Online support for collaborative learning: Getting beyond homework overload

Article by Professor Erica McWilliam & Professor Peter Taylor
23 March 2020

(Disclaimer: This brief paper addresses pedagogy. While there are now very helpful and relevant tools that support online collaboration, no advice is given about what software works best, nor how to use it. )

How do we ensure ‘low threat, high challenge’ learning still happens when school classrooms are empty and schools are closed? Below are a few points that might assist teachers currently involved in this task.

  • Conceptualising the task: We need to resist any temptation (a) to hand over to Google, YouTube or similar to ‘deliver curriculum’, and/or (b) overload homework/assignments, while ‘waiting’ until students are back in the classroom again. Conceptualising the task as ‘delivery’ is sub-optimal because it presupposes one-way, teacher-centred pedagogical traffic. ‘Keeping them busy’ is unsustainable when the endpoint of the shutdown is unknown.
  • Collaboration: From the outset, students should continue to experience their learning as a social process. Learning teams of 3-5 students should communicate with a teacher as one entity (C3B4ME online means that a teacher received just one email asking for support from the group, if and when a group cannot resolve a particular learning need or problem.) Response/turnaround times should be negotiated in ways that are respectful of the whole school community, so that ‘off-line’ living is protected. (All group members will have a role as with the C3B4ME classroom)
  • The Learning Process: Engagement + awareness + thinking + repetition/re-using > learning. So the focus must be on pedagogical design that engages students through simple, unpackable, unGoogle-able questions, and/or tasks that demand the application of ideas and strategies to real world issues/events that students recognise as important to them.
  • Provocations to learning: Scenarios are very useful as provocations to problem-posing and problem-solving. Design should include a limited set of relevant sources and an invitation to look beyond them. When responding to, or building, a scenario, students should be required to be explicit about their sources of information – what sources and why?
  • Creativity is not something from nothing, but something from something else. Small interdisciplinary teams of teachers can contribute to the development of scenarios that require students to use a range of lenses to build complex thinking into creative solutions/possibilities. High challenge scenario planning should establish dimensions to a ‘real world’ problem by setting boundaries (eg, a town planning scenario should include precise population size, climatic conditions, topographic information etc ).
  • Media: Consideration needs to be given to engaging students through a judicious combination of sound, text and image. While it is in the nature of disciplines to give more weight to one or other of these modes, design for learning ‘online’ will require planning a menu of resources, especially if there has been a tendency to rely heavily on the written word of the textbook/powerpoint or the spoken word of the teacher. (Note: When students design school induction programs, for example, they prioritise 3-dimensional visual images.)
  • Learning Options: To cater for students’ learning preferences, the provision of a Learning Menu gives an individual student options from which to select one or more strategies:
    • Build a diagram/flowchart/project management with 2 or 3 others  OR
    • Compile ‘reverse notes’ – topic-evidence-example-leading to – in reverse  OR
    • Watch 2 or 3 videos and identify the best and why – compare/contrast  OR
    • Build something or make a poster and take a photo for logbook  OR
    • Focus on 2 or three provocative questions – can apply to any topic anywhere
      • Why is it important to know this?
      • What’s the history of this subject/idea?
      • What evidence is there?
      • Do all cultures accept this?    OR
    • Act it out, make a photo series, make a video  OR
    • Teach it to someone in your household.
  • Parents are even more important partners of their children’s learning in the ‘at home’ learning context. They may need some extra tips for supporting that learning without taking responsibility for the quality of the outcome. This is another reason for designing tasks that are no easier for parents than for students. It means fewer tasks needing ‘correct’ answers or PowerPoint presentations, and more focus on quality of the thinking and the warranting of claims.
  • Evaluation of the quality of the learning outcomes in whatever form (textual, video, diagrammatic) should involve students ‘going sideways’ to their peers before submitting their individual efforts to a teacher. (Many students already use social media to support their ‘at home’ work.) This maintains the C3B4ME principle of collaboration, with 4 students signing-off and commenting constructively (What I like about this is…: What might make it even better could be….) A simple collaborative evaluative process should be built into each ‘project’ or significant piece of work before it is submitted to the teacher (eg, using editing and comment features in Word’s ‘track changes’ tool, which allows proof-editors’ contributions/ mark-ups in different colours.)
  • Student self-regulation is the key capacity for successful online supported learning. The earlier suggestions to make learning more tasks more challenging and collaborative imply fewer tasks, and a more deliberate approach by students, one that requires them to plan and monitor progress. Self-regulation requires that attention be given to self-issues such as:
    • emotions
    • examining motivation to engage with this task
    • examining the learning space and resources to be used
    • understanding own role in relation to this task
    • monitoring engagement or commitment (did I meet my commitments?)
  • And attention to metacognitive processes, such as:
    • understanding task/activity – its nature, purpose and context
    • specifying own/team goals
    • identifying strategies and/or resources
    • establishing ‘success criteria’
    • developing a plan – perhaps milestones
    • monitoring progress and refining the plan

We learning through reflecting on experience, rather than through experience. So encouraging our students to reflect on their experiences (orally, in writing or using images/diagrams) and to identify ‘messages to self’ and ‘messages to team-mates’ to improve engagement with following tasks will be essential if online mode lasts for an extended period of time. Reflection is the essential book-end to planning, and a key strategy for minimising repeated mistakes.

Erica McWilliam (Adjunct Professor, QUT and Patron of the Alliance) and Peter Taylor (Adjunct Professor, Griffith University)