Documents 1.b: Collaborative learning

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Collaborative learning in eTwinning Projects

In collaborative learning, the activities are structured so that students get to work together, learning from one another; therefore, interaction and participation on behalf of everyone is required. This way, students become responsible for their learning as well as that of others.

Collaborative learning is not the only way to learn, but rather just another strategy. There is an agreement to a certain extent when it comes to admitting that it improves motivation, performance, social abilities and learning strategies in students. This kind of learning is especially suitable when a group of students is working on a project where everybody's collaboration is required to reach the objective set. We will see that this is the starting point for many projects developed within the eTwinning action framework.

Collaborative learning is not just about creating groups of students and waiting for them to learn. In comparison with other types of learning, it becomes even more necessary to design an activity founded on a project-based syllabus, adequate materials and supervision on behalf of the teacher of the processes taking place within the group of students: the development of planned activities, participation from all members, conflict negotiation, roles played by students...

This way of learning is founded on the theory of social constructivism. The general constructivist theory states that learning is a process where knowledge is based on the individual's previous knowledge, by integrating and actively assimilating new knowledge, and where students are responsible for their own learning. Social constructivism adds the social dimension of learning, highlighting the importance of interaction amongst classmates and with the teacher in the knowledge-building process.

As opposed to more cognitive approaches where students are believed to build their learning individually by interacting with the syllabus, phenomenon or problem, it is believed that knowledge is necessarily based on situations providing specific experiences that allow students to explore and reflect with mates and teachers.

What it is and how to organise collaboration

Collaboration in a project goes beyond communication or coordination amongst participants. It must be an essential element in the project, a way to understand and organise the entire process, from its starting point to its conclusion. This collaboration can take place on various levels, all of which are complementary. This richness and variety in interactions amongst participants is what, in most cases, establishes the quality of the project. In general, we are not used to working collaboratively. At first, organising a project like this may seem complicated, but it is really just about making new approaches to methodologies and objectives, assuming that we must give up certain common dynamics in the classroom for others that are usually not present. Once we start working with a collaborative structure, we can soon see that it is easy, efficient and motivating both for students and teachers.

The main point is to negotiate starting off from initial ideas, finding some objectives, contents and methodologies that can and may be assumed by everyone. Basically, finding a final design and a project development that comes as a result of everybody's work, and where everyone feels comfortable and reflected.

Some lines of collaboration can be found amongst:

Coordinating teachers. Negotiation and a good understanding amongst the teachers in charge of the project. Syllabuses can be very different in each participating country so we must ensure compatibility between our needs and those of our partners. This does not necessarily involve finding a teacher with identical ideas to ours. The concept of intersyllabus can be extended to coordinators; a project about the environment can be developed in the area of science, ethics or economy, and each one of them have a partner in charge in each country. It is not the identity, but the complementarity what must be borne in mind.

Groups of teachers. Usually, each school requires more or less participation on behalf of teachers. This does not necessarily have to take place with the same level of involvement and commitment in all cases. We may need constant presence from teachers of other subjects or groups, or specific contributions for specific activities.

Teachers and students. Usually, most students, especially from a certain age onward, have a command of certain basic tools such as e-mail or instant messaging services, like Skype. Some students may also know how to create and manage other tools such as blogs or wikis, and even have a certain command of text editing programmes or multimedia. Why not ask them what they can do? We can count on their collaboration on all levels of the project; not just as students but also as creators of contents or designers. They are bound to provide new ideas and will also feel much more involved in the project.

Students in the same centre. We can achieve greater levels of motivation in students if we make them take an active part in their learning. In order to do so, team work is a very useful tool. The way to organise work in a project must be varied and be adapted to each specific activity. Even though individual work can be suitable for some activities, group organisation will promote social and self-learning skills. Whether it is done in pairs on in larger groups, the teacher can help students to establish task division in an efficient and balanced way, as well as provide the sources to obtain information and supervise the quality and correction of the work. Team work allows to make the most of students' skills; tasks such as searching for information, writing, edition and publishing, public presentation, etc. can be assigned depending on the features and knowledge each one of them has.

Students from different schools. This is the core element of an eTwinning project. If we wish to develop our students in terms of linguistic, intercultural and social competences, we must organise the project so that interaction between students from different schools becomes necessary. This is not limited to making materials at the same time and then comparing them in class. We may increase mutual understanding and collaboration if we choose the right activities. Thus, if we can plan the communication activities between them (by e-mail, chat, forums, etc.), we can design them based on clear and well-defined objectives. When exchanging e-mails where students introduce themselves, we can ask them to create a text document or a slide presentation making a comparison with the students from the other school. This would make them have to ask for and offer specific information to establish such comparisons. This mechanism to exchange information, negotiate contents and jointly create a document can be applied to any final product we wish to create. In addition, should we want to have any kind of competition in teams, we can organise them including members from different nationalities, so that partners are on either side of the computer and not at the next desk.

When we analyse projects with a high level of cooperation we can see that, not only the planned objectives are reached, but also other factors, such as motivation or the final quality of the materials, also increase considerably.

Computer-based collaborative learning

This option includes the ICTs possibilities for the previously mentioned model. It is especially important in eTwinning projects, where collaboration between two centres from different countries must take place through ICTs. Thanks to these tools, the concept of working together has acquired a new meaning, as it is now possible to work with a school that is thousands of kilometres away just through e-mail, or with an expert on a specific subject through a chat; this way, the school walls are no longer a physical limitation to have access to resources and people, whether they are near the school or further away.

In addition to the new possibilities for communication, ICTs provide new ways to support and develop collaborative work due to their capacity to access and deal with the information. For instance, the fact that all the comments made in a forum remain there (as opposed to oral comments), so we can go back to them, answer, modify them... offers more opportunities for cooperation (regardless of whether participants are in the same room or not), and also to learn to assimilate the building of a speech where arguments must be justified, discussed and then written over again.

Another important example is set by collaborative work platforms, such as the one offered to twinned centres in the eTwinning site, known as TwinSpace. It is a common virtual space on the Internet for project members; here we can store, organise, correct and share documents and information (such as text documents, images, news, etc.) easily, with no paperwork and made accessible at all times and from any place: something which was hard to imagine in a traditional educational context.

Practical notes

Making a realistic approach to the computer-based collaborative learning model in the case of eTwinning projects requires learning more about the practical aspects of everyday class work:

Organisation

Teachers taking part in experiences where students work in groups using computers can see that class control is really different. Students have the computer before them, which at the same time is a source of information (as well as the teacher) and an important centre of attention (and sometimes of distraction), which often leads to uncomfortable situations (as described by teachers themselves): on the one hand, the teacher loses authority because he/she is no longer the only source of information and, on the other, one loses control over what students are doing. This situation starts evolving normally after one or two sessions (once the ground rules have been set in class and the work to be done on the computers has been carefully planned...) towards what is the most common situation: teachers assume their role as facilitators and organisers of the group work and students also responsibly understand their active role.

Curricular

Closely connected to the previous one is the need to have or prepare a project-based syllabus, so that the project development covers those curricular aspects we have set as objectives, expressed in general terms (such as the written command of a foreign language) and specific terms (such as the knowledge of the concept of population pyramid). This will guide and help our students' work. We should also foresee that project work usually results in products such as files, graphic materials, etc., whether they come in a traditional or a multimedia format (web pages, video recordings, etc.).

The project must cover the curricular needs of all participants. Communication between partners before starting the project becomes essential, as there is a large variety of syllabuses in the different countries. We said before that we do not necessarily have to find a partner who is teaching the same concepts, with the same objectives, or to students of the same age as ours. It is the complementation of objectives, and not their equality, what we must look for.

Technological

While planning our project we must bear mind what possible technologies we can use at our school: computers, Internet broadband, suitable software for our project (e-mail, image modification, etc.). Should they not be available in our classroom, we must ensure access to the computer lab, overhead projectors...

We should also become familiar with how to use them beforehand. We must also analyse the added value that these technologies will provide to our project, both regarding communication with other schools and what the tools provide as such; for instance, by allowing access to certain information on the Internet. We do not need to have major equipment at the school. What really matters when designing a project is to have a clear idea of the options, both in terms of equipment and computer science-related knowledge, and to adjust the size of the project to those circumstances.

Pedagogical

The activities we plan with our students within the development of our project most of the time will follow the collaborative learning principles, but we must not forget that in eTwinning cooperation is not only established amongst students in our classroom, but also with the students in the twinned school from the other country. That is why we must make sure that contact is not just limited to an exchange of finished materials or information between the two countries, but there should also be interaction and participation between both classes (assessing the information received from the other school, thus integrating it in our work, giving our opinion...) and pursuing some common objectives that will make that cooperation necessary.

Group work

In order to develop an eTwinning project we do not have to establish work groups with students; this depends on whether the contents to be developed are suitable for this methodology and whether the teacher wants to use it or not. However, most projects are being carried out through group work.

Working this way has significant advantages, such as the fact that students learn better because they take an active part in the learning process, they achieve greater understanding of the subject and remember the information for longer.


General guidelines for collaborative work.

• Teachers must make students know from the start that they are going to work in groups and what the techniques to be used are, as well as tell them about the importance and benefits of collaborative learning.

• Teachers must plan every stage of group work; they must decide on the topics, fields or projects that could be posed, how to organise the groups and tell them how they will be assessed.

• It is necessary to create tasks requiring interdependence, explain the importance of working in groups in order to reach a specific goal, assign students certain tasks according to their abilities and make sure that the work is distributed in a balanced way, so that everyone will make their contribution.

• Many kinds of groups can be formed depending on the circumstances: homogeneous or heterogeneous, big or small, etc. In any case, the groups formed can be restructured throughout the development of the project, so they can be adapted to further activities and to solve those cases where they may not work as desired.

• We must bear in mind that when we use communication tools and collaborative work platforms, groups can be formed by students from different schools. This will enrich the project, as it includes not only the use of ICTs for communication, but also an important intercultural factor in negotiation processes.

• Teacher's actions. When working in collaborative groups, teachers have the role of making things easier: they are mediators. In addition, they also have to help the group to get rid of conceptual errors, misconceptions and wrong reasoning. Therefore, once the groups are well-formed and students are working, the teachers must take part as resources and guides, providing clues so they can discover things for themselves and reorganising the tasks according to the students' discoveries and depending on the way the group works.

The first thing teachers have to do once the groups are formed is to make sure that all members understand what they are to do and that they have found the information required and decided whether it is enough. Now they have to take part in the groups by making them ask questions like what?, how?, what?, where?...

Throughout the progress of the work, the students' initial questions will become more specific; in many cases they will require new strategies and teachers will have to make a new approach towards work.

Teachers should act as supervisors and evaluators by checking that students comply with all the tasks in their group, contents are being dealt with correctly and the group as such is apt for achieving the objectives posed. This awards special importance to permanent assessment. If the group does not work as expected, teachers should, in cooperation with students, discover which are the causes and apply the suitable remedies: lead to and direct an internal reflection in the group, restructure task distribution and modify composition.


To find out more

How to design motivating projects

In this link there are ideas about getting the pupils involved and committed to a project. Motivation does not only come from a series of attractive activities, but also from participating in the whole process of decision making. Following some principles of learning by project, this presentation explores ways of promoting intrinsic motivation in the pupils and their participation in each of its phases.

http://www.etwinning.es/es/formacion/talleres-de-desarrollo-profesional/457-como-disenar-proyectos-motivadores



Back to Unit 1 Next: Documents 1.c: eTwinning in Comenius




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