“Can we work together?”
As an elementary, junior high school, and high school teacher (or primary and secondary if you prefer), this was probably the top FAQ after giving my students an in-class assignment.
The first year or so I was a teacher, my answer was usually “no”. As I began to study pedagogy more and simultaneously observe in the classroom, I began to see that collaborative learning has a definite place in an educational framework.
What is the fear about collaborative learning?
Let’s speak about the elephant in the room, shall we?
We want our learners and trainees to reach proficiency in certain knowledge and skills. We are worried that by working in a collaborative way, the “weaker” students will get by on the shoulders of the “stronger” students, making it look like they have reached their learning and training goals when, in fact, they have not.
That is 100% what I thought when I began my teaching career. I had basically been taught that during my teacher training, and it made perfect sense according to how I had been educated myself.
Why I needed to update my view on collaborative learning
To a high degree, our views are formed by the times in which we live. I was born and grew up in the 20th century. In my senior year in high school (1976), I took the first computer course ever offered in that school. My dad, who was the manager of a business college which included computer courses, told me I had to take it because it was the wave of the future.
Up to then, knowledge was mostly an individual affair. We went to libraries to study from physical books. We had to carry knowledge around in our heads because we could not haul sets of encyclopedias (large, heavy books with knowledge inside of them organized from A-Z) from place to place as needed.
As a result, and most correctly, the goal was to get each person to individually store as much accurate knowledge and as many perfected skills as possible.
This is not to say that people did not collaborate at work. They did, working together on projects as needed. However, the focus of education was on the individual, so they could bring their “expertise” to the table.
Enter the 21st century
In August of 1991, the World Wide Web officially went public. Several years later in 1993, people began to access the internet from their homes. This invention, a global knowledge network, fundamentally changed our thinking.
As more and more basic knowledge became available at our fingertips, we were freed from the need to carry it around in our heads. What we needed to do now, was know how to use that knowledge…and use it well. The result was a “shift in emphasis from individual efforts to group work, from independence to community”.
This included collaborative learning.
What is collaborative learning?
It is an educational approach which focuses on group-centered tasks. Several individuals, working together, need to pool their resources to get some type of job done.
Classic examples of collaborative learning activities include group presentations (oral) and reports (written). Another example of collaborative learning is group problem solving, in which people contribute their strengths to reach an optimum solution.
Benefits of collaborative learning
Research on collaborative learning activity shows that there are “social, psychological, academic, and assessment benefits”.
Here are some of the benefits of collaborative learning:
- Learners and trainees improve their oral communication skills.
- They become more comfortable with and tolerant of diversity in all its forms.
- Continued interaction over time creates positive, inter-group bonds, making each member feel supported during the learning process, especially during challenging learning or training.
- The collaboration part of the learning or training makes the process more fun. As a result, each group member is more actively invested in and committed to the learning process.
- Group members learn to resolve conflicts in a friendly manner, without personal attacks on the other.
- Success becomes a group-centric variable. Group members feel that goals are reachable only if everyone attains them. So, if individual members get stuck, other members find ways to help them more forward.
Developing a collaborative learning strategy
Let’s talk about how to integrate a collaborative learning strategy into your overall workplace training program.
I am going to suggest a top-down approach. That is, moving from your final goal(s) to the scaffolding which is going to enable your trainees to reach it.
Top-level: Assessing progress to the final goal(s)
Whatever your goal(s), you want to encourage trainees to reach it/them in the projected time frame. Leaderboards use healthy competition as a motivator. Leaderboards show the progress of trainee groups on a month/quarter/year basis.
Dividing your trainees into accountable groups sets the scene for collaborative learning. While leaderboards track individual progress so you can make sure everyone is on track, the group is focused on the overall group effort which can win them the reward(s).
Middle level: Facilitating learning along the way
Collaborative social interaction is an important element of adult peer learning. Traditionally, this is done in a physical setting. The continuing trend of business on a global scale, as well as current social distancing requirements, are two strong reasons for a virtual alternative.
Using an online e-Learning app which includes a discussions and assignments feature enables training to take place on an “any time, any place” basis.
Discussion and Assignments tasks support collaborative learning through learner access to peer knowledge. A conversation-like forum enables instructors to coach and mentor group members. The Q&A is available for everyone in the group to see and participate in. Once gaps in understanding are filled, students submit their individual assignments for further review and feedback.
Note that this option supports collaborative learning while allowing for individual assessment—making sure that individuals continue to be accountable for their training.
Initial level: Building the base for training
In my online teaching, I teach virtually (via Zoom) for several hours each week. Although my students work independently on individual and collaborative tasks via several platforms, it is critical to include F2F (albeit virtual) contact.
Learners still need a human touch. My students and your trainees need to be able to interact with a live human being on a real-time basis. Virtual classrooms fill this need.
In addition, like it or not, there are still many times in which “frontal” teaching is the most efficient way of presenting new information and reviewing previously-taught material.
I use virtual lesson time in several ways. One is for the recycling of previously-taught material. Usually, my learners work collaboratively in Zoom breakout rooms on a task. Then, we come together as a class to review it. Another use is the presentation of new material, answering learner questions along the way. Lastly, learners have the option of “live homework time”. After the “frontal” lesson, I remain online for about 1 hour. If students choose to work on their homework during this time, they have access to live help. Many students do, and this is a great way for me to support those who need more clarification about a particular point.
But do you really need to leverage collaborative learning in your training programs?
A recent Forbes article reports that 2021 may be a “breakout year” for collaborative learning. I can totally understand why.
In uncertain times, like those of today, it makes great sense to invest in your current employees. Statistics show that the cost of replacing a staff member is roughly 21% of their salary. Do the math. How much will it cost your company to find a new [insert job title here] as compared with the cost of implementing collaborative learning via an e-Learning platform? Chances are, the costs of adding collaborative learning to your training programs are going to be way lower.
In addition, your workers’ future-forward knowledge and skills are going to make your organization stronger and more competitive.
Step 1 to adding collaborative learning to your training is just a click away.