Collaborative learning… What is it good for?
This is a relevant question indeed. (And, no, the answer is not “Absolutely nothing”…)
As Capdeferro and Romero point out “frustration is a common feeling among students involved in online collaborative learning experiences“. Overcoming this frustration is essential for collaborative learning to become meaningful, and the literature I have read in the last weeks offers a lot of good adivice regarding how to do this.
Paloff and Pratt, for example, argue that it is important to helping the student to break the ice and getting to know each other (162). It is probably also a good idea to have facilitators in the groups, helping the students getting started with the collaborative work (like we do in this course).
However, the most important thing is probably not to scaffold the collaborative process, but to help the students to understand the (potential) benefits of collaborative work. If that succeeds, students will probably become more motivated.
Unfortunatley, the literature I have read is not as helpful on this point. It does provide many arguments, but not all of them are very strong. For example, Brindley et. al. argue that collaborative learning accomodates fiferent “learning styles”, but the theory about learning styles is, as stated on Wikipedia, “contested”. Other arguments are somewhat one-sided, as when Brindley et. al. argue that the goal of collective learning is “a shared understanding of the subject at hand or a solution to a problem.” This may be true. But is a “shared” understanding always the best outcome of a learning process? Can’t different understadings also be valuable?
After reading a lot and taking part in the dicussions in our PBL group I have come to the conclusion that collaborative learning works best when it allows the students to formulate their own learning goals. (This is recommended by Pallof and Pratt (158)). If students are invited to collaborating with the teachers in this way – then it should become ovious what collaborative learning is good for.