Being Mobile Blog

The 3 Educational Benefits for Students Collaborating Synchronously

First, let’s define our terms. How much like school is that?

  • Cooperation is two or more individuals helping each other out on a task.
  • Collaboration is two or more individuals working to develop a shared, common understanding on a task.

That “shared, common understanding” puts a strong cognitive demand on the process. The parties to the collaboration should ideally be tuned to each other — and to themselves — in order to work productively to develop that shared, common understanding.

Teasley & Roschelle, two cognitive scientists, studied experts engaged in collaborative problem solving and they observed five key elements to a productive collaboration:

  1. A challenge: a problem, a question, an issue that needs to be addressed; it could be murky or clear at the outset; the hope is that the murkiness will dissolve during the collaborative experience.
  2. A discourse pattern: a pattern of conversation that is repeated over and over again until the challenge is solved.
  3. A workspace: the back of napkin, a chalkboard, a pad of paper — there needs to be some shared, common record of the intermediate findings, musings, etc.
  4. An artifact: the solution to the challenge needs to be made explicit in a set of steps that each person will do, a written document, a piece of plastic.
  5. A shared, common understanding: When the two individuals walk away from the collaboration, each individual has the same, common understanding of what just happened. Now, as we well know, sometimes (often?) that shared, common understanding isn’t so shared, isn’t so common (sigh) and that not-so-shared understanding is the source of subsequent disagreements — or additional rounds of collaboration!

Productive collaboration, then, is not just "talk, talk, talk."  It is structured talk that goes like this (for the sake of this argument, assume two individuals collaborating, but if there are more, the discourse pattern clearly will generalize):

  1. Turn-taking and narrating: Each individual takes a turn talking about what he/she is seeing/feeling/thinking about with respect to the overall goal and/or the current state of the solution.
  2. Questioning: One of the collaborators voices a question that has arisen out of the narration.
  3. Cycles of suggesting (one of the collaborators puts forth a suggestion on how to address the question) and repairing (the other collaborator puts forth a suggestion on how to tweak the other collaborator’s suggestion to make the suggestion better address the question.
  4. Status taking: Conversation ensues about how the new finding relates to the overall goal, and the process begins again until the original, top-level challenge is resolved.

The discourse pattern is best described with a picture: “Two Mules: A Fable for Nations.” (Scroll down; the picture is on the bottom right.) While the term in the picture is “co-operation,” we won’t quibble here about definitions; we are sure “they” would have said "collaboration" had they read our blog.

See the “?” in the picture? That’s the key value to collaboration. An issue has arisen in the process of addressing the challenge. To make progress toward a solution, that issue needs to be addressed. But, if one is alone, the ? oftentimes doesn’t get asked. It is easy for an individual to miss an important factor. Indeed, the power of a collaboration is that at least one of the parties to the collaboration won’t miss the ? and will voice the question! Remember the expression: “Two heads are better than one.”  

Besides solving the challenge, there are three benefits to working collaboratively:

  1. Clarifying one’s ideas: During the discourse, collaborators help to clarify, refine and alter one’s initial ideas.
  2. Receiving new ideas: In listening to others in a collaboration, one usually sees/hears something new.
  3. Generating new ideas: In the cycles of suggesting and repairing, new ideas are created. In the act of conversing, new ideas are generated that neither individual started with. Very exciting!

Now, at the start of school in September, it has been our experience that students do not know how to engage in a productive collaborative conversation. Invariably, we will hear one individual, supposedly engaged in collaboration, say, “That’s a stupid idea.” Definitely a buzz killer. But with instruction and technological scaffolding students can learn how to be good collaborators. In April, one won’t hear, “That’s a stupid idea.” (Well, sometimes we have seen boys behave like the mules in the aforementioned picture. But let’s leave that un-PC statement for another post.)

Given how potent synchronous collaboration can be, it is surprising that more attention isn’t paid to helping students develop good collaboration skills. <Cue the trumpets.> Well, if we have piqued your curiosity and you want to explore integrating synchronous collaboration into your classroom, have we got some free apps — and blogs posts (post0, post1, post2, post3) and a teacher-co-authored article — for you!!

Our collabrified iOS iPad apps are the following:

  • Co.Write is a very vanilla text editor, but absolutely appropriate for the primary grades.
  • Co.KWL supports the core KWL chart strategy — collaboratively! Get the whole class to contribute!
  • Co.Map offers vanilla concept-mapping — that’s not a bug, that’s a feature! Again, get the entire class to join into a collaboration session.

We also have Co.WriteCo.KWL and Co.Map for Android tablets, and you can find a manual for all the apps here.

And yes, we changed the apps’ names from WeX to Co.X. Why? We were about to be sued. That, too, is a post for another day!

By March 30th, the iOS and Android apps will interoperate so that one child can be on an iPad and one on an Android tablet, both working on the same KWL chart, concept map or text document. Co.Sketch is coming April 15 and we are working on interoperable versions of the apps for Chromebooks, Mac and Windows. 

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at