Collaborative Learning and Teaching for Fun and Profit – Harder Work for Better Learning

Kalle Airo, Aalto University

Key questions:   What is the key to enhanced learning in collaborative learning? 
What should you focus on while working on a collaborative learning project? 
Collaborative learning is an umbrella term for a variety of educational activities. This includes, but is not limited to, various forms of teamwork and projects. At Aalto University, practically all students will experience classroom discussion, challenge-based project courses, and thesis seminars. The other methods of collaborative learning vary according to the different fields of study, but you might, for example, encounter case studies, simulations, writing groups, peer teaching, supplemental instruction, mathematics workshops, discussion communities and seminars, thesis circles, and guided design. Often, this learning is facilitated by collaborative teaching, where several teachers and visitors teach together.
Learning is an Active, Constructive Process  
Collaborative learning assumes that learning is an active, constructive process of building mental models and linking new knowledge and understanding to prior knowledge. This knowledge can be both explicit, i.e., knowledge we can verbally explain to other people, and tacit, i.e., knowledge we possess but cannot put into words. “We know more than we can tell,” as Polanyi famously stated. This combination of prior and new knowledge occurs through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences, even if the experience is listening to a lecture or reading a textbook as a collaborative learning process.  

Learning in Diverse Groups Demands More, but It Also Gives More  
It is fruitful for diverse groups of people to work and learn together. Benefits are achieved when people from different backgrounds bring their wide range of knowledge, expertise, experience, and understanding to the learning process.   
As insight is distributed among the team members, the starting point is information asymmetry.  Team members possess distinct, unshared information and hold specific conscious or unconscious assumptions. Therefore, diversity increases the difficulty of working together. This is especially true at the early stages of team formation and the beginning of collaborative work. Therefore, it is wise to make a conscious effort to work on inclusion and team formation. Here, the central requirement is team members’ willingness and ability to actively share their perspectives as well as, simultaneously, their interest in the ideas and thoughts of others and readiness to actively listen to them.  
The more diversity increases, the greater the need becomes for inclusion and working on team practices. However, when diversity and inclusion match, the learning outcomes are far greater than when working in homogenous teams. Aalto University supports team formation with both in-course content and support as well as online resources. 
Collaborative Teaching  
Collaborative teaching is characterized by the same benefits and drawbacks seen in diverse teams in collaborative learning: people from different backgrounds bring in a wide range of knowledge, expertise, experience, and understanding to the learning process. This insight benefits the learning process, as the teaching team can use a wider knowledge base to develop education and facilitate the learning process. An additional benefit is that collaborative teaching decouples a course from an individual teacher. This makes it easier to test different aspects of the learning process and develop it further, as feedback regarding a course is understood as feedback about the course and not about the teacher.  At Aalto University, collaborative teaching involves teachers not only teaching together but also with visitors and other students. The best teachers prepare the visits such that their efforts are hidden from the students and the visitors seem simply to be sharing their experiences. 
Relationship Between Group Effort and Individual Effort  
Collaborative learning is based on joint intellectual effort, which often enriches and amplifies learning compared to individual effort. However, enjoying the fruits of this joint effort also requires individual effort as part of the group.   
One way of understanding the relationship between individual and group effort in learning from the perspective of knowledge management is the SECI model (Nonaka, 1994; Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995). The model is also known as the spiral of knowledge. SECI starts with socialization, i.e., sharing tacit knowledge through observation, imitation, and practice or joint experiences. Externalization is the process of making tacit knowledge explicit and thus sharable in written or spoken form. Combination means merging explicit knowledge from various sources to form new knowledge. Internalization involves an individual receiving and applying knowledge, often through learning-by-doing. In this way, explicit knowledge becomes part of an individual’s knowledge. Internalization is a process of individual and collective reflection. Internalization allows us to see connections and recognize patterns and involves the capacity to make sense between fields, ideas, and concepts. Therefore, internalization is an essential part of learning.
Role of the Teachers  
In collaborative learning, students explore and apply the course material rather than simply the teacher’s presentation or explanation of it. Therefore, the teacher’s role is typically one of a designer, facilitator, and manager of the learning process rather than of a content expert who transfers knowledge to students. In more advanced collaborative learning courses, there might not be any explicit course material; instead, the course involves an emergent process of working, reflecting on this work, and learning from the reflection. This is managed, but not tightly designed, by the teachers. This kind of education is highly demanding but also highly rewarding for both students and teachers. 
Role and Responsibility of the Student  
The role of a student or learner is more active than in the traditional teacher-centred or lecture-centred milieu in college classrooms. This requires agency from the student.   
It might be logical in many work-life situations to strive for ‘efficiency’ by minimizing the workload. However, in learning this is not the case. The purpose of collaboration is to learn better rather than solely to produce an output or artefact. In collaborative learning, joint intellectual effort is the key to enhanced learning, which would be lost if students simply divided a topic into individual tasks and completed them separately. In this case, the learning would occur solely at the individual level, and most of the benefits of collaborative learning would be lost.   
A typical novice mistake would be to confuse the quality of an artefact produced in, say, a product development course with the learning of the team producing the artefact. The same process also provides opportunities to freeride on other peoples’ work and simply use knowledge, skills, and sometimes even content from previous courses to ‘do one’s part’, for example performing the cashflow calculations for a project using the same Excel spreadsheet you created for a previous course.    
The collaborative learning process rewards active students who are diligent and understand the importance of focusing on learning, i.e., reflecting on and combining prior and new knowledge. Sometimes collaborative learning is organized as a competition between teams, for instance case competitions and hackathons, etc. This approach offers both advantages and disadvantages. Competition might lead to the student focusing on winning rather learning. Likewise, completing a project for a ‘real customer’ might entice students to focus exclusively on the project and forget to learn from it.   
The main source for this text is Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean T. MacGregor’s article, ‘What Is Collaborative Learning?’ in Collaborative Learning: A Sourcebook for Higher Education, by Anne Goodsell, Michelle Maher, Vincent Tinto, Barbara Leigh Smith and Jean MacGregor. It was published in 1992 by the National Center on Postsecondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment at Pennsylvania State University. 

Last modified: Wednesday, 23 August 2023, 9:01 AM