The power of collaborative learning has long been established, in particular for language development tasks. I used to teach middle school ESL, and, one of the principles of my pedagogy was the use of data-built Kagan structures and other methods for encouraging collaboration. I’ve always found that grouping and pairing students heterogeneously by previous skill-levels creates the opportunity for students to reach their Zones of Proximal Development—the seminal basis for most justification of collaborative learning theorized and researched by Lev Vygotsky. Later research, though I can’t find the scholar to whom I should attribute this idea, found simply that language learning students learn better from each other than they do from a teacher. I think most of our audience will recognize that our functionally fluent college students might still be considered language learners when it comes to learning the registers of academia and the professional worlds for which First Year Composition is designed to prepare them.
In the past two semesters in which I taught FYC, I used mini-lessons and computer-supported collaborative writing tasks as scaffolds for students’ independent writing. I would teach a discrete writing skill in a mini-lesson, and then have students apply it to some practice activity—filling in a graphic organizer or highlighting a sample article, for example. Then, I would ask them to abstract what they’d practiced with partners and apply it to their own writing. However, by the end of last semester, I could tell that these tasks often felt fabricated, coerced, disconnected and ephemeral to my students. After a while, when I wasn’t getting strong student buy-in, and I was faced with pushing students to complete tasks the way I might encourage a four year old to eat vegetables, I began to dread them myself.
I’ve taken my fair share of education classes with online wikis, blogs and “discussion” boards, and I’m currently matriculating through my second 100% online class. From my perspective as a student, these computer-supported components of my grad school classes have often been the elements of class that feel the least authentic. Even with my awareness of the importance of collaboration and cooperation for learning, I know from experience that, as a student, it still feels frustrating to be railroaded into “interacting” with your peers in asynchronous online environments.
So, this semester in my f2f composition class, I’m trying something different from what I’d done the past two semesters, while still pushing to make use of tools like Blackboard and Google Drive. Instead of “busy work” that is merely meant to teach some discrete writing skill disembodied from the context of its application in a final, graded product, I teach a mini-lesson on a discrete writing skill, but have students work directly towards a mid-to-long-term group project in class. The process steps and outputs of these in-class group projects are meant to mirror, on a nearly class-by-class basis, what students do outside of class on their individual projects. The group projects that they write in class are simply counted as participation points. These are low-stakes, collaborative, process writing activities. But, because students see the direct connection to what they do in class with what they do outside of class, I’ve gotten really strong student buy-in.
To be honest, I’ve left most classes this semester feeling pretty good, and I’ve built strong
relationships with my students. It’s also October 17th, and I’ve only had one absence, thus far. Students trust that showing up and doing the work is going to be worth their time. Of course, I’ve explained to them my mantra about how students learn better from other students. But I’ve done that in past semesters, too. Without the direct connection of writing a group project during an f2f class that mirrors an individual project done independently, I’m worried that moving collaboration to the online sphere is going to result in a lot less student commitment to the deeply important process and collaborative aspects of the writing-learning process. As you can see from previous posts on Digital Didact, it seems pretty common to feel anxious about losing the rich teacher-student and student-student relationships that we work so hard to build in our face-to-face classes as we migrate to online and hybrid settings.
I’m not totally sure how I’m going to maintain the level of student commitment that I’m seeing this semester, but posts by Billy, Brian and Kerry, as well as some of the research that I’ve started, have me feeling hopeful that there’s a way to make it happen.
Recently, I’ve picked up Learning and Teaching Writing Online: Strategies for Success, edited by Mary Deane and Teresa Guasch. A couple articles in that book have given me some food for thought. One, in particular, by Carola Strobl, has brought up two concepts for improving student collaboration—observational learning and scripts. Observational learning is when students view models. Strobl and her partners had students watch a thirteen-minute video of a dummy group modeling how to write collaboratively using Google Docs and its comment and chat functions. They compared students’ efficacy in groups after watching this video—what the research terms “observational learning”—with the work of those same students after they’d received a “script”—which sounds, essentially, like a detailed set of directions. Although the overall results were encouraging, there were several factors that limited the authors’ ability to determine which intervention was the most effective. For one, they taught this same activity in three consecutive classes to the same sample groups of students, first with no scaffold, then with a video, and finally, with a script for group interactions. The authors rightly note that, although their findings suggest that both the video and the script were effective scaffolds, the sequencing of the lesson may suggest that there was a “learning by doing” effect—part of students’ improvement may be attributable to their previous experience with the tasks. They conclude, along with Teresa Mauri and Javier Onrubia’s article also published in Learning and Teaching Writing Online, that the best choice might be to offer both interventions and let student groups choose whether to use one, neither, or both.
I’m interested in work like this that explores interventions that teach students to interact effectively in an online setting. It seems like Pierre Dillenbourg has authored and co-authored a lot of work on scripts, and I think it’ll be useful to continue figuring out how best to guide students through online environments. However, I’m even more interested to check out work by scholars like Cunningham and Melkun, mentioned in Billy’s and Brian’s posts who can help me understand more about how to motivate DE students and make participation in process and collaborative tasks feel worthwhile to them.