Collaborating Online

February 1, 1995

Research has shown us that collaborative learning--students working together in groups to solve problems--can contribute significantly to students' cognitive development. Group activities such as dividing tasks, sharing decision making, and resolving conflicts also help learners practice the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complex social world.

It makes sense, then, that efforts to reform curriculum and instruction would focus on increasing collaboration. Network technology is a potentially invaluable tool for supporting such learning. With a local area network (LAN) that connects computers within a room or throughout a building, users can share software applications and peripherals, and exchange messages with each other through e-mail or conferencing programs. A LAN can make group work possible within a classroom, from classroom to classroom, across grades, and asynchronously between students working at different times.

For several years now, researchers at the Center for Children and Technology have documented attempts to integrate network technology into schools and have examined its impact on the classroom and student learning. We have been able to identify the key issues for successful network-based collaborative learning.

Lab or classroom? Traditionally, many schools put computers into labs to allow more students access to the technology and to guarantee tighter security.

We have found, however, that labs do not ensure universal student access or computer security. Although the amount of time that students have access to the technology may be decreased by placing the terminals in classrooms, the quality of students' use is increased. In addition, the more involved students become with using technology as a regular part of their learning, the less the issue of security arises.

If schools want to encourage cross-classroom and cross-grade collaboration, they need to break up the lab and place one or a few networked computers in each classroom. By putting additional terminals in the library or resource room, schools offer students better access opportunities than with a computer lab, whose schedule often cannot accommodate drop-in users.

Exploiting the medium. However, the potential of LANs will remain untapped if networks are used simply to share software or to have students individually query a database. One promising feature of LAN technology is that it provides student groups with a chance to store information and to preserve complete records of email discussions or group conferences. Later, records can be searched and reorganized, facilitating reflection and analytic thinking by students.

Unfortunately, little of this reflection and analysis happens now because there is very little software that exploits the collaborative potential of a network. New software is needed that has options for searching, manipulating, and reorganizing networked information. Hypermedia tools that provide for search and linking, for example, could help learners manipulate data and organize ideas from different sources online.

Schools also might do well to look beyond traditional educational software to foster collaboration on a network. Some professionals use LotusNotes, a collaborative network-based tool from Lotus Development Corp. Users on a network--whether in the same building or across the country--have access to shared files. When one person changes the file--for instance, a scientist in Baltimore adds new data to a weather study--the file changes automatically for all other users. When another scientist opens the file, she discovers not only the new data, but how that information changes her contributions. Imagine if students could conduct their science experiments (or math problems, or historical research) the same way.

Mediating interactions. With face-to-face interactions in class or in groups, participants often have to compete for "air time" and may be discriminated against because of social status, gender, race, cognitive ability, or physical handicap. Network interactions over e-mail or within conferencing programs are assumed to eliminate these forms of competition and discrimination because they take place in writing, often anonymously.

We have found, however, that written communication by no means guarantees equal participation and collaboration. Since writing is also dependent on facility with language, social status can often be discerned from subtle differences in language use. Teachers have a crucial role to play in mediating interactions that take place over the network in order to ensure successful collaboration. Literacy skills are as important in a networked environment as they are for print-based learning.

Teachers must become network learners themselves. We have found that those who use networks to collaborate among themselves have an opportunity not only to learn the technology, but to plan for future collaborative projects among their students, and to experience first hand the kinds of issues that are associated with working in groups.

Originally published in Scholastic's Electronic Learning Magazine