Students Benefit From Collaborative Learning in the Classroom
Top-down management and 9-to-5 workdays are yesterdays news. Todays anytime-anyplace work environment demands sophisticated communication skills, a flair for teamwork, respect for diversity, and a talent for ad hoc decision-making. Further, many companies have a global presence and a distributed work environment.
To be successful, young people need these collaborative school-to-work skills. However, these skills are not intuitive. Collaborative learning must be taught, and the Internet can be a remarkable teaching tool.
When educators think about the Internet, they tend to emphasize its usefulness for research, but they overlook its role in collaborative learning. It can encourage students to work together, form partnerships with their community, and use their creativity to communicate with and inform others from around the world.
Early on, as a Title I middle school teacher, I saw the impact that shared learning had on my students. Kids who became bored when they were merely working for the teacher and for grades became highly motivated when they could share ideas with their peers.
Kids are naturally social creatures who love to pass notes and talk on the phone. What some educators dismiss as a lack of concentration can be a powerful learning tool. How, I wondered, do you transform that sociability and testing of new ideas into formal learning outcomes? As early as 1983, I felt I might find an answer if not the answer in the fledging online world.
Teachers and parents have always understood that hanging a childs picture or essay on the wall is pleasurable and motivational for that child. But online communication adds a dramatic new dimension.
Publishing your own work on the Web for a global audience is motivational, and therefore educational. When this type of shared learning became available, children began to use more formal language in their writing. Their dictionary skills improved as they sought to be understood and to make a good impression.
Based on our initial classroom experiences, my partner, Al Rogers, and I created the Free Educational Mail Network (FrEdMail) in 1984, a distributed education network dedicated to online collaborative learning and teacher support services. This grassroots effort to connect classrooms around the world grew rapidly and eventually became the Global Schoolhouse, which is now part of Lightspan.com.
CyberFair, a five-year-old creation of the Global Schoolhouse, is a collaborative learning resource. As a model for what happens in the modern, high-tech workplace, CyberFair can more than hold its own.
CyberFair is one of the largest technology-based K-12 student contests on the planet. The competition inspires educators and their students to share and unite by exploring the unique features of their own communities and showcasing them on the Web. In publishing a Web story, students become ambassadors for their communities by conducting research, working with community members, and using technology tools to display what they have learned.
This years event drew 50,000 students from 500 schools in 24 countries. First-time participants included Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia and Kyrgyzstan. Nearly two hundred schools from Taiwan submitted projects in both English and Chinese.
Even the competition judging took place online, as students reviewed the projects of other schools and whittled down the list of semifinalists to 40 entries. Nine international judges made the final decision.
Top winners included students in Singapore who aimed to dispel stereotyped views of the elderly and to demonstrate that elderly people are actually a healthy and energetic bunch. Students in England created a virtual tour of Skimpton castle, and students in Vermont showcased the young musicians and artists in their community.
CyberFair provides a safe environment for students to investigate, experiment and acquire project management skills. In many ways, it simulates the collaborative work environment youll find at some of the worlds most successful firms and startups. You wont find anything that even comes close to it in a traditional classroom setting.
The New Workplace Realities
Information Sharing: Historically, knowledge equaled power, and it tended to be highly centralized. Organizations worked on a need-to-know basis, and most individuals tended to know very little.
Todays innovative companies thrive on the creation of new ideas and information sharing, diversity, and a less hierarchical structure. The best and the brightest employees share their knowledge with their colleagues.
But bombarding individuals with junk e-mail is not to be confused with information sharing or collaborative learning. Too much communication can be more oppressive than too little. It takes training to become a sophisticated business communicator. Collaborative online projects teach children to compare and assess information, to distinguish between valuable facts and trivial gossip.
More importantly, International Schools CyberFair creates a forum where schools can demonstrate what the students have learned, and teachers can share their best practices on a worldwide basis. Schoolchildren actually contribute valuable intellectual content to the global Internet library as they publish the results of their research on the Web.
Although sharing information is the mantra at many top companies, the reality is that existing corporate cultures sometimes resist such changes. Projects like CyberFair nurture collaborative behavior, and allow young people to try team-building skills in an unthreatening environment. As they acquire these skills, they also develop the habit of sharing at an early age.
Routine Work Is Vanishing: Creative work is replacing rote jobs, and will continue to do so. Now that computers are doing the routine calculations, its up to people to do the critical thinking. The implication for education is that it must switch from teaching merely a body of facts to teaching imagination and creativity.
Globalization: At a time when the smallest local business is expected to think and act globally, programs like CyberFair encourage students to broaden their global knowledge. Map resources help students locate and learn about cities around the world. International Conversion resources may be used to convert currency, time and measurement, and to assist in translating language.
Collaborative learning skills can be taught through cross-curricular activities such as online adventures for social studies, English, or biology classes. With Internet sites such as Lightspan.com, ClassroomConnect.com and others, teachers can easily access online projects for classroom team building and information sharing. Its time to train young students on collaborative school-to-work skills. And the Internet is standing by as an extraordinary teaching platform.
By Yvonne Andres, co-founder of The Global Schoolhouse and VP of Internet learning programs at Lightspan.
San Diego, CA
This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2000 issue of THE Journal.