Having started compulsory school in Sweden in 1969 (curriculum LGr69 = Läroplan för Grundskolan 1969), I have a deeply ingrained distrust in anything remotely like groupwork. Really good idea on the whole, mostly really badly managed in reality. I wonder whether the term “collaborative learning” existed in 1969? Most students, I believe also those not subjected to LGr69 at an early stage, dislike groupwork, and for a number of good reasons; a perceived asymmetry in level of commitment, effort and quality of individual contributions, lack of shared goals and an imbalance between individual and collective grades. These reasons are mentioned in Capdeferro & Romero’s paper about online learners (2012), but I believe the very same irritants are applicable to any campus course.
Along the way I started working as a teacher in a PBL-setting and got interested in life in tutorial groups. The role of the tutor in such groups varies to a large extent from the traditional teacher role, and as I found this challenging I went about learning more about group dynamics to improve my skills in managing the groups. The difference between what I remember from the groupwork of my school days and PBL lies in the surrounding framework and the managerial skills of the tutors; a firm structure of a course, specified intended learning outcomes, rules about how to conduct the activities in the group and at the onset of the course an active tutor to guide students.
The collaboration that goes on in a PBL-group is supposed to emulate the natural problem-solving process in real life workplaces (e.g. clinical work in a hospital), but is a meticulously fabricated construction no matter how you look at it. A bit like practising swimming strokes out of the water, but probably as good as it gets.
In a PBL-group there are four levels or aspects of the work that can be observed: content of subject matter, working method, group dynamics (process) and metacognition. When you set about working as a tutor, the first thing you worry about is whether the students will cover the intended material and learn according to plan. To guide the work there are intended learning outcomes and for the tutor (usually) a tutor guide. When you’re satisfied that will come out about right, your next worry is if the group is working according to the set rules, i.e. the problem solving process. For that you have the “Seven Jump” describing the process. The group process or dynamics is the next issue to be addressed. For this, each newly-formed group is requested to draw up a contract for their prospective work. The contract is then used for evaluation after (some) group sessions. Lastly, there is the question of metacognition. This is addressed by asking questions like “How are we doing with this group work?” or “Could we do this more efficiently?”.
The work in the PBL group in the FDOL course has been less structured, but the four levels described above have been on my mind at times. The intended learning outcomes and tasks are described under each topic and the COOL FISh design points out the “how”. Each group participant assumes responsibility for his or her own work and outcome, and also for contributing to the joint effort. The metacognitive reflective part has been done partly individually, partly in the group.
In this FDOL course the real collaboration started after I’d gotten over the initial obstacles and was starting to find my way around the different tools and spaces. To be able to collaborate you need to truly feel you can contribute towards the shared work and not feel you are held back by technicalities, which is something to consider when choosing tools for educational purposes.