Some collaborative learning strategies widely used in face-to-face settings can also be adapted to online contexts. They allow us to master the complex relations between members of large, heterogeneous online learning communities. The authors build on their experience in the application of some of the most well-known strategies and techniques used in online courses, such as jigsaw, peer review, role-play, case study, and brainstorming. The use of these strategies in computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environments and the related models describing the social structure of the learning community is discussed in the attempt to highlight their strengths and weaknesses and investigate the conditions for their applicability. The aim is to inform the design and the management of online learning communities.
The theoretical framework of this study is based on:
• Socioconstructivism, which emphasises negotiation as the basic element in the process of knowledge development and considers language, dialogue, and collaboration as the main learning tools (Vygotsky, 1934/1962);
• Situated learning, that stresses the importance of the cultural and social context where learning takes place, since this context is strictly intertwined with the knowledge development process (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989);
• Computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL), according to which computer mediated communication and, in particular, written, asynchronous interactions between the members of a virtual community favour the development of critical thinking and conceptualisation (Dillenbourg, 1999; Palloff & Pratt, 1999).
In this framework, online learning initiatives generally include methods and activities that promote interaction, negotiation of meanings, and collaborative construction of knowledge within authentic and meaningful contexts. The learning community, meaning all the actors involved, plays a prominent part in the process. Several different roles can be identified: the designer, the tutor, the expert of the domain, and, obviously, the student. Although the differentiation of roles helps both the design and the critical analysis of the learning process, a single actor may play more than one role. It is, in fact, desirable that all the community members share their competence and play an active and proactive role in the management of the learning process.
During the course, it is desirable for community members to interact, discuss, and participate in the production of cognitive artefacts. In order to facilitate and encourage these collaborative dynamics, strategies and techniques that support the development of the social dimension of the community are often used. These strategies are selected by the designer prior to the educational process, taking into consideration a number of variables such as course objectives and content, characteristics of target population, and context constraints. For this reason, different courses use different strategies and each strategy requires a suitable “social structure.” The concept of social structure includes team composition, roles, and relationships between team members as well as relationships between teams. Indeed, teams may vary over time during a course and even within the same activity while each strategy requires team members to play distinct roles (Persico & Sarti, 2005).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Role Play: This technique allows learners to “play a role” in order to assume a particular point of view during discussion with colleagues. In online courses, the students are usually asked to analyze materials or documents from a particular perspective and to have a discussion with other members of the group and reach an agreement, maintaining all the while the standpoint of their assigned role. Role play allows responsibility to be distributed between the participants and to take advantage of their individual attitudes, while promoting reciprocal interdependence. Authors from the radical constructivist approach claim that the role play technique can be used to “insert a slice of life into the classroom, connect theory with everyday practice, practice unfamiliar skills in a safe setting, and learn to appreciate contradictory viewpoints” (Renner, 1997).
Peer Review: Based on a critical analysis by learners of a product previously realized by peers. Usually the process includes three phases: during the first stage, learners are in charge of producing an artifact (a document, map, hypertext, etc.); in the second stage, they are asked to provide feedback to the work done by their colleagues; during the third phase, learners are asked to revise their original product on the basis of the received feedback. During the peer review, a reciprocal teaching approach is stressed, where one’s own interpretation of reality is to be compared with that of others. Unlike the Jigsaw technique, peer review is not associated with a specific social structure per se and can be orchestrated in different ways so that the reciprocal feedback can be provided either at the individual level or by pairs or even among groups. Furthermore, the review process may be organized in several ways: networked (any entity may provide feedback to any other entity), cyclical (entity A provides feedback to entity B, B to C, C to D, etc.), or reciprocal (entity A provides feedback to entity B, which in turns provides feedback to A).
Jigsaw: Suitable when the subject matter is particularly complex but easily fragmented or analyzed from different perspectives. It envisages two phases: during the first phase each of the so-called “expert groups” have to investigate a different aspect of the complex topic. In the second phase, new groups are formed, called “jigsaw groups,” each of them composed of one representative from each of the expert groups. Within the jigsaw group, each student is asked to contribute his/her experience to the rest of the group, so that at the end all groups get a complete overview of the topic. Usually, jigsaw groups have to produce an oral or written presentation, but any other artifact can be chosen if it is able to provide an overall view of the topic.
Brainstorming: A group technique aimed at enhancing the creativity and the production of new ideas; it is very useful for finding solutions to problems when the traditional approach seems to be unsatisfactory. Participants start talking about a topic or a real problem and they are asked to share their opinions freely so that everyone is able to express ideas linked to those already stated. Brainstorming can be carried out orally or in a written form, face-to face or online, and is usually moderated. The technique includes two phases; the first one is divergent, where the production of new ideas is stimulated for a fixed period of time; the moderator invites the participants not to pass judgment or to criticise and tries to enhance the discussion flow. The second phase, the so-called convergent phase, is aimed at selecting and evaluating ideas so as to identify and share the most interesting ones.
Case Study: A technique based on a problem-based approach. During a case study, students are provided with materials describing a concrete, authentic experience and are asked to critically analyze the case. Often, learners are asked to propose or collaboratively define a possible solution for the examined case, describing the reasons for their choices, and afterwards, they have the possibility to compare their solution to the one adopted in the real case by experts. As case studies are based on real problems, they represent a strong link between theory and practice. Furthermore, case studies are narrative forms of thinking as opposed to abstraction and generalization. For these reasons, case studies are particularly suitable for adult education, or in any situation where the ability to critically reflect upon experience is highly developed.