This document describes the concept of collaboration on the World Wide Web (Web), including conceptual, theoretical, pedagogical, and practical issues involved in using the Web for collaborative activities and projects. The Web offers many opportunities for teachers and students to collaborate on projects in all subject matters and at all grade levels. Social interaction, which is the basis for much of what is learned in school and elsewhere, is also the concept underlying collaborative learning. Through participation in social interaction, students learn subject matter, communication skills, critical thinking, and language.
To collaborate means to share work, literally, to "co-labor," and this idea of sharing work relates to both tasks and products. This means that whenever possible, learning tasks should be divided up amoungst group members so that they share the work equally. Collaboration is really about sharing - ideas, writing, thinking, and the activities required to produce the finished product. Collaboration is also about distributing the work amongst members of a team, such that everyone has a part and everyone helps make the project successful.
Much has been written about collaboration related to learning, and a variety of terms have been used to describe such classroom activities. These include: collaborative learning, cooperative learning, group learning, peer teaching and learning, reciprocal learning, and teamwork. There have also been many attempts to incorporate the ideas behind collaboration into classroom learning tasks, from people like Slavin (1985), Sharon (1984), Roschelle (1992), Rogoff (1990), Linn (1991), etc.
Johnson, et al. (1990) identify five basic elements of collaborative learning:
- Positive interdependence: Students must be dependent upon each other in ways that will ensure they succeed together. Different roles can facilitate this type of dependence, as can grading individuals and groups. This means that there are many ways a project can be divided up so that members of the group are dependent upon one another. One way would be to split up the work by function, so that each team member performs a different task. For example, imagine a collaborative task of researching about spiders and writing a report on them. One task might be to gather information, while another might be to write the report, an another might be to create graphics, etc. If each member of the team takes on a different responsibility, they are co-dependent. Another way would be to split up the work based on subject matter or content. Again using the spider example, one person might research, write, edit, and create graphics about all African spiders, while another team member might do the same for North American spiders, etc.
- Promotive interaction: Students should help and encourage each other to learn by explaining what they understand, and by gathering and sharing knowledge. An essential element of this type of interaction is a supportive environment for gathering information, reflecting on that information, presenting ideas, considering their validity, and comming to a consensus. In order for students to feel comfortable discussing (and even debating) ideas in this type of situation, mutual respect and consideration are important. What is not helpful is when students denigrate or belittle other students' ideas or work on a personal basis.
- Individual accountability for the group's work: Each member should do his or her "fair share" and be accountable for a) being active and engaged in the group's work, b) doing his or her share of the work, and c) helping others to demonstrate competence and achieve learning. One way to ensure that this occurs is for a teacher to setup procedures to track and monitor each individual's progress, and to focus on the group as the driving force for learning. In addition, in some cases it may be helpful for each member of a team to critique each other's work, but for the group as a whole to be held accountable for producing the final product. Formal and informal procedures can be put into place to encourage individual accountability and group responsibility.
- Social skills: Students should work as a team, and should learn teamwork skills - leadership, decision making, trust building, communication, conflict management, etc. As mentioned above, the group should foster a comfortable, non-threatening, and collaborative learning environment where everyone's ideas have value. Key to this are shared goals, mutual appreciation and trust, and group consensus. These are obviously important skills for students throughout their academic and working lives.
- Group self-evaluating: The group should evaluate its effectiveness continuously. As described above, tasks should include monitoring group and individual progress, regular status reports or meeting with the teacher, and scheduling and estimation. One way to think about these types of actities is like project management: the team needs to be working and progressing toward completion of the finished product, not unlike a research team or a production group.
When students collaborate on a learning task, they are often forced to articulate their thinking and beliefs, to share them with others. In articulating their thinking, students must consider what they know, and what they don't know, along with possible arguments and criticisms that might be leveled by others. Once student thinking has been made public, others in the classroom - including peers as well as teachers - can discuss these ideas in light of what has been learned. Through participation in this collaborative discourse, students can come to know and learn ways of thinking and talking that are prevelent in communities of science, history, math, etc.
One example of this type of collaborative project is the Global Grocery List project [http://gsn.org/gsn/ggl.home.html], where students from around the world collect data on the price of basic foods in their local area and share that data with everyone else around the world. The results are current, peer collected data that can be used in math, social studies, science, and health classes (and others).
Students using the Internet to conduct research on the Web can send e-mail to a scientist or expert in the field, or participate in real-time conferencing with other students about a project they are engaged in. This provides the students with opportunities to think more broadly about their school activities and their lives. Through participation in these activities, students are exposed to perspectives different from their own, and they can associate the classroom activity with real problems they face in the world, supported by others - students, scientists, artists, businesspeople, members of their own community, etc.
The Internet and the Web can be used to facilitate a variety of collaborative projects, for students in all grades (K-12), and for just about any subject area. While most of the existing Web Educational collaborative projects are for High School Science, the possibility exists for any educational project to be shared over the Web. For example, the following are all possible collaborative Web projecs:
- Student-to-Student projects - might include writing a newsletter, magazine, or book together, combining data for a science experiment, gathering art and poetry for a Web site to publish a book, etc. The The Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections project [http://www.stolaf.edu/network/iecc/] is a good example of this type of collaboration on the Internet. A list of student-to-student collaborative projects [http://www.moe.ac.sg/edurou/project.htm] is also available.
- Classroom-to-Classroom projects - such as science projects that involve many classrooms; examples include global rain fall measurement, global grocery list, etc. A good example of this type of project for the technology-savvy classroom is the Jason Project [http://seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov/scripts/JASON.html].
- Teacher-to-Teacher projects - such as electronic field trips, teacher support networks, teacher collaboratives, and teacher study groups. Two good resources for teachers looking to collaborate with other teachers is the Camp Internet's Teacher to Teacher Resource Center [http://www.theicon.com/teachers.html] and the Mustang project at Web66 [http://mustang.coled.umn.edu/Howused.html].
- Teacher-to-Researcher projects - which might involve educators and researchers in formulating, undertaking, or analyzing research, publishing papers, articles, and books, etc. The MSU College of Education [http://www.educ.msu.edu] offers numerous opportunities for teachers to collaborate with educational researchers, including faculty and graduate students. Another interesting collaborative teacher-researcher project is the National Writing project [http://www-gse.berkeley.edu/Research/NWP/nwp.html], which is "a collaborative university/school staff development program to improve the teaching and learning of writing in the nation's classrooms. It is a university-based teacher-centered program."
- Classroom-to-Expert projects - which connect a classroom with a subject matter expert in the field. A good example of this type of project is the Internet Subject Matter Expert project [http://www.moe.ac.sg/edurou/project/communic.txt] hosted by Judi Harris at CoSN.
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- Andrew Topper