Collaborative Learning

As part of my attempt to stay in the grad student game over the summer, I’ve been reading Kenneth Bruffee‘s Collaborative Learning. The second chapter details how to set up a successful collaborative learning activity, including group size:

  • Groups of 5 are best for consensus
  • Groups of 3 are best for long-term projects
  • Groups of 2 are not advisable

Bruffee goes on to talk about Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, saying that, in successful collaborative learning environments, groups have overlapping ZPDs and can thus pull each other along – as Bruffee puts it, the “distance between what the group as a whole already knows and what its members as a whole can’t make sense of for love nor money – the area of what as a whole they can learn next – is likely to be fairly broad. As a result, I may be ready to understand a good deal more as a member of a working group than I would be ready to understand by myself alone” (1999, p. 37).

Bruffee also talks about how collaborative learning needs to be situated – the small group is situated within the full class, which is situated in the academic discipline the teacher represents. The group comes to a consensus on an issue, which is tested and explored alongside other groups in the full class. Then, the full class’ consensus is compared to conclusions accepted by the academic community. Bruffee stresses the importance of this layering, arguing that it results in welcoming the students into the discourse community of the discipline.

As always, my mind wanders to how this could work effectively in an online environment. If it’s synchronous, you could use break out groups in Adobe Connect, then a full class conversation, and then a group exploration of videos or websites that promote the discipline’s conclusions. Or you could do something in a virtual environment like SecondLife.

But could it happen asynchronously? We know that discussion forums can stimulate critical thinking, but I don’t know if it could function like a collaborative consensus group because collaboration hinges on getting immediate reactions to a concept and comparing and evaluating the different reactions of the group members. Has anyone seen effective collaboration in your asynchronous experiences online?

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