Who Does What? Group Work with New Ed Tech

"There are no competitors, only collaborators."  I heard this phrase at a workshop a couple of years ago, and it really resonated with me.  It was meant in the context of small business development, but I think it rings true in the classroom as well.  Collaboration is a vital part of 21st century learning.  It's part of the effort to "rebrand" STEM education so that it's appealing to female learners.  It seems to go hand in hand with social media and movements to create global learning communities.  Hey, who doesn't like the idea of students exploring together, filling in gaps in knowledge and skill for one another, encouraging and challenging one another?

In theory, it's great, but anyone who's ever been part of a group project or has asked their students to do one knows that it rarely runs as smoothly as it should.  Here are some potential pitfalls:

  • The division of labour is rarely equal.  In many cases, someone does the lion's share of the work, and someone else takes equal credit while doing less.
  • Similarly, the decision-making process rarely functions on an egalitarian basis.  Someone takes over and gets far more say in what's done than others.  This can be quite discouraging for quiet students who aren't comfortable voicing their thoughts, but also in cases where there are two or more "alphas" jockeying for position as leader.
  • No two students learn in the same way.  Even if a teacher makes efforts to pair up students with similar learning styles, it's never a perfect fit, and who says it's better for birds of a feather to flock together in the first place?
  • Even with mature learners, personality conflicts arise.  True, we want learners of all ages to "learn to get along" with others, but it would be naive to think that clashes don't affect the quality of work produced.
  • There are time constraints involved in group work, just like any other type of work.  Those involved not only have to complete tasks in the time allotted, but also have to learn to function as a cohesive unit.

Despite all of these challenges, it's still not preferable to do away with group work.  The thought of having learners working in individual pods, missing out on the vital social aspects of education, is downright unpalatable to most educators.  How can emerging educational technology be used as a tool to mitigate the difficulties of collaborative learning?

  • It should allow for teachers to become part of groups, if only as silent partners or facilitators.  A well-designed learning system or assistive device ought to make room for continuous contact with educators.
  • It should encourage improved organization, time management, and communication among group members.  This doesn't guarantee that everyone involved will roll up their sleeves and dig in enthusiastically, but it at least provides the means to become more invested.
  • It should, in some capacity, take snapshots of who is doing what, and when.  Qualitative and quantitative records of participation and productivity don't form the whole picture, but they can serve as a valuable touchstone when doing assessment and evaluation.
  • It should make it possible for a variety of learning styles to be accommodated.  The visual learner, the auditory learner and the verbal learner should be able to interact in a way that makes use of all of their collective intelligence in a group project.
  • It should allow learners to take a step back and evaluate themselves, as well as their peers in a group situation, and on a regular basis.
  • It should help to redefine what a group project is.  Who says that there can't be parts that are done individually and other parts that are done together?  Who says that a group can't be put together from classrooms in different schools, possibly even in different countries?

Will there ever come a time when working together on a project means guaranteed equal division of work and harmony among group members?  Probably not, but if used properly, new educational technology can help to take some of the wrinkles out of learning collaboratively.  In the end, there are just too many valuable skills to be gained from group work to abandon it.

Amy Leask is VP of Enable Education and Communications Manager of Infinite Octopus.