01 July 2009

The Nature of Collaborative Learning

An Enquiry into the Nature of Collaborative Learning

In this week's entry I explore the concept of collaborative learning. This concept is related to those of learning community, community of practice, and learning commons.

I have a theory concerning the relationship between language and communication articulated elsewhere. The bottom line for this theory is that language is always already integrated into the triply-integrated network of community-communication-communion. By triply-integrated, I mean that none of the three, community, communication, or communion is prior in the lived experience of participants. A corollary to this is that communities cannot precede or exist independently of communication and communion, communication presumes community and communion, and communion is built upon assumptions concerning community and communication. In the context of this present enquiry, then, we may understand collaborative learning to be the communicative process (i.e. communication) exhibited by learning communities, communities of practice, and any learning commons. In the remainder of this essay, then, I shall discuss features of the learning community (in the most inclusive terms I have found) with the understanding that such features will necessarily be features of collaborative learning, as I presently understand it.

Beginning with Wikipedia (neither to elevate or denigrate it as a scholarly source, but merely to use as a starting point for discussion), "
A learning community is a group of people who share common values and beliefs, are actively engaged in learning together from each other. Such communities have become the template for a cohort-based, interdisciplinary approach to higher education. This is based on an advanced kind of educational or 'pedagogical' design."

In this, note the claim regarding shared values and beliefs (pre-requisite to community) and the common pursuit of learning. It is also assumed that such a community would be interdisciplinary (or perhaps in some senses, post-disciplinary) and that such an approach is 'advanced' in terms of its educational theory.

The article goes on to list membership, influence, need-fulfillment, and shared experience (that leads to emotional connection) as being the characteristics of community. In my view, the shared experience and group membership are evident in the experience of communion. The aspect whereby the community fulfils needs of its members is non-trivial (but an aspect of community that I had not previously considered). The article also explains that influence is the factor whereby the individual act is "
an active and not just a reactive performance." This is also an important feature of community. Another feature of learning communities mentioned in the article is "the integration of academic content with daily interactions." Thus, the "learning" in "learning community" is not merely descriptive of some tangential activity, but rather is seen as a foundational characteristic. I would tend to take the descriptor daily more in the sense of regular than in the sense that interaction is required to take place every day of every week. Certainly, many communities of learning function well with periods of "down time."

In its article "Online Learning Community," Wikipedia asserts: "An online learning community is a common place on the Internet that addresses the learning needs of its members through proactive and collaborative partnerships. Through social networking and computer-mediated communication, people work as a community to achieve a shared learning objective. Learning objectives may be proposed by an instructor or may arise out of discussions between participants that reflect personal interests. In an online community, people communicate via textual discussion (synchronous or asynchronous), audio, video, or other Internet-supported devices. Blogs blend personal journaling with social networking to create environments with opportunities for reflection." (Note, though: the article author admits a citation is needed for this claim).

Accepting the concept online learning community would tend to imply that while the prototypical learning communities are identified by contemporary experience and common spaces, the concept can be extended to virtual space-time experience. It would seem that the key ingredients from this perspective would be the perception of common experiences and the attainment of common objectives.

From a description of communities of practice, we see that "newcomers to the community learn from old-timers as they are allowed to undertake more and more tasks in the community and gradually move to full participation." In this, we understand how communities grow. More experienced members welcome newcomers and provide opportunities for the new members to act in concert with others as they gain experience and understanding.

Decker Lardner (2003) anticipates that learning communities from diverse cultures tend to reorganize the curriculum in the following ways, if their experience is authentic. First of all, such a community "reconceptualizes the content through a shift in paradigm or standard; [it] presents content through [a] non-dominant perspective." Secondly, the community begins to practice new activities and to pursue different strategies for learning. There is a "change in [the] power structure so that students and instructor learn from each other; methods center on student experience and knowledge such as: analyzing concepts against personal experience; issues-oriented approaches; [and] critical pedagogy." Thirdly, the evaluation of member performance in a learning community is revised. It involves "alternatives that focus on student growth: action oriented projects; self-assessment; [and] reflection on the course." Thus when members evaluate their experience in a learning community, their opinions should relate more to the quality of their experience and learning in terms of their own background and contribution to the group, rather than an assessment of grades and/or effort. Finally, the interactional dynamics of the group is less reflective of an established learning hierarchy (i.e. teacher v. student) and more mutual respect for the interests and viewpoints of all its members. "Challenging of biased views and sharing of diverse perspectives while respecting rules established for group process" and "equity in participation" facilitate this change in the learning community (5).

Conklin (2005) warns, though, that diversity of experience in a community may lead to fragmentation and must be handled carefully when a group is dealing with what he calls 'wicked' problems. It is beyond the scope of this present essay to discuss his notion of 'wickedness' in problem-solving fully, but it should suffice to note that members of a learning community evaluating their experience is a 'wicked' problem because an understanding of the problem cannot precede the design of a solution, there is no single, unique correct solution, and the members of a community will have different standards whereby they will assess the adequacy of any proposed solution. In such circumstances, Conklin believes that fragmentation of the group will be a product of the diversity of the group and the extent to which the problem faced by the group is wicked. Conklin explains that wicked problems must be faced in a non-linear approach. The linear approach begins with data gathering and data analysis, leading to a specification of the problem, formulation of a solution, and finally, implementation of the solution. This approach works well in solving a fully-specified (e.g. math) problem, but does not work in situations where investigators cannot understand a problem apart from implementing a solution. The example Conklin gives is the design of a safe automobile. Just as there is no one standard whereby a car is 'safe' as opposed to 'dangerous', so also the interplay of such factors as design expense, fuel efficiency, marketing, and interaction with other auto systems affect the acceptability of solutions. There is no final 'right' answer; only solutions that are 'good enough' from the standpoint of the major stakeholders in the decision. Similarly in learning communities, there is no single right way to operate as a community, but communities that have what Conklin refers to as "shared understanding and shared commitment" (15) will overcome fragmentation that would pull the group apart in the face of their differences and the complexity of the situations they face.

Administrators at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education have found that the operation of learning communities at universities raises the quality of the educational experience for students. They have designed an exercise to help educators explore the dynamics of a learning community. The task set before educators in this hour-long workshop is to decide the activities to be engaged by a freshman-cohort at university. In this exercise, it is notable that there is no common curriculum assumed to be approached by the community. Thus, the community experience and the benefit to its members does not require that members be involved in exactly the same courses. Nevertheless, communities that want to overcome Conklin's fragmentation will want to make sure of their commitment to the group's operation and identity is sufficient to overcome the diversity of their experience and tasks.

In its article, Community of Practice, Wikipedia notes that such communities "are usually formed within a single discipline in order to focus efforts in sharing knowledge, solving problems, or innovative ventures." However more recently the diversity of problems faced, as well as the diversity of people brought together into these communities of practice has tended to make them more "multidisciplinary" in nature. Such communities are not then defined in terms of a similarity of experience or expertise, but rather with regard to the "complex nature of the technological and global age in which organizations function." This is not yet common in communities of practice, but it is increasing in frequency and importance in "developing scientific fields in which knowledge from one branch is unable to advance without contributions from other branches."

In respect to these developments, an educational system that encourages formation of such diverse learning communities early in the academic experience of university students may be expected to place extremely valuable tools and skills into the hands of these students.

According to another article in Wikipedia, Scott Peck is said to observe that "moving into 'organisation', forming rules for the group, disrupts the process and prevents community." This source has not been verified and found reliable, but if this observation is accurate, it would indicate that the nature of community identity requires a certain level of informality and lack of specification. It would also indicate that organizations and communities are mutually exclusive insofar as the former are specified (i.e. by such things as constitutions, rule of law, and the like).

In a thesis on the impact of learning communities in students' experience, Huang (2008) noted positive benefits that were anticipated by the study. "The researcher started from the assumption that the students’ ‘best’ classroom experiences would correspond with what the literature characterises as ‘communities of learners’ in which the students felt that their past experiences were valued and personal relationships were respectful and relatively equal. This assumption was, for the most part, accurate." This would indicate that mutual respect, loyalty to the community, and egalitarianism are notable requirements for a positive experience in learning communities.

It is the creation of a meaningful learning community that is often expected to be a major impediment to online learning. Liu (2008) addresses and explores this in a journal article. One finding that was not anticipated by the study is that "in order to foster an interactive learning community and encourage student interactions, all of the administrators, faculty, and staff in a distance education program need to collaborate with each other at an institutional level." Thus, the notion that online instructors (as well as others in the education system) can oversee the design and creation of online courses (deemed to involve selection and presentation of the course content) and then let them run themselves may lead to stunted and superficial experience among online learners.

While this claim could lead to the picture of instructors, administrators, and others all being drawn into course discussions and operations at a micro-level, such is not the author's intent. In clarifying the nature of the involvement of non-students at university, Liu later focuses upon the need for adequate student interaction with each other in a course, noting that "in the study, several participants perceived their distance education courses as self-study courses because their instructors only uploaded the syllabus and readings online and let them follow the syllabus. In their description of distance education experiences, we can tell that there was no sense of an online learning community in the course of their study. To an extreme, some students even thought self-study is the way that distance education works."

Liu contrasts this student misperception regarding online courses with important educational findings, saying that "numerous studies have pointed out the idea of learning as a social activity (Bandura, 1977; Vygosky, 1978) and the necessity of building an online learning community (Bender, 2003; Salmon, 2001). Therefore, how to proceed to set up such a community is an important topic for many online courses and program administrators and designers." This makes the nature of the involvment of administrators and other non-students clear, in that the goal of their involvement is seen to be the creation of a learning community among the students in the online course. For the purposes of this present essay, then, it may be seen that sufficient peer-interaction is a characteristic of learning communities, at least within a context where typical course learning objectives have been articulated.

Placing the course instructor in the learning community, Giles (2008) says that "relationships are essential to the experience of education whether they are recognised
or not. When the relationship between a teacher and a student is good we seldom attend
to the relationship. While the relationship matters to the experience, the relationship
lies out of sight and is largely taken for granted." The other characteristics of learning communities do not diminish the central role of the teacher in the learning process. However, university professors may not have adequate time to pursue involvement with more than a small minority of the students in their classes, particularly at the introductory level. It is at this point that the value of an academic coach may best be seen. Because academic coaches limit the number of their interactions to levels that they can handle, they are better able to cultivate a relationship with their clients in the context of learning communities that will provide the sort of encouragement Giles believes to be at the foundation of a satisfying educational experience.

The work of Clear, Meyer, Varden, and Rugeli (2000) also notes the central aspect of peer-group interactions in an online setting to the educational experience, observing in addition that "the listserver [used to facilitate interaction for the course] became so active, that at the end of the course over the summer break we kept it going on student demand. Once we closed it down the by now ex-students went on to set up their own!! We have subsequently established a further listserv called “grads” for graduates of the online courses." In this respect, it is worth noting that the interaction of a learning community may focus upon the learning experience, but the community thus created will almost always lead its members beyond the learning experience. That is, while learning may motivate the formation of the community, personal relationship is often seen as ongoing, even after the learning benefits to participants removed from the completion of a specific course or term.

It has been the purpose of this present brief essay to survey various characteristics of learning communities and thereby to gain an insight into the process of collaborative learning. We have covered considerable ground, observing that such communities share values, beliefs, and goals, that their activity involves learning together, in which activity they view each other with respect (including respect for what may be quite diverse backgrounds) that leads them to partner with each other. Their joint activities are seen as central to their involvement in whatever courses they are taking, both by the students and any non-students who participate in the courses involved.

A significant aspect of the relationship being developed in learning communities is that they are not merely viewed as 'in attendance' when they meet together; rather, they are viewed as members of the communities. These members regularly influence each others' activities and attitudes, not merely reacting to course materials, but as agents (initiators). Community members benefit from their joint activities in terms of fulfilling their own needs, and this fulfilment is not trivial to the operation of the community. However, it should also be noted that members can remain affiliated with communities beyond the scope of the benefit that was the initial purpose of the formation of the community. This is evidence of the aspect of community life that might be called loyalty; participation in a common experience in a group tends to lead to an emotional connection that is more than a merely working relationship for a specified (short-term) purpose. Although membership in a community is more involved than mere attendance, it is also true that learning communities of the type researched in this essay are inclusive and that they have established ways of integrating new members into their midst. In accordance with the length (and depth) of involvement together, communities will increase the cohesion experience in the group such that they will relate to each other more closely. Because group members will not have the same educational background (especially if the community includes non-students) and length of involvement with the community, members will have differing status as experts. However, the operation of the community as an egalitarian group will tend to minimize the effect this has and to prevent hierarchy from developing. It has also been seen that learning communities are informal groups and resist formulation in terms of rules of conduct (though there may well be guidelines or common and unstated principles that govern group and individual conduct).

Learning communities (and the collaborative learning that they engage in) need to happen regularly and frequently. While this need not be daily interaction in a literal sense, a community cannot thrive on infrequent contact. It is also true, though, that such communities cannot merely engage in activity together; there must also be opportunity in the life of the community for reflection and individual action. Learning is a social activity, but it is not social in its totality. There is still room (in fact there must be room) for individuals to pursue projects and activities of personal and/or small-group interest (that may turn out to be relevant for sharing with the larger community). It is important that the life of the community not overtake and stifle the authentic life of the individual members in the community.

Although many learning communities engage in activities in real-time and space (that is, they are face-to-face), and these form the prototype for learning communities, current technology allows for the creation of such learning communities in virtual space (online). In addition, communities are most commonly (at least partially) defined by their attention to the content of a particular course (or courses) or the pursuit of a common discipline. However, communities are not particularly restricted by this. In view of the increased complexity of problems facing industry, as well as the rising relevance seen for interdisciplinary research, communities are increasingly defining themselves more on process than the content of their work.

It has not been the task of this essay to describe learning communities in any way that would make the experience of an individual learner in a course (even an autodidact) illegitimate as an educational experience. Rather, the focus has been upon features of a learning community that enrich the educational experience for its members, without fully specifying the nature of the benefit in concrete terms relevant to a particular discipline or course content. Also, it has not been the intent of this essay to define or otherwise restrict learning communities to possess all or only the features I have described here. My goal has been to explore research on learning communities in an inclusive way, so as to allow for the greatest possible freedom for community expression and growth, communication and communion.

Further notes and references on learning communities may be found on my Diigo lists at: learning-community.

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