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Collaborative learning may be seen as an emerging paradigm within the tertiary level of education, as institutions struggle to adapt to the new environment forced on them. While collaborative learning has been widely discussed in the K-12 context, comparatively little research has been conducted into the use of collaborative learning techniques at tertiary level. This paper looks at case studies of courses involving online collaborative learning as an integral component of the learning process, notes some common weaknesses and strengths, and draws some conclusions regarding successful implementation.
Collaborative learning organisations devoted to tertiary level study are much harder to find. However, the changing student demographic (Curtis & Lawson, 1999) has led to an increased demand for course delivery to be more flexible, giving the student the ability to meet all commitments, and yet still obtain an appropriate tertiary education. This new environment would seem to be one where collaborative learning techniques may be successfully introduced.
When the distance delivery of Human Biology 133 at Curtin University's School of Biomedical Sciences was adjusted to incorporate online collaboration, Fyfe (2000) discovered that students who cannot effectively use the software and/or technology might have problems. The students in 'virtual' groups of three were required to interact synchronically via email, access a chatroom on WebCT and transfer documents electronically. An unskilled student may become frustrated and the collaboration process be obstructed.
When Agostinho, Lefoe and Hedberg (1997) assessed the combination of delivery media in the post-graduate offered by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Wollongong a similar problem was highlighted. Agostinho et al (1997) have outlined some guidelines that would benefit students with regard to the technology used:
Wegerif (1998) also discussed assessment structure levels in his article relating to the importance of communities in online collaborative learning within a post-graduate course. Most who undertook the course were professional teachers and all were distance students, from a diverse range of backgrounds. Wegerif pointed out that students felt there was a lack of structure and this led to a lack of focus and discussions that tended to diverge in unnecessary directions.
Another support for highly structured tasks comes from the Agostinho et al (1997) case study. The experience of an unstructured threaded discussion was not successful. However, a more structured discussion proved to be the most popular learning experience, supporting the theory of highly structured assessment tasks.
These case studies all argue for the assessment tasks to be structured, but in a way that the structure provides general process tasks and time frames, not guidance in completing the required tasks (Paz Dennen, 2000).
Different forms of communication were used in the case studies ranging from live chats to asynchronous interaction, with varying results. To improve the dynamics of the groups it has been suggested that asynchronous interaction occur allowing students to work at their own pace (Fyfe, 2000).
Agostinho et al (1997) outlined the following suggestions for successful live chat discussions:
Thirty-four forums were supplied in the Nachmias, Mioduser, Oren and Ram (2000) case study, on emergent collaborative learning. Six categories of emergent-collaboration learning modes were developed and implemented: "Web-supported social interaction, Web-supported critical group-reading, Synchronic and asynchronic issue-discussion, Peer evaluation and review, Collaborative construction of knowledge bases and Group projects online presentation". It was discovered that for approximately three quarters of the time a student entered the forum only to observe the latest discussion or to check replies to previous postings, not necessarily to post a new message.
The lack of collaboration between students could be explained by students being unfamiliar with each other, having no face-to-face meeting to get acquainted, or the fact that students may be instructed to be careful as text only messages can easily be misunderstood (Curtis & Lawson, 1999). Another collaboration restriction is a student's fear that they would have to do the bulk of the work in a project to achieve a reasonable level of quality. The students in Paz Dennen's (2000) course were assessed using a combination of group and individual work, ensuring each student gave a reasonable contribution. Wegerif (1998) states that "a sense of community... seems to be a necessary first step for collaborative learning" as students in a community are less likely to feel anxious and more willing to take the risks involved in learning.
From an academic point of view the current situation has been described as 'opaque'. The university support structure is considered to be fragmented, with expertise present but uncoordinated.
As has been illustrated, online collaborative learning courses within tertiary education can prove to be successful and the following recommendations may enhance the collaboration process:
Actual case studies well-detailed in the literature are few. Of the seven case studies investigated here, four were in a post-graduate environment, one was mixed undergraduate and post-graduate, and two were undergraduate. It appears from this small sample of studies that online collaborative learning is not widely used in the undergraduate sector of education and only sparingly implemented in the post-graduate sector. The authors believe that given the success for both students and educators in all case studies it argues that online collaborative learning can be successful in all levels of tertiary education. With further research and practice, successful online collaborative learning could be more widely introduced into tertiary education at an undergraduate level. Ngeow (1998) suggests that online collaborative learning:
...should prepare learners for the kind of team work and critical interchange that they will need to be effective participants in their communities and workplaces in the future
Curtis, D. & Lawson, M. (1999). Collaborative online learning: An exploratory case study. Proceedings HERDSA Annual International Conference. Melbourne, 12-15 July 1999. http://www.herdsa.org.au/vic/cornerstones/pdf/Curtis2.PDF [verifed 19 Aug 2002]
Davis, J. E. (1999). Online Collaborative Learning. http://www.ualberta.ca/~jedavies/edse502/ [viewed 7 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Foster, J., Bowskill, N., Lally, V. & McConnell, D. (1999). Preparing for Networked Collaborative Learning: An Institutional View. Presented at European Conference on Educational Research. Lahti, Finland, 22-25 September 1999.
Fyfe, S. (2000). Collaborative learning at a distance: The Human Biology experience. In A. Herrmann & M. M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000, Perth, Curtin University of Technology, http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/fyfes.html [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Hiltz, S. R. (1998). Collaborative Learning in Asynchronous Learning Networks: Building Learning Communities. Invited address at WEB98 Orlando Florida, November 1998. http://eies.njit.edu/~hiltz/collaborative_learning_in_asynch.htm [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Hiltz, S. R. & Turoff, M. (1978/1993). The Network Nation: Human Communication via Computer. Revised edition, Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
McNamee, L., Roberts, T. & Williams, S. (2001). Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education, http://musgrave.cqu.edu.au/clp/clpsite/index.htm [viewed 2 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Nachmias, R., Mioduser, D., Oren, A. & Ram, J. (2000). Web-supported emergent-collaboration in higher education courses. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 94-104. http://ifets.massey.ac.nz/periodical/vol_3_2000/a05.html [verifed 19 Aug 2002]
Ngeow, K. (1998). Enhancing Student Thinking through Collaborative Learning. ERIC Digest, ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading English and Communication Bloomington IN, ED422586.
Paz Dennen, V. (2000). Task structuring for on-line problem based learning: A case study. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), ISSN 1436-4522, pp 329-335, http://ifets.massey.ac.nz/periodical/vol_3_2000/d08.html [viewed 25 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Pilkington, R., Bennett, C. & Vaughan, S. (2000). An evaluation of computer mediated communication to support group discussion in continuing education. Educational Technology & Society, 3(3), 349-360, http://ifets.massey.ac.nz/periodical/vol_3_2000/d10.html [viewed 20 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
Wegerif, R. (1998). The Social Dimension of Asynchronous Learning Networks. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 2(1). http://www.aln.org/alnweb/journal/vol2_issue1/wegerif.htm [viewed 25 Nov 2001, verified 19 Aug 2002]
|Authors: Lissa McNamee is a third year student at Central Queensland University, Bundaberg, where she is completing a Bachelor of Informatics. In 2001 she played a major role in the development of the Online Collaborative Learning in Higher Education web site at http://musgrave.cqu.edu.au/clp/clpsite/index.htm, and was awarded a Faculty Spring/Summer Scholarship in early 2002. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tim Roberts is a Senior Lecturer with the Faculty of Informatics and Communication at the Bundaberg campus of Central Queensland University. He teaches computer science subjects, including Programming A to over 1000 students located throughout Australia and overseas. In 2001 he, Lissa McNamee, and Sallyanne Williams developed the Online Collaborative Learning web site at http://musgrave.cqu.edu.au/clp/clpsite/index.htm In 2002 he was awarded the Bundaberg City Council's prize for excellence in research. Email: email@example.com