I have been interested in collaborative learning and communities of practice for a number of years, and have posted here several times already on some of the research projects we have been undertaking in this space.
One area that we are working in currently is that of contributing student pedagogy (CSP) – a social constructivist approach whereby students produce outcomes that are used in the learning of other students, and the outcomes are explicitly assessed for their learning potential (amongst other aspects). To participate in a CSP activity, students must be at an appropriate stage where they can appreciate and integrate information generated by other students – they must be mature enough to recognise that there are multiple sources of knowledge that each have validity, and then – in advanced CSP activities – be able to successfully integrate, prioritise and classify these sources of information. What we have been working on is a more explicit model for scaffolding these kinds of activities through the explicit placement of activities (or courses) along a spectrum guided by Perry’s learning models, and then guidance in the use of appropriate roles to help facilitate the activity.
One interesting paper that I came across when reading on this topic was “I think it’s better if those who know the area decide about it” by Mattias Wiggberg, which looked at factors that affect students perception of other student’s success and expertise, and identified that perceived confidence led to increased influence in collaborative work. This study identified that the most common factors that led to perceived competence were the presumption of skill based on commentary including – most importantly – self commentary, or position within the collaboration, or demonstrated skill, either prior to the current collaboration (and perhaps unrelated) or within the current collaboration. The sense of student identity is crucial not only to a student’s own perception of their worth, but to others, and the way that others will engage with them during a collaboration.
A comment during the question time for Jacquie McDonald’s talk at the HERDSA conference on online communities of practice made me think about all of this from a different angle. This discussion related to Etienne Wenger’s work on communities of practice, and that the benefits of a community of practice included not only the development of discipline expertise, but also the development of an identity. This sense of identity is formed in part through their relationship and interactions with the community, I.e. that “I am the person who contributes this to the community, while others contribute these other aspects”.
This got me thinking that the careful facilitation of collaboration is even more important than I had previously considered. I had formed the argument that it is not sufficient to deem a collaboration successful because it generates new knowledge through collaborative exchange, but that we must also consider the roles undertaken within the community or collaboration to ensure that students develop the range of collaboration skills needed for a successful collaboration. The assessment of a collaboration should not focus solely on the outcomes, but also on the exchange of roles, and whether there is whole of group contribution to the knowledge generation. However, in the light of the comments today, we must also consider the roles undertaken within the collaboration and whether they provide sufficient space for all students to develop an identity within that community that will assist them in later learning, and with their own, and others, perception of themselves as contributors. This sense of identity, and feeling that they have a place within the community, is an essential aspect of addressing transition and confidence concerns in new students.