Distance Collaboration with Shared Concept Maps

Distance Collaboration with Shared Concept Maps

Alfredo Tifi (World Wide Maps, Italy) and Antonietta Lombardi (World Wide Maps, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-992-2.ch007


This chapter aims to review Web-mediated practices in collaborative concept mapping which were set up in informal partnerships among teachers from different schools and countries, and their students. Starting with various examples of such practices, we will outline some models of collaboration which will be compared and criticised in the hope that they will be useful in challenging other teachers to plan suitable strategies for engaging in similar experiences. It is important firstly to examine the context in which distance collaboration can be established and then outline some theoretical background to show the reasons why this kind of collaboration should be recommended as an objective for educationalists.
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WWMaps (World Wide Maps) is a community of practitioners aimed at establishing concept-mapping collaboration teams among groups of students from different countries. Unlike other international twinning initiatives (e.g.: etwinning in the European Lifelong Learning Programme), this community is unofficial and based exclusively on concept mapping.

The topics chosen by collaborating teams are mainly drawn from their curricula and cover such issues as the environment, citizenship, history, specific science topics etc., depending on the preferences of the teachers involved. It is nevertheless possible for partners to deal with inter-cultural topics or for teacher members of the community to debate educational topics.

The choice of Collaborative Concept Mapping (CCM)is doubly valuable. Concept mapping firstly facilitates the engagement of teachers of non-language subjects (such as L1, History, Maths or Science), although support from an L2 teacher is welcome. Secondly, concept mapping is more than a medium. It can be considered as a skill in itself, being a learning tool for metacognition that can be applied and transferred to other fields by pupils and teachers.

If these collaborative practices and technologies are to have a positive impact on local educational communities, they should be set up with objectives and expectations that are agreed and shared by both school partners. They should also incorporate strategies to assure effective interaction and sharing among students. These are the reasons for studying in depth the educational objectives of, and strategies for, an effective CCM.


Background 1: The Context Of Collaboration

Collaborative Learning (CL) is different in presence-based education (for groups of students in the same classroom) from distance-based education, where students may collaborate from different countries. First of all, face to face promotive interaction is not possible in distance-based CL: the mother tongue is often different, and communication depends on different technologies and time zones (for instant messaging). There are also multiple factors which can greatly differ among partners -- their respective cultures, degrees of cosmopolitanism, educational missions, priorities, objectives and curricula and, last but not least, the ages, grades and number of students per class. All these differences, often under-estimated, strongly affect the effectiveness of collaboration.

Furthermore, teachers can also be granted very different levels of independence (or conversely restriction) by their institutions in deciding (freely or otherwise) how to manage time and plan educational projects involving international collaborations, even on curricular topics.

Finally, the relevance of such international collaborations, and the educational results they achieve, are not evenly appreciated and promoted by all institutions and their managers. These factors are somewhat related to the concept of governance introduced by Gowin and Novak (Novak & Gowin, 1984; Gowin & Alvarez, 2005). Governance factors affect the intrinsic meaning of the educational experience, even when the same tasks are undertaken. The environment in which the collaborating team operates may modify the development and sustainability of the collaboration because of the presence or absence, and quality of feedback.

Apart from governance factors, the sustainability and effectiveness of collaborative work depend strongly on efforts to attain such other well known requirements of the Cooperative Learning model (Johnson & Johnson et. al., 1994) as individual and group accountability, interpersonal and small group skills, and group processing.

We are aware that interpersonal and small group social skills training should be strongly implemented from the very beginning of a collaboration, while individual and group accountability need to be assured as the process develops. This is why in the collaborations we are currently undertaking daily communication takes place between student and teacher partners, helping them to construct suitable communication skills, technologies and methodologies independent of the contents to be elaborated in subsequent Collaborative Concept Mapping activity. This activity would be sterile without the vital habit of communication and feedback among partners.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Metacognition: is the active and conscious control over the process of thinking that is used in learning situations. It is based on the intentional use of stored experiences of differentiation, comparison and organisation among different pieces of knowledge and from different external sources, and on the use of strategies for challenging and rehearsing knowledge. Metacognition can be supported by mediated concept mapping and even more by CCM.

Concept Map: According to Novak & Cañas (2008) concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge characterized by: labelled nodes (closed shapes) to represent concepts, linking phrases and connecting lines as a way to make explicit the relationships between concepts and to form oriented propositions, i.e. meaningful statements with two or more concepts that are hierarchically ordered. The main use of a C-map in education is to provide a shareable document for teacher and students to negotiate meaning.

Interdependence: At its best (with the ‘positive’ attribute in cooperative learning acceptation), Interdependence is the fundamental and structured characteristic of a cooperative team. It means that each group member’s efforts are required and indispensable for group success and that each group member exerts a unique role in the joint effort because of his/her specific resources and task responsibilities. From the general perspective of this chapter, interdependence is a highly valuable goal of CCM, where team partners stimulate each other by questioning, reviewing and regulating, by depending to some extent on contributions from their peers, but without the prerequisite of indispensability as inherent to the process.

Collaborative Learning (CL): is a general term indicating a joint intellectual effort by groups of students working together when searching for understanding and/or constructing shared artefacts. CL is usually characterized by high levels of individual learning freedom, by space and time independence and by absence of specialized roles in the goal oriented process.

Cooperative Learning: is an instructional environment in which teams of students work on structured tasks under conditions that meet five criteria: positive interdependence, individual accountability, face-to-face interaction, appropriate use of collaborative skills, and self-assessment of team processing. Students usually have well defined and differentiated roles and high interdependence in the attainment of the shared goal.

Autonomy or Team Independence: is a second feature and a goal of CCM, consisting of a self-sustained leading process within the team, characterized by maximum productivity with minimum direct contribution or inputs from the teacher(s). This parameter is highly related to the age of collaborator-learners and their motivation, and obviously requires internal communication, interactions and decision making.

Governance: (Gowin & Alvarez, 2005) is the combined effect of all external factors that control the meaning of learning contents, i.e. social construction and feeling of instances perceived as counting or not counting, the efforts put into teaching, into the curriculum, and into learning.

Active Collaborative Process: is operatively defined as a collaborative process where any incoherence or incompleteness in the shared resources soon provokes feedback and discussion. A strong interdependence characterizes this process as it is very similar to the processes that accompany cooperative learning.

Collaborative Concept Mapping (CCM): can be viewed as an extension of teacher-mediated learning assisted by concept mapping, in a socio-constructivist perspective, where students construct concept maps in small groups by questioning, discussing, sharing or alternating their contributions and by peer reviewing, under the supervision of the teacher(s), in order to integrate multiple views and create shared understanding.

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