So who’s facilitating now?

With Intranet 2.0, collaborative tools and innovative LMS platforms now mainstream in the workplace, organisations are designing more and more collaborative training; moving away from classrooms toward participative training, where the group itself determines what is learnt.  Yet collaborative learning remains an in-exact science, particularly in business. In this post we look at the role of the instructor or moderator in collaborative learning.

What is collaborative learning?

According to Linda Harasim, Professor in the School of Communications at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, and editor of Global Networks: Computers and International Communication, collaborative learning is ‘any learning activity that is carried out using peer interaction, evaluation, and/or co-operation’ (Learning Networks, MIT Press 2001, p 31).  So it’s not new – almost any group activity fits that criteria.

When it comes to managing a collaborative learning session, Harasim argues there needs to be ‘at least some structuring and monitoring by an instructor’.  In most situations a total ‘free-for-all’ is not going to achieve much without some kind of focus.  Harasim defines the role of an instructor or moderator as follows, comparing it with ‘traditional training’ and using a writing course as an example:

Collaborative Traditional
Role of instructor Goal setter
Instructional Designer
Class structure Students in groups from two to whole class Individual students seated in rows
Text Contributions generated by students and teacher in addition to textbooks Commercial textbooks and published works
Audience Students writing for each other Students writing only for the instructor
Lecturing Student-centered approach based on discussion of issues and questions raised by students Formal lessons (e.g. grammar and rhetoric)
Revision An ongoing process based on feedback from group members Suggestions given by instructor after completed paper has been submitted
Evaluation Evaluated by class members, including the instructor Evaluated by instructor alone
Collaboration Students work with peers guided and advised by instructor Students work alone or with instructor only

Online collaboration

The advent of LMS and online collaboration tools expands the possibilities for interaction. It’s now possible for collaboration to occur independently of space, even time, interaction can be synchronous or asynchronous, and new knowledge can be built in a collaborative session by a team that never actually meets in person.  Universities and colleges have been using ‘Blackboard’ type collaborative tools for over a decade, but it could be argued that it’s only now that the business world is taking collaborative learning seriously, looking beyond SharePoint and seeking to leverage the full potential of their LMS’s and Intranet 2.0 technology.

Of course there are exceptions; some companies have developed a whole new pedagogy around collaborative learning.  If you’ve been involved in online collaborative learning, how has it been managed and moderated? Does Harasim’s description of the role still apply?  If not, what is the instructor’s role when collaborative training is delivered via online media? What new skills sets are required?