We seem to have realised, at last, that one cannot simply provide online collaborative technology to students and expect them to collaborate. (One of the most interesting findings from the JISC Great Expectations survey was that although young people may be experienced in social networking technology, on arrival at university they struggle to see how it can be used in learning.) So how should one introduce online collaborative work to students? What kinds of scaffolding and support do beginning students need?
I've just come across a paper (unfortunately it doesn't seem to be available online) by Andy Northedge, author of The Good Study Guide, describing how he and colleagues designed "a fail-safe online group project work environment" for students on an entry level Open University course in health and social care (KZX100). A high degree of structuring to tasks, supported by custom online software, meant that after an initial set-up stage student teams could work largely independently with little teacher support. Satisfaction levels were high, and - most remarkably - students were actually interested in each others' work. (This happens much more rarely than teachers suppose!)
The key features of the learning design were as follows.
(1) A highly structured team set-up stage. This addressed the critical issue for all collaborative work: that students need to be doing their work at roughly the same time - not trivial to arrange with distance learning students, for whom flexibility of study is often critical. Students began by indicating their availability during a six-week period, after which their tutor divided them into teams who could work on the project during the same two-week block. A coordinator in each team then obtained students' commitment to precise start and end dates. Importantly, students received credit for tasks in this stage, even before actually doing any work on their project, "to stimulate them to participate in a timely way and to commit to the team enterprise". (Without the custom software, other courses could do some of these tasks on Doodle.com - a free public web application for event scheduling.)
(2) Visible time targets for project milestones. These were initially generated by the software, from the start and end dates, but could then be adjusted by coordinators, allowing teams to re-plan their time strategy.
(3) An interface which rendered each student's work visible to other members of their team. Each student had first to find three websites relevant to their chosen concern and review them using an online proforma, and then to review two high-rated and two low-rated websites found by other students. The software displayed students' review of the same website in parallel columns, as well as a "hit parade" of websites in rank order.
(4) Discussion to facilitate the transition from exploration to production. After reviewing the websites, the students used an online forum to discuss six evaluation criteria (breadth, accessibility, trustworthiness, etc), drawing on their experience, and also working towards the joint report which they would next be writing.
(5) Individual authorship of discrete parts of the joint product. Each student wrote a separate section of the final report, summarising the team's discussion of one of the six evaluation criteria. The software only allowed them to work on their own section (or sections), but reading and suggesting improvements to other sections was encouraged.
(6) Assessment not of team product ("to reduce strain on team relations"), but of individual reflective essay on what has been learned from the project.
Although the course has now been superceded, the learning design remains valid. Like the InterLoc tool for structuring online discussion, this is an example of how structure and constraints on action can be useful in a teaching environment, as scaffolding to help students attain a level they would have found it difficult to reach on their own - in contradiction to the freedom ethos of Web 2.0.
(The full reference of the paper: Northedge A, 2006. Designing a fail-safe online group project work environment, Proceedings of International Conference on e-Learning: Learning Theories vs. Technologies, 14–16 December, 2006, Ramkhamhaeng University, Thailand, pp 12.1-7)