Collaborative Learning and Learning Communities

Learning is social

Much of what I have been reading and reflecting on has been shaped by my belief that quite a lot of learning is social. I don’t mean social in the sense of going to a bar with friends and having a drink; I mean social as in constructed with others. While a lot of the learning that I do seems to be individual right now, it is not until I write down what I am thinking, what I believe that I have learnt and how I have connected it to previous experiences or understandings that the learning actually crystallises. It is the act of writing down my learning, expressing it in a form that can be consumed by others, that I begin to truly structure my understandings. Further, it is not until someone else reads that writing and comments on it, or discusses it with me, that I confirm that I have understood and added to my knowledge – this is the interaction that I believe is truly learning. While reading, taking notes, watching videos etc might fall into the category of learning, I don’t think it truly is- I think that it is just taking stuff into my head. When I actually interact with others to connect that stuff with other stuff, draw conclusions, create new links, apply it; that is the learning part.

Traditional Learning

For many years, most formal learning in schools and universities was not collaborative – although it was social in that there were at least two people required – the teacher and the student. However, traditional learning was based on a transmission model, where the teacher/lecturer stood at the front, and expounded the knowledge, which the student/learner absorbed with varying degrees of success. This absorption rate was measured in tests where the individual student had to regurgitate this learning to demonstrate how much they had taken in. It assumed the student/learner was an empty slate, and that the teacher/lecturer held all of the knowledge that was required. It required no collaboration, and nothing new was constructed; the knowledge was simply transferred.

Even today we see this transmission model in schools and universities. It is reflected in popular culture (Google Teacher on image search and you will see photos and clipart of an adult standing before a blackboard, pointing to what is to be learnt). It is what lots of people imagine when they hear the word classroom, or learning. While students may now sit at desks that are grouped and students may have laptops in front of them, much learning still occurs in this way. Current fascinations with standardised testing regimes seem to reflect an understanding that this is the best way to capture what has been ‘learnt’, while others try to convince that this is not the way.

Research shows that the transmission model is largely only suitable for awareness building; it does not result in effective transfer or application of knowledge. How much do students recall weeks after an exam situated in this context? In addition, it is not even possible anymore for one person (such as a teacher) to hold all necessary knowledge in their head. Now that we have ready access to content, much of teaching should no longer consist of the transferral of content knowledge – much of teaching should  now ensure that students have the skills to access, evaluate and apply information when and where they need it; to create the connections they require to build new understandings, and to remix and build upon what already exists. Reports such as A Rich Seam by Fullan and Langworthy find that there is a need for new pedagogies which reflect the current context:

 Fullan, M. & Langworthy, M. (2014) A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, London: Pearson. Reproduced under CC:BY Licence
Fullan, M. & Langworthy, M. (2014) A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning, London: Pearson. Reproduced under CC:BY Licence


Collaborative Learning

So this leads me to reflect on collaborative learning. I believe that many people (mistakenly) equate collaborative learning with ‘group work’ or ‘team assignments’ – those times when you find yourself with perhaps 3-5 others, and you are tasked with working together to respond to an assignment task or assessment. This may indeed be collaborative (although attempts to manage social loafing may result in the scenario of individuals completing different amounts of work separately, then combining at the end). However I don’t believe that this is collaborative learning. My sense is that collaborative learning occurs when the act of collaborating with someone else results in the construction of new knowledge or understandings. Through dialogue, argument, exchange of opinion, debate, discourse – the result of two or more people sharing what they know, and building upon it.

Social Software enables Collaborative Learning

Three things have occurred recently which have greatly expanded people’s ability to connect with others all over the world. These three things are access to broadband internet at a ‘reasonable’ price, the emergence of mobile computing and the development and large scale adoption of online social networking tools. Rainie and Wellman (2012) label these three changes as the ‘triple revolution’. This ‘triple revolution’ has resulted in the potential for individuals to be more highly networked than ever before. Not everyone is connected in this way; however internet penetration rates in the Western World are hovering at a minimum of 70%; and access to mobile and social media is also growing globally.

Reproduced with permission. Please go to for further information.
Reproduced with permission. Please go to for further information.

What does this mean for collaborative learning?

It means that the transmission model where the teacher holds all of the information and the learner must access it directly from them is no longer feasible, as the learner can now circumvent the teacher, and go directly to the source. This model may have operated successfully in times of information scarcity, but in an environment of information abundance, its value is limited. The role of the teacher must change to reflect this environment. Wenger and Traynor suggest that this means finding the sweet spot where teaching and social learning leadership mesh.

Used with permission from Etienne and Bev Wenger. Created by participants in a BEtreat workshop, Canada, constructed by Bonnie Johnston.
Used with permission from Etienne and Bev Wenger. Created by participants in a BEtreat workshop, Canada, constructed by Bonnie Johnston.

Social software enables greater opportunities and supports for collaborative learning; where learning occurs through sharing and interaction with others. There is extensive research to support the assertion that we learn collaboratively because of a wide range of reasons, including shared common interests and the reward of exchanging ideas and support. Now we have the technology to connect with a network that most closely supports our individual learning needs. How do we connect with this network?

Collaborative Learning through the PLN

There is a great deal of professional literature on the concept of a professional/personal learning network (PLN). Some equate PLNs with PLE’s, others (including myself) see them as slightly different conceptions. Learning through a PLN brings challenges that are different to connecting face to face. This brings us to the concept of developing digital literacies. Steve Wheeler suggests these include social networking skills, transliteracy skills, maintaining privacy, managing identity, creating content, organising and sharing content, reusing/repurposing content and self broadcasting. Doug Belshaw suggests that digital literacies revolve around eight elements: cultural, cognitive, constructive, communicative,  confident, creative, critical and civic. When developing a PLN, I agree that high levels of digital literacies, however they are explicated, are required. This is because learning through a PLN requires the ability to evaluate quality information (crap detection). It requires the ability to connect safely and to maintain levels of appropriate privacy. It requires a technical knowledge of the tools being used, and a knowledge of the tools available so that the most suitable ones may be chosen for different purposes. Learning through a PLN requires an understanding of the ethics of using, sharing and creating work online. As an active participant in a PLN, one also needs to be able to create, manage and remix content effectively and in a way that clearly expresses the learner’s opinions. Collaborative learning through a PLN is largely informal and therefore is dependent upon the individual to manage and direct their learning. Learning through a PLN requires a lot of skills many of us may not yet have, or are in the process of developing!

My experience

I love having a PLN to turn to when I am seeking information or guidance. However it has taken a long time to build and develop. As an early adopter of Twitter (joining in September 2007), and as a keen user of technology, I have spent a lot of time being online, playing in different spaces, developing different skills and experimenting with different tools. My digital identity is fairly well developed. I prefer not to participate in ‘preconstructed’ professional learning environments such as The Educators PLN because I feel that connecting with the individuals of my choice at my point of need is more effective for me. This is not a criticism of these large networks, just a personal preference. I would like to support others to develop their own PLNs, hence my doctoral studies in this area – however I do believe that it is an individual and personal construction. I also acknowledge the time it takes to develop a PLN, and the time required to dedicate to being online; and that finding this time may be a challenge. I build it into my day; at lunchbreaks, when I have 10 minutes to kill waiting to pick someone up, when I am waiting for the bus, while watching episodes of trashy reality tv with the family on the couch. I get a thrill everytime someone from ‘overseas’ contacts me, uses my work, asks me a question – this may be a uniquely Australian experience, as we are fairly well removed from the rest of the world!!!! Collaborative online learning has become part of my day, part of my life and a major way in which I learn.


11 thoughts on “Collaborative Learning and Learning Communities”

  1. Hi, interesting reading about your reflections on the learning process, different types, roles, environment, models and how this field has grown and are still growing, maybe it´s a good idea to become familiar with different kind of models when teaching, and I think that the traditional way also is a useful way of learning depending on the knowledge or what you are untended to learn, and sometimes you have to use those test to see if the students have learnt, I was thinking about learning about laws, mathematic rules, and there is not som many ways to check this adequate, som the traditional way is still there, but the different learning styles and models have expanded enourmous and thats good but can also be harder, to know how which model is the best/ Veronic l

    1. Absolutely there are times Veronica when social learning is not the most appropriate, I totally agree. I think about the little child who touches a hotplate on the stove – they don’t need to discuss that with someone to learn not to do it again! I agree that we need to be familiar with lots of different types of learning; it is just that so often we fall into the ‘chalk and talk’ style of transmission teaching because it is what we are used to, when there might be better more meaningful ways to teach certain concepts. The Lecture style still has a place; look at how successful Ted Talks are!! However I think even when there is a lecture, it is the discussions and sharing afterward that truly confirm the learning. Facts like maths and laws might well be best taught by just telling the learner; however there are not many things that stay constant in our world, and for changing facts discussion is always valuable. Cheers and thanks for your comments, much appreciated!

    1. No worries at all, Anna, I’m glad that what I said made sense to you – that is a great example of social learning; I put my understandings out there, and you confirmed that they make sense; so now I feel more confident in my conceptions! Great stuff!

  2. Great article Kay, again you the forerunner in this field and really give me inspiration to carry on when the Institution brick walls start popping up (Pink Foyd The Wall comes to mind) whenever I suggest new ways to learn. I particularly like your paragraph on PLN something that I have been doing without knowing that there ia a name for it when working in the private sector.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge 🙂

    1. Aww shucks, Maddy, thanks for the kind words!! I love this area and spend a lot of time reading and developing my understandings in it, and am always happy to share; we all learn from each other this way, and that is what I think is the most awesome part!

      Yes, a PLN comes naturally to a lot of us, even if we don’t name it as such. We have probably always had our groups that we rely on for learning, it is now just so terrific that we can include in our groups people from all over the world, and make contact with experts in the field who seemed before ‘unreachable’.

  3. Thanks, Kay! Interesting reflections as always. I place myself somewhere between constructivism and socialconstructivism, and I think a certain kind of learning can always take place within the individual but in collaboration there are more demanding constructions being made since many different processes are active at the same time. Traditionally learning usually took place in groups while learning a trade for example. Perhaps we are going “back” to that? But what I find fascinating is what knowledge was and is. So much of what we know is a social construction and always changing as society changes, and maybe these changes will happen faster now in a global and digital world? 🙂

    1. Thanks Lotta, I totally agree with you that the changing nature of what constitutes ‘knowledge’ is fascinating, and definitely think that it is becoming far more fluid and changeable; for instance; Pluto was considered a planet for as long as I could remember then suddenly it wasn’t, now I’m not sure if they have reinstated it or not, it keeps changing! Even the structure of our Universe is no longer reliable!! It is interesting that we seem to be returning to the type of learning that used to take place in smaller groups learning trades; perhaps as digital technology makes the world smaller, our ways of working/learning reflect this? Thanks for your awesome and thought provoking comments!

  4. Hello Kay! Yes! I also belive that a lot of Learning is socail. I’,m happy for the praradigm shift we hav had about how we learn. It’s in the curriculums, but still we have a long path to go when it comes to the practice in the classroom.
    For me, reading about someone elses thoughts and theories can reshape or add my own thoughts and theories. But to express your new thougts and theories to others establish the new knowledge. But I’m more a writer than a speaker (at least in my 1:st language). The reason that I have engeaged myself in ‘Cooperative Learning Strucutres’ is my conviction is that it’s one way, among others, to make small Group interaction work much better.
    the PNL for me. It’s a new concept for me. But yes, we have it in Sweden as well. Charlotte att PBL-Group 6 #ONL171

  5. Thanks for sharing these great insights! I like many things, for example what you say about PLN. It made me think about how PLN resembles and is different from social life in general. In both cases, there are ‘invisible’ expectations around that can be learned by being part of and being engaged, being willing to ‘learn how to learn’.

    1. Thanks Anette for your comment; I absolutely agree that there are ‘invisible’ expectations and also a culture that one needs to be aware of when learning and connecting online; there are behaviours and customs that enable smooth and mutually agreeable interactions, and these are important to learn. How we learn them is through engagement, just like with any culture…and by taking it slowly and carefully to begin :).

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