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Scaffolding Collaboration: An interview with Chen Wenli

By Ryan Tracey / June 2014

TYPE: INTERVIEW, INTERNATIONAL ONLINE EDUCATION
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Dr. Chen Wenli is an associate professor with the Learning Sciences and Technology Academic Group at the National Institute of Education in Singapore. She plays an active role in the country's national level ICT initiatives, and her research interests include computer supported collaborative learning, mobile learning, computer-mediated communication, and ubiquitous learning environments.

Through routine engagement of ICT-enhanced learning activities, Dr. Chen has been working closely with schools to enhance students' collaborative learning skills and higher order thinking.

I posed the following questions to Dr. Chen to find out more about her work in combining technology with pedagogy to help students collaborate more effectively.

What are you researching?

My current research focuses on developing networked technologies and pedagogies to support students' collaborative learning and critical thinking in classrooms. Acknowledging that technological and pedagogical support for collaborative learning and critical thinking is far behind the expanding need, in the past six years my team has developed a number of networked technologies and explored their potential in improving mathematics, science, Chinese and English learning outcomes in Singaporean schools.

One such technology is Group Scribbles (GS), which enhances the characteristics of Post-It notes in a computer medium by providing the key features (individual or group conceptual work, such as brainstorming, prioritizing or visualization activities) while avoiding some of the physical limitations. GS supports individual, group and whole class conceptual work (including writing and graphical representations) through the automated distribution, collection, and aggregation of ideas in both textual and graphic form.

Another technology that we recently developed is AppleTree (Assessing Processes and Products for LEarning by Tracking and Reporting Efficacy and Effectiveness), which supports both the enactment and assessment of collaborative argumentation-based learning in classrooms. AppleTree provides real-time multi-faceted assessment of social participation, cognitive processes and product outcomes to scaffold students' individual and group work.

In terms of pedagogy, we have also developed the Rapid Collaborative Knowledge Improvement (RCKI) model, which refers to the notion of democratizing participation and idea refinement in the context of live dynamic classroom settings; that is, face-to-face collaborative knowledge construction and improvement over the duration of a classroom session. RCKI is designed to address the constraints faced by teachers when they are designing collaborative activities; in particular, the short duration of a classroom lesson.

The notion of "rapid" stems from three main dimensions:

  1. within a limited time of participation;
  2. using lightweight form of expression; and
  3. enabling quick cycles of interaction.
RCKI therefore owns its distinguished value for guiding real classroom teaching and learning in which learning efficiency is emphasized.

In order to provide an intuitive grasp of RCKI for teachers and learners, especially for beginners, we proposed a three-staged Funnel Model. In the first stage of the model, "seek diversity of ideas," students need to analyse the problems and brainstorm initial ideas in collaboration. In the second stage, "pool collective wisdom," after reviewing the ideas proposed by all the group members, the group needs to further organize those ideas by preserving the good, editing the problematic, and deleting the repetitive and irrelevant, and thereby combine, synthesize and link the developed ideas. The students also need to evaluate the ideas and the organization of ideas developed in other groups. They will award and preserve the good ones and offer suggestions to rectify the problematic ones. In the third stage, "seek greater perfection," the students return to their own group to continue their work. They further improve their own group's product by addressing the comments received from the other groups. Once the learning activity is completed, the students reflect on their collaborative learning process from the first stage through to the third.

In the systematic intervention research on GS that spanned five years, 15 teachers, and 17 classes of students have participated in RCKI practices on a routine basis. More than 200 GS lessons have been designed and 300 GS lessons enacted in classrooms.

What has your research revealed?

Our research shows that by engaging students in collaborative learning activities using GS technology and RCKI pedagogy in the classroom, we can achieve improved learning outcomes, and more importantly, transform them into active participants in 21st century knowledge building practices.

In the Singaporean culture where individuals in a group do not automatically collaborate and act as a group, we found the RCKI model practically useful by providing a structured process for collaborative activities and critical thinking.

We also found real-time automated assessment to be important in supporting collaborative learning and critical thinking. By quickly appraising the current status of the collaboration process, AppleTree assessed both learning processes and products, individuals and groups, from both social and cognitive aspects, which in turn enabled regulations "on the fly" to bring about more effective and efficient collaboration among the students.

How can an eLearning practitioner apply your findings to their own work?

Not only in Singaporean schools, but in other teaching and learning environments around the world, we need to remain aware of the ever-growing need to acculturate students into collaborative learning practices. This is especially the case for newly formed groups and those whose members work under conditions where individual learning goals are predominant.

In such circumstances, scaffolds for collaboration, idea improvement, and critical thinking should be provided to bring the group work into fruition. Such scaffolds can be envisioned with appropriate pedagogical models and in-situ assessment of group learning progress in a networked learning environment.

With timely and appropriate scaffolding, collaborative learning and critical thinking can be engendered, and the group can be guided to function more effectively and efficiently.

Where can we find out more?

To learn more about our work, visit the Group Scribbles website and refer to the following publications:

  • Chen, W. and Looi, C. K. Active classroom participation in a Group Scribbles primary science classroom. British Journal of Educational Technology 42, 4 (2011), 676-686.
  • Looi, C. K. and Chen, W. Community-based individual knowledge construction in the classroom: a process-oriented account. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (SSCI) 26. 3 (2010), 202-213.
  • Looi, C. K., Chen, W. and Patton, C. M. Principles and enactment of rapid collaborative knowledge building in classrooms. Educational Technology 50, 5 (2010), 26-32.

The Group Scribbles and AppleTree projects are supported by a Singapore National Research Foundation Interactive Digital Media for Education Research Grant.

About the Author

Ryan Tracey is an Editorial Board Member for eLearn Magazine and an E-Learning Manager in the Australian financial services industry. His work focuses on adult learning in the workplace, and he maintains a particular interest in blended delivery, informal learning, and social media. Ryan has worked in corporate e-learning for over a decade, following several years in the higher education market. He holds a master's degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney, blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur, and can be found on Twitter as @ryantracey.

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