Assessment item 8 Part A – Digital Essay

Collaborative Learning in Digital Environments

Collaborative learning isn’t new, however, its latest evolution and re-emergence as a driving force for curriculum is linked directly to the impact of the digital age. Embedding of digital collaborative learning in pedagogy is exemplified by participatory platforms which create and share material, and by social bookmarking sites which control and organise information. The growing use of Web 2.0 to deliver content should be responsible for a transformation in the way classrooms look and classes act. Unfortunately, progress to connected, creative communities is not equitable or consistent, and the reasons are as complex and ubiquitous as the web. There are privacy, safety, and ethical concerns for young and vulnerable learners; however there is a growing belief that despite these troubling issues, it is imperative that collaborative learning becomes the norm rather than the exception. Schools must challenge themselves to find their own solutions quickly, because the required institutional transformation seems unlikely.

Collaborative learning primarily takes advantage of Web 2.0 platforms (2012, Hage & Aimeur, 2010), encouraging students to be participatory and inquiry-focussed. It is linked to the principles of Connected Learning (2014), and promotes constructivist theory (2012). It calls for a departure from traditional skills-based teaching to an immersive environment (2014) where learners take responsibility for mapping their own curriculum. It proposes a move from the Internet as only a knowledge reference, to a place where content and comment is generated (Anderson, 2007; Conole, 2012). Blogs, wikis, and video-making software offer a creative outlet, a way to communicate ideas and share opinions. Student engagement is high (Dessoff, 2010) and teacher control is low (Casey & Evans 2011). In the most effective examples, students seamlessly connect their informal learning to their formal education (Downes & Bishop, 2012), suggesting that each influences the other in a positive, significant way. In this collaborative scenario, students confidently select the most appropriate tools to find solutions to authentic tasks. A key element of the participatory culture is the process of learning, in collaboration with those who share similar interests, resulting in deeper learning (Ito & Martin, 2013).

Shelley Wright (2013) talks about changing her teaching to provide a transformative learning experience for her students.

If classroom transformations like Shelley Wright’s are so necessary, so worthwhile, and potentially so easy, why hasn’t it already occurred? There are real and justified concerns (Couros, 2008; Schachter, 2011) for the safety of young people, and given that many social networks introduced into classrooms haven’t been specifically designed for educational purposes (Jimoyiannis, et. al., 2013), it’s no surprise that issues arise. There are many articles (Asselin & Moayeri, 2011; Brooks, 2009; Hage & Aimeur, 2010) that define Web 2.0, and explain why it needs to be embedded, but few can offer solutions to the problems of cyber bullying (2014), negative digital footprints (2014), and questionable ownership of content (Goode, 2010). Researchers do acknowledge the realistic circumstances existing in schools, but policy and bureaucratic procedure, internal curriculum as well as external testing demands, and parental resistance limit the implementation of many transformative classroom experiences.

More problematic are objecting educators who rely on established methods and refuse to up-skill (O’Hanlon, 2009), arguing traditional teaching is superior. Those committed practitioners who do attempt to integrate technology are often frustrated by firewalls, administrative interference, and technologically savvy students who undermine IT systems (Baker, et. al., 2012), not to mention all the societal concerns (2014) beyond the reach of the classroom teacher. These are not new problems, but they are amplified by the impact of the technology. Incremental change hasn’t solved these issues (Conole, 2012); a complete overhaul of the education sector may be necessary (Redecker, et. al., 2011, De Santis). Schools must try to resolve these issues independently, reinforcing Lee’s (2014) claim that there is a evolutionary stage of digital normalisation (see fig. 1), and a school’s position on this line is largely determined by the willingness of school leaders to find constructive solutions and to engage parents in decision-making.


Fig. 1 The evolutionary Stages of schooling. Image by M. Lee (2014), used with permission

Collaborative learning, however, is more than embedding online platforms to generate and share content. While these useful skills provide a more engaging learning experience and develop higher order learning (Heer), they only account for part of the transformation required by classrooms. The web presents many other tools which help enable critical thinking and deep learning. Students can be taught how to use them to organise information (2011), and can learn how to understand the power of social and professional networks (2014). There is a strong shift to encourage students to become curators (2014), and develop their own digital library using tags and categories. Formal tagging using social bookmarking sites such as Diigo (2014), and real-time collaboration through cloud applications such as the Google apps (Duvall, Jaaskelainen, & Pasque, 2012) caters to a growing demand for synchronised  access across a range of devices. These organisational terms are familiar to young people, who tag pictures on Facebook and add categories to their Flickr accounts. They sort their favourite tumblers by following and re-blogging. The task of teachers is to harness this prior knowledge and transition it to classroom experiences. Cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito’s presentations (particularly this 30 minute one) show the importance of exploiting these out-of-school experiences to enrich formal learning. Organising information is becoming an imperative, so students can avoid being overwhelmed by the immensity and distractions of the web. Some educational institutions recognise the value of free programs, however, some administrations block access to all sites with instant messaging and other “troubling” features. The other problem associated with these solutions is their changing nature, their rise and demise. Difficulty staying in touch with a bewildering number of programs and applications is another issue for institutions.

In light of the perceived burden on teachers to constantly upgrade technological skills and maintain currency with digital tools, there is a need to re-imagine teachers’ roles. Just last week, the MNC released its annual previews of the upcoming Horizon Reports, which set out educational trends identified as the major innovations for the next 12 months. The two key ‘fast-trend’ features of the report for the K-12 Edition (NMC, 2014) clearly support accelerated adoption of collaborative learning in digital environments. They argue student success is directly linked to teachers who are comfortable working with technology. More teachers need to explore online worlds (2014) and build their own connected, professional networks (2012), so they can understand the importance of these communities to young people, and so better support them. It will also allow them to create better policies (2014) to protect both teachers and students. It is sometimes necessary to state the obvious: teachers who learn how to overcome their own technological insecurities, and who demonstrate and encourage students to connect online in creative and ethical ways, ensure students navigate digital environments with ease and confidence.

Listen to Connie Yowell, the U.S. Programs Director of Education for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as she answers the question, ‘Connected learning… what do you see as the primary challenges for it in order to be implemented to have impacts?’ This is her second challenge (the first one was assessment).


Additionally, the Horizon preview report (MNC, 2014) stresses the immediate imperative to shift to a more challenging curriculum, where students are more active as learners, more critical as thinkers, and more creative as producers. All these experiences are clearly enabled by collaborative learning. It is possible to find examples of literature (Asselin & Moayeri, 2011; Moreillon & Hall, 2014; Smith & Dobson, 2011) that describe dynamic classrooms. Through online networks, teachers can see the way classrooms are changing. There are also many examples of programs such as Robotics Competition (2014), the Australian Stock Exchange Game (2014), and the Space Design Challenge (2014), in which students participate in educational experiences that are purposeful and engaging. According to these two trends, the most important priority is to develop learners who solve problems and collaborate with other students independent of teachers. The report also reinforces what educational leaders and researchers stress: The transformation must happen now.

The growth of research (Garcia et al., 2014), news articles (2014), and surveys (“List, post, share: Young Australians’ experience of social media,” 2013) implies that young people’s use of the Internet is largely positive and life-affirming. They are open and honest, yet safe. They are creative and community-minded. They are conscious of their political power and the value of participation. Their connections are global, and yet for the main part, their focus is local. Danah Boyd’s online publication It’s Complicated: The social lives of networked teens (2014), shows how teenagers engage online, and convincingly belays pedagogical and parental fears. Its extensive research provides positive information to contradict those who say the Internet is all bad, and all addictive. Active and self-motivated students are successful and contribute to society. Digital environments can be overwhelming, but they can also be places where ideas are exchanged, friendships are formed, and leaders are created. Schools need to learn how to harness this engagement more effectively.

Sonia Livingstone makes a persuasive case about young people and the way they interact online, arguing there isn’t a need to overreact and attempt to restrict their activities.

When we think about schools in the future, it is difficult to imagine them any other way. However, finally, an inevitable momentum is building. Academics have accumulated an array of research that demands a new vision for education. School leaders have started to gain a clear understanding of what the most effective schools look like. Teachers have begun to accept the reimagining of their roles in classrooms. All of these forces are working together to transform classrooms. The next generations need to be creative, adaptable, and connected to be able to solve the critical concerns that approach humanity at an alarming rate. Collaborative learning is evident when students engage meaningfully with authentic experiences. Technology and online communities will act as the tools to allow students to gain a multitude of digital and collaborative skills. We want young people to engage more positively with their learning. We want them to bring what they know and use it in an educational context. We need them to act ethically and appropriately so they become productive contributors to society. And students? They are just waiting to see if we can catch up.


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