We often hear the virtues of independent, self-motivated learning. But humans are by nature a communal species – and much of what we assimilate takes place in a social context.
Even so-called “independent learning” activities have a social element, as research, exploration, and the testing out of new techniques all build on the work done and observations made by others. And applications of the knowledge gained through independent learning have an impact on the world around us, and in our interactions with other people.
There’s an educational approach that seeks to capitalise on these social aspects, while retaining a focus on the needs of the learner. It’s called collaborative learning.
What Is Collaborative Learning?
Collaborative learning involves groups of learners working together to achieve a goal: creating a new product, solving a problem, performing a task, etc. The technique emphasises learning as an active process, rather than one in which knowledge is simply gained through sitting back and receiving instructions.
Instructors and administrators merely act as facilitators in a process which calls on learners to interact with fellow members of a small group while developing ideas on the assigned task, testing assumptions, and sharing knowledge with other group members. Participants are both learners and teachers, throughout the exercise.
Interaction and action are the core principles of collaborative learning, and exercises are ideally structured to invite solutions to real-world problems and issues.
The Pros And Cons
On the plus side, collaborative learning groups assume ownership of the problems they’ve been set, and tend to be invested in them and highly motivated. This promotes a deeper understanding of the material, and a greater retention of the ideas and knowledge gained. This translates into greater self-confidence, and a drive to take on new challenges.
Learning in a group context encourages development in inter-personal relations and social intelligence. This may manifest as an increased openness to new ideas and the opinions of others, as well as an increased appreciation for diversity.
On the downside, collaborative learning flies in the face of traditional models of instructor-student relations, and may be difficult for some organisations to accept. Assessment of the process may also prove problematic for those unused to such a “hands off” approach on the part of the instructor.
To achieve the maximum benefit from collaborative learning, experiences need to be carefully designed and communicated to the participants.
Video As An Appropriate Tool
Studies such as Richard E. Mayer’s “Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning” suggest that an average learning improvement of 80% may be attributed simply to combining graphics with explanatory audio tracks – so there’s a statistical basis for the inclusion of video in a learning experience.
But video suffers from being an inherently passive medium: you sit and you watch. And then what?
With the learner being the central figure in a collaborative learning experience, the challenge for course designers is to use video to first engage the learner, retain their interest, and invite their participation in the learning process. So in keeping with the collaborative learning principle, some degree of interactivity is essential in any video content.
Collaborative Video Strategies
A learner-centric experience calls for a more personal approach to the presentation of video narratives, so material should be delivered in a conversational style, rather than in formal tones, or jargon. Throughout a course, using the same “voice” (a human narrator, on-screen avatar, animated “talking head”, etc.) to guide learners through the video narrative encourages familiarity with the character, and a greater sense of engagement.
It’s a good idea to get the learners involved with the video narrative as quickly as possible. This may be done in a number of ways:
A discussion session before the video begins, establishing ground rules and inviting speculation as to what happens next.
A set of options on-screen at critical points, inviting learners to choose what a character in the video will do next, or what event should now occur. The choices they make can then take the story in different directions, demonstrating the consequences of the various decisions made.
Providing opportunities for learners to highlight given elements in a narrative: the critical point in a customer service interaction, the key issues in a presentation, “What’s wrong with this picture?”, etc.
To allow the learners some control over the pacing of video content, clips should be kept down in length. Longer sequences may be broken up into chapters accessible from an on-screen menu, with the option to jump to specific points of the narrative (e.g., for learners to review material they’ve previously seen, or continue from where they left off). Providing offline navigation tools for online video content allows learners to make notes, set up bookmarks, and refresh their memories.
Other offline resources should be provided to assist learners in reviewing video content and retaining the knowledge they’ve learned. These might include transcripts of the narrative, clips they can download to their mobile devices, and timetables that make material available before, during, and after scheduled formal sessions.
Test questions may be posed during a video narrative to break up the flow, and to assess the learner’s understanding of what they’ve just seen. Questions may also be used as a gatekeeper denying learners access to the next part of a course unless they demonstrate a sufficient understanding of the material already covered.
Performance assessment is important in gauging the effectiveness of the collaborative learning experience, so measurable quantities that give the relevant indicators should be monitored and recorded. So too should feedback from the course participants.
The Value In Conferencing
Interaction may also be promoted between group members and external sources, through video conferencing. Video chat applications may be used to help group members stay in contact with each other outside the training environment. But links may also be set up up for them with subject matter experts, advisory services, intelligence-sharing and discussion forums – and other groups involved in the exercise.