Research strongly suggests that collaborative group learning activities build deeper and more transferrable knowledge (O’Donnell & Hmelo-Silver, 2013). Developing collaborative activities takes experience, time and resources, adding additional burdens for already stretched classroom teachers. There is therefore a role for technology to supply well-designed and tested tools for use in the classroom and beyond that enable students and teachers to easily access collaborative learning activities at all stages of formal education (Dillenbourg & Fischer, 2007).
It is most important to recognise that innovation in technology or content also require simultaneous pedagogical development. Without this change in pedagogical activity by the teacher, the potential benefits of the new activities and the new tools will be missed, rendering no benefit to, or even to the detriment of, the learner (Smith, Hardman & Higgins, 2006).
SynergyNet was an interdisciplinary project at Durham University exploring the coevolution of pedagogy and technology. The project developed a classroom of networked multitouch tables (computers which use touch for interaction, like a giant iPad). The project showed marked differences in the organisational practices and uptake of ideas of participants (aged 10–11) using these tables compared to equivalent paper-based tasks (Higgins, Mercier, Burd, & Joyce-Gibbons, 2012). The project also explored the layout of the classroom during collaborative activities, and found that when groups faced the centre of the classroom there was a greater amount of on-task talk, and when the tables faced forwards there was greater task completion by groups (Mercier, Higgins & Joyce-Gibbons, 2014).
This highlighted a key dilemma in collaborative pedagogy. On the one hand, the teacher’s responsibility to balance free exploration of learning to enable students to create their own knowledge and, on the other, to support task completion in a way that maintains some class cohesion and satisfies the external constraints of assessment and curriculum (Joyce-Gibbons, 2017).
Figure 1: The flick gesture from one table to another
Remote, synchronous collaboration in schools
Having explored the pedagogy of collaboration using the tables in one classroom, the next phase of our project was to move out of a lab context and into schools. SynergyNet activities required the manipulation of clues (text or images projected onto the screen surface). It became possible to ‘flick’ these between tables over the internet, which presented the possibility of sender and recipient being located very remotely from each other (McNaughton et al. 2017). Therefore, exploring collaboration between primary school students located in two different schools appeared the next logical step for the research team.
Figure 2: Remote, synchronous collaboration between groups communicating via Skype and ‘flick’ gesture
The participants (four groups of six students, three in each location per group, all aged 9–10) were linked visually by Skype and also by the ability to ‘flick’ information to each other using the multitouch screens. This proved to be a very memorable and positive activity for them which, they reported, gave the task a great sense of immediacy. There was some evidence of self-organisation and emergent intellectual and organisational leadership roles, as had been reported in previous SynergyNet studies (Higgins, Mercier, Burd, & Joyce-Gibbons, 2012).
The central role of the teacher in scaffolding intra- and inter-group interactions was crucial, underlining yet again the centrality of developing effective pedagogical strategies to sustain collaboration using new technologies. Further work is needed to develop best practice that supports teachers, guiding their decisions to intervene and to shift between intra-group and inter-group talk.
The further evolution of the SynergyNet software holds great possibility. There is now a free, web-based version of this software available to all. For further information please visit synergynet.github.io [https://synergynet.github.io/]. The authors would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other interested groups in the development of future technological or pedagogical dimensions of this vibrant and innovative project.
Dillenbourg, P. & Fischer, F. (2007). Basics of computer-supported collaborative learning. Zeitschrift für Berufs- und Wirtschaftspädagogik, 21, 111–130.
Higgins, S., Mercier, E., Burd, E. & Joyce-Gibbons, A. (2012). Multi-Touch Tables and Collaborative Learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(6), 1041–1054.
Joyce-Gibbons, A. (2017). Observe, Interact and Act: Teachers’ Initiation of Mini-Plenaries to Scaffold Small-Group Collaboration. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 26(1), 51–68.
McNaughton, J., Crick, T., Joyce-Gibbons, A., Beauchamp, G., Young, N., & Tan, E. (2017). Facilitating collaborative learning between two primary schools using large multi-touch devices. Journal of Computers in Education, 4(3) 307–320.
Mercier, E. M., Higgins, S. E., & Joyce-Gibbons, A. (2016). The effects of room design on computer-supported collaborative learning in a multi-touch classroom. Interactive Learning Environments, 24(3), 504–522.
O’Donnell, A. E., & Hmelo-Silver, C, M., (2013) Introduction: What is collaborative learning? An overview. In Hmelo-Silver, C., Chinn, C., Chan, C., & O’Donnell, A., International Handbook of Collaborative Learning. London: Routledge.
Smith, F., Hardman, F., & Higgins, S. (2006). The Impact of Interactive Whiteboards on Teacher-Pupil Interaction in the National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies. British Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 443–457.