Can academia teach collaborative learning?

Joyful Jubilant Learning 2006 continues on Rosa Say’s Talking Story, with excellent posts and discussion from the community. I will be the guest author Tuesday, September 26, with a post that asks, Have We Entered Learning 3.0?

With my attention focused on learning, I found this great post titled Struggling to Learn Together. The author, Tom Harris, discusses how colleges are struggling to balance “academic integrity” with real-world expectations for employees to share knowledge with colleagues and to learn together. In academia, a fine line is drawn between collaboration and cheating. However, I have to wonder how prudent it is to stifle collaborative learning.

In the very entertaining post, Harris explores how the ski instruction industry might apply the learning approach used by academia.

Imagine this set of rules posted on a snow-covered wooden sign next to the practice area:

Integrity on the Slopes

In order to ensure that each student is graded correctly and fairly in their skiing lessons, the following rules must be observed:

* Watch only the ski instructor — no peeking at others on their practice runs.
* No talking about how to ski, even on breaks.
* Unless skiing together has been specifically approved, it is not allowed.

Who would pay for ski instruction under these conditions? Who would learn to ski?

A Simpler Idea

Back to academics, or rather, training in the hi-tech workplace, why not just say:

* Cooperative learning is essential: work with others
* All sources may be used; if not yours, credit the author

I’m sure there are many reasons to limit teamwork and collaboration in higher education, not the least of which are to maintain the real and perceived values of academic degrees. However, to the extent that institutions seek to teach collegians how to learn, then finding ways to promote collaborative learning deserves continued attention.

Take a look at the full post at Talk About Quality.TechnoratiTechnorati: , , ,

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6 Responses to Can academia teach collaborative learning?

  1. Rosa Say says:

    Fascinating Blaine.

    There are so many advantages to collaborative learning, that I look at the risk of cheating as a “so what?” consideration. Ultimately, cheating comes back to haunt you when you find you’ve fallen short in your own comprehension and retention.

    I would encourage educators to seek the higher ground of pursuing the learning, and allow the student to take responsibility and be held accountable for any of their own decisions made to cheat the system.

    If someone is looking to cheat, I’d think they don’t care much for the subject matter at hand in the first place.

  2. Rosa, You make a great point that cheating carries its own punishment. Also, how we define cheating is important. Is it cheating to pull out class notes or a text book during an exam? The answer is no for many courses and in most business settings. Is it more important that a student has stored information in their head or that they know how to access information to produce quality work? I would argue for the latter 9 times out of 10.

    If three students collaborate to produce three different terms papers, each better than it would have been if the students had worked alone, is that behavior that should be punished? What is the goal after all, independent work or quality work?

  3. Rosa Say says:

    Blaine, I’m with you in arguing for knowing how to access information. In my SLC coaching we talk about breaking down training in the business environment this way:

    – managers “train” people in SKILLS
    – managers HIRE people for TALENT
    – managers allow open ACCESS to KNOWLEDGE

    Knowledge IS power, and how it is used is where self-motivated learning comes in, don’t you think?

    Now collaboration is a skill in my mind. It is one the manager in business, and the teacher in academia, can be coaching their students in.

  4. Tom Harris says:

    Hi Blaine,

    Thanks for your comments on my post, which has sparked some discussion. (Also nice “about” page you’ve got there — I learned my teamwork from sports too — my high school — actually made team sports a graduation requirement explicitly for that reason. Meanwhile, I can remember P + 21st street fondly too.)

    The end of your post brought up the following questions, though; forgive me for being so plain:

    “I’m sure there are many reasons to limit teamwork and collaboration in higher education,”

    Given that teamwork and collaboration are THE keys to productive work, as you say yourself on your About page, in “leading projects much larger than [you] could handle alone,” what are those “many reasons” for limiting them?

    “not the least of which are to maintain the real and perceived values of academic degrees.”

    I understand what is the “perceived value of academic degrees”. What is the “real value … of [an] academic degree?” I have one, and enjoyed my time very much in getting it, but I’m curious to hear what you define as its real value.

    “However, to the extent that institutions seek to teach collegians how to learn, then finding ways to promote collaborative learning deserves continued attention.”

    Throughout the ages, and continuing today, people learn from those around them who know more about something, and they learn from them by doing together. Isn’t “continued attention” rather an understatement?

    And inasmuch as institutions seek to convey knowledge as well, when is that done better by any method other than collaborative learning? I’m hard pressed to find an example.

    All the best.

    – Tom

  5. Thanks for the comments, Tom.

    As you can tell, I think you are right to advocate collaborative learning over the “do your own work” model that has dominated education for generations. “Continued attention” may well be an understatement, although I would leave it to those in the industry to determine the best course of action. It is possible that institutions that fail to meet the needs of the market place (by failing to foster collaboration) could risk becoming irrelevant, but that seems like quite a leap to me at this point.

    I also understand that schools have to try to isolate the work of students in order to assess and grade individual performance. As your post suggests, smart people at various universities have arrived at different conclusions about how to balance the competing needs to encourage collaborative learning and provide a meaningful measure of individual performance. Schools would also want to ensure that students have certain individual competencies, such as research and writing skills. Beyond these issues, however, I don’t think I am aware of other reasons for limiting collaborative learning.

    As far the real value of an academic degree, I tend to think of “barrier to entry” issues. Many industries prohibit or seriously inhibit those without a specialized degree from participating in certain practices. Health care, education, accounting, and law come to mind. Some doors are only open to persons with a degree, which gives the degree real value.

    Finally, I particularly liked the way you phrased a your comment, “Throughout the ages, and continuing today, people learn from those around them who know more about something, and they learn from them by doing together.” As I will posting about Tuesday, recent changes make it so that the people “around us” are not necessarily near us phycially, but can be part of a wider community that can teach and learn from each other.

  6. […] I am very excited to be guest author today for the Joyful Jubilant Learning 2006 on Rosa Say’s Talking Story. The post explores recent trends toward more collaborative learning, which I wrote about recently, and asks the question Have We Entered Learning 3.0? Please take a look and comment with your thoughts, either there or here. […]

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