Referring to the research literature, they remind us that several studies have shown that teachers working together often fail to collaborate and that 'collegiality alone seems not enough for teacher collaboration and collaborative skills are needed such as the ability of collegial enquiry and reflection' (p.63). Teachers have strong professional beliefs that can lead to conflict and teachers need to learn how to use their collaborative skills to take advantage of their differences to stimulate debate. In this respect I am reminded of some wise words used by our former European Commissioner for education, Jan Figel' "Divers systems, shared goals" - valuing and embracing diversity (EU, 2008).
Lockhorst et al also remind us of the dilemma as to how much structure and guidance should be present in online learning activities - what I referred to as teaching presence in previous postings (Garrison, 2007). Unstructured, ill-defined tasks are known to stimulate collaboration and encourage negotiation between learners. This in turn stimulates critical reflection and deeper-learning. On the other hand, research also shows that ill-structured problems can lead to participants working in a disorganised manner, spending more time on trying to understand the problem than on solving it. This can lead some learners to feel disorientated, demotivated and even disaffected, especially if they are not familiar with Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL).
Having researched three initial teacher training programmes at the University of Utrecht, using a mix of quantitative and qualitative analysis, they arrive at several tentative conclusions:
- Tasks designed to yield a group product without individual interest of the participants lead to less participation compared with tasks requiring reflection on one's own practice. However, this might be compensated for by having more structure in the learning tasks (i.e. increased teaching presence may encourage collaboration in activities that are less related to individual practice).
- Similarly tasks calling for more reflection and peer feedback lead to greater interaction between participants (not too surprisingly). Interaction can be encouraged through the use of 'more complex tasks with prescribed roles and directions addressing controversial positions of group members' (p.75).
- In order for communication between participants to be focused on the content (rather than organisational issues, for example) the activity should be as straightforward as possible. They suggest that participants more experienced in CSCL may require less structure.
- Personal perspectives, reflections and experiences trigger a deeper level of learning. Relating learning to teachers' own practice leads to greater engagement and motivation.
... even the most complex CSCL task in our study ... needed a certain level of structure (cf. Dillenbourg, 2002; Sorensen & Takle, 1999) to show a high level of student participation and interaction, a high proportion of content- related communication, a deep level of communication and a high level of organisational communication. (Lockhorst et al, 2010, p.76)So on balance they lean towards more structured activities (a greater teaching presence) in online learning communities, apart from when the participants are already well versed in this type of environment and are able to quickly address organisational issues in order to focus on the problem in hand.
Finally, it was interesting to read that they had used Atlas.ti extensively in their analysis of the data and to see another example of a data coding scheme.
EU (2008) Education and Training 2010 – Diverse Systems, Shared Goals, The European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture. (ONLINE - http://ec.europa.eu/education/policies/2010/et_2010_en.html - accessed 30.05.2008)
Garrison, D. (2007) 'Online community of inquiry review: Social, cognitive, and teaching presence issues'. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11 (1), pp.61-72
Lockhorst, D., Admiraal, W. & Pilot, A. (2010) 'CSCL in teacher training: what learning tasks lead to collaboration?'. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 19 (1), pp.63-78