Cooperative Learning vs Digital Age Collaboration – Important Distinctions

In the 1980s early 1990s, one of the trends in education was the idea of cooperative learning, an approach to organized collaborative learning experiences among students. Among other things, it placed a priority upon establishing clear roles for each participant in a group as a means of ensuring that every student in the group remained engaged. This approach also placed an emphasis upon helping students in groups develop the skills necessary to contribute positively to such a task-driven group. These skill could be taught in advance, amid the group interactions, but also learned amid group debriefing that didn’t just emphasize the content, but also the group process and experience.

While fewer educators today refer to the phrase “cooperative learning”, these ideas are alive and well in classrooms and learning environments around the world. However, when this approach was first introduced, the social media revolution and the world of online collaboration had yet to reach the general public. Now that it has, we have new concepts to consider amid collaborative learning. Toward that end, I would like to offer five changes, questions and/or digital age considerations as we think about collaborative learning in the digital world.

1) Most of the early explanations of cooperative learning involved the importance of the teacher in grouping students, assigning and explaining roles, monitoring groups, helping students to develop the skills necessary to be successful in the group, etc. To what extent does the teacher role stay the same or change as we think about collaborative learning in the online world?

2) Cooperative learning involved inviting students into meta-cognition and reflection about the group process. That remains important today. However, how are the skills similar or different when collaborating in a digital context? For example, an important collaborative skill in the 21st century involves the ability to work in teams where people never see each other in person. That is a very different group dynamic: changing social interactions, the nature of time (synchronous / asynchronous), how “power” and “influence” is wielded by individuals…these are all important dynamics. Also, collaboration online may be a blend of synchronous and asynchronous interactions than range from live text-based chats, asynchronous text-based interactions, audio and video interactions, as well as interactions that skip student-student conversation and jump right to collaborative creation of resources (e.g. a collaborative essay on a Wiki or Google Docs). How do you effectively collaborate across such a variety of mediums?

3) Cooperative learning typically involved a good measure of teacher direction and a focused learning experience. The ability to function in such an environment is important today, but there is another dynamic that is important in the digital world as well. Now, how do you work in a group with ill-defined goals and limited or no guidance from an authoritative figure (e.g. teacher) who assigns roles and keeps people “on track”? Working in such groups affords individuals a valuable set of skills that afford individuals a valuable creative voice and full access to participate in digital age democracy.

4) Cooperative learning not only involves clearly defined roles and goals, but also clearly defined groups. It is clear who is a part of what group, and interaction among groups tended to be limited to carefully directed instructions from the teacher. Now consider how groups interact in the digital world. It is possible for an individual to semi-simultaneously participate in multiple groups, to rapidly shift between groups and roles, and for the lines between groups to blur. Consider a teacher who develops an online Personal Learning Network where she collaborates on Twitter, Facebok, Ning Networks, via traditional listservs and email. As part of one or more of these groups, she may also be building collaborative documents or resources in Google Docs, a wiki, a bookmark sharing service like Diigo, as well as a collaborative image-sharing service online. Amid all of this, she may also be having lunch conversations with colleagues that “feeds” into the same general personal learning goals.

5) I mentioned it before, but the difference is large enough that it warrants a separate bullet. Time can be completely different with digital group collaboration. While there may be dedicated meeting times followed by “disconnecting” with the group, the group members in the digital age are rarely that disconnected from other group members. Cell phones and the myriad of online communication tools keep group members persistently connected, even in “down times” for people. Learning to work in and manage this difference is an important life skill for people in the 21st century. How can we begin to help learners navigate this and similar challenges and opportunities?

There are plenty of other distinctions between 1990s cooperative learning and what has become commonplace in online collaboration, but I offer these five a bit of initial food for thought. Please consider offering some of your own ideas in the comment section.