collaborative learning and institutional culture


There have been a few interesting posts lately about collaborative learning. Many of them spout the relentlessly cheerful "we tried it and it was amazing and I wish more teachers would shift their paradigms because the students love it so much" line. (Hmmm. Perhaps my frustrations are already leaking through, eh?)

Happily, Seb Paquet pointed me to Martin Blanche's post on "Obstacles to collaborative learning." (Permalinks are broken, alas, so go to his main page for now.) I'll take the liberty of quoting them here:
* Students and lecturers are more familiar with a knowledge-transmission model of education and don't always understand what is expected of us in a more constructionist environment. * We have too little information about lecturers' and students' backgrounds, networks and skills - so often we don't realise that there is somebody in the group who could teach the rest of us a lot about some aspect of what we're studying.
* No or very limited mechanisms for students to talk back to the lecturer and (especially) to talk to one another.
* Inadequate 'course memory'. Lecturers often are the only bridge for this year's students to the knowledge created by last year's group - students don't get to see what last year's group did. There is no mechanism for students who want to stay in the group after the course is officially over (and who could be a useful resource for next year's students) to do so.
One of his readers, Antje, added a few more:
* Knowledge level of participants (if they come from different educational backgrounds and models they may have different experiences with education, different subject knowledge and different attitudes towards learning)
* Motivation (collaborative learning needs a great deal of personal motivation, a quality not very much present in a goal-oriented (degree hunting), immediate-satisfaction-seeking (fast-food ...) society which we are more and more becoming. Motivation pre-supposes the need or urge to WANT to know and to WANT to make an effort ... found, unfortunately, in a small percentage of humans)
* Personal characteristics (inrovert / extrovert / confidence levels). many students may want to contribute but are afraid of making mistakes or afraid of being patronised. others are unsure how exactly to contribute (collaborative learning does not instruct on how to use collaborative learning skills and can easily end up being an unstructured, anxiety-provoking lassez faire situation)
* Integration (integration of new and traditional learning approaches should be the aim rather than collaborative learning 'in place of' traditional teaching style models (and I guess Martin sees it that like I do). A combination will allow the student to weigh both aspects and become over time more accustomed to the s(often more frightening) approach of collaborative learning at his / her own speed."

As I read through these, nodding my head in recognition, it occurred to me that there are probably significant variations in student (and faculty) receptiveness to these new paradigms across both academic disciplines, and academic institutions. At RIT, I've encountered a great deal of resistance--from students, not colleagues or administrators--when trying to move to more participatory, collaborative learning. I suspect that this is a function of both the technical nature of the field, and the institutional culture (which is fed by the $21K/yr tuition rate). Students are often resentful and critical when they feel they "aren't getting their money's worth" out of a class. Many of them feel entitled to lectures, whether or not they facilitate learning outcomes.

Perhaps I need to find more innovative ways to convince them of the value of a paradigm shift, but with 3 courses per quarter, 3 quarters per year, and an average of 30 students in each class, I've been hard pressed to innovate at that level. This year may be better. We'll see.


I have to agree — I checked out the content of your "Intro to the Internet" course and it's not that remarbably different from the "Web design for the sciences" course I teach. The difference between our experiences instructing online could very well come from differences in our "institutional cultures" as you put it.

Your coments of resistance (and resentment) rang oh so close to home. The last two years I have tried to teach using an action research and community learning paradigm. Clearly this violates some very deep seated student expectations!

* They clearly felt cheated
* Thought I was evading (my) responsibilities and just coasting on their work
* Considered the course poorly prepared

I gave Masters level courses in competitive intelligence, interface design and based on 'real' projects e.g. an industry analysis, design of a company web site and a community space for personal injury claimants.

Students were expected to self-organize, draft project plan, collaborate using web conferencing tools, produce an artifact, introspect and compile a personal learning portfolio. These were clearly articulated upfront.

Few of the students ever appreciated the real learning was in their personal struggles, dealing with uncertaintity, building relationshps, networking and collaborating to deliver.


One thing I always find amusing - find a recent collaboration convert, and then talk to a student in the same class.

Often times, the opinions on the success of the class differ substantially.

Or, the person who preaches collaboration the most, is the one least likely to collaborate in their own environment.

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This page contains a single entry published on July 31, 2003 10:05 AM.

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