The Learning Potluck is a blog post is about my experience of learning in a collaborative networked environment.
As a student I participated in a number of learning formats. Let me group them somehow by country: classical note-taking at lectures followed by individual assignments when I did an MA in Ukraine, far less structured discussion seminars based on pre-reading when I did an MPhil in England, and the blend of those two in my doctoral program in Sweden. And now, an online networked learning course is an added format I never previously tried.
We speak a lot about collaborative networked learning as an increasingly popular approach to education. I can’t agree more with the following statement: “Learning in the digital age is no longer dependent on individual knowledge acquisition, storage, and retrieval; rather, it relies on the connected learning that occurs through interaction with various sources of knowledge (including the Internet and learning management systems) and participation in communities of common interest, social networks, and group tasks” (Brindley et.al 2009). Let’s assume the future of education is by collaborative learning. Then, what are the strengths and weaknesses of learning by doing team tasks?
Group learning is more enjoyable and more effective
I enjoy team work in general, it allows for more input, more creativity, brainstorming, sharing thoughts and learning from each other. Firstly, by focusing different minds on the same problem, the result is finding more than one solution. Or, if the group comes up with a single solution, it has more layers, more possibilities, and, as a result, is more effective. Secondly, learning as a group reduces the likelihood of an individual failure. If you learn on your own and you can’t do the task, you fail. If you learn in a group and you are confused, you get supported by the team and move on.
No doubt, collaborative setting has its disadvantages. The group will inevitably have its ups and downs: personalities clash, meetings get interrupted, shared google drive documents disappear, natural disasters prevent members from joining online discussions.
Conclusion: lots of risks and lots of fun.
Individual learning is more empowering and… less fun
When you learn on your own you have all the power over what to do with your knowledge, how to apply it and who to share with. You are not dependant on a group, you are responsible for your final tasks, you have no risks (unless your computer crashes). But do you know how my one-to-one reading course with an instructor at LTU looks like?: Now, Aliona read 5 books and 25 articles and write a 8000-word essay. You have all the power to create this groundbreaking text by yourself. Not a clue what to write? Follow the study guide.
Conclusion: No risks and no fun here.
By no means we should idealize collaborative learning. This format may be very disappointing for a number of reasons, such as unfair workload share and group motivation. In fact, commitment imbalance has been identified as the biggest source of frustration for learners of online collaborative learning and lack of instructor’s support was reported as the least important factor (Capdeferro & Romero 2012). Here we come to the question of the teacher’s role in team learning. The teacher is not an instructor, she is (fashionably) called a facilitator who guides the group, but does not interfere into their knowledge acquisition. This time, it is not the teacher who is responsible for the group work and progress, it is the group including the teacher as an equal member of the group. I tried this role when teaching undergraduate courses in Sweden and I found the experience motivating and rewarding.
Learning in communities is the topic which, for some reason, attracts metaphorical comparison in describing it. We use restaurant metaphor to compare how you gain knowledge from lectures vs from team-work. Kay Oddone, for example, compares networked learning with symphony orchestra. So, I will continue the metaphoric line to say that for me team learning is like a potluck. Everyone comes with their plates full of unique knowledge to contribute to the fest. If you arrive there with your plate, let everyone taste from it and don’t forget to get your share from others. It will be a deliiiiicious party!