eSN Special Report: Small-group collaboration

eSNSpecialReportSmallGroupCollaborationEducators are increasingly seeing the value of having students collaborate in small groups on classroom projects—and whether such projects involve producing a written or multimedia presentation, solving a math problem, or creating a video, technology can facilitate the group process.

With businesses seeking employees able to work in teams and collaborate on projects, more educators are looking for ways to incorporate these skills into the learning process.

“Everyone needs to be able to collaborate in a group, because that’s how things are done in the real world. No one sits alone and works by themselves any more,” said Stan Silverman, director of technology-based learning systems at the New York Institute of Technology.

Some educators believe students gain a deeper understanding when they participate in group projects.

Lance Sutton, a teacher at Westview Elementary School in Goose Creek, S.C., said: “When a teacher lectures to them, they forget; when you have kids help design something, they will remember for a lifetime.”

Sutton said collaboration is “a more positive way of teaching” and addresses the needs of students who learn best in different ways, such as those who are visual learners or auditory learners. He uses an interactive whiteboard and Interwrite Workspace software from eInstruction to facilitate small-group instruction with his fifth-graders.

In one example of a recent collaborate exercise, he divided his class into three groups and asked each group to list the positive and negative aspects of the transcontinental railroad. Students were to talk about why they made certain choices and refine their ideas as a group.

Jason Williams, chair of the math department at Americus Sumter County High School in Americus, Ga., believes students “gain ownership of their learning” when they are asked to solve a problem collaboratively.

He often forms his students into groups and has them solve math problems—such as finding eight numbers with certain standard deviations—using the Interwrite Mobi tablets from eInstruction, which were designed specifically to support collaborative learning.

Technology-supported collaboration is used in classrooms throughout the Jefferson County, Colo., school district, which has adopted the national technology standards issued by the International Society for Technology in Education, says John Canuel, executive director of educational technology services. The standards call for students to “use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.”

In elementary schools, Canuel notes, a group of three to five students might work on a SMART Board, which the teacher has loaded with a certain activity, such as a math exercise involving making change using coins and dollar bills in the form of “large virtual manipulatives.” At the same time, the other students in the class might be working on laptops or with pencil and paper or meeting with the teacher.

Groups of older students often collaborate on a wiki, journal, or blog using laptops connected to the same document through Google Apps, he says. The district has its own domain, so the students are only able to access protected material. In high schools, groups of four or five students might collaborate on an assignment and share resources using the Blackboard learning-management system.

To help teachers become more comfortable with collaborative learning, all teacher professional development in Jefferson County takes place online, and teachers take part in online collaborative work groups.

Mini-projectors promote collaboration

“No one person can cover nearly as much information or get as many views and opinions as a group working together to develop a common understanding,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for academic and technology services in Plano, Texas.

Hirsch is interested in using mini-projectors, like those produced by BenQ, to promote collaborative learning and is planning to pilot them with eighth-graders at Robinson Middle School.

The idea is to have four or five students, already equipped with netbooks, collaborating on an assignment, with all of them able to view projected images—a web site, data from a spreadsheet, or other material—on a classroom wall without having to disrupt the rest of the class, Hirsch says.

Laura Ascione

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