Does Collaborative Learning Matter?

  • Does Collaborative Learning Matter?

What does effective collaborative learning really look like – and why is it important? Mary Palmer sets out the evidence…

Collaborative learning is emerging as the most effective pedagogical model of our time. This is truer than ever in schools using 1:1 mobile devices every day as an integral part of teaching, learning, sharing and responding. So how is it working, what do shining examples look like and what are the biggest challenges?

If school-leavers are to be equipped with the digital skills they’ll need for onward study and employment, teachers need to feel completely confident using mobile technology. Not as a replacement for books and traditional teaching methods, but as a seamless addition. In some pioneering schools, a new teaching infrastructure is making this a comfortable reality, not a chore.

Ideally, there’d be a UK-wide plan to help teachers and heads at the beginning of their tech-journey. In its absence, schools are turning to a valuable handful of well-informed, well-researched resources.

At Techknowledge for Schools, the educational research charity formerly known as Tablets for Schools – of which I am director – a partnership exists with 40 pioneering schools in a continuous research programme (since 2011) to uncover success stories, benefits, concerns and, ultimately, impact. In this piece I will share the most recent findings. But first, why is collaborative learning such a powerful alternative to the centuries-old ‘sit and listen’ approach and why is so much energy being invested in it?

<H3>Bigger picture</H3>

Independent learning and collaboration are essential life skills. The Government is quite rightly pushing for building soft skills alongside academic study. As well as qualities and skills related to confidence, self-awareness, self-reflection, resilience and effective interaction with professional adults, familiarity with mobile technology and its role in everyday problem-solving is an equally important part of the equation.

Collaboration and contribution at school on a local, national and international level are all possible in the age of high-speed broadband, and the options for using mobile technology to achieve it are varied and rich. Opening opportunities beyond the school enables youngsters to develop as ‘global’ citizens.

Progress for all learners is another priority. The new Progress 8 measure makes schools accountable for the progress of learners at all levels. Research shows that touchscreen devices are a powerful way to offer real differentiation to learners where the learning can be self-paced and scaffolded to support those at the slower end and offer links to additional resources at the faster end.

And students are fast becoming innovative creators with their devices. Collaborative learning offers untold value via multi-purpose apps that require group work. Using devices to create and share presentations with real-time visuals and graphics, annotating pictures, making videos, tutorials and digital posters are easy for most of today’s teenagers. Teachers use devices to give feedback individually and in groups, and parents too can access the whole day’s work and teacher interaction from home.

<H3>Transforming Learning: new research</H3>

Previous research for Techknowledge for Schools found that 1:1 technology was most successful when part of a wider pedagogical vision and with strong support from the leadership. New ‘Transforming Learning’ research builds on this to show the importance of sustaining teacher support, training and motivation to use the technology.
It emerges that ‘flipped’ and ‘challenge based’ lessons emphasise and develop collaboration skills more than ‘regular’ lessons. Students are expected to lead their own learning through independent research on tablets and to work in groups to solve problems and present solutions. Collaboration is encouraged and accepted as a way of discovering answers, asking peers for support or feedback and sharing findings with the group and the teacher.

Doing this means giving students the autonomy to work independently, which not all teachers feel able to do. Allowing students control of their learning through new teaching models can suggest a threat to a teacher’s role and authority in the classroom.

The use of 1:1 devices clearly helps to facilitate personalised learning. Teachers feel able to provide resources and support to different ability levels within the same class. They no longer feel they have to ‘teach to the middle’.

Individual access to a digital device is also described by teachers as a means to extend learning beyond the classroom and offer students a way of ‘seeing the world’. Many students engage more with the subject if they are asked to research it themselves rather than being given a hand-out.

A science teacher said of students using challenge-based learning: “They were able to say, ’I’ve learned that I need to listen to other people’s ideas and that we need to decide who’s going be in charge…’ So even if they didn’t enjoy it, they learned about working together and working independently.”

Other teachers told of high student engagement in lessons that involved independent and collaborative work, but said that students need to be ‘eased into’ this form of learning. “When you start they come with every little problem… gradually you see them become more independent,” was a typical comment.

Teachers also report that 1:1 mobile technology is particularly beneficial to students with learning difficulties or those who struggle with handwriting; it presents alternative ways to access and share their learning.

<H3>Room for improvement</H3>

Concerns about technology and its impact on classroom management has prevented some teachers from fully utilising their devices. Device distraction is a recurrent issue cited by many teachers, the fear of losing control of the class is uncomfortable and technical problems can disrupt lessons if adequate IT support and expertise is lacking. Teachers also worry that not all students have the emotional maturity to regulate their use of technology.

The role of Techknowledge for Schools is to draw on research to provide robust evidence of how mobile technology is influencing learning and teaching and most importantly, how it is improving learning. The charity continues to explore closely how children’s motivation to learn and how the personalisation of that learning is affected by the increasing use of mobile devices in and beyond the classroom. If you need help getting started, we’re happy to provide it: www.techknowledge.org.uk

<H3>OVERCOMING CHALLENGES</H3>

<H5>PREPARATION:</H5>
Experienced 1:1 schools give teachers months to familiarise themselves with tablets and their apps and software before introducing them to the classroom. Months should be spent preparing the IT infrastructure and back-up plans before buying devices. The infrastructure should be informed by a vision and strategy backed by leaders who have communicated clear digital learning objectives.

<H5>SUPPORT FROM THE TOP:</H5>
This is crucial for teachers to feel able to experiment with alternative teaching styles and the level of autonomy it can allow pupils. An e-learning lead (preferably in each department) accessible to all teachers and with the authority to suggest and design new types of material, is essential to offer real-time support and ‘back-up’.

<H5>CPD</H5>
Training and support on how to use a mobile device is vital to building teacher confidence and allowing teachers to experiment. The most effective CPD often takes place informally within departments, with teachers co-creating and sharing resources. Teachers also need curriculum-based training and examples of how mobile devices should be integrated to extend their use beyond fun activities.

<H5>CONSISTENCY:</H5>
A multitude of competing apps and platforms is available. Ask the e-learning lead to introduce apps to communicate, upload homework and present work. Resources for multiple use, such as presentation apps, web-based video content or e-books, rather than relying on one specific app, can make technical problems less disruptive.

<H3>ABOUT THE AUTHOR</H3>

Mary Palmer is director of Techknowledge for Schools

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