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Editorial: Collaborative Learning on the Web

Collaborative learning on the web (aka networked collaborative learning) can be described as:

the bringing together of learners via personal computers linked to the Internet, with a focus on them working as a learning community, sharing resources, knowledge, experience and responsibility through reciprocal collaborative learning (McConnell, 1999b: 233)

It can be further argued that:

we are experiencing a paradigm shift at various levels in our thinking about learning. For example, there is a shift from conventional, second generation distance learning towards virtual distance learning. Face-to-face teaching and learning on campus is now also incorporating some forms of networked learning, freeing staff and learners to work at times which suit them and to use resources, and methods of working together, that were not possible a few years ago (McConnell, 1999a: 178).

This editorial addresses the question of the extent to which traditional research-led universities are ready for collaborative learning on the web.

The readiness of a traditional research-led university for implementing ICT-based learning and teaching is a pivotal point in the embedding of networked collaborative learning approaches. Analysis of the issues and attitudes, stakeholders and strategies is likely to reveal a variety of perceptions and understandings of what collaborative learning on the web would/can actually involve and how it might influence learning and teaching now and in the future in higher education. Often progress is held back not by infrastructure constraints although there are clearly concerns here too, but on capacity-building that invokes factors like motivation, resources, skills.

In a study at the University of Sheffield, analysis included an examination of a number of factors relevant to a discussion of institutional readiness for networked collaborative learning (Preparing for Networked Collaborative Learning: An Institutional View). Purposes and motivations for being interested in networked learning included (i) provision of supplementary material/resources (ii) providing greater accessibility and widening participation (iii) interest in new flexible methods of teaching both on and off-campus (iv) developing new courses (v) increased access to student numbers via distance learning. Current implementations range from (i) web sites and information sources, (ii) tutorials and other electronic teaching materials, (iii) student publishing and discussions via web boards, and (iv) e-mail communication with students.

The Sheffield study concludes with:

"In innovation terms, the picture which emerges of the development of networked learning at the university is one of early unroutinised development. The university is largely at the initiation stage (…), with some evidence of implementation. Informal practice has yet to be turned into formal procedure. An organising vision or model of what the university wishes to achieve in this area has yet to be articulated, at least to the wider university community. Once this vision is articulated, it is recognised that implementation strategies need to be drawn up in key areas affecting take up e.g. information technology, learning & teaching and staff development. "(Foster et al, 1999)

In building the capacity for collaborative learning on the web at Warwick, the University of Warwick is embarking on an E-Learning Strategy, as part of the overarching E-Strategy. Initial work involves:

  • 'Visioning' examining current practice, attitudes and educational values
  • 'Evaluation' of approaches and tools for the provision of web-based learning environments
  • 'Scoping' the development of an E-Learning web site that joins together guidance, practice and expertise from across the University.

In view of the above first steps, this issue of Interactions, is not a vehicle for showing institution-wide approaches to collaborative learning on the web at Warwick. On the other hand, collaborative learning on the web is highly evident in the large array of courses that have been implemented and evaluated in departments that make use of the web for sharing of resources and discussion - see the compilation of Warwick teaching developments from past issues.

The first article is a paper from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It draws on a music master class based on an established face-to-face pedagogical model that supports reflective, collaborative learning practices. It shows how this model can be reinterpreted and extended within the context of online learning communities exploring the skills of user interface design.

The second article is a case study from the implementation and evaluation of a TELRI-supported project to develop a web-based learning environment for the teaching of bioinformatics. The course design highlights a collaborative learning approach centred on the planning and undertaking of a piece of research - a problem to solve. The higher order learning capabilities and subject based techniques that the course intends to develop are a key feature of the objectives in piloting this approach.

The third article is an academic's perspective of integrating collaborative learning on the web as a means of coping with increasing student numbers. It outlines strategies for survival and a means to motivate and engage students in the learning process. The article looks at ways in which small learning communities can be created within large practical classes in a biology curriculum. Approaches described include a virtual resources room, online teaching and learning materials, communication and discussion tools.

The Interactions section on Innovation in this issue focuses on new proposals from Warwick departments for projects in the fourth phase of the Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning (FDTL4), as well as presenting outcomes emerging from two national projects led at Warwick.

The Resources and Links section provide access to a range of further information and materials on the theme of Collaborative Learning on the Web. Updates and new local developments for this term are provided in the News section.

Dr Jay Dempster
Head of Educational Technology
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 76524670
Fax: 024 76572736


Foster, J., Bowskill, N., Lally, V. & McConnell, D. (1999) Preparing for Networked Collaborative Learning: An Institutional View, Paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, Lahti, Finland 22-25 September 1999. Education

McConnell, D. (1999a). Guest editorial: networked learning [Special issue on networked learning], Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15 (3), 177-178.

McConnell, D. (1999b). Examining a collaborative assessment process in networked lifelong learning, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 15 (3), 232-243.

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