Online collaboration offers learners new opportunities. Alistair McNaught explores the inclusion pros and cons. There are many pros…
‘Collaborative’ is not new; but it’s better now
Collaborative approaches have been around since the first hunter-gatherer apprentices worked together to net birds on the marshy shores of Doggerland. But digital technologies have brought new opportunities. Learners and educators can interact together, with others and with a wide range of content.
Millennials have grown up with the Internet. They may have unique attitudes and experiences that particularly suit them for collaborative learning (Karakas, Manisaligil and Sarigollu 2015). And research suggests online discussions are often “more ‘thoughtful,’ more reasoned, and drew evidence from other sources …” (Garrison 2006).
How does collaboration support inclusion?
Face to face discussion requires “verbal agility, spontaneity and confidence to express oneself in a group setting” (Garrison 2006). Not all students have this. Students with communication difficulties, mobility difficulties, social anxiety or mental health issues can find online collaborative activities less stressful. McDowell (2015) found online collaboration empowered student with Asperger’s syndrome to not only participate in group work but to demonstrate higher levels of positive collaboration “than neurotypical peers”. Specialist colleges have reported autistic students joining in discussions when they could contribute via technology.
A key benefit of asynchronous collaboration is the ability for students to respond in their own time, at their own pace. They can use whatever assistive technologies they need. Depending on the collaboration tool, they may even respond with their own preferred media and formats.
So what could go wrong?
As in most technology fields, digital approaches can present barriers if
- software design has failed to take accessibility into account. It may lack accessibility features, may not interoperate with assistive technologies or both.
- the users are not aware of the accessibility features that exist in the software. Or they don’t know about tools they could use to support them.
- the task design fails to take account of students with accessibility needs.
Software design can be hugely variable. Before settling on a collaborative tool take time to search for its accessibility features. See if the tool has a rating on the web2access website. Or check it using their tests. Partially accessible tools may not present problems if you know the needs of your learners. But be cautious of using partially accessible tools with large groups or unknown participants (for example a MOOC). Involve your learners in tool choices, especially if you know learners with disabilities.
Make sure students are aware of personalisation options in the tool (eg change colours or font size). Make sure they know about browser plug-ins that might help them. For example text-to-speech and navigation by headings may be useful for making sense of long discussion lists.
Make sure you design the task to maximise focus, support and engagement. For example, ensure assessment criteria are explicit in advance. Clarify the purpose and value of the tasks. MacCallum (1994) found that collaborative tasks prioritising performance goals had negative effects. They encouraged anxiety, withdrawal and a concentration on surface learning. By focusing tasks on non-competitive learning and deep processing, stress levels reduce.
It may be tempting to imagine collaborative learning gives tutors an easy time but it doesn’t. Garrison and Anderson (2003 – scanned pdf image) stressed that building a community of enquiry requires a strong “teaching presence” as well as building a “social presence” and “cognitive presence”. Facilitation, moderation and scaffolding are very important for students, especially those lacking confidence or struggling to keep up. Finally, realistic timescales are important. Garrison (2006) warns that if the workload is too heavy students “revert to survival mode to individually assimilate as much content as required to pass the exam”. This negates any deep or meaningful enquiry.
I’ll give the last word to Redmond and Locke (2006) who advise that “Being pro-active and flexible in planning, anticipating potential challenges and developing clear communication among the stakeholders are critical elements to the life and longevity of this type of work.”
In fact, it’s a really neat description of inclusive teaching and learning.