23 Jan 2024

Collaborative learning: Let’s not reinvent the wheel

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Collaborative learning is not a new teaching and learning approach; it has been around since the 1970s and is an evidence-based practice that has been proven to be effective time after time. Therefore, instead of reinventing the wheel or only relying on best practices or anecdotal evidence of what works and what doesn’t, especially when designing Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) environments, educators might find it useful to make use of existing collaborative learning instructional design elements. These elements have been scientifically proven to be effective and can be applied in both the physical and online international classroom.

Collaborative learning involves two or more students working together in groups to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a project either in physical or online learning environments as well as in Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) courses. Collaborative learning is considered one of the great success stories within social and educational psychology. The approach is rooted in social constructivist theories developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Within a collaborative learning environment, the educator acts as a facilitator for students who learn and build on knowledge through social interaction. Collaborative learning is a well-researched practice that has been shown to be effective in helping students develop an array of skills and competencies such as communication skills, critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, intercultural competence, employability skills and also developing higher levels of learning and retention of curriculum content.

Collaborative learning and COIL

There is also scientific evidence to show that collaborative learning can help students develop intercultural competencies within Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) environments. COIL is a popular teaching and learning method used to internationalise the curriculum and involves placing students in multicultural teams to collaborate and through this process learn curriculum content and develop intercultural competencies. However, within the literature and research on virtual exchange and COIL, collaborative learning is rarely discussed and the essential collaborative learning instructional design elements are sometimes completely neglected or not given enough attention within the design and practice of COIL. Possible reasons for this could be due to educators not being familiar with or aware of the abundance of work or research that has already been carried out within the field of Collaborative Learning or educators do not have a background in teacher training, pedagogical approaches or educational sciences in which practices such as collaborative learning are explored. Either way, neglecting these elements could result in sub-optimal learning experiences for students.

Collaborative learning has been proven effective, but placing students together in a group does not automatically lead to successful collaboration

Although collaborative learning has been proven to be effective, placing students together in a group does not automatically lead to successful collaboration, skill development or learning. Collaborative learning environments, especially in multicultural and online contexts (or a combination of both), need to be carefully designed to ensure meaningful social interaction, inclusive collaboration and exchange of knowledge and information between students. The design phase also involves ensuring there are opportunities within the course to prepare students for the collaborative learning experience.

Essential instructional design elements for collaborative learning

There are some basic instructional design elements that have been proven to be effective in supporting collaborative learning. It has been suggested that for a course or task to qualify as a collaborative learning process, these instructional design elements should be included. These elements can be implemented in the design of collaborative learning activities both in the physical and online classroom but also in COIL courses. The elements include:

1. Positive interdependence: This involves designing the collaborative tasks to ensure students cannot complete the collaborative tasks individually but depend on their group members to complete the tasks and cannot compete them without each other.

2. Promotive interaction: This involves including time and opportunities within the design of the course for students to meet in person or online to discuss the course content and tasks, provide feedback and encourage and motivate each other to participate and learn.

3. Individual accountability: This involves designing tasks in such a way that students feel part of the group, have ownership over the process, feel (and are held) accountable for completing the tasks (eg this could include a group assessment form that students fill in individually evaluating how much effort they and their teammates put into the tasks).

4. Social skills: Ensuring that students have ample time and opportunities within the course to bond, get to know each other, trust and feel comfortable with each other. This will give space for students to develop leadership, decision-making, problem-solving and communication skills (eg include ice-breaker activities throughout the course).

5. Group self-evaluating/reflection: Ensuring that the course includes tasks in which students reflect on their collaboration, progress and learning (eg individual/group reflection portfolios).

Educators can also develop worksheets that can include the instructional design elements described above. The worksheets act as a guide for students within their collaborative learning sessions. For example, the worksheet could include: a sequence of actions that students need to complete within a given timeframe in the collaborative learning session; a set of questions that students need to ask each other and reflect on in the sessions; instructions to help students provide feedback for one another; and instructions that prompt students to take on specific roles or tasks within the collaborative learning session.

Let’s not reinvent the wheel

Instead of reinventing the wheel or relying only on anecdotal evidence of what works and what doesn’t, educators who are planning to design collaborative learning environments or COIL environments might find it useful to make use of existing collaborative learning instructional design elements that have been scientifically proven to be effective. They might also like to review some of the various collaborative learning educational resources that are readily available for educators to use.

By taking this evidence-based approach to designing collaborative learning environments and using existing instructional design elements, educators can ensure that they develop optimal courses that will lead to meaningful collaboration which can facilitate both students’ intercultural and curriculum content learning, and also equip students with an array of skills that will prepare them future societal and global changes.

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