Monday, March 3, 2014

Use of Technology in the Classroom II: Changing Student and Teacher Roles -- Developing Learning Communities

Stanley Peerless

As mentioned previously, the more active role of the students in their learning fostered by online instruction turns the teacher to some degree into a facilitator of learning. In addition to providing appropriate learning activities, it is the role of the teacher to create and maintain a learning community with a culture of collaboration. A learning community is defined as “a group of people who are actively engaged in learning together from each other." In our context, a learning community can include the whole class, can involve smaller groupings within the class, or can extend beyond the classroom where the student interacts with resources and/or people who can provide information or expertise on the particular subject under discussion.

Tips for Creating Effective Groups
Let us focus on the middle case – groupings - which is perhaps the most frequent framework for collaborative learning. The following are 7 best practice tips, taken primarily from "Facilitating Collaborative Learning: 20Things You Need to Know From the Pros” by Miriam Clifford, with some editing and elucidation:

1.      Keep groups midsized. Small groups of 3 or less lack enough diversity and may not allow divergent thinking to occur. Groups that are too large create “freeloading” where not all members participate. A moderate size group of 4-5 is ideal.

2.      Establish group goals. Effective collaborative learning involves establishment of group goals, as well as individual accountability. This keeps the group on task and establishes an unambiguous purpose. Before beginning an assignment, it is best to define goals and objectives to save time and to focus the group’s work.

3.      Build trust and promote open communication. Successful interpersonal communication must exist in teams. Building trust is essential. Deal with emotional issues that arise immediately and any interpersonal problems before moving on. Assignments should encourage team members to explain concepts thoroughly to each other. Studies have found that students who provide and receive intricate explanations gain most from collaborative learning. Open communication is key.

4.      Consider the learning process itself as part of the learning and assessment processes. Many studies such as those by Robert Slavin at Johns Hopkins, have considered how cooperative learning helps children develop social and interpersonal skills. Experts have argued that the social and psychological effect on self-esteem and personal development are just as important as the learning itself. In terms of assessment, it may be beneficial to grade students on the quality of discussion, engagement, and adherence to group norms. Praise younger groups for following collaborative learning standards. This type of learning is a process and needs explicit instruction in beginning stages. Assessing the process itself provides motivation for students to learn how to behave in groups. It shows students that you value meaningful group interactions and adhering to norms.

5.      Foster the diversity of groups. Social learning theory counters many teachers’ intuition that homogeneous grouping produces better results, implying that heterogeneous grouping creates a dynamic in which students are more likely to learn from each other. Keep in mind that heterogeneous grouping is not defined only by academic level.  Rather, mixed groups that include a range of talents, backgrounds, learning styles, ideas, and experiences are best. Studies have found that mixed groups tend not only to learn more from each other, but also to increase achievement of low performers. Rotate groups so students have a chance to learn from others, and stress the need for different perspectives in group discussions.

6.      Groups with an equal number of boys and girls are best. Equally balanced gender groups were found to be most effective. Some research suggests that boys were more likely to receive and give elaborate explanations and their stances were more easily accepted by the group. In majority male groups girls were ignored. In majority girl groups, girls tended to direct questions to the boy who often ignored them. You may also want to specifically discuss or establish gender equality as a norm. This may seem obvious, but it is often missed. It may be an issue you may want to discuss with older students

7.      Be wary of “group think”. While collaborative learning is a great tool, it is always important to consider a balanced approach. At times, group harmony can override the necessity for more critical perspectives. Some new research suggests that groups at times favored the more confident members. Changing groups periodically can help counter this problem, as can monitoring by the teacher and the use of assignments that demand individual accountability.

Expanding the Learning Community beyond the Classroom Walls
An important element of learning communities discussed in educational literature is diversity. It is important that the group be exposed to and benefit from diverse areas of expertise, cultural backgrounds, and perspectives. Learning communities within a classroom, even within a heterogeneous school, are inherently limited vis-à-vis the degree of diversity that they reflect. This is, of course, even more of an issue in schools that tend to have more homogeneous populations. Electronic networking tools, both synchronous and asynchronous, can facilitate the extension of the learning community beyond the confines of the classroom. In addition to enhancing access to resources, internet tools and social media allows students to actually communicate with experts in the field, with other students who are engaged in learning the same discipline or material, and with people who can provide them with input or feedback from different geographical or cultural perspectives. 

These individuals can be become regular members of the learning community, or can be "guests" who provide input to the learning community but do not become long-term members. An example of the latter is crowdsourcing, which is defined in wikipedia as "the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community." One interesting method of crowdsourcing is polling, which can be facilitated by a number of available online polling tools. Additionally, students can present their findings to other students who might find it interesting. 

In her book, entitled Beyond the Classroom: Building New School Networks, Rosalyn Black describes how school networking has been used to enhance student learning in geographically isolated school districts in Australia. This model might be relevant as well for Jewish day schools, many of which are either geographically or socially isolated from larger and more diverse populations. The development of school networks enables students to utilize the internet to expand their learning community while maintaining a level of control and security, issues that are important to many teachers and parents.

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