Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Collaboration...politically-correct trend or substanitive pedagogy?

This may be the most descriptive post title I've ever written and it likely clues you in right from the beginning as to what this post is all about. I'll state up front that I am that student that dislikes working in groups. I am a bit of a control freak and while I am very social and enjoy dialogue, when push comes to shove I prefer to oversee my own work and know that I will be evaluated on what I did, not what someone else did. I know it is an antiquated perspective and I am an enormous proponent of social learning as a pedagogy, but this is one case where I can't stand the taste of my own medicine. Having said that, I can divide my emotional feelings from my rationality (to some degree at least) and offer some perspective on collaboration. I will warn you though, I rant quite a bit in this post. It's a topic I feel passionate about and I think I vent here as much as inform.

How should participation in a collaborative learning community be assessed?

Frankly, I am not sure it should. I subscribe to the belief that all knowledge and all learning are social. Thus, collaboration is a necessity. It can either occur incidentally (social, cheating, etc.) or deliberately (collaborative projects,  discussion, dialogue) but it is how learning occurs. We interact with one another during our courses, either directly through discussion threads, or indirectly by reading one another's work. We interact with our instructor and with a variety of experts in a similar fashion. That interaction is collaboration in the purest sense, although I realize that in this context we are talking about a very specific type of collaboration vis`-a-vis´ some type of project that requires contributions from each member of a team. Still, I do not believe that assessing the collaboration is the correct methodology here. Assessment incites competition, which is counter to the goals collaboration strives to achieve. If we begin to treat collaboration as a vehicle through which we learn, rather than some behavior we want to measure, then we can begin to see it for what it is, a way of "being" and learning. In my opinion, collaboration should not be assessed in a formal way.

Does that mean that an instructor should not informally evaluate how well a group is interacting or how much an individual is contributing? Certainly not. To do so would be to assume skill where it may not exist. In this context, however, assessment is used the way it was philosophically intended, as a means to guide, correct, mediate, and teach. It should not be used as a means to segregate the wheat from the chaff. It should not be used to judge one's worthiness. It should be used as a way to help students understand and improve. 

George Siemens (2008a) discusses a number of different models whereby collaboration might be assessed; I found one of the models he discussed particularly troubling. Siemens mentions how the Internet, with its vast array of tools and services, can be used to offload some of the assessment of students to other students. He equates this with the automated rating systems you see on retail websites (rate this product) or discussion threads (Was this helpful?) and after listening to this I was very dismayed at the idea that we could "rate" one's collaborative contributions in such an inane way. Honestly, can we reduce assessment of something as complex as psychology, social interaction, metacognition, and self expression to something as simple as this? Can my efforts really be summarized through some web application where other students debate how many stars to give me out of five? To paraphrase the title of a great book, "I am not a gadget" and I refuse to have my essence boiled down to a 4-digit pin number or some Amazon.com-esque rating system.  Collaboration is not a construct that should be measured the same way recall of facts is. Collaboration is a way of being and thus, it should be a way of instructing and teaching. Should we assess students on how much oxygen they consume in a single breath? Of course not, and in my opinion, this is no different.

Will Richardson (you might remember him as the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms) summarizes it best in a post he made back in October (See it here). Will takes the scenic route in getting to his point, but it is a valid one. The emphasis on assessment in our educational system has replaced an emphasis on the learner. In using assessment as a high-stakes way to differentiate students, we are ignoring our primary mission to serve students. Collaboration is one of the skills we need to value, but we won't get there by assessing it the way we assess other things. We have to embrace it and make it part of what we do. If it becomes like the air we breathe, students will learn it. If we assess it, they probably won't.

How do the varying levels of skill and knowledge students bring to a course affect the instructor's "fair and equitable assessment" of learning? 

I think I have already answered this question, but in case it wasn't evident, I will restate.  We are overly concerned with grades and assessment as indicators of worthiness. We should use assessment as a means to an end, as a way to help students grow and improve. If we approach this issue from this perspective, the varying level of knowledge and skill students bring to a course represents nothing more than the place you begin.

There are two primary types of assessment, norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. A norm-referenced evaluation system rates students relative to other students. For example, an instructor might grade "on a curve" meaning that he or she expects a normal distribution of scores and awards grades based on that assumption. A criterion-referenced evaluation system establishes the benchmark for success and holds all students to those expectations. When done correctly, criterion-referenced evaluation is fair and equitable and treats every student as an individual. Unfortunately, we (as an educational system) usually fall short in helping every student achieve the end state. When the assessment is over, we move onto the next content topic and accept that some students have failed to meet the criteria for success. I am not blaming instructors or teachers, at least not completely. I recognize that there are logistical limits to coordinating the education of an entire classroom of students. Still, one cannot help but be depressed knowing that we do this.

If a student does not want to network or collaborate in a learning community for an online course, what should the other members of the learning community do? What role should the instructor play? What impact would this have on his or her assessment plan? 

There are a variety of reasons a person may not engage in a learning community (Siemens, 2008b). When this happens, nothing productive will come from trying to force them to do so. Instead, the other members of the learning community simply have to make it safe for everyone to contribute should they chose to do so. This can be accomplished in a myriad of ways, but most important is making sure everyone's opinions are respected, that no one person dominates, and that all ideas are given due attention and consideration. If some type of assessment grade is riding on the project and a team member is not contributing, it would be necessary to make the instructor aware of the situation, but here again, if the collaboration itself is being assessed then we are missing the point in the first place.

The instructor's role in this scenario is first to ask him or herself if they have created an environment in contradiction to the goals. If the collaboration is contrived or inauthentic then it should not be surprising that at least one defiant soul decided it wasn't worthwhile. Deeper investigation might uncover that other students felt the same way but were more willing to play the game to get the grade.

Assuming that the design is not the issue, then the instructor's role shifts to the student who chooses not to participate. It might be appropriate to have a discussion to determine why he or she has chosen not to participate. If the student is forthcoming about their reasons, the instructor can use his or her best judgment as to how to proceed, but at no point should the student be forced to participate.

Politically-correct Trend or Substanitive Pedagogy?

So, where does that leave us? Is collaboration a real pedagogy with important implications for education or is it simply another politically-correct trend that will come and go? It is both. Collaboration is real and has real value. We are just beginning to realize how collaborative and social learning really is. But, collaboration is also a bandwagon that institutions, organizations, governments, and individuals are all stammering to get on board. I suppose I should end this way: there is no more tragic a death for a good idea than its adoption as a standard. So long as our educational milieu chooses to use assessment as a means to differentiate and discriminate, the benefits of collaboration will never be fully met. But, if individual instructors and course designers embrace it for what it really is, we could make a serious impact.

Richardson, W. (2006). Blogs, Wikis, Podcast, and Other Powerful Tools for Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Siemens, G. (2008a) “Assessment of Collaborative Learning” Laureate Education.

Siemens, G. (2008b) “Learning Communities” Laureate Education.


  1. This quote intriques me: "The instructor's role in this scenario is first to ask him or herself if they have created an environment in contradiction to the goals."

    One of the research pieces that I am working on right now -- one of several irons in the fire -- is just this exact concept! What environment is needed for collaboration to be successful? Why does it work in some courses and not in others? Why do some student flourish while others flail.

    If you were to give an instructional designer the perfect contrusct for a collaborative activity - what would it look like?

  2. What an interesting question, but it might be a loaded one, right? Is there a perfect model, rubric, design, or other construct for something as complex as collaboration? Given the vast array of variables and dependencies, it would have to be relatively simple and adaptable. It would also have to be outcome-oriented rather than linear or process-oriented. It reminds me of the Farside cartoon where the scientist is drawing on the chalkboard and in the middle of the formula it reads, "Something magical happens here".

    I guess I would begin with some very simple premises drawn from more traditional learning theory...it must be relevant to the learner, it must access prior knowledge, it must inspire curiosity, it must be open and accessible to all, and it must promote both higher-order thinking and metacognition. Much beyond that would likely require knowledge of the specific content and the specific learners. Just my two cents.

  3. I can relate here because even though I am a very outgoing person (ask anyone who knows me), I do not like to work collaboratively. I want to be responsible for my own end result. I will and have many times worked in groups, but it never becomes common to me.

    My students seem to want to work in collaborative groups all of the time. I am not sure if this is the changes in education and students, or they think they don't have to do as much. Either way, I try to even it out by engaging them in both types of learning environments. (5th grade)

    I think it is best for the teacher, instructor, educator to always reflect first before lashing out or demanding the student, who doesn't want to participate, to complete collaborative work. It just makes sense. As a teacher, I have taught myself to reflect upon many dicisions I make within a day in order to be sure of my short-comings first!
    How do you handle working with others when you clearly do not like it? Is it your best work?

  4. Linda,
    I have to agree with you. As much as I believe teamwork is important (I have worked in the corporate environment for 17+ years), I have found that in online courses people are not willing to participate. It seems like you can't see them, so they don't feel as if they need to. At least if you attend class with someone, you can walk up to the person and ask why they are not doing their part.

    I do believe that it is important for a discussion to take place each week. This keeps students engaged in the course and allows them to get to know each other.

    Randall - is there anything you believe instructors can do to make the discussions more interesting? Do you believe one initial posting and two postings to classmates is enough for the participation points?

    I have read that the participation points (discussion points) should be the largest amount of points for the course. Do you agree?

  5. Sara....I read your post here and you asked a great question. (Sorry Randall to use your page) I have felt like in the courses at Walden, the instructors really push the postings and responses. I wonder if they have thought of assigning more points to the postings? I feel like if they want me to post so much, then I should get more points for just the effort. As adults, don't we want to be rewarded appropriately too just like our students do?

  6. Linda and Sara, I agree with both of you...within limits. Take Walden, for instance. Sometimes I chose not to respond to others' discussion postings because frankly I do not necessarily have anything to say. I accept losing the points but if the discussion doesn't peek my interests or if I feel like I'll be spending time challenging something erroneous, then I don't necessarily think it is worthwhile. Thank being said, I believe I still get at least as much value from it because I spend time evaluating what was posted.

  7. Linda - I found a rubric for creating an online course from California State University. I found it to be very helpful because I design many online courses. You can find it at http://www.csuchico.edu/celt/roi/rubric/ood.shtml. Through my research, I came across the importance of learning communities and that the points assigned to discussions or social networking should make up the majority.

    One problem I see with this is that I do not believe we get as much out of the discussion as we do completing research. Well, at least that is my perspective.

  8. Has anyone come across research that evaluates the level of interaction the instructor has in a discussion and the impact that has on its effectiveness? I see a lot of variation in this here at Walden, although by-and-large, instructor participation is minimal. Is there empirical evidence that suggests that is the best approach?

  9. Randall, I have read research that goes both ways in regards to instructor participation. Some state it helps, others indicate it does not matter. Honestly, I believe it depends on the level of education the students are at. In an undergrad program, students require a lot of feedback on how they are performing. At this level, I would think we are beyond that.

    Also - I love your first paragraph - nothing like being honest! I feel the same way about group work. In fact, my experience at Walden has been that I end up doing most of the work and everyone else benefits.

  10. Randall: I understand completely your reticence about collaboration online. It took awhile for me to get out of the phobia that my contribution was being "assessed" or judged.

    After awhile it became apparent that all of my teammates were of the same mind. It does take a bit of getting used to, but this is the way the future is unfolding within business and education (Simonson, 2008). Teams are replacing individual accomplishments. It is the team that produces the product, not the individual person. Yet everyone contributes his/her talents. If you watch carefully in some of the "other" colleges' advertising this concept is prevalent.

    It is not necessary to be social or amiable. All that is required is input and output...thinking outside the box and allowing others to join in with pros and cons. Collaboration takes the loneliness out of the creativity.

    Assessment can mean encouragement and evaluation, not primarily judgment.

  11. Chris,
    I really find it interesting that you thought your postings would be judged by others. I think of a learning environment as a place we should open ourselves up to be vulnerable. If we don't we will not open our minds to learn from each other.

    Some of the other students have experiences we may never have or that might help us in what we are trying to accomplish. I simply wish the discussion forums would allow us to simply share these experiences and help each other grow. The theories and such can be saved for writing papers.