!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Collaborative Learning

Friday, October 13, 2006

Collaborative Learning

A few years ago, when he was teaching at the University of Colorado's Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, Eric Scharff teamed up with Gerhard Fischer, a professor of computer science, to offer a course structured as an experiment in collaborative learning.1

More specifically, Scharff wanted to see how well the principles underlying creation of open source software could be translated to a classroom setting in which students worked on non-software projects. The open source principles Scharff adapted to his classroom experiment were:
  • Participants engage in personally meaningful activities. Without the personal meaning, there would be little motivation, in an open source context, to lend a hand to the collective effort.

  • Intrinsic motivation is important for inducing participation.

  • When the problem is one of complex design, the process of creating a solution is open-ended — there is no single "right answer" — and learning "involves the continuous activities of framing and solving problems."

  • The community needs to produce something concrete — e.g., computer code — in order for everyone to have something shared to reflect upon as they pursue the problem-solving process.

  • Collaborative technologies are used extensively. As is true at a growing number of businesses, Scharff found that wiki software was valuable as a communications tool.

  • Contributions are incremental and continuously integrated.
Based on what he already knew about open source projects and practices, Scharff adopted several features for his course:
  • Students engaged in projects of their own design in order to ensure that the projects provided the motivation of being personally meaningful.

  • Teams created their own work assignments.

  • Scharff served as project leader "to provide some centralized integration of decentralized development, resolve disputes between members, and help members find direction." Individual teams were also welcome to choose leaders for themselves.

  • The teams presented frequent, incremental deliverables. Setting deadlines for the deliverables proved an important goad to ensuring teams made good-quality progress in their work. The production of each interim deliverable became the occasion for the team to "observe its work, reflect on it, and refine it."

  • Final deliverables were "open," i.e., they were structured in a way that would enable others to build on them in the future.
In summarizing the lessons he took away from his experiment in collaborative learning, Scharff emphasized the importance of collaborative technology (principally, a wiki), while noting that participants preferred discussion at face-to-face meetings when feasible.

Extrapolating to business training, we can surmise that the open source model is valuable for action learning activities, with the caveat that if participants can be brought together for meetings, they should be.

1 The 2001 paper Eric Scharff wrote about the course, "Applying Open Source Principles to Collaborative Learning Environments," is hard to access on the Internet, but you may be able to read it by searching for it on Google, and then accessing a cached version.


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