Collaborative education: Towards New Learning

Today’s educational institutions are increasingly required to blur the old inside/outside institutional boundaries. Education remains different from informal learning. It is by design rather than an incidental consequence of lifeworld experience. However, the inside/outside relations are being transformed. No longer are these inside/outside relations always so clearly identifiable by time, space and formal institutional boundaries. Education can happen anywhere and at any time.

See Collaborative Education Case Studies.

Dimension 1: Class management

More and more of the learning that once happened within the classroom is now happening beyond the classroom. This is because formal learning no longer needs to occur exclusively within the classroom. Students may leave the classroom to work while remaining within the orbit of class learning. If they are working online, there is no need for students to be within the four walls of the physical classroom to do it. If they are working in community linked learning activities, these may happen outside the school.

See Virtual High Schools.

Faced with the prospect of mixing the inside of formal learning with its geo-graphical outside, teachers of the old school may worry about their duty of care. What might these learners get up to when they are out of the teacher’s sight? The answer, in part, is that they can still always be within another kind of sight, if they have a GPS-enabled device with them, such as some mobile phones. Or what could they get up to on the Internet? What might they say publicly, and what dangers could they encounter? This time the answer, in part, is to be found in ways of tracking where learners have been on the Internet and what they have done there.

The audit trails build systems of electronic surveillance whose lines of sight are at least as secure as the walls of the old classroom and the fences around the school. These new educational environments also need to be built on unprecedented relationships of trust. Bureaucracies of old were intrinsically untrusting. Despite this, and for all their lack of trust, even in the strictest of bureaucratic regimes, with the toughest of rules and the most authoritarian of teachers, some children still had enough initiative to pass subversive notes to each other, or to wag class, or smoke in the toilets.

Teachers will certainly need audit trails for classroom management in educational settings in which learners are not physically co-located. However, whether virtual or physical, the classroom of today should be a site of learner collaborations. Not only are learners self-managing and autonomous. They can also help each other. A momentum can be achieved for each individual learner, which is at least in part derived from the collective energies of peer-to-peer interaction.

The key to creating such an environment is to develop a group dynamic that focuses individual attention and active engagement in order to keep the learner on task for long enough to be able to learn. In the era of the new media, James Gee asks why it is that learners who hate school will spend 50 to 100 hours playing what is, in fact, a highly intellectually demanding video game. They may play this on their own, but often they play this with others, who are either physically co-present or online. This is a space where learners manage their own learning – within the framework of the scaffolds, prompts the game provides and, in the case of multiplayer environments, the connections with other gamers. Gee analyses the dynamics of a variety of games, from the more benign ‘civilisation’ simulations to the most aggressive of ‘first-person shooter’ games. Common to all, he concludes, is an understanding of the nature of learning more engaging than most formal educational settings.

This is particularly the case for today’s learners who are used to the more active forms of engagement characteristic of today’s media – being a character in the narrative, for instance, and not just a voyeur of characters created by an author. This kind of learning is highly active and intrinsically engaging. It recruits, challenges and morphs identity. Navigational paths are made by the player to the extent that the learner becomes an insider and producer, not just a ‘consumer’. The experience is multimodal, requiring the simultaneous or alternative manipulation of image, text, number, icon, artefact, space and sound. This learning is intrinsically critical, as the player looks for deception around every corner, or even attempts to outwit the game by breaking its rules. It is also staged, whereby mastery through levels involves a cycle of introducing challenging new skills followed by practice to make these automatic and reflexive. It is a learning environment that encourages risk in a context of safety, where real-world consequences are eliminated or reduced. It is a kind of learning that encourages the development of meta-knowledge because you get better at the game as you come to appreciate its design principles. And it is social, since you play with and against other players, and become part of a community of gamers. Conventional classrooms, Gee concludes, are for the most part not particularly good at any of these pedagogical moves (Gee 2003).

See Gee on Video Games and Learning.

Video games are the stuff of sophisticated learning, to be sure, and this is learning quintessentially in the informal domain. Game-makers are not educators. They have nevertheless used some fundamental principles of learning to create an engaging product. The underlying principles they use are also the bases for effective, self-directed and collaborative learning.

Indeed, today we may well be at a turning point in education. Learners have become so used to the levels of engagement intrinsic to the new media that the classroom management strategy of ‘assistance’ seems boringly inadequate, indeed. They have become so used to the sociability of learning environments that individualised learning seems sterile. It’s not that all learning has to use the new media or require the level of investment in content development to be found in video games. Rather, education has to involve the same level of engagement with learner identity as to be found in contemporary cultural forms and media, such as video games. They have to allow as much scope for the learner in the co-design of knowledge.

What kind of role does the teacher have in this context? If not the font of content knowledge, nor the disciplinarian, nor the bureaucrat, then what? Teachers are pedagogical experts who design environments in which learners can take active responsibility for their own learning. They build social environments within which learners can learn with and from each other as well as from the teacher. They can get learners motivated because the learning they design engages multifarious experiences and identities. This learning may demonstrably mean something to learners if it has obvious potential for real-life application. In this context, teachers need to have deep and broad knowledge, but they don’t have to know everything. Much, in fact, can be learned with and from the learners themselves.

Teachers are intellectuals. Their stock in trade is not just knowledge but knowledge about knowledge and knowledge making. Their job is to build the knowledge-making capacities of their learners. These learners will need to be able to connect their learning in a world that will be very different within a decade, let alone five or eight decades hence.

Teachers are also researchers, reflexively applying and developing their ‘science of education’ – planning, implementing and measuring their effectiveness in terms of learner outcomes, then reworking their educational practices. They also are members of a professional community, colleagues who share their professional understandings.

This is the environment, in other words, that fosters collaborative learning at many levels, from the classroom to professional collaborations. Collaboration goes beyond the kind of learning that fosters autonomous, personal or individualised competence. It is more than the stuff in your head, the knowledge you can remember. It is the capacity to make and remake knowledge collaboratively, with other teachers and with students. Collaborative competence is a capacity to contribute something of your own experience and knowledge in a group learning context, where the sum of group knowledge is greater than the sum of the individual parts. Learners make the inside/ outside connections, between education and the rest of their lives, and between their lives and other people’s lives. Each learner has a sense of their unique perspective and the contribution they can make in the learning context. The collaborative learner is comfortable to be a teacher in one moment and a learner in another. They share their knowledge and perspectives with others. They also come to rely on the know- ledge of others around them. They can work well in groups with diverse experiences and knowledge, negotiating in such a way that the differences are a strength rather than a problem. The learner is capable of offering constructive criticism and honestly articulating their point of view without precipitating conflict. They can solve problems collectively that could not be solved individually. Collaborative learning, in sum, creates conditions for making social knowledge. Much more than the stuff that’s in your head, the key to this kind of knowledge is in the social connections. The collaborative learner comes to value the experiences and expertise of others. They rely upon knowledge sources that they know how to access effectively as and when needed.

Dimension 2: Curriculum planning and evaluation

Once, curriculum was a distinct space and time – a subject, course or program within a defined educational institution. Education today is becoming lifelong and life-wide. Soon, it may be ubiquitous.

Lifelong learning means that education is no longer located at a discrete time in your life. You don’t just have one chance to learn. And the things you learn from school are not sufficient for a lifetime. Specific skills and knowledge learned today may be obsolete in twenty years’ time, or even five years’ time. We will increasingly need to retrain and relearn throughout life. Formal educational institutions will not become less important in this new learning environment, but their role will change dramatically. No longer will they be so self-contained, so neatly separated as institutions. Future schooling will involve new locations, new relationships and new accountability measures. We may also see the emergence of hybrid mixes of formal and informal learning. One example is the ‘recognition of prior learning’, where certain levels of work or community experience are accredited as equivalent to a formal qualification.

In what we have called the New Learning, formal learning needs to be consciously connected to its informal setting. This means that formal learning needs to engage with the learner’s experiential world, and to have them apply what they have learned back in that world. The domains of formal and informal learning need to be brought together to support the kinds of learning and knowledge required in our contemporary world.

However, as much as we might wish to contextualise formal learning in the broader setting of informal learning, and even integrate the two so they complement each other, an important distinction needs to be maintained. Informal learning occurs without conscious pedagogical design. Formal learning is learning by design.

‘Learning by design’ refers to the premeditation and systematic planning that is characteristic of education. This includes self-conscious pedagogical moves, curriculum frameworks and organisational arrangements of the institutions of education. The designs of education can also be found in peculiarly educational artefacts, such as curriculum plans, learning resources, assessment instruments and e-learning systems.

So what do we do when we design, implement and evaluate curriculum for the New Learning? One distinctive aspect of the New Learning may be to create carefully customised, student-centred, context-sensitive learning ecologies. In these environments, every learner feels they belong because their experience of learning connects with their needs and interests. The uniqueness of each learning encounter emerges from the particular mix of experiences, identities and agendas that the learner brings to the learning mix. Learner-to-learner and learner-to-teacher relationships are dialogical and collaborative. Curriculum design and evaluation are driven not by external bureaucratic requirements so much as energetic horizontal communities of knowledge production and peer review.

An emerging feature of the contemporary education scene is its ‘ubiquity’: education that is available anywhere and any time, just in time and just enough. The new media create unprecedented opportunities for ubiquitous education. They allow greater accessibility for adults who may previously have found formal education to be too expensive of their time or financial resources. It can allow hybrid or blended delivery whereby students switch from one mode to another as the need arises or their inclinations take them.

Digital learning management systems are not necessarily the answer. The medium is not necessarily the message. In fact, many e-learning systems attempt to replicate traditional teaching practices and relations. ‘Here’s your topic, read about it online, talk about it in a chat room, then do the test and the machine will tell you your score.’ But e-learning does not have to be this way, a mere shadow of didactic teaching and mimetic pedagogy. The participatory openness of the Internet is well suited to the creation of innovative pedagogies and more powerful learner engagement. Social media ecologies are built on strongly collaborative networks. ‘Co-creation’ is a key in the new online environment – energetic horizontal communities that aren’t so constrained by rank. The logic of the co-construction of knowledge is a keystone of the knowledge economy.

The transformation that is possible in education runs as deep as the transformation of knowledge systems in the broader society. Online environments are frequently driven by lateral rather than vertical energies. They entail collaborative knowledge construction rather than content transmission from authoritative sources. ‘Crowdsourcing’ is a term that is frequently used (Surowiecki 2004). These reflect deeper changes in knowledge ecologies outside education. At the level of whole organisations, the ‘learning organisation’ is capable of creating knowledge and learning as an integral part of its own processes of self-managing change (Senge 1990).

See The School of the Future.

Dimension 3: Educational leadership and management

The organisation of education today requires that learning communities go beyond a uniformly shared vision, to a productive diversity of the variety we discussed in Chapter 3. This approach to management brings differences together into a negotiated common ground of mutual learning. Such learning organisations do not demand new teachers and learners ‘it’ into the educational culture beyond a commitment to share their experiences and learn from each other in a collaborative way. Their organisational ethos is based on recognition of diverse knowledge and experiences. Differences in learner outcomes are measured not according to fixed standards but through the comparability of their effects in terms of levels of access to material resources, social participation and personal fulillment.

See Reforming Educational Organisation and Leadership.

Today’s learning communities also need to regard themselves as organisations in which ‘knowledge management’ is pivotal. Knowledge management adds system and rigour – active learning by design – to the knowledge that is implicit and informally learned within organisations. It involves transforming personal knowledge into common knowledge, implicit and individual knowledge into explicit and shared understandings and everyday common sense into systematic designs.

See Using Action Research to Improve Education.

Here is one example of knowledge management at work in the context of the New Learning. Teaching in modern times has been a talking profession. At least that has been the case for as long as the primary information architecture was the four-walled classroom. What happens in the classroom is ephemeral in the sense that the spoken word disappears once spoken. Except for the learners’ marks, the classroom is a private, even secret place, The door is closed. There is not a lot of professional sharing. However, self-paced and e-learning environments require the teacher to document more, to record learning processes explicitly. And once they do this, teachers can share their lesson plans or learning resources with other teachers. Teaching becomes a more collaborative profession. The school becomes a knowledge-producing community.

See The Learning by Design Project.

Using the new digital media, educators can write up their pedagogical processes, share effective practices or write up jointly developed learning community goals. Students can themselves participate in this collaborative, knowledge-building culture, digitally publishing portfolios of the work they have created, such as a course wiki to which students have contributed different components.

The result will be greater transparency and accountability among those who share responsibility for education. The traditionally closed door of the classroom is thrown open. Its primarily oral – and thus its private and ephemeral – character is transformed. Its knowledge-producing actions and learning processes are recorded in such a way that they become publicly visible to peers, to the educational organisation, to parents and to communities.

See We Talk about Teaching, Not Trivia.

At the level of whole-school organisation, it is the project of knowledge management to ensure that collaboration is institutionalised and that knowledge sharing does occur. As a result, wheels are not needlessly reinvented and lessons are learned from mistakes. Neither is the knowledge of the learning organisation dangerously depleted when a key person departs. All in all, the extra work of documenting organisational knowledge, from lesson plans to school policies, should add up to less work. This is the basis of the learning organisation, whose knowledge is greater than the sum of the knowledge in the heads of the individuals who belong there.

See The Role of Collegial Support.