Remembering My Hat

24th October 2013

Designing collaborative learning activities better

Notes from a workshop I attended today, organised by the METIS project. Appropriately enough, we were working collaboratively in groups to design a collaborative learning activity. Because this is The Open University, we were designing for an online distance-learning context, where the issues are quite different from face-to-face settings.  But I suspect some of the principles could also be applied to face-to-face teaching.

The first activity we were asked to undertake involved thinking about how to *ruin* a collaborative learning activity. I really liked this form of activity – it made you act as a kind of devil’s advocate to your own favourite ideas. I might reuse this form at the start of my next workshop with the K118 team, but in relation to a different topic (probably assessment).

How to ruin a collaborative learning activity :

  • Unclear about what students need to do so they spend all their time as a group debating this
  • Award credit to whole group regardless of individual input
  • no clear link to learning outcomes
  • make it too big or too small

Barriers to collaborative learning for students:

  • time – students can’t see benefit and see collaborative activity as optional extra so don’t do it.
  • technological problems
  • confidence/anxiety
  • why should they bother? Is more complex than working on your own for many people – needs to have a bigger pay-off
  • group dynamics – some people being unsupportive to others, some people not pulling their weight.
  • students’ different timetables (and possibly time zones)

Possible solutions:

  • Make benefits very clear e.g. in Module Guide, in teaching materials whenever collab activity is introduced, assess it (although this creates its own problems), tie-in to learning outcomes and assessment (even if actual activity is not assessed), workplace benefits.
  • Build confidence through starting with an easier collaborative activity (but make sure it isn’t facile – maybe something a bit reflective (but not too personal) would work well at this stage).
  • Have some flexibility in what technology they can use – email as a back-up?
  • Build up to it carefully
  • Include an example of what the end product should look like, so they know what they are aiming for.
  • Some discussion of group processes and roles.
  • Allow group to form a little before they start work (or include introductory activity as part of task)
  • Careful grouping – people in interest groups? Nation/region/area groups? [Anything more fine-grained creates significant work for ALs or central academics]
  • Clear guidance on what they need to do and when.
  • Possibility of individuals swapping groups?
  • Signpost significant collab activity v clearly in module description.

(cc) Brenderous

Verbs that might be particularly relevant to Learning Outcomes for collaborative learning activity:

  • build on
  • co-create
  • contribute
  • debate with
  • discusss with
  • engage with
  • enhance
  • improve on
  • motivate
  • perform
  • share
  • challenge

Then we did an activity designing a collaborative learning activity. Luckily for me, my group was asked to focus on my module, K118 (Perspectives on Health and Social Care), so I chose something form the Ageing and Later Life block that I thought it would particularly benefit students to do collaboratively.

Learning outcome – share different experiences  to increase awareness of the diversity of older people and challenge preconceptions.

Learning output – create shared wiki (resources and experiences of using wikis at Level one in Arts A150) [My hunch is that this is too technically complex to actually use on K118 but I will investigate it] Simpler output would just be discussion within the tutor group forum. Further discussion of this later in the day.

Presentation from Mary Thorpe, IET, The OU

Some forum-based examples of good-practice.

Simulation / role play

Students have been learning about 3 main theories about X in first 12 weeks of module.

  1. Tutor allocated one of three ‘hats’ to each student in their tutor group.
  2. Students watch a DVD clip and have to answer a question, wearing their particular hat. Given structured questions to help them do that.
  3. Post answers to forum and discuss, use clip timings to be clear. [Nice way of getting them to think about different theoretical perspectives, and possibly making them engage with ones they are not naturally attracted to].
  4. Then tutor group forum discussion.
  5. Then watch another clip, wearing the same hat.
  6. Post answer to forum in same way but also adding reference to other module materials to support arguments.
  7. Take off hats. Watch clips again, think about your own practice. Which theory best fits your practice?

Another example:

Pyramid or snowball – individual study of problem, then compare discuss, propose shared solution, all agree shared solution.

Do individual report on topic of choice (or allocated by tutor) and upload to tutor group forum. Then role play some kind of meeting where have to argue the case for their topic/group. Get marks for participating and reflecting on process, as well as for outputs.

[Stuff I’m already very alert to about importance of making it possible for students to pass assignment even if don’t take part in collaborative activity. And benefits of marks for ‘reflecting on the process’ as well as the outputs]

In example discussed, students hadn’t met before worked together – day school was culmination of activity, not beginning. Did some evaulation – students were fine about working with people they didn’t know because it was so clearly structured. Didn’t need much input from ALs because was so clearly structured. Students felt able to disagree (which is often a worry about collaborative work, that it ends up being too bland and consensual), because of ‘hats’/simulation kind of nature  – it wasn’t personal. They supported their arguments well with evidence [key skill! Great if you can enable that through this kind of thing].

Notes of caution from MT: be very clear about why collaboration is beneficial. Have to have a very good reason to cause students to loose the benefits of individual and flexible study to their own timescales. A tall order at level 1. Optional collaboration can be better (but then of course you’ll get much lower participation rates).

[My thoughts about how we could apply this to K118 – could maybe do ‘hats on’ kind of activity in Mental Health Block where they are looking at competing explanations for mental distress (and hence conflicting prescriptions for help and support). Or in Ageing activity idea, could be asking students to take on persona of particular older person from a set of case studies / characters they have already met (Molly and Monty?) and arguing for what is most important for them for good quality of life in later life (or similar). This could work well in the final week of the block, when they will have already met all the characters.]

Then we had a very brief lunch break (this was a hard and long day’s work, hence the rather long post)

(cc) Terence S. Jones

Back to the design of the possible activity for K118:

We were given a large sheet of flip-chart paper and some special Learning Design post-it notes which are coded as ‘resource’ ‘activity/task’ ‘learning outcome’ and ‘tool’. We then had to categorise all the parts of the activity appropriately on the post-it notes and storyboard them.

  1. Start with explanation of benefits of this activity: revision, employability skills of team-working, what else?
  2. Module team identifies 4 or 5 diverse older people students have already met during Block (Molly, Monty, others)
  3. AL allocates students to characters (or students choose for themselves? Might not get a good range then).
  4. Students review material on characters and fill in a set of questions to help them think about that person and their experiences.
  5. On forum (organised by threads) students discuss salient features of this person.
  6. Then they are posed a question that gets at diversity (something like ‘what is the most important thing in ensuring their quality of life?’) and have to argue that from the perspective of their character.

After we’d done this, I got a bit worried that this was too character-driven, given that we are already worried that students remember the characters, not the theories they are supposed to make intelligible. Also that it might be too easy. We then talked about how you could make it more challenging by getting students to come up with new case studies. Perhaps something like ‘write a short description of an older person who is completely different from [some stereotyped media portrayal of an older person]’. Then, once they had posted their case study, they would have to answer the same question about ‘what’s most important’ or whatever. Or, even better, could get them to find a real-life example from newspapers, publications from voluntary organisations or people they know. Write a summary, read other students’ summaries (this gets them some immediate benefit from . collaborative activity – they get to read more case studies of diverse older people than they could research themselves). Then debate the question (about quality of life or whatever) in the persona of their case study, in groups of 4 -6 within their forum.

So when we came to the next bit of the workshop, which was translating the storyboard into a prototype online tool called ‘WebCollage’, we further refined it to this last idea. This is all captured on the tool, but I don’ t think that’s publicly visible. I can see it here

After we’d done this (in our collaboratively-learning groups, naturally), we had some whole group discussion of our experiences. There was a theme of people finding the tool quite difficult to get to grips with. Several people said that the tool helped them design better activities by forcing them to be systematic and sequential [I don’t think that is a huge benefit for me because I’ve always designed activities in a fairly structured and systematic way, without using such a tool. I worry there might be a bit of a Hawthorne Effect going on here]. The tool did force me to think about what the tutor would be doing to support this activity, because that was one of the fields you had to complete, which was a useful prompt. In my group we thought that there might need to be some separate guidance for tutors on how to run activities like this [investigate whether we are allowed to do this nowadays].

Then we did a ‘heuristic evaluation’ which was defined as team of experts assessing by using a set of heuristics (or ‘rules of thumb’). A low-fidelity rapid evaluation to pick up design flaws at an early stage. Experts ‘walk through’ activity as if students. The rules of thumb were the ‘ways to ruin a collaborative activity’ and ‘barriers’ we identified at the beginning of the workshop. The heuristics we picked out to be evaluated against were:

  1. Clear benefit to students
  2. Build skills gradually in small steps, to prepare for collaborative learning activity
  3. Learning Outcomes need to be clear so students can see what the benefits are (?link to assessment)
  4. Be clear about time needed and ensure this is explicitly built into week’s workload

The rest of my team evaluated another group’s activity but I stayed with the potential K118 activity, to explain it to my evaluators. We used a basic grid: where’s the problem, what’s the problem, what heuristic does it violate, how severe is the violation, recommended action. The potential K118 activity came out pretty well, except what they thought was a minor issue about needing to be a bit more specific about the time needed by students and how many weeks this activity would be spread across. I thought that was fair enough. This would have been a more valuable activity to do once the author thought the activity was fully-designed – it was too easy for me to say ‘we were going to cover that, we just hadn’t had time to get on to that bit yet’!

At the end of the day we had to fill in a lengthy evaulation questionnaire (of course). I managed to press ‘reset’ instead of ‘submit’ at the bottom. That was a very bad end to what was otherwise a good and useful day.



  1. Reblogged this on jonathanhughes53 and commented:
    Some really useful ideas here Rebecca which I’ll think very hard about including in the last learning guide.

    Comment by jonathanhughes53 — 10th November 2013 @ 19:28 | Reply

    • Glad it was useful. No obligation, obviously, to take any of this on for LG18 but if you are considering it, let me know and we can thrash it out a bit more.

      Comment by rememberingmyhat — 13th November 2013 @ 16:08 | Reply

  2. […] Teamworking and pairworking (needs to be carefully structured and supported and with a clear benefit to the students) […]

    Pingback by Learning Design categories – a list of ideas | Remembering My Hat — 22nd June 2016 @ 18:00 | Reply

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