Collaborative learning is the act of distributing the responsibility of learning to the students. Despite that this instructional method has been widely researched and advocated throughout the professional and serious academic literature, the form of teaching is also enriching the genre of the old light bulb joke:
Q: How many collaborative learning teachers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: It’s really not important that the light bulb gets changed, or that the correct way to change the light bulb is communicated. What’s important is that everyone participates in the process of discovering the light bulb.
Is this a truthful representation of collaborative learning? Let’s go back to the initial concept: collaborative learning is an educational approach to teaching and learning that involves groups of learners working together to solve a problem, complete a task, or create a product.
According to the above concept, the ultimate aim of collaborative learning is to achieve a common group learning goal. With the metaphor of the light bulb, if changing the light bulb refers to the purpose of group learning, then everybody involved is expected to be able to change the bulb. Discussing and finding solutions, i.e. exploring so-called correct ways to change the bulb are the central tasks of group work. However, what results when everyone participates in the process of discovering the light bulb, and yet none of them is able to change it? This may be mostly because the group leader or the teacher fails to design an effective learning environment in which each member of a learning group can achieve his/her own personal goal(s) through the interaction, while retaining the common goal of the whole group.
Many research studies have been done on how to create and support an appropriate collaborative learning environment, especially in face-to-face classroom situations. For example, student groups should be small, usually consisting of two to six members, and grouping is heterogeneous with respect to student characteristics, i.e., a good mix of students is selected per group. Teachers should explain the assignment, answer questions before starting a session to eliminate any confusion, and monitor student progress and their percentage of on-task work, etc.
In today’s online learning environment, although a number of software are capable of supporting collaborative learning activities, such as Wikis, Facebook and Twitter, some online learners are still frustrated with their collaborative learning experiences. It is more challenging, without question, for instructional designers and teachers to make collaborative learning successful. For example, how do we engage students to post meaningful threads on discussion boards, and how do we motivate inactive students? And how do we facilitate their group online activities in general? In face-to-face situations, even though learners may seem to be taking the lead in the classroom, it is the educator who actually holds the reins. How can we achieve something similar in the online environment?
In sum, to promote collaborative learning, teachers and faculty must overcome challenges in designing effective learning environments—including online environments—in which students learn and work toward a common goal with peer group facilitation. Considering the nature of collaborative learning, perhaps a better question to address the joke, in closing, might be, “how can we change the light bulb together?”