Networked collaborative learning in online environments – what’s the trick?

To start with, I must admit that I find the current topic of networked collaborative learning to be particularly captivating in the ONL course. This is probably due to my longstanding interest in any kind of networks and their emergent phenomena. It is quite fascinating to think about new opportunities that open up when education is put in the context of exchanging, sharing or even co-creating (Brindley et al., 2009) knowledge in a network.

Networks in the realm of academic life are not a new phenomenon. I am under the impression however that they had been until recent times mostly exploited in research rather than education. Scientists realised rather a long time ago that lack of flexible exchange and spread of ideas in research communities organised in dynamic networks would inhibit progress. At the same time, as researchers we often experience how ineffective certain aspects of communication in such networks can be and the online context is not necessarily to blame. I have personally mixed feelings about the effectiveness of various networks I have happened to be part of, particularly those built around the joint need to acquire funding. My experiences range from successful cooperation between people dedicated to their own agendas and goals to dysfunctional configurations of small research communities meant to serve a common purpose. I am under the impression that the current system of incentives in the world of academic research does not necessarily support the intrinsic emergence of healthy networks. Right, I had better put a dot here and move on to networked collaborations in education-related contexts.

Most of my educational experiences in the realm of collaborative learning date back to my student (both at undergraduate and postgraduate level) days and rather relate to group project work or, in some sense, to communities of learners (e.g. a community of PhD students collaboratively working on formulating problems rather than solving them, in a different sense than Siemens’s (2005) perception of a community as an advanced form of learner-learner interaction). In my general understanding of a more network-like configuration is that it tends to be more agile (adaptively reconfigurable to address varying goals) than static groups. The only dynamic aspect in my student networking practice concerned occasional and short-lasting intensified exchange of information in small clusters consisting of two or maximum three students. As far as the online context of our collaborative environment is concerned, in most cases it was limited to sharing ideas by means of googledocs or Skype discussions – not too impressive. The most relevant part of that experience though, looking back from today’s perspective, was a sense of purpose and value shared in the group. At the same time, the driving force behind those collaborative attempts originated from outside, it was imposed by the structure of a specific course or study programme. So, the motivation did not really have intrinsic factors, though it was certainly fuelled by some emergent positive feelings that might have as well revolved around social aspects. For this reason, there does not seem much point in continuing this thread and I would rather move on to reflecting how we can contribute to building a collaborative learning environment in our professional teaching practice. Here I purposefully make a distinction from certain forms of personal learning networks that focus on informal learning. My rationale does not in any way stem from lack of appreciation for the role of networks in informal learning. It is rather dictated by a more challenging nature of embedding networked structures in the context of formal education (Anderson, 2008).

Let’s consider some of the proposed strategies to motivate our students to engage in online collaborative learning where they form their own networks and small groups of learners. The online aspect brings another challenging dimension to these considerations. To start with, it seems vital that students become convinced about the value and relevance of team work (Brindley et al., 2009). Without this appreciation it is going to be hard to make online collaborators deeply involved. One way to obtain the desirable effect would be to make the participants directly experience the advantages they can draw from networks of other learners. For example, they could be confronted with a relatively complex multi-faceted problem on their own in the beginning of the course and then they could be slowly but surely urged to exchange their observations, ideas, solutions in online groups. Just like in research environments, there is a good chance that learners will appreciate synergistic effects and invest efforts in connecting with each other, thereby effectively self-organising in network structures at multiple scales depending on their own goals and a wider agenda they can become part of. Realisation how much more ambitious objectives can be pursued and, hopefully, attained in the end in comparison with an individual approach would likely be an eye opener to the vast potential of collaborative learning.

A different perspective on incentives for online networked collaboration in a course was proposed by Swan et al. (2006). In the spirit of constructive alignment, they stressed the relevance of assessment as a way to shape collaborative attitudes in online environments. I admit that I find this rationale rather convincing, especially if two aspects are considered. First, a collaborative approach to constructing or contributing to an assessment scheme could serve as part of learning activities. Second, assessment could provide an extra set of incentives and a sense of direction for learners to engage in what is designed as online collaborative learning activities. A challenge to build an evaluation scheme by a network of learners themselves looks quite innovative, though it provokes a dose of scepticism. Therefore I strongly recommend reading Swan et al.’s (2006) contribution to formulate your own opinion.s

Naturally, a task set for collaborative learners has to be appropriate. In this context the dimension of online work seems more challenging than the collaborative attribute itself. It is rather straightforward to pose problems that can be effectively handled by a group with synergistic effects. On the other hand, I find it far more challenging to ensure that the online form of working in a group naturally lends itself to a given problem domain. In many cases, online networking is perceived as a burden rather than an opportunity. Therefore, however trivial it sounds, I think the importance of identifying a right task for online collaborative learning, which truly benefits from advantages of online format irrespective of software tools, should be clearly spelled out. From my perspective, the key issue is an asynchronous pattern of communication between learners and opportunities to transcend geographical limitations in building more diverse and interest-oriented networks.

Finally, a bit I consider particularly relevant in this puzzle of factors paving the way for successful online collaborative learning is a teacher. Does the teacher’s role end with clarifying the purpose, aim and scope for collaborative work? How visible should the external moderator be in a group of learners?  I am under the impression that a series of well balanced moderating interventions would be very helpful. On the other hand, in a truly collaborative network one could expect that feedback could be internally generated just as the final assessment could be shaped by the learners themselves. Maybe the role of a facilitator can be rotated in a network of learners without the need to rely on external teachers. Still, I feel that “an invisible hand” of the teacher could tremendously facilitate this difficult process of starting and, particularly, maintaining effective networked collaboration in a flexible dynamic online environment, requiring a great deal of adaptation from relatively inexperienced participants.

Any thoughts on that would be much appreciated……

 

References

Anderson, T. (2008). Teaching in an online learning context. In The theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca University press.

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: Learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1).

Swan, K., Shen, J., & Hiltz, S.R. (2006). Assessment and collaboration in online learning. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 10(1), 45-62.

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