Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Making students’ collaboration strengths and weaknesses visible

I had an interesting discussion with a teacher recently about her students’ teamwork skills during a study that I was involved in with Newcastle University. The study was with a primary school class of year 5 students. They were divided into 7 groups of 4 using a collaborative problem-solving application. The application uses multi-mouse technology which involved plugging 4 USB mice into each PC so that each student in the group had access to a mouse which controlled a different coloured hand/cursor on the screen. This allowed all students to work together on the task at the same time, rather than one student taking charge by controlling a single mouse.

The teacher noted that some of the groups in her class did not manage to work as well as a group as she expected them to. She was especially surprised because her students usually do a lot of group work in her class. After discussing the typical group work they usually carry out in class, and how it compares to the multi-mouse activity at hand, the conclusion was that the usual tasks were normally too short (only a few minutes in duration) and in most cases were not truly collaborative but rather involved a clear division of roles in the task. Each student did part of a task and then the students put their work together and presented it as a group. This was similar to what I have observed in other group activities at other schools, whether the task involved technology or not.

The reason that this multi-mouse collaborative task brought the group work problems to the surface is because the task design required students to work together in true collaboration and for a significant period of time (30-45 minutes). Each student in the group had a mouse and they were required to all work together at the same part of the task at the same time. This is in contrast to normal group work around a computer where one of the students controls the mouse, or in scenarios that do not involve technology, where normally each student in the group is given access to different resources to complete the task. 

An effective collaborative task provides opportunities for students to coordinate and regulate their participation, do certain subtasks together and take turns for others, explain ideas, learn from each other, take joint decisions and resolve conflicts. The latter is particularly important; the design of a collaborative task needs to allow for conflicts to take place to increase chances of useful discussions and to teach students to negotiate, compromise, and resolve conflicts. Such opportunities do not arise from short group activities or in group tasks where students are working in parallel on different subtasks. Accordingly while such tasks are thought of as a group activities, they are not resulting in the type of benefits expected from a carefully-designed collaborative activity.

Moreover, among the main characteristics of effective collaboration is accountability. What I mean by this is basically knowing who did what and taking responsibility for actions, which is useful for the members of the group as well as the teacher. While this is not possible in normal group activities or when using a single mouse, it is possible in a multi-mouse setting. This is because it can track the person (well, technically the mouse) responsible for each action, and it is possible to record the level of interaction for each person. This feature was utilized in the activity used and the levels of participation were displayed to the students as a pie chart. This pie chart live updated and doubled in size when the level of participation of one student fell below 10% or went above 50% to attract everybody’s attention to the unequal participation.

Back to our study
While some students performed brilliantly as a group, others struggled. While some groups got involved in active discussions, took turns when needed, negotiated, resolved conflicts and took joint decisions; others either worked in isolation, remained quiet, or got frustrated because they did not know how to resolve their conflicts. The activity brought to the surface shortcomings in students’ collaboration skills that previous group work activities had not. The teacher appreciated that highlighting students difficulties in working as a team is an opportunity rather than a limitation. She was especially keen on the participation pie chart. This chart, for some groups, succeeded in making students aware of their levels of participation and in many cases helped them regulate it so that no one student dominated or became just an observer.

Collaboration is among the main elements of the 21st century learning skills. However, not all of the usual group tasks given to students require true collaboration to be completed. Careful consideration needs to be taken with regards the choice of the group activity given to students and the type of skills needed to accomplish such an activity.

This is the first of a series of blog posts that will elaborate in more detail on the characteristics and benefits of collaborative learning in general and computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) in specific.


  1. This is very interesting, you are making me think! Thank you. Looking forward to future posts.