Topic 3: Learning in communities: networked collaborative learning
Networked collaborative learning refers to group learning that goes beyond the traditional “divide and conquer” method of group work that most of us have experienced from high school and university, and probably also from the working life. Collaborative learning environments stimulate knowledge transmission through active participation of learners in discussions and information searches together (Brindley et al. 2009). Learners are working towards a common goal, and reaching that goal is dependent on all learners’ contributions to the discussion.
From a teachers perspective it becomes self-evident that we desire this type of collaborative learning among our students, as opposed to just splitting up the work and putting the results together in a final document. However, I realize that my own collaboration skills, both as a teacher and researcher, are not that well developed. My current research projects follow the same pattern as my undergrad group works did, i.e. the first author (myself) takes on most responsibility and delegates some work to the co-authors with appropriate skills. I have had a lot of communication issues, I’m not always sure we have a common goal (or that I’ve been able to communicate my goal to the others), and the process is far from efficient, time and energy wise. When planning courses or course modules, the work plan has been more or less the same.
So how can we expect our students to work collaboratively if we don’t lead by example?
Here is a suggested framework for research projects, based on Brindley et al. (2009) in combination with my own experiences, that can be useful to follow throughout a research project:
Beginning of the project
- Set up the objectives of the project or sub-project. If you’re working on a paper, formulate some preliminary objectives and research questions that are clear to everyone.
- Create a (realistic) time plan where everyone’s responsibilities are outlined. It may be relevant already here to plan how many times and in what order the paper should be circulated before submission.
- Define the needed skills to solve the problem and draw up a figure showing where the skills of the collaborators overlap. This can be helpful when getting an overview of who can assist with what. Some roles may be vacant at the beginning of the project, but will be filled as more collaborators join.
- Set some ground rules that should be followed (e.g. always use track changes, always make notes during meetings)
During the project
- Make sure that there are scheduled meetings with a suitable time in between. The meetings should be brief and efficient, and the meetings can have a pre-decided time limit. If using the free version of Zoom, for example, the meeting cannot be longer than 40 minutes.
- Allow for extra time to organize and plan meetings and work. This will take more time in the beginning, but will make work much easier later on.
- Communicate to all group members through e.g. Google+ or Facebook or some other social media tool. Here you can share relevant literature you have found, or discuss smaller issues, without having to flood everyone’s inbox.
- Be transparent:
- Make sure that all group members have access to the documents through e.g. dropbox or google drive.
- Schedule meetings ahead of time and make sure all collaborators have the option to join the meeting (i.e. no informal meetings).
- Create a community feeling! For collaboration to develop there needs to be a sense of community, which is nurtured by familiarity, openness, dialogue, trust and many other factors that help develop relationships between group members. This is especially important in online group work.
This framework may be particularly useful for collaborations on projects that involve multiple disciplines, where the goal is to move from multidisciplinarity to inter- or transdisciplinarity. Why do we want to move from multidisciplinarity? These “fancy words” are often used interchangeably, but they are in fact different.
- Multidisciplinarity is when several disciplines work on separate issues that belong to a common theme. The results are combined and compared, but no new integrated knowledge is generated. This is often the outcome of traditional group work that includes different disciplines.
- Interdisciplinarity means that researchers from different disciplines cross disciplinary boundaries to gain new knowledge. Interdisciplinary research has a higher level of integration and cooperation than multidisciplinary research, and the common goal is often to address a complex problem, which requires a more collaborative approach. This also means that the understanding of other disciplines than ones “home discipline” is fundamental for integration of knowledge.
- Transdisciplinarity is seen as the highest form of integrated research, and it involves non-academic participants in addition to multiple disciplines. Transdisciplinary research is thus described as a collaborative effort including both scientists and non-scientists with the goal t not only generate knowledge, but also to generate decision making capacity for the involved stakeholders.
(Stock & Burton 2011)
With the above descriptions we realize that inter- or transdisciplinarity requires collaborative efforts on a higher level than multidisciplinarity does. Inter- or transdisciplinary projects will also help solve more complex problems, although it may be challenging to reach these levels of integration. To get closer to reaching the goal of inter- or transdisciplinarity, collaborative group work is fundamental.
I have written this post as a “notes to self” post, that may help myself to create more collaborative projects in the future. I’m sure I will come up with more guidelines as I gain new experiences, but I believe the ones above can be a good place to start.
Let me know if you find it useful or if anything should be added!
Brindley, J., Blaschke, L.M. and Walti, C., 2009. Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3).
Stock, P. and Burton, R.J., 2011. Defining terms for integrated (multi-inter-trans-disciplinary) sustainability research. Sustainability, 3(8), pp.1090-1113.