Taking Collaboration From Virtual To Reality

In recent times, collaboration has perhaps become one of the most over-used terms in education – but surprisingly it remains largely misunderstood. Gill Leahy, examines what we really mean by collaboration and how we can ensure that we are teaching and learning in a truly collaborative way.

Collaboration is not a new learning technique and while its positive impact has always been acknowledged, the role of collaboration is being given an increased weighting, most recently driven by employer demand for different skills.  Employers are placing a greater emphasis on the significance of students requiring collaborative skills in the workplace. This is evidenced by research by the Development Economics Group (DEG), which has shown that collaboration falls into one of the top three skills that employers look for. The DEG has also quantified that collaboration forms part of the ‘soft skills’ estimated to be worth £88bn to the UK economy. While championing collaboration is a positive step forward, it is schools that will have to help students develop the skills needed and ensure that teachers are confident enough to modify their teaching style to support collaborative learning beyond traditional group work.

What do we mean by collaboration?

For students to be working in a truly collaborative way they need to be learning in groups or teams towards a common goal, which can take numerous forms. Collaboration is driven towards output, therefore individual roles within a group setting focus on the deliverables. Within this, cooperation explores the roles and responsibilities within the group, negotiating them until they are clearly defined to allow for accountability. Competition is the final part of collaboration. Often linked to rewards, competition is about teams achieving their target; and depending on the nature of rewards it can significantly impact the outcome and motivation of the students.

Collaboration best practice

Since collaboration can take on many forms, when schools are considering how to strategically implement collaborative learning, the initial process can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, there are proven approaches which can facilitate the adoption of a collaborative strategy. For example, putting collaborative learning into practice is best demonstrated by Elizabeth Murphy’s 2004 model for developing collaboration. If schools are serious about collaboration playing a fundamental role in their teaching, then implementing a model will help staff to adapt by providing them with a point of reference and clear direction.

In order for collaboration to be effective, the whole school environment needs to change; therefore having a defined model will form the foundations of support for everyone. Elizabeth Murphy’s model takes into account the student, teacher and task, looking at how each one experiences, explores and takes ownership for collaboration in the classroom.

The first stage focuses on ‘experiencing’; for students this applies to learning concepts such as respect and trust. For teachers ‘experiencing’ refers to the act of initiating group work, from creating teams through to deciding on discussion topics. Therefore the task must examine the ‘output focus’, meaning there must be both group and individual accountability for what has been set.

Secondly, ‘exploring’ is about students developing skills in negotiation and being able to summarise and clarify their ideas within a group setting. For teachers, it applies to reflecting on feedback with students. This is a crucial part to working more collaboratively as it is important that students learn to accept all forms of feedback. For the task the emphasis is on ‘process focus, it should provide opportunities for students to develop key learning processes.

Finally, ‘owning’ means students are able to recognise their own strengths and weaknesses, they are then able to plan teamwork more effectively, maximising the resources and skills of a group. Teachers are then able to allow students to take more control over their own learning, which means students will decide on their own tasks to best achieve their aims.

The role of technology

Once there is a model or a framework in place that acts as a solid foundation for the school there are other options available that can help with integrating collaboration into teaching and learning. This is where classroom technology can come to the fore. Firstly, it’s important schools don’t feel pressured to immediately invest in new technology and then look at how this fits into the school retrospectively. Instead it’s advised to observe how teachers are using existing technology, this will help pinpoint any gaps there might be, and allow accurate assessment of what the school needs. It’s also important to remember that while technology can be a real enabler for optimising collaboration in the classroom, it’s actually the effectiveness of its use that will make the real impact.

In terms of what is available, front-of-class technology is a great starting point for encouraging collaborative learning; many devices actively facilitate individual, small team or whole class learning via their touch screen capabilities. There is also a wide-range of supporting mobile technologies that can benefit students when breaking away into small groups or even working from home. There are many options such as laptops, tablets and even smartphones can have their place in the classroom; it all depends on what technology will support the required usage.

Hardware is often the obvious starting point when thinking about technology but software has a role to play too. For example, migrating to cloud-based solutions seems to be how software technology is progressing in general. While it might feel overwhelming, schools can seek reassurance by speaking with peers in other schools regarding how they are using technology, or even speaking with suppliers to organise product demonstrations or attending trade shows to see first hand how the technology works in practice.

Collaboration in the modern classroom

No longer bound by bricks and mortar of the four classroom walls, students can use technology to continue their learning outside of the traditional learning space. Change cannot be made overnight and the development and implementation of a modern collaboration strategy will take time. As education is responsible for delivering the workforce of the future, then today’s teaching and learning needs to pioneer the skills development and drive this change where it matters most – in the classroom.

Gill Leahy, Head of Curriculum Development and Research, Promethean

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