05 July 2007

On Synchronous Collaboration

Dear Folks,

I think there is some need here to discuss if and how collaborative group learning can be achieved using synchronous media.

As I have mentioned before, the distinction between cooperative learning and collaborative learning must always be kept in mind, and moreover cooperative synchronous media are useful in the initial stage of brainstorming or framing a problem, while collaborative asynchronous media are better for the vertical thinking next followed by the horizontal dialectic thinking. And synchronous cooperative learning suits the final stage of personal meaning making, experiential learning and accreditation including publishing. The middle stages involve hypotheses testing and problem solving. I have previously held that the important central stages must be collaborative and asynchronous. Here however it is worthwhile to consider if and how these processes could be achieved synchronously – with specific reference to using a virtual classroom.
I have briefly reviewed the relevant literature, and found two possible scaffolding structures, and these are worthwhile elucidating here. If anyone has any other structure, then please let me know.

The first is by Zimmer (1995) and I interpret his structure as three functional turn-taking steps ABA between two persons A and B which when repeated as BAB give both participants the opportunities each to give opinions and receive counter-opinions empathetically, as follows :-

A) (Hello) Affirm + Elicitation
B) Opinion + Request understanding
A) Confirm + Counter-opinion
B) Affirm + Elicitation
A) Opinion + Request understanding
B) Confirm + Counter-opinion

The second I have drawn from analysis of ideas given by Probst (1987) for collaborative learning in literature and art, in which transactions are not aimed at hypotheses-testing characterised by counter-opinion, but rather a new insight built on critical reflection that while shared may be personalised in each individual. In literature, learning is not cooperative : there is no ‘knower’, the tutor does not guide the student to some pre-set conclusion of the meaning of the text. In literature, the tutor or any student (A) elicits opinion to initiate the three functional turn-taking steps BAB (followed by ABA) , as follows ; -

A) (Hello) Affirm + Elicitation

B) Opinion / Analysis + Request understanding
A) Affirm + Elicitation of Evidence
B) Reflect + Elicit other opinions / Analyses

A) Opinion / Analysis + Request understanding
B) Affirm + Elicitation of Evidence
A) Reflect + Elicit other opinions / Analyses

This framework - basically of reflective analysis followed by articulation, bring in ideas from other own reading or elicited from other students, then repeat reflective analysis with accommodation to construct a new insight – involves the same cognitive processes that occur in individual learning. In the group, content comes from texts and other students, while in the individual learning, content comes only from texts, and in both cases it is the transactions between the student and the content that creates the new knowledge in the student.

There are two additional aspects to consider. One is to implore the participants to be explicit in articulating their feelings since the illocutionary force is lost without video and cultural empathy. In other words use phrases such as “I am confused”, “I am sorry” or “I don’t understand” rather than silence or ambiguous phrases like “Why not this” or “I think I see what you are getting at”. And the other is to keep the virtual classroom uncluttered by moving massive discourse away to a virtual coffee shop or to a blog.

In both the above frameworks, I suggest that any participant(s) may be behind either voice, so the framework could be effective for more than two persons at the same time. Bork (2001) has suggested the optimal number may be four in collaborative transactions, in an optimal online class-size of twenty students, while six has been reported by Laurillard (2002) and about ten by others. Wang (2002) has asserted that engaging as many participants as possible would maximise diversity and optimise collaborative learning. Zimmer (1995) has found that provided at least one participant is aware of the framework, then in practice collaborative learning succeeds.

Concerning synchronous cooperative (in contrast to collaborative) group learning, the optimum number of active participants is different from that for asynchronous collaborative learning. An online survey of those on the DEOS-L listserv, who have had relevant experience in conducting synchronous ‘chat’ (Neubauer, 2003), found the optimum number was from 10 to 20 students : if students were new to the synchronous media then 5-7 was optimum, in groups of 10-15 mixed-experience students then 10 was optimum, while if students were experienced and the moderator (tutor) also was experienced then 15 was optimum. And 20 was suggested as the upper limit to keep the discussion at a sufficiently fast rate to maintain high interest levels. There seemed to be a marked difference between respondents who found 5-7 was optimum and those who found 20 was optimum, and this difference might be related to the task at hand : 5-7 new students would imply that they were at the early initial stage of forming a learning community with personal introductions and so on, while 20 students were likely at the final stage sharing course experiences.

These two frameworks each indicate what content should optimally be included in an utterance, and specifies in what serial order to progress towards achieving discovery and co-construction of new understanding and new knowledge collaboratively using synchronous media such as the virtual classroom.
I could expound further but I am a bit busy actually.
All Best Wishes

Bork, A. (2001). What is needed for effective learning on the Internet. Educational Technology and Society. http://www.ics.uci.edu/~bork/effectivelearning.htm

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking university teaching : A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies. London : RoutledgeFalmer.

Neubauer, M. (2003). Number of online participants. Online posting January 22 to the Distance Education Online Symposium. http://lists.psu.edu/archives/deos-1.html

Probst, R.E. (1987). Transactional theory in the teaching of literature. ERIC Digest ED 284 274. http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed284274.html

Wang, H. (2002). The use of WebBoard in asynchronous learning. Learning Technology newsletter, 4 (2): 2-3. http://lttf.ieee.org/learn_tech/

Zimmer, B. (1995). The empathy templates : A way to support collaborative learning. In F. Lockwood (Ed.), Open and Distance Learning Today (pp. 139-150). London : Routledge.

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