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Get Real! Collaborative Learning in Higher Education
Students in tertiary courses for the professions often decry, from their perspective, the lack of exposure to the 'real world' in their studies, and the excessive concentration on theory as opposed to practice. Educators are aware of these criticisms and look for ways to provide learning experiences that develop and rehearse the skills and knowledge of the discipline to match and extend those practised in the workplace. This paper explores the multidisciplinary collaborative project, Get Real!, which brought together 60 third-year students and their educators in the Professional Writing and Graphic Design disciplines. The collaborative project, to create picture books, culminated in a public exhibition and performance, judging of the best work by a children's publisher, production of a range of published articles and publicity materials, and a conference presentation by the educators.
Such collaborative projects are unusual in higher education. There is supporting theory on collaborative learning yet few have taken up the challenge. There are several possible reasons why collaborative learning projects occur infrequently. These include the preparation, coordination and monitoring required, expectations that learning and assessment should be individual rather than collaborative, and, most importantly, the paradigm shift in teaching and learning that is required of both educators and students.
The Get Real! project is explored within the context of collaborative learning theory, with the aim to highlight both advantages and impediments, and to identify best practice. While the Get Real! project as a whole will be discussed, greater emphasis will be given to aspects relating to the Professional Writing discipline. Aspects to be covered include
Collaborative learning theory - assumptions and expectations
In the 1990s, collaborative learning in higher education featured in several texts (Foyle 1995; Thorley and Gregory 1994; Jagues 1991) and an electronic listserve (Panitz 1996) spanning three years. These sources and others indicate that a set of assumptions underlie collaborative learning. Firstly, there is the assumption that knowledge is created through interaction and not 'transferred' from educator to student. Secondly, learning is student-centred, with consideration given to the students' levels of knowledge, experience and understanding. Thirdly, the educator's role is that of facilitator of learning, developer of the structure, creator of the context, and provider of the learning space so that students can take control of their own learning.
Matthews, Cooper, Davidson and Hawkes (1995) amplify these assumptions that practitioners hold about collaborative learning.
The field of collaborative learning is broad both in theory and practice. No one theory or practitioner holds sway. Practice differs depending on the discipline, education and experience of those involved. Terminology shifts from collaborative learning to cooperative learning, group learning, and group investigation, with fine, varying distinctions made between these. Davidson (1994: 13) suggests there are six broad approaches to cooperative learning, the generic term. These approaches include the Student Team Learning, Learning Together, Group Investigation, Structural Approach, Complex Instruction, and the Collaborative Approach. Davidson then examines their differences and commonalities. The five commonalities or 'critical attributes' (Davidson 1994: 14) of collaborative learning include
1. common task or learning activity suitable for group work
The nine attributes (Davidson 1994: 26-27) that vary among the six major approaches include
1. grouping procedure
Davidson (1994: 24) describes the particular elements of the collaborative learning approach. These demonstrate that collaborative learning is characteristically a less structured approach to cooperative learning. It is slower paced, lacks direct teaching of social skills, and encourages students to organise themselves. Interdependence and individual accountability are present, but less emphasised than in other cooperative approaches. Those educators from collaborative learning traditions tend not to manage all the small components, and they are less likely to provide rewards.
Collaborative learning in the writing discipline
The concept of collaborative learning in relation to the discipline
of writing has also been the subject of several texts (Bruffee
1985; Bruffee 1999;
Lunsford 1990; Forman
1992; Leonard et al 1994).
Translated into the teaching and learning environment of Get Real!, students in Graphic Design and Professional Writing worked initially within their own knowledge communities, then met to collaboratively explore the creation of picture books. This particular project brought together the interpretations of their different disciplines or, as Bruffee (1999: 189) would contend, it was 'an attempt to translate the language of one community of knowledgeable peers into the language of another community of knowledgeable peers'. Interestingly, the picture book itself is a collaborative art form bringing together text and illustrations to tell a story. As an art form, the picture book has its own knowledge community encompassing artist, author and experts in publishing. The Get Real! students, in creating picture books, developed an insight into yet another knowledge community.
Given the strong support for collaborative learning in the published literature, it is surprising that so few published examples exist of good practice in higher education. Johnson and Johnson (1993) and Parsons and Drew (1996), as representative of many researchers' support of collaborative learning, point out the following advantages of this approach to learning. It
Impediments to collaborative learning
Between 1996 and 1998, Panitz (1996) facilitated an electronic discussion on collaborative learning in higher education. Practitioners the world over discussed various aspects of collaborative learning, but the most extensive debate was on impediments to its implementation. Such impediments are germane to the aim of this article to examine theory and practise, and to highlight best practice. Providing an overview of the impediments can provide useful insights.
The views on impediments can be divided into two groups, those from the students' perspective and those from the educators'. Students, according to these practitioners and educators, objected to engaging in collaborative learning for such reasons as their
Educators, according to those expressing opinions, objected to engaging in collaborative learning because it
Clearly, such impediments must be addressed when designing and implementing collaborative learning. The next section of this paper describes how the stage was set for the collaborative learning project, and outlines the student responsibilities and project expectations.
Setting the stage for collaboration between knowledge communities
The idea for Get Real! was developed collaboratively by Julie Bradley, Lecturer in Graphic Design, and myself, lecturer in Professional Writing. Although we come from entirely separate sections of the University, we have a common interest in illustration, and over some years, have swapped guest lectures in our two areas, and attended conferences on picture book illustration together. These exchanges laid the groundwork for our Get Real! collaboration.
The germ of the idea came from Julie who was keen for her 40 students to add high quality work to their Portfolio, a collection of their best materials required in their fourth year studies. The Get Real! project formed the sole requirement for the Graphic Design students but it was one of two options for the Professional Writing students. This decision was based on the fact that the Professional Writing students were accustomed to working as individuals; the Get Real! project was an untested concept; and my own experience with a project of this magnitude was limited. Of the 38 students in Writing for Young People, 18 selected the Get Real! option, but only 16 completed the project when, through an unfortunate slip-up in our matching of writers and illustrators, two texts were not 'chosen' by the illustrators. We believed that a 'real' project involving these 56 students would have strong personal, educational, and professional outcomes.
As lecturers in different disciplines, we each 'held membership' in a different knowledge community. This led to different requirements and expectations for each group of students. These requirements also meant that each student was individually assessed for their Get Real! work, either by Julie or myself. As facilitators in this student-centred learning project, we were responsible for the structure. This involved setting the goals and objectives, determining students' learning outcomes, structuring activities to promote learning, creating an environment conducive to learning, providing relevant resources, determining assessment criteria, and generally acting as 'guides on the side' rather than 'sages on the stage'.
In line with the real world aspect of the project, we agreed that students' motivation and learning outcomes could be enhanced beyond the usual motivation of assessment. Additional motivators were a 'published' product for public scrutiny and judgment accomplished with a public exhibition of the students' picture books, a judging and awarding of prizes by a qualified external expert, and a reading of the prizewinners. To bring out the best in both groups of students, we agreed on four prizes: Best Illustrator; Best Visual Text; and Best Collaborative Work (prizes for both author and illustrator).
An exhibition and prizes meant that we needed financial support. The campus University Union generously sponsored the Gallery Restaurant, with its inviting display walls, for a two-week exhibition, and an opening. The campus University Co-operative Bookshop sponsored prizes of book vouchers for our four winners. Our two Schools provided the funding for our external judge, Margaret Hamilton, a well-known Sydney publisher of children's books.
Outlining student responsibilities and project expectations
Subject guides for Writing for Young People and Graphic Design Techniques: Illustration outlined requirements for the Get Real! project. The language used and the way in which subject requirements were detailed varied slightly according to the two disciplines.
The learning outcomes in the subject guide for Writing for Young
People (Alderman 1999)
stated that Professional Writing students would
The Professional Writing students were required to
Aims and objectives (Bradley 1999) for the Graphic Design students were to
The Graphic Design students were required to create the following components
for a children's picture book in a style that suited the market/age group/subject
The Graphic Design students were also required to meet with the Professional Writing students on three occasions and to help with the set up and pull down of the Exhibition. They also mounted the artworks' caption material provided by the Professional Writing students, and created a poster and invitation for the Exhibition opening.
The next section of this paper features a Collaborative Learning Model, and examines its usefulness in relation to the Get Real! project. The aim here is to capture elements of 'best practise' and at the same time to take note of possible impediments to successful collaborative learning.
Design of collaborative learning
Reid, Forrestal and Cook (1989) outline five phases of instructional design in their Collaborative Learning Model.
1. The engagement phase involves students acquiring information and engaging in a shared experience that provides the foundation for their ensuing project. The educator provides a structured overview, links new material with old, encourages interaction, and sets directions.
2. The exploration phase features students exploring ideas and information in an unstructured environment with time and space for engagement. The educator facilitates, monitors, responds and reflects.
3. The transformation phase involves students in activities to 'reshape' the information by reorganising, clarifying, elaborating, and practising or using information in a purposeful way. The educator monitors, facilitates, and provides information.
4. The presentation phase involves students in presenting their findings to an 'interested and critical audience'. The audience should be 'authentic' and provide feedback. The educator facilitates presentations and checks that goals are being met.
5. The final phase, reflection, involves students reflecting on what they have learned and the process, and offering constructive ideas on improving their learning. The educator reviews learning outcomes, processes, and student's responses, then reflects on these for future planning.
Design of collaborative learning - Engagement phase
The first phase in Reid, Forrestal and Cook's Model of Collaborative Learning (1989) is engagement, or laying the foundation for learning.
It was important to bring the two groups, their lecturers and the tutor, together at the onset of the project. Unclear aspects of the collaborative project could be clarified and the nature of the collaboration discussed, but most importantly, the two groups of students could meet and talk with each other.
It was now the seventh week of the semester. The Graphic Design students were just beginning Get Real! whereas the Professional Writing students, working to a different timeframe, had already prepared the texts for the project during their first six weeks. Both were now ready to start the collaboration stage.
The meeting also provided the opportunity to seamlessly move into the exploration phase of collaborative learning.
Design of collaborative learning - Exploration phase
Another objective for our large group meeting was to create the 'context' for the collaborative project by providing relevant resources for exploring and exchanging ideas and information. It was important too that we conveyed to the students that they already had, individually and collectively, knowledge and skills important to their upcoming project.
Visual and text materials were displayed on every flat surface of the large room. The Graphic Design students had just completed six weeks' work culminating in editorial illustrations in a range of graphic techniques. The students brought their completed work to the meeting to share with the Professional Writing students. While this work was not related to children's book illustration, it was an effective 'icebreaker' for the two groups. As the students milled around the artwork, they talked about ideas behind the illustrations and various graphic techniques. The Graphic Design students were proud to show their work, and the Professional Writing students were clearly impressed. Together they shared a common interest: the thrill of 'published' work.
The second resource for the students was more closely related to Get Real! Materials from the Lu Rees Archives of Australian children's literature were displayed. Draft manuscripts of picture books, work-in-progress sketches and final artwork, and related correspondence revealed many facets of the creative process. Both groups were very interested in just 'how it was done' and the examples revealed the high standard of work involved in picture books.
Although both Graphic Design and Professional Writing students brought knowledge and skills from their own disciplines, neither had particular expertise, knowledge or experience in the field of picture books. The Collaborative Learning Model suggests that students need to explore ideas and information when moving into a new area of knowledge. The challenge was to retain the student-centred nature of collaborative learning where students discover and create knowledge for themselves. At the same time, as educators, we recognised the need to offer both groups of students relevant materials to explore.
Design of collaborative learning - Transformation phase
In this third phase of collaborative learning, transformation, the students engage in wide-ranging activities - individually, depending on their particular discipline and its requirements, and together, as part of the collaborative project. The objective of the transformation phase is to provide activities for students to 'reshape', reorganise, clarify, elaborate or practise what they are learning.
Graphic Design students
Professional Writing students
During one tutorial, students worked in pairs to examine and discuss examples of unpublished manuscripts, correspondence, and prepublication material from the Lu Rees Archives. The aim was to explore the creative writing process, and the influences upon that creation. New ways of seeing picture books in their creation stage emerged.
Students in tutorial groups discussed four different topics with related examples of children's picture books. The topics: 'First Experiences'; Picture Story Books'; 'Let's Join In'; and 'Getting Ready to Read', featured as categories of picture books discussed in the students' text, Best Books for Children (Alderman 1992). During this activity, they began to understand variations of the picture book genre.
Understanding study resources
Design of collaborative learning - Presentation phase
In the presentation phase, students present their work to an 'interested and critical audience'. Reid, Forrestal and Cook (1989) stipulate that this audience must be 'authentic' and provide responsive feedback. Get Real! featured several presentation-style activities. The first involved Professional Writing students workshopping texts in tutorials or Graphic Design students displaying artwork in the join 'Show and Tell' session. The second presentation strategy involved Graphic Design and Professional Writing students creating materials to publicise the Exhibition. These activities could be just as easily be argued as part of the exploration phase as students were not only presenting but also reorganising, clarifying, elaborating, and practising what they were learning.
The third presentation phase involved the lecturers judging and pre-selecting, from the extensive display of all the artwork, each Graphic Design student's best work for the Exhibition. The amount of artwork generated (four pieces each for 40 students) and the size of the exhibition space necessitated this pre-selection. Interestingly, we individually made our judgments, then discovered that 95% of these were the same.
Collaborating on the writing process
Bruffee (1985: 2-913) points out a number of advantages of collaborative
activities in the discipline of writing. He maintains it
Professional Writing students have participated in tutorial presentations
and critiques of their work since their course began. They invariably
praise these writing workshops for insights into their own work and assistance
with 'difficult' aspects such as language, style, content and resolutions
of ethical and moral dilemmas. Rogers
and Horton (1992: 124) also give high praise for the benefits of such
face-to-face collaboration between writers. They point out that it
The process in Writing for Young People involves the students distributing copies of their piece to be workshopped to all class members and educator the week before the workshop. During the critique, everyone offers constructive comments. The student presenting the piece is a very active participant, alternately rationalising, disagreeing, querying and agreeing with points raised. Everyone is encouraged to write comments on their paper copy before the workshop, and these are passed on to the student as well. The following week the student hands in the revised piece for assessment. Many of the stories submitted for Get Real! were workshopped in this way.
Students often experience particular difficulties in writing for a young audience. They wonder how to pitch the content and style at the right level, worry whether the language is too difficult or too simple, and ponder whether the story is culturally insensitive and noninclusive. They even wonder whether the story would really interest children at all.
Workshopping is very valuable here for two reasons. The various collective experiences of the students often include contact with children, and their experiences are valued. The workshops also provide opportunities to explore the writer's intent, for while writers are also their own 'first readers', they are not the most objective. Often writers harbour a didactic urge to improve or impart a set of values to youthful readers. An external perspective assists in discerning and curbing such didacticism. Bruffee (1985: 3) maintains that as others judge our writing they do so according to the 'assumptions, goals, values, rules and conventions' of the communities to whom we speak'. The wide-ranging communities represented by the students offer a multiplicity of comments on the writer's intent.
Graham, another student, commented on particular aspects he felt were
improved upon by workshopping his piece, 'Something
about Grandad'. 'Workshopping the draft was immensely helpful, giving
me both a sequence of events (from believable to unbelievable), and an
ending to tie it together.' (Brown
The Graphic Design students usually held their own strong views on the style and medium for the illustrations. This is quite evident through the individual 'stamp' of various illustrators where the same text was illustrated by two or three different students with strikingly diverse results for the feel of the story. 'Zoe Imagines', winner of the Best Collaborative Work, illustrates this point. The first illustrator, Charmaine Ellis, is the winning collaborating illustrator: Ellis; Boulton; Tanton . Melissa Masters described her winning text to be about a little girl 'playing imaginary games'.
Equally diverse are the three illustrations for 'Papa and the Pond'. The first of these illustrations by Nicole Struik was chosen for the front pages of both the University's newspaper, Monitor, and Australia's national higher education and training newspaper, Campus Review. The other two, Larkham and Dobeer were equally enticing.
'My Colour' (Dalwood 1999b), winner of the 'Best Visual Text', is another such example. The three illustrators tackled the same story from entirely different perspectives: Kilburn and Brookman. The author, Sally (Dalwood 1999a: 1), describes her discussions with the third illustrator, Matthew (Matt).
This was an unusual case. The time frame for the Graphic Design students was tight for completing all the work before the end of the semester. The Professional Writing students had been asked to create a text suitable for a 32-page picture book which could be given to the Graphic Design students when we initially met with them. Mark not only created a story after the meeting, but the story itself was over 6,000 words and evolving. He (Cavanagh 1999: 2) describes it this way.
'Dragon Hoarde', although the most problematic of all the stories submitted for Get Real!, inspired three dragon-loving illustrators: Funnell; Austin; Dang. The last of these three illustrators, Minh Dang, won the 'Best Illustrator' award. He spent over 35 hours developing his illustrations using the computer application Adobe Illustrator, and applying vector graphics in the creation of his dragon. Minh Dang (Lada 1999:10) describes himself and his fellow students in The Canberra Times article (written by one of the Professional Writing students), as being at 'the beginning of our illustrious illustrating careers'.
Writing for the media
Fortunately for the project, one of the Professional Writing tutors, Sue Page, had professional education and experience in journalism. She worked with the students in an hour-long workshop then provided supporting printed material on 'Writing for the Media'. Given that the Professional Writing course is aimed at creative writing, writing for the media required new skills. Several tackled this requirement with creative flair. The Canberra Times published one of the student's articles (Lada 1999) about the opening of the Exhibition.
Show and Tell
The ending was supposed to be left 'up in the air' by the text, and explained by the last picture, which also leads you to look back on the story in a different light (implied Grandad really did all those outrageous things). On his storyboard Dan wrote in text that should have been left out, making it stupid and obvious, as well as being poorly expressed.
Fortunately, there was time to change the storyboard before the Exhibition.
Another interesting, but regrettable, aspect at the Show and Tell celebration was the discovery that some texts had been illustrated without the Professional Writing students' awareness, and two texts were not illustrated at all. There had been no collaboration! How could this happen when the project's premise was collaboration? It should be remembered that both groups of students were accustomed to working on their own. A collaborative project was interpreted differently by individual students. To some Graphic Design students, simply having a text from a Professional Writing student was collaboration in itself.
The texts were given to the Graphic Design students with advice that every text must be illustrated. Afterwards, we found some students had exchanged texts among themselves. Other students chose to illustrate texts that were particularly appealing to them while two texts were rejected as not as appealing as others. This meant that some texts were illustrated three times while two texts were not illustrated. This was not discovered until late in the semester as the assessment aspect for the Graphic Design students occurred at the end of the semester, and the Professional Writing students had already had their picture book text assessed. It was only when two Professional Writing students asked why their illustrators had not contacted them that a check on texts and illustrators revealed this problem. At this late stage, it was not possible to do more than give the two Professional Writing students a different assignment as too little time remained for new artwork to be created.
Get Real! Exhibition
As to the criteria for selecting the winners of the four prizes: Best Visual Text; Best Illustrator; and Best Collaborative Work (recognising both author and illustrator) we relied on our external judge. It was her field of expertise, and we wished to retain a 'real world' aspect to the project. Later, at a conference ('Visual Language ...' 1999) where Get Real! was presented, our publisher talked about her criteria for selecting the winners. They were 'child appeal, originality, style of writing, plot, visual potential and "gut reaction"'. The last, she said (Lada 1999b: 10), was 'always a strong basis for deciding to publish, and therefore was an important consideration in the final decision'.
The week before the Exhibition, a group of Graphic Design and Professional Writing students assisted Julie Bradley in mounting the artwork. On 5 August, the opening night of the Exhibition, over 150 people attended to celebrate the students' work. To add that extra element of celebration, two of the winning texts were read with dramatic flair by the Canberra troupe, The Players' Company. It was a celebration enjoyed by family and friends, including a sprinkling of children who sat up front in the audience, transfixed by The Players' troupe readings. This was truly the real presentation test - the audience for whom these stories were intended obviously enthralled.
Design of collaborative learning - Reflection phase
Recognising the gap that often exists between students' and their educators' perceptions on the same educational activity, MacCallum's (1994) study provided interesting insights. She examined students' perceptions of collaborative learning and assessment in a teacher education course.
MacCallum (1994) found that the majority of students perceived a positive change in their thinking about collaborative learning. For them collaboration resulted in more, different or better ideas, clarification or extension of ideas, and deeper thinking. Those who responded negatively to collaborative learning criticised the lack of freedom in having to work with others, the difficulty of incorporating ideas of others which might be different to their own, fear of upsetting others, and the difficulty of being honest about personal views.
One of the Professional Writing students was able to 'stand back' from the Get Real! collaborative project and see a range of possibilities and prospects, separate from his particular experience. His pragmatic approach highlights how students can often see things from a different perspective than their educators. Rob felt that, as a result of his involvement in Get Real!, collaboration had useful advantages (Lada 1999a: 1).
Professional Writing students participating in the Get Real! project expressed a range of views on the project. Their collaborative essays were generally positive towards Get Real! and several offered ways to improve the project. Graham (Brown 1999a: 4) commented
Mark (Cavanagh 1999: 2) commented, 'This was a most rewarding process, to watch my story being slowly illustrated was most satisfying. I recommend that this project be offered in the future'.
Felicity (Farr 1999: 2) felt positively about the experience overall but believed that the exchange of views between writer and illustrator could have been better.
Melissa's essay (1999), 'The collaborative efforts between author and illustrator', provided several examples of both the presence and absence of collaborative efforts between author and illustrator of published children's picture books. A large body of literature reveals there is no consensus on whether direct collaboration between author and illustrator results in a better picture book. But that is another story of collaboration altogether.
More formal evaluations were produced by CELTS, the University's unit for evaluating subjects and courses anonymously. In response to the open-ended question, 'Please comment briefly on the Get Real! assignment if you were involved', students (Writing for Young People students 1999) offered
That debriefing happened two months after the Exhibition. The intervening time provided the needed distance to reflect on all the many details. Given the large numbers of students involved, the amount of effort required, and resources needed, we did need to review what worked well and what could work better. Our first question to each other was whether we should do it again. Both sets of students were overall very positive and hoped that we would offer another such project. The level of interest in the local and national community was strong. Despite some hiccups along the way, we also enjoyed Get Real! We have decided to run the project again in 2000. What will we be doing differently and why?
Get Real! The second time around
1. Produce a common student guide for the project.
2. Explore explicitly aspects of the picture book important to its
3. Produce picture book texts only.
4. Specify the timeframe for completed texts.
5. Develop strategies for helping students to understand their audience.
6. Study the collaborative process sooner.
7. Secure an even more real world experience.
8. Gain external professional sponsorship
It is very bold to suggest that Get Real! could be a model of best practice in collaborative learning. As educators, we are aware that our collaborative project was not 'perfect' and that fine-tuning is required. We could never have anticipated some of the problems that happened along the way. As Thorley and Gregory (1994:185) pointed out, 'Groups are unpredictable'! But many things were 'right', and a review of what appeared to be the elements of best practise, in the light of both theory and practice, may prompt others to implement collaborative learning with greater likelihood of success.
Here, then, are best practice features for planning, implementing, and monitoring a successful collaborative learning project.
A large collaborative project requires educators who firmly believe that students learn most when they are given the structure and the context then left to explore and develop their skills and knowledge for themselves. Not all educators and not all students will feel comfortable in such an environment. For those who do, the rewards are many. Get Real! provided opportunities for personal and professional growth. Students participated in a project that as individuals, or as a member of their particular group, they could not have completed on their own. The collaboration was on many levels. Educators and students alike collaborated and learned a little of the other's knowledge community. Through the project, the picture book became a more familiar art form, in its many stages from creation to published product. We respected and admired the skills and knowledge of each other, and we were all the richer for that.
Associate Professor Belle Alderman is Head of the School of Information
Management and Tourism, Division of Communication and Education, University
Alderman, Belle (1992) Best Books for Children 2nd ed Gosford:
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Vol 4 No 1 April 2000
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady