Virtual communities

Digital technology that enables collaboration is rightly enjoying a moment in the sun, but will enthusiasm for it fade or will it become mainstay of the future classroom?

‘Necessity is the mother of invention,’ runs a centuries-old adage. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on online learning is the perfect example of this; while a number of schools, colleges and universities were already on their way to an enhanced digital state, there can be no doubt that its adoption has been accelerated by the events of the last 18 months.

The impact on collaborative or group learning – an integral part of the educators’ toolkit – was significant, with so many e-learning tools, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Suite, Canva, etc, offering new ways to structure it.

“Lessons became interactive and challenging,” says Nadya French, head of computer science at Longhill High School, East Sussex, “and students who would perhaps otherwise ‘tune out’ can have their curiosity sparked by the use of technology.”

The limits of digital expansion

However, expansion of this opportunity for engagement is not a given across the sector.

Diana Laurillard, professor of learning with digital technology at UCL’s Knowledge Lab, and a lead educator for FutureLearn’s ‘Blended and Online Learning Design’ course, notes that, despite the pandemic boom in online collaborative learning, most universities “did not attempt to extend their courses beyond the numbers already enrolled, or the newly recruited in 2020”.

“Online learning is as constrained as campus-based learning,” she says, adding: “The size of a cohort has a significant effect on the number of staff needed to support them.”

“Online learning is as constrained as campus-based learning” – Diana Laurillard, UCL Knowledge Lab

Laurence Boulter, chair of Naace, The Education Technology Association, is excited by the use of technology “to expand the composition of collaborative groups”, but also believes it is “a development that we have yet to fully explore”.

Boulter feels that, at school level, obstacles to this are hard-wired. “We cannot ignore the awkwardness that currently exists between the examination system and how collaborative learning might provide outcomes that contribute to the success of students in terminal examinations,” he says.

The value of digital collaborative learning: hard facts and soft skills

There are, as Laurillard notes, a number of variables in the mix when it comes to the efficacy of digital collaborative learning, such as the quality of the teaching, the quality of the online environment, and the way it’s used alongside other forms of teaching and learning.

“The value is in the mix of individual work, discussion, debate, challenge and counter challenge, negotiation, decision-making, etc, that is entailed,” says Laurillard. “This can be set up, guided and scheduled by the teacher either on campus or online using Zoom, Moodle and other platforms of their ilk. It can be absolute rubbish and half the students fail to get anywhere, or fantastic fun for all involved with significantly improved outcomes over individual work. Of course, no university teachers have been trained in this, so it really is down to how good the teacher is, as always.”

Some examples of the kinds of activities that pupils and students can do online together are highlighted by teachers and lecturers on FutureLearn’s website.

One example involved college students responding to marketing materials and adverts and using multimedia tools and various sources to build an Ansoff Matrix – a marketing planning tool – for a company of their choice.

In another instance, a group of year 7 students watched a video about religious and sacred buildings and then used PowerPoint to create their own presentation with models and photographs. This was then peer-reviewed and students were asked to explain their working. The approach was used by the school in question across subject areas and age groups.

However, the capacity to access multiple sources of information in a relatively short time and build conclusions as a group is not necessarily reliant on a school environment.

“There is a little irony here,” says Boulter, “in that many pupils arrive at secondary schools with a useful cluster of collaborative skills when using technology. They know how to communicate between individuals and within groups, how to find information they need and how to share that information.”

“Every class has its Minecraft expert who works with friends on collaborative projects; every class has its aspiring YouTubers, who often work in groups to produce videos and props. Most often, pupils have acquired these skills without any guidance or tuition; they are largely self-taught, and that is a capacity that we ought to build on.”

Another big plus point for digitally assisted collaborative learning is that it can be done asynchronously. “This is good for students who may be shy, or do not have English as a first language,” says Laurillard, adding: “or who have other cultural, physical or social characteristics that make face-to-face encounters less valuable to them.”

A sense of community

By its very nature, collaborative learning – digitally assisted or otherwise – means that all participants are invested in the same outcome; one that they will reach more quickly and more successfully if each member of the group feels engaged and valued through discussions and feedback.

Two of the edtech tools that have assisted educators in this are Microsoft Teams, with its breakout group options, and Google Suite.

Remote collaboration in action. Image source: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

“Google Suite has come into its own in the pandemic,” says French, “with Google Meet the starting point for where lessons could be taught remotely and collaborative learning take place.” 

Among the facilities offered, French uses a Google Meet add-on called Jamboard that allows students to answer questions displayed on a virtual whiteboard. They can respond either verbally or by writing or typing the answers. She also employs the learning portal Google Classroom to set classwork and homework and uses its Stream page as a virtual noticeboard “where students and parents can be kept updated about tasks set or other matters of interest”.

“If people are working together on a shared objective,” says Laurillard, “that is likely to foster a sense of community, and shared investment in the outcome. It motivates attention and perseverance for the sake of the group, requires input and ideas from each member, promotes reflection on those ideas through discussion and debate, and enables learning through feedback from others.”

The classroom of the future

The pandemic has provided impetus for digital take-up at a time when costs are arguably less of a deal-breaker than they were. Servers are out (and with it the necessary IT support) and cloud-based systems are in. Although some edtech tools are still out of reach for many schools, Google Suite and systems like it are affordable options that will help wider adoption of tech in education.

Meanwhile, as Laurence Boulter points out, the day where most pupils can bring in their own device doesn’t seem that far off – something that, ironically, the government is keen to discourage.

However, while it’s symbolic that every day could be a BYOD (bring your own device) day, it’s possible that schools might prefer a one-device-fits-all approach for content and quality control.

Whatever the route, it’s hard not to see a more hybrid future for most educational spaces.

Pointing to the latest Ofsted Framework for September 2021, which states that the delivery of remote education should influence “changes or adaptations to the school’s curriculum”, Nadya French says, “Educational technology tools are here to stay and are now a minimum expectation within the sector.”

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