iCollaborate: making the most of collaborative learning in an iPad classroom?

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I started my teaching career at an international school in Egypt. This school had a very structured curriculum and used standardized testing very often. I learned a lot from working there, I have to admit. But one thing I found rather displeasing about the curriculum was that it only encouraged and facilitated individual learning. There weren’t many opportunities for group work or collaborative learning.

When I moved to Australia, I took up a job at an IB school in Melbourne. I am still working there as an MYP Performing Arts, English/ESL and Humanities teacher. I noticed that some teachers shy away from group work. To be fair, group work does pose challenges that may not necessarily be present in individual tasks. One of the biggest challenges of group work is how to assess each student’s contribution to the final product.

I believe the benefits of collaborative learning far outweigh the challenges (I recommend reading this article to find out more about the benefits of collaborative learning and how to make the most of it). I also believe that, when utilized correctly, mobile technologies (like the iPad) can facilitate collaborative learning and make it easier to assess, as well as document evidence of every step of the learning process.

This it what I do in my classroom to make the most of a collaborative learning process that incorporates the iPad (i.e. to minimize distractions, maximize group engagement in the collaborative process, and to manage the classroom more effectively):

    1- Use a ‘group work log’ on Google Forms: I divide my class into ‘theatre companies’ which is the fancy name I give to the groups. Before every task, I create copies of this google form, one copy per theatre company/group, and I share the URL with them (or give them QR codes). The students are required to fill out this group-work log after every lesson spent on the task (for example, if the task is spanned over three lessons, then each group member has to have submitted three entries). The advantage is that all entries have a date/time stamp, and this form allows the documentation and evaluation of, and reflection on, every step of the collaborative learning process.

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    2- Break the task into mini-tasks or steps and assign each student a mini-task/step: this is very similar to assigning group roles, such as group encourager, group reader, group writer etc… I have found that breaking the task into steps and assigning each student a step (or allowing them to divide the steps between them) gives the students more ownership over their part of the process. These mini-tasks can be independent of each other or built on one another. For example, in a drama assessment task, I would ask the group to give each member the responsibility of documenting evidence of a different part of the drama process: one member is responsible for documenting brainstorms, another for documenting the script-writing process, another for documenting the storyboarding phase, another for documenting the rehearsal phase etc… I would normally setup and use a shared notebook with the students on Evernote to help with this process of documentation. It is important to mention and explain to the students that even though each student is responsible for documenting evidence of each step of the process, they still have to all work together and collaborate through all steps. Here’s a screenshot of an Evernote portfolio/shared-notebook for students to document evidence of each step of the drama process.

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    3- Allow one-iPad-at-a-time per group: one of the most common ways of assessing group work and documenting evidence is guided and systematic teacher observation. However, in a class full of 25 students, and each on their own iPad, this might be difficult. I prefer to allow only one group member on an iPad at-a-time, while the others are using some other medium to continue with their work. This means I only observe 4-5 students on iPads at-a-time (as I usually have 4-5 theatre companies per class). For example, maybe in the brainstorming phase, the group could draw a mind map on poster paper, while one group member copies it into their iPad on a brainstorming app (here are two examples, one involving a google form, and another involving a typewith.me pad). To make my observations more meaningful, I often use a quick checklist of the ‘behaviors and attitudes to group-work‘ (which have been taught in the classroom) to guide my observations, and also to keep a record of them (I have the checklist as a picture in my camera roll and I just import it into ‘Skitch‘, which syncs automatically with Evernote). You might decide to share the checklist with the observed student/s but I prefer to just conference with them quietly and give them oral feedback based on my observations.

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    4- Ask students to document the group-work process using various forms of media: I always tell my students “it’s all about the evidence”. Luckily, the iPad is a camera, voice recorder, interactive whiteboard (or can be) and typewriter all rolled into one device. I always encourage the students to take photos/screenshots of their group work as documentation, record audio notes of their group discussions, create screencasts of their group brainstorms, take video footage of their rehearsals, or even jot down simple anecdotes of group work. I also encourage them to vary the forms of evidence and choose that which caters the most to their preferred learning style. This evidence can all be added to one note in their shared notebook, which they can call “evidence of group work” or anything similar.

    5- Emphasize the process more than the product: collaborative learning should be more about the process of learning and working together, as opposed to creating a finished product to submit to the teacher. I prefer incorporating student reflection and student self-assessment during every phase/step of the process, as opposed to just using a rubric to assess a final product that the students submit. I also constantly remind my students that we learn a lot from the process itself, and that their main aim should not just be to finish and submit a finished product.

How do you make the most of group work in your iPad classrooms? Please feel free to share your ideas, tips, experiences and suggestions in the comments below. Happy iCollaborating!

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6 thoughts on “iCollaborate: making the most of collaborative learning in an iPad classroom?

  1. I think some of the processes you describe fit perfectly into the Johnson’s 5 elements of cooperative learning.
    We have a focus on collaborative learning at my school, so we start with cooperative learning to give students to skills, strategies and guidelines to work well in groups before allowing them the freedom to collaborate by themselves.
    Great points made about accountability and processes!

  2. Not sure if my first comment posted? If it did feel free to delete this second attempt!!
    Great accountability and process ideas. They fit really well with the Johnson’s 5 elements of Cooperative Learning which provides students with the skills, strategies and guidelines to work well with groups.

  3. Pingback: iCollaborate: making the most of collaborative learning in an iPad classroom? « harmonteach

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