Collaborative classrooms: a guide

Collaborative learning helps to teach children soft skills through shared assignments, and seamless app connectivity

By Terry Chana, Workspace Practice Lead at Misco

As we prepare for the new term it’s natural to reflect on the successes of the previous academic year and consider how we might improve children’s learning experiences and outcomes in September.

One question we are frequently asked by teachers is how we can help them to create a collaborative classroom.

At the BETT show earlier this year we talked to many teachers about their experiences of using whiteboards to support collaborative learning. After their widespread introduction in the 1990’s we are seeing interactive whiteboards increasingly being replaced by interactive flat panels (touch screens) because they perform better in bright daylight conditions, reducing the frustrations often encountered with whiteboards and projectors. Interactive flat panels are also cheaper for schools to run because they do not require replacement bulbs or filters.

After working with schools for thirty years, we know that working on shared assignments and taking on different roles within team projects can help pupils to learn listening skills and co-operation; to consider the viewpoints of other pupils and develop empathy.

Collaborative work can also be used to give pupils the opportunity to practice leading a team and to learn how to articulate and debate ideas, negotiate and compromise. These are all ‘soft skills’ which are increasingly valued in the workplace.

Collaborative learning encourages pupils to problem solve as a group and to support each other, and has also been shown to benefit the written language skills of pupils for whom English is a second language. A study by Ana Fernandez Dobao found that written work produced by groups had a higher level of accuracy than text produced by individual learners, or pairs of pupils working together. Classroom technology has adapted over the past 25 years to reflect the move from the didactic ‘broadcast’ of information, to collaborative teaching and learning practices. In the collaborative learning environment, the teacher creates schemes of work that supports pupils as they practice these soft skills: guiding and interacting with pupils as they progress through the assignment.

Many of the education establishments that we work with are taking advantage of improved broadband and mobile connectivity and introducing smart screen technology, such as Microsoft’s Surface Hub. This device allows teachers and pupils to interact with content, using up to 100 touch points on the interactive screen at the same time. Teachers can also use the device to monitor and guide pupils’ progress online, tailoring content to children’s learning styles and reinforcing key learning points to pupils as they work together on their shared assignments. The interactive panels integrate easily with collaboration software used by teachers, as well as hardware, such as SMART notebooks, used by pupils. 

While Apple’s iPad has been an extremely popular tool within collaborative classrooms, we are increasingly seeing schools adopting Google’s low-cost Chromebooks with a pared-down operating system, which offer schools an economic and easily managed solution.

Google devices running G-Suite for Education offer the advantage of a wide range of cloud-based teaching apps, making it easier (and more cost effective) for teachers to orchestrate learning experiences, so that children can learn both in groups and at their own pace. Chromebooks also allow pupils to research topics independently as well as collaborating with their classmates on group assignments.

Google’s educational apps are free, available 24/7, and provide teaching resources to support lesson planning. Google Classroom allows lesson content and feedback to be easily shared with a whole class, or individual students, while also ensuring a consistent user experience on Chromebooks and Android tablets. Because the content is cloud-based and can be synced with pupils’ devices, teachers can see everything in one place. It is also easier for pupils to consolidate learning by completing assignments at home that were started in the classroom, without the risk of work getting lost. So that’s the end of the dog eating your homework. 

For assignments that involve other schools, such as communicating with pen pals in language lessons, or for pupils with special needs who are unable to be physically present in the classroom, some schools are also introducing technology such as Infinite Canvas. This technology allows teachers to link all pupils’ devices to a single touch screen device: allowing them to reach and include students who are learning from home, from hospital, or in another country.  

Many of the teachers we spoke to at BETT mentioned stretched budgets, which were limiting what they could do in terms of creating mobile and immersive learning experiences for their pupils. On July 17th, education secretary Justine Greening announced an extra £1.3billion funding would be made available for schools, through “efficiencies and savings”. However, with no additional money coming from the treasury, this will mean that schools will have to carefully prioritise their spending.

Luckily, the IT industry is stepping in to help schools to deliver inspiring learning experiences underpinned by the latest collaborative, mobile, immersive and VR technology. For example, HP has announced its HP for Education Programme, allowing schools to trade in old PCs, laptops and printers in exchange for a cash contribution towards new ICT as part of HP and Intel’s #FollowTheRipple initiative. HP also selected three UK schools to participate in its Learning Studios programme, in an effort to tackle the digital skills gap. This is an excellent example of collaborative learning between industry and education, in order to provide our children with the skills that we will all rely on in the future.

As Britain continues its transition from a manufacturing to a service-led economy, it’s time we all worked harder to help our children to develop their soft skills.

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