Wednesday, 29 July 2015

When is student collaboration simply a division of labour - and how can we avoid this?

As educators we are often told that collaboration is one of the key skills we need to instil in our learners. Collaboration is frequently referred to as a 21st century skill, although many educators might (rightly) argue that it is a skill that has been taught for many decades. I think one of the reasons that collaboration has come to be seen as a 21st century skill is partly because there are now so many tools available to foster collaboration among learners, both inside and outside of the classroom. However, what does collaboration in education really meanI have tried a number of ways to encourage and foster collaboration in my classes, and I have seen both 'good' examples of collaboration and 'bad' ones. I will describe the latter first, before going on to describe good examples of collaboration. 

Image designed by Gavin Keech via Venessa Miemis

'Bad' collaboration

When I refer to 'bad' collaboration I mean it in the sense that there is no shared learning experience taking place. In this case, collaboration often simply becomes a division of labour. Students work in groups, and instead of working together to solve problems or answer questions, they divide up the work between group members. Each student then works individually on their set of problems, and as a group, the complete set of problems gets solved. I have even seen a whole class create a Google Doc to work on a set of problems together! 

Even from a content or knowledge acquisition point of view, this approach tends to suggest a poor outcome for students, besides any questions around their learning. If they have only answered a subset of the problems, what happens when it comes to exam time? 

Obviously what I have outlined here are extreme examples, and often students will be discussing all of the questions or problems within their groups as they do their work. But I think that this is a valid problem, and one that I am still thinking of ways to avoid. 

'Good' collaboration

One of the better examples of 'good' collaboration I have seen was when I had students work in groups to create webpages. Some group members acted as researchers, finding relevant information online. Others acted as writers, putting the content into context and summarising the research. Students who were less interested in the topic itself, but who were interested in web design, took care of the web page design side of things. They even created an FAQs page to guide other groups in how to embed videos, change formatting etc. 

While this approach was successful from a project point of view, and afforded great student voice and choice, there is an obvious drawback. What happens to those students who were working on web design when they come to sit their biology exam? The exam is necessarily based more around biology content, and certainly not around web design. What I am essentially making the case for here is less summative exams and more competencies and skills-based assessment. In this way 'good' collaboration can be encouraged and developed.

Generally speaking, project based learning (PBL) can also be useful for promoting good collaborative work, and I have blogged previously about how I have attempted to incorporate elements of PBL into science projects that I am responsible for coordinating. Long-term, open-ended, group projects offer plenty of scope for learners to find their niche within the group, and to pursue their own particular interests within the context of their overall project goals. 


From a learners' point of view dividing up the labour may be good in the short-term, however, in the long-term this is not going to lead to a deeper learning experience, or necessarily be an enjoyable or memorable one. An engaging and effective activity that fosters genuine collaboration, on the other hand, could potentially lead to a deeper, richer understanding for all involved. 

I am still trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate and foster collaboration in my classes. As ever, any comments or suggestions are welcome.