Collaboration is a vital skill for all learners to experience and find success. The challenge in any learning environment is to balance the individual skill and the collective skill assessments. Many of our students are assessed on their individual abilities, and often when they find themselves in an environment where they depend upon collaborative efforts of a group there is discomfort and anxiety.
Two years ago I was teaching a freshmen high school English class and ran into a situation that exasperated this scenario. In a multi-ability group students were assigned the task of translating a scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream" into an understandable representation to share with the class. The group size was five. They were given expectations and a rubric in advance. Groups received individual participation grades that were determined based upon the rubric and my evaluation as well as the groups evaluation. With two strong, dominating individuals in one group and the collective mark of a "C," I found myself after school reviewing the group rubric with them. These top students couldn't collaborate with unlike individuals. They didn't try. They didn't work as a team, and the other members couldn't work with them. In a face-to-face setting with students who have been together in their learning experiences since kindergarten, collaboration was not a developed or even introduced skill.
(I am wondering if performing collaborative tasks online may be more effective than face-to-face collaboration among high schoolers. It could eliminate those preconceived judgments people have towards one another. But this is another realm of research.)
Scott Peck is quoted in Palloff and Pratt’s work: “‘It is our task—our essential, central, crucial task—to transform ourselves from mere social creatures into community creatures. It is the only way that human evolution will be able to proceed’” (2007). For this to become a reality, as educators we need to focus on elevating the value of collaboration through strong collective assessments.
Assessment of collaborative learning is a challenge. If collaboration is an essential skill, it needs to be required for all learners. Yet, we are challenged with the notion of meeting individual learning styles of our students. If learners are more comfortable with independence, do we require collaborative work? I believe that individual growth occurs when learners find themselves in situations of dissonance. If collaboration is the key component in learning, instructors need to value it, require it, and support it. The role of an instructor becomes one that “help[s] the team assess whether those goals are being met, and provide guidance for any changes that might be necessary” (Carroll, 2008). It is challenging but vital to collaborative group success. We need to keep in mind that all learners have varying experience and success in collaborative groups. As instructors we are the strongest supports for our learners.
Through the use of collaborative groups, assessment comes at many levels. Signs of successful collaboration are found when “individuals must engage in self-monitoring, team process monitoring, and proactive commitment to the work of learning” (Anderson, 2010, p.460). Along the same lines, Palloff and Pratt perceive “student self-assessment as a crucial component of performance in an online course containing collaborative activities” (2005, p. 24). Instructor presence and peer evaluation are also important features of assessment (2005, p. 26). “Empowering students to take control of their learning process” (2005, p. 30) makes the assessment of learning an investment on the student’s part. It helps promote ownership in the act of learning, as well as, the fair and equitable assessment of that learning. George Siemens reinforces this approach by presenting a model that sequences assessment: students assess peers, students receive feedback from online community, and educators assess using contribution logs (2008).
As Siemens states, Americans traditionally value individual abilities. What will place learners on a level playing field so that they can be vested in the success of a team? Future job experiences will depend upon their collaborative skills. How do we shift mindsets of teachers and community members to value the collective efforts of our K-12 learners? If we can share a common perception of collaboration, our future growth as a society will flourish as Peck describes.
Anderson, T. (Ed.). (2008). The theory and practice of online learning. (2nd ed.). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.
Carroll, B. (2008, June 12). Assessing the quality of collaboration in virtual teams. Retrieved October 11, 2011, from Leading virtually: Leadership in a digital age: http://www.leadingvirtually.com/?p=54
Laureate Education, Inc. (Executive Producer) (2008). Principles of distance education. Baltimore, MD: Author.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2005). Collaborating online: Learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Startegies for the Virtual Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Siemens, G. (2008). Learning communities. (Vodcast). Principles of Distance Education DVD produced by Laureate Education, Inc., Baltimore