The benefits of collaborative learning are well established. More schools and teachers are encouraging collaborative learning sessions than ever before. However, the question is: are all the tasks that teachers assign to groups of students with the goal of encouraging collaboration, really collaborative?
The benefits of collaborative learning are mainly in the discussions arising among the students. During collaboration, students engage in activities such as explanation, disagreements and mutual regulation. These activities trigger learning mechanisms such as knowledge elicitation and internalization. Such learning mechanisms do not normally occur when learning individually.
While in many cases the terms collaboration and cooperation are used interchangeably, in computing science there is a distinction between collaboration and cooperation. Cooperation is used to refer to horizontal division of labour; people divide the task into smaller subtasks that they can do individually, then assemble the outcome of these subtasks together to produce a common outcome.
Collaboration, on the other hand, refers to the vertical division of labour. A task is divided into stages with all the people involved working together at each stage, completing it then moving to the next. The true benefits of collaborative learning can only be achieved through the latter approach and not through cooperation.
From personal observations and in talking to others about collaborative learning, it seems that there are cases where students are given a ‘cooperative’ task with the goal of gaining the benefits of collaborative learning. While the students are divided into groups, each student is taking a specific role, doing a specific task individually, then the work is combined without going through the rich discussions expected from a collaborative learning session.
It is not enough to talk about the benefits of collaborative learning and to promote it as an essential 21st century learning skill. We also need to be clear as to what collaborative learning exactly is, and to make sure that when classroom time is assigned to a collaborative learning session, students are given actual collaborative activities.