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Collaborative Learning Online: Principles and Guidelines

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Quintessentially, in order for a collaborative task to succeed it is necessary to provide for the following:

1. The students in a group must perceive that they “sink or swim” together, that each member is responsible to and dependent on all the others, and that one cannot succeed unless everyone in the group succeeds. (I wonder how that can be reinforced in a real classroom setting, for there are always those who loaf and those who let others loaf)

2. Assessment criteria must be transparent and easy to understand (at the moment I am not aware of any of the assessment criteria as far as our homework assignments are concerned, all I know is the maximum number of points, which is not exactly criteria)

3.  Give structured tasks. (This is not happening either, we’ve been given nothing measurable, only assignment titles. To compare, whenever students are assigned open-ended essay questions in overseas universities, they are also notified of the expected minimum and maximum word limit or number of pages.)

4.  Set competitions among groups. (That would imply everyone doing the same task and mutual access to each other’s solutions. I guess it is best realized through the visible groups and separate wikis option in Moodle)

5.  Be conscious of group size. In general, groups of four or five members work best. Larger groups decrease each member’s opportunity to participate actively. The less skillful the group members, the smaller the groups should be. The shorter amount of time available is, the smaller the groups should be. (Sources: Cooper, 1990; Johnson, Johnson, and Smith, 1991; Smith, 1986 (A really useful insight, that explains a few nuisances I have had to deal with recently. )

6.  Provide mechanisms for groups to deal with uncooperative members aka shirkers. Eg

  • Allow the groups, by majority vote, to dismiss a member who is not carrying a fair share. Students who are dropped from a group must persuade the group to reconsider, find acceptance in another group, or take a failing grade for the project.  (The solution in italics is the best,  in my opinion, providing only groupwork is possible to handle a given task, however, it is difficult to apply it at secondary level).
  • Keep the groups at three students: it is hard to be a shirker in a small group.
  • As for my personal experience, there are always a few technophobes and lone wolves in every group and the fact that they refuse to collaborate is not fair grounds for giving them a failing grade. Unless you are teaching a social skills course, it is always a good idea to think of alternative paper-based or individual assignments.

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