work and how they express a thought and address a certain topic. They will learn through the process of trying to articulate their own ideas and criticizing their peers’ ideas, but also modifying their own ideas after having been criticized. After spending some time together, synchronously and asynchronously, all members in the group are more motivated to continue her or his journey, than if each person individually had studied the topics in question.
In learning through collaboration all members develops more skills than in any other learning type. In the literature one therefore talks about skills involved in collaborative peer communication: listening, explaining, questioning, summarizing, speculating, and hypothesizing. For all this to happen, it is very important that each and every one understand, that as contributors to the group work, each person have the intention to learn something, and therefore also should be recognized by other group members to have that intention.
What teachers/facilitators, supporting collaborative learning, could do?
Because collaborative learning do not necessarily happen when learners are put together in groups, it is more important than ever to develop a kind of scaffold to support this way of learning. But as research in this area is not as comprehensive as it should be, there is not so much advice to give on how to support these types of learning.
To start with, however, there are some elements that works in every kind of learning situations, which also should be taken care of when groups for collaborative learning are formed, such as learnings objectives, requirements and ground rules for group members interaction, group size, and so on. These things are important even for getting collaborative learning to work. Moreover, a facilitator also ought to interact with the group in many other ways, such as:
- how to give feedback (on discussions or on a final common presentation);
- if the work should revolve around exchanging ideas or creating presentations of the findings;
- if focus for the group should be on discussion, ending in a common idea on what to present, or different arguments for multiple alternatives showing qualities for each alternative also ending in a common presentation.
Can digital tools help the teachers/facilitators as well as learners?
Collaboration, towards a common goal after having interact with one another, and co-create a common presentation have been an essential component since online courses and learning began taking shape. Moreover, collaborative learning spread all over the world at the same time as the digital revolution swept over every continent. Therefore, in this way collaborative learning is connected to the digital revolution. In recent years, many companies have developed digital tools to support this kind of learning. Their concern has not been to replicate a face-to-face learning situation, but instead to look for what technology has to offer when it comes to newer types of learning, for instance collaborative learning. Below I will dwell on some examples to show how technology has shaped the possibilities for creating collaborative learning situations.
In many years, Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL) has collected research from all over the world and discussed the possibilities of technology to enhance collaborative learning. Technology has already proved to be supportive for communication and representations, so of course it also could contribute to a type of learning that requires both of these learning activities. In addition, learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition. Today it can rely on the learning that together with a supportive framework could occur in connected social networks and groups.
Google docs, drive and Google+ works really good for collaborative activities and learning. A good way of doing this could be to let several smaller groups work on a common document but not at the same place in the document. The groups are instead responsible for editing their part of this document, answering questions or writing down observations. After some time the members of the group have to switch areas, facing what other groups have done. The new group could then be asked to give some feedback on what the other group had come up with or to present some answers on questions posed from the first group.
Google docs also have other very useful features. It is, for instance, possible to go back in the document history and see every revision of a document, and also identify who made the modifications and who contributed most of all to the document. This last feature is very useful if the document is being used as part of an assessed activity.
Google docs also works on smart phones, which not just makes these tools powerful, they also let the participants be mobile.
There are many other tools which supports collaborative activities, such as MindMeister, Padlet, CoSketch, ThingLink, and many, many more. Here is also a good starting point for reading about learning types, such as collaborative learning: The UNESCO/COL OER Knowledge Cloud.
I have to end here. Otherwise, I will be too tedious!
 I have just read D Laurillards book, “Teaching as a Design Science. Building Pedagogical Patterns for Learning and Technology”, NY and London, 2012, and this post builds upon her book.
 Laurillard 2012, p. 187.
 Laurillard 2012, p. 194.
 Jane E. Brindley, Christine Walti and Lisa M. Blaschke, “Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment”, in The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, Vol 10, No 3 (2009).