Collaborative Learning And Mobile Technology

Last week I researched the idea of digital story telling or the creation of digital narratives as a method of fostering motivation, engagement, and a sense of ownership in students. One theme that came up in several of the articles I referenced was collaboration. This week I decided to look into collaborative learning and how it might affect a students learning experience, in terms of motivation, engagement, ownership, and the creation of knowledge.

In Collaborative Learning in a History Seminar Steffens quotes Trimbar’s definition of collaborative learning:

Collaborative learning is a generic term, covering a range of techniques that have become increasingly visible in the past 10 years, practices such as reader response, peer critiques, small writing groups, joint writing projects, and peer tutoring in writing centers and classrooms…. By shifting the initiative and responsibility from the group leader to the members of the group, collaborative learning offers a style of leadership that actively involves the participants in their own learning.

He goes on to say that

Whatever the specific techniques used, collaborative learning occurs when students assume some responsibility for the course material, and in the process help themselves and one another to learn. The collaborative learning approach shifts some responsibility from the teacher to the students; they become active participants in the their own education. (Steffens, 125)

The idea that students are collaborating with other learners, are responsible for their own education, and are active participants in their own learning lends itself in a very powerful way towards allowing a deep engagement with the content, and ownership of the knowledge.

Steffens describes his seminar in seventeenth century intellectual history in detail. Each class begins with a writing exercise in which the students write in an informal free-form manner about the assigned readings. This exercise is based on an instructional strategy called Writing to Learn.

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu or otherwise informal writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments. (

These activities are intended to retrieve long-term memories and to help students focus on the subject at hand. While this is not in and of itself a collaborative exercise it facilitates the next section of the class. After the writing activity the class is divided into groups of three. In their respective groups they are tasked with coming up with one question that they think the entire class should discuss. In their individual groups they have to make their cases for a question and come to an agreement. According to Steffens this process requires a lot of consensus and modification. After the small groups meet the entire class discusses every group’s questions. “Everyone had some stake in the question, and the group that formulated the question under consideration even had a tacit responsibility to see that it was discussed well.” (129)

Each student had a great deal to contribute to that session and knew that his or her contribution was valued. Collaboration on the choice of questions for discussion gave the seminar the freedom to shape the nature of the writing and discussion during each session. This freedom resulted in a sense of shared purpose and involvement in each question that we took up. All participants contributed to the group as partners in the investigation of the seventeenth century, contributing on the basis of their own perspectives, knowledge, and experience. (130)

Having a feeling of responsibility, a stake in the outcome, and a shared purpose goes a long way in creating motivation, engagement, and ownership.

Collaborative learning activities enriched our seminar.  History students had a better opportunity to take themselves, the readings, the seminar discussions, and their own research seriously. The tone of the class was positive and “collaborative” in the sense that we all felt that we had developed a vested interest in the seriousness and importance of our topics. (134)

All learning requires collaboration. All things we know as facts are a shared meaning. They are facts because we all agree that they are. As children, before we ever step foot into a classroom we are constantly learning from the people around us. We can gather a lot of information individually but we need guidance to make meaning of it and to refine our understanding of the world around us. This may be from our parents, or it may be from our peers. One thing that I believe is lacking in education at large, and history survey courses specifically, is the chance to collaborate or reflect with other students.  One way that this collaboration could be achieved is through digital technology that almost every student already has in their pocket. In Development of a ubiquitous learning platform based on a real-time help-seeking mechanism the authors describe a class where in which the students were presented with a smart phone based application that not only provided reference material but also allowed them to communicate directly for help and collaboration. While this study was about a computer assembly class the fundamental advantages of this method are perfectly adaptable to a history class. The students in their experiment finished their work in 30% less time than students in the control group without access to the CULP (context-aware ubiquitous learning platform).

Collaboration is the glue of our society. It should also be the glue of our formal education. One way that this can be implemented is through the use of mobile devices. Using devices that most college students already have increases the versatility and access to higher learning without increasing the initial cost to the institution. Through the use of mobile collaborative environments students can have more of a say in what they learn, and how they learn it.  This can lead to increased motivation, engagement, and ownership of knowledge.

  • Steffens, H. (1989). Collaborative Learning in a History Seminar. The History Teacher, 22(2), 125-138
  • Hwang, G., Wu, C., Tseng, J. R., & Huang, I. (2011). Development of a ubiquitous learning platform based on a real-time help-seeking mechanism. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(6), 992-1002. doi:10.1111/j.1467
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