Charles Crook, Karen Littleton, Eileen Scanlon, Alison Twiner
When computers first appeared in classrooms the fear was that they would isolate students from each other and, perhaps, from their teachers. Here, surely, was a dangerously absorbing technology with the power to encase users in a bubble of private concentration. In fact, the opposite has turned out to be the case:
Technology has cultivated a form of learning that is more social in quality than its predecessors.
In the early days of computing there were too few computers and too many students wanting to use them. Students had to work together at these machines and – perhaps to their surprise – teachers found that these collaborations could be lively and constructive.
Since then, working together around and through computers has continued to evolve. But technology could do even more to support this social learning. And it should do so because such learning has become increasingly valuable.
According to educational psychologists, joint problem solving and inquiry encourages social and intellectual development. It puts students under pressure to articulate their views and, in particular, to reconcile them with the views of others. This collaboration is a potent preparation for the demands of team and group activity in working life. Both individuals and organisations often make progress through coordinated forms of social thinking such as ‘brainstorming’. If we wish to encourage students into ways of thinking that make the most of collaboration then we should recognise how technology can help.
Perhaps the image most readily conjured up by the notion of collaborative learning is a pair of students working together, heads down, in a classroom. Yet, thanks to networked technology such collaborations need not be constrained by classroom walls or school timetables.
Networked technology can create a kind of ‘distributed thinking’, as students work together across time and space. One example of this is found in the potential of mobile technologies to support distributed fieldwork explorations. Another example is in higher education where distance learners work in groups, but at their own speed on university courses.
Technology can extend the traditional model of a collaboration from a short, intimate, private episode of problem solving to one that is distributed across time, space and participant structure. Technology can also extend collaborations to involve experts – making possible their short-term engagement with a problem.
Collaborative learning is increasingly important for students and technology offers powerful support for such experiences. Technology can help team members communicate their understanding of problems and make the components of those problems easier to grasp. Technology can free collaborations of the restrictions of time and location. Finally, it can enable collaboration to become a more loosely coupled affair: drawing in new sources of expertise that continue to be ‘social’ in nature.
The Personal Inquiry project was set up to help young people develop the investigative skills needed in modern science. Using a tailormade computer toolkit called nQuire2, pupils work together to research issues that affect their lives – whether they are at school or at home, in a town centre or a nature reserve.
The nQuire2 software runs on both mobile and desktop computers. It guides and supports young people through their investigation by giving them structured activities, data probes, visualisations of data, and a fluid means of communication.
nQuire2 was tested out by more than 150 secondary students researching urban heat islands in Northampton and Milton Keynes. This study of the phenomenon of towns being warmer than surrounding rural areas was a
major component of their GCSE geography work for several months. They used sensors to collect environmental data in the field as well as to support analysis and presentation back in the classroom.
During a fieldtrip, the students used Sciencescope data loggers and sensors to monitor wind speed, temperature, infra-red irradiance and carbon monoxide data, and took GPS readings of the data collection locations. Working in groups of four, they entered the information into the nQuire toolkit running on PC netbooks. They were encouraged to add text comments for each location and to take photos. Their teachers then integrated the results of their investigations back into their lessons.
The nQuire2 toolkit also enabled pupils to access expert help. For example, 14-year-olds gained input from a nutrition expert in their project on healthy eating. Similarly, in an investigation into the effect of noise pollution on bird feeding, pupils were able to work with two university experts in animal behaviour, so expert knowledge became part of the collaborative problem solving.