Learning in communities – networked collaborative learning

Collaboration: so awarding and yet so difficult..

Collaborative work is encouraged and promoted in many environments. From all kinds of job advertisements, you undersand that people who are skilled and experienced in collaborative work and have a collaborative network are highly prioritized. Finding networks of collaboration within or across disciplines may be a way to develop for companies, organisations and also in the academic World. Teaching at University levels should strive to meet up with these requirement, and promote collaborative work in the learning environment.

Why should we collaborate? Whats wrong with working alone? Well, just read the best seller ”Human kind: a hopeful history” by Rutger Bregman and you will understand. Here he claims that what makes humans so different from other life on earth is our innate ability to cooperate and learn from each other. Further, he claims that are kindness and collaborative skills to one another have been the greatest factors in our long-term success on the planet. If you ever feel depressed over all evil and misery that the news throughs at you, then read the book! Hope and joy will come back to you, I promise! 

The course in online networked learning involves collaborative work as a general strategy throughout the course, and one topic was even dedicated to deal with collaborative work in the online environment. Therefore, this course gave me the great opportunity to view collaborative work in the learning environment. In a group of 5 – 6 ”students”, we explored collaborative teaching and learning while we tried to collaborate around this topic, as well as other topics within our group. In this mission, we also aimed to explore and use online presenting techniques, our goal being to present the learning outcomes using new, flashing tools -so that we could provide the viewer/reader with a friendly and attractive presentations. What This experience of being the learner has been unexpectedly wholesome for me! In fact it has rugged up my thoughts about teaching seriously, even making me questioning my own teaching skills. Hopefully, my pedagogical skills will develop and improve from this experience, making me a better skilled teacher in my future work. 

What do I mean with that? Well, in my role as a teacher, it happens quit often that I organize the students into groups of 2-4 students, having them to work together to solve an issue, and then make them prepare oral and/or written presentations together within the groups. The issue is well defined, but there is no given solution, and there is free space for developments and digging deeper in different directions upon the interests and ambitions within the groups, the intention being to promote the joy of learning. In the online environment, I encourage the collaborative work by scheduling for it, and by creating rooms for them (so called break-out rooms) making it easier for them to find each-other. 

Until now, I have been content with this arrangement, even at those occasions when I sensed frustration and bad moods from students. In my perspective working together should ease the workload each individual, prevent a competitive atmosphere and instead awaken creativity, create more freedom, and encourage having fun while learning. I organized everything well for them, so what could possibly go wrong? Why do some students perceive frustration? How come they don’t value this freedom? 

They don’t understand how lucky they are having me as their teacher! These were my thoughts just until recently. My ”learning outcomes” regarding cooperation within this course are mixed. Many times I perceived frustration for different reasons. One big issue was not being sure of what we were supposed to learn! A lot of time and effort, perhaps the most, was allocated to deciding on what to do. Then how to do it, then who to do what, and finally how to present it. In the beginning we had no strategy, but gradually we found our roles and managed to establish something that worked. The freedom we were given on how to interpret the task was not encouraging and inspiring. On the opposite, it made us feeling lost and abandoned. What were we supposed to do? What was we supposed to learn and present to our fellow students and teachers?

I will now draw you a parallell. A little far-fetched perhaps, but still…

Imagine a symphony orchestra with the task to set-up and perform a Concerto. A symphony orchestra is put together by several instruments that, when you come to think of it, actually sounds very different from each-other when you compare them individually. There are the strings – the violins, violas, cellos, double basses. Behind those we find the brass instruments -the trumpets, French horns, tubas and trombones. Further we have the wood-winds – the flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassons. At the lower back, we spot the percussions. Sometimes there are also other instruments involved, such as the piano or harpsichord. 

What a mix of noises all these instruments make!

Yet the music they perform is incredible and gives the keen listener an experience that goes beyond the words to express it. The feeling of completeness is magic, it is unmatched. How can the jumble of noice that these instruments create, perform music that touches us to such an extent that we get goosebumps? 

Well, its not achieved by having all instruments playing the same score -just imagine how exciting that would be! It is not achieved by having all instruments playing all the time. And it is not achieved having the musicians work at their own preferred level or speed. 

The secret must be collaboration towards a unifying goal. Each musician has its own score, its own part and its own task to accomplish. Together, through hard and dedicated collaborative work, the members of the orchestra work together so that their individual voices support each other to create a harmonic sound. Each musician has its own agenda, but they all point to the general aim, the message from the composer, and interpreted by the conductor.

The need for collaboration within the orchestra as described above is obvious. Also the routines on how this collaboration works is pretty obvious. They have to have:

  • a defined piece of music to play
  • a conductor -who interprets the music and negotiate the general message to the audience, and also help the musicians to learn how their parts fit-in. 

The collaborative work involves both individual and collaborative practice. Each musician needs to learn its own score, together they learn how to synchronize the tone, how to phrase the music, how to adjust volumes and speeds, but they don’t necessarily need to do everything together. The extent and properties of the input from each individual varies. 

Collaborative teaching with too loose reins, without well defined aims and scopes of aims would almost be comparative to forcing an orchestra play without having the sheet music. Without having plenty of guidance along the way, the joy and excitement turns to confusion and conflicts This guidance, the role of the conductor, should be closely monitored by the teacher, possibly in cooperation with a group leader, but it is the teachers responsibility to make sure that the progress is going in the ”right” direction, this direction being very well defined already from the beginning. Like the conductor sets and communicate the tempo, how the instruments harmonize together, how to phrase, how to make a unifying and complete performance, so needs the teacher make sure to correspond the work and progress towards a final presentation for each group work.

Published by Helena Elvén Eriksson

I live in Skåne in Sweden, and work at Lund University. My main duties are within teaching in Geographical Information Science (GIS) and I belong to the Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science. I am thrilled about the pedagogical part of online teaching and many of the courses where I teach are performed online. Besides of teaching at Lund University, I also coordinate a student mentorship program at the Science Faculty named SI-PASS, and work as a resource for the teaching staff at the University regarding online teaching using the CANVAS platform. At present, I participate in the online course Open Networked Learning (ONL), which I am really excited about. One part of this course involves personal reflections about the learning process and outcomes in the form of blogs. Otherwise I'm interested in all kinds of outdoor activities, such as running, winter swimming, gardening and lately also canoeing. I live near to Slottsparken and Ribbersborg in Malmö, which is a perfect spot of all these activities. I also enjoy music, both listening and playing or singing.

One thought on “Learning in communities – networked collaborative learning

  1. I love metaphors. You pick an interesting one of a very structural way music can be performed. What happens then if we use a jazz example – well there is a theme, there are common intentions, and there is improvisation. However, improvising requires shared local knowledge if we talk with Charles Tilly. I think that knowledge, as in collaboration, regards listening – if you don’t listen you miss the point and perhaps feel confused. Confusion is however nothing bad, not a low level of anxiety either, still, the group and its scaffolding must be there to “pick you up”, still not do the job for you, but with you.
    Thanks Helena for a great post


Leave a Reply to Lars Harrysson Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: