Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age

Below is an excerpt from Cathy Davidson’s article on her collaborative learning strategies at Duke.  For the complete article, go to The Chronicle Review, (August 26, 2011) at http://chronicle.com/article/Collaborative-Learning-for-the/128789/?sid=at&utm_source=at&utm_medium=en

Collaborative Learning for the Digital Age

By Cathy N. Davidson

. . . .

This class [“This Is Your Brain on the Internet”] was structured to be peer-led, with student interest and student research driving the design. “Participatory learning” is one term used to describe how we can learn together from one another’s skills. “Cognitive surplus” is another used in the digital world for that “more than the sum of the parts” form of collaborative thinking that happens when groups think together online.

We used a method that I call “collaboration by difference.” Collaboration by difference is an antidote to attention  blindness. It signifies that the complex and interconnected problems of our time cannot be solved by anyone alone, and that those who think they can act in an entirely focused, solitary fashion are undoubtedly missing the main point
that is right there in front of them, thumping its chest and staring them in the face. Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction. It always seems more cumbersome in the short run to seek out divergent and even quirky opinions, but it turns out to be efficient in the end and necessary for success if one seeks an outcome that is unexpected and sustainable. That’s what I was aiming for.

I had the students each contribute a new entry or amend an existing entry on Wikipedia, or find another public forum where they could contribute to public discourse. There was still a lot of criticism about the lack of peer review in Wikipedia entries, and some professors were banning Wikipedia use in the classroom. I didn’t understand that. Wikipedia is an educator’s fantasy, all the world’s knowledge shared voluntarily and free in a format theoretically available to all, and which anyone can edit. Instead of banning it, I challenged my students to use their knowledge to make Wikipedia better. All conceded that it had turned out to be much harder to get their work to “stick” on Wikipedia than it was to write a traditional term paper.

Given that I was teaching a class based on learning and the Internet, having my students blog was a no-brainer. I supplemented that with more traditionally structured academic writing, a term paper. When I had both samples in front of me, I discovered something curious. Their writing online, at least in their blogs, was incomparably better than in the traditional papers. In fact, given all the tripe one hears from pundits about how the Internet dumbs our kids down, I was shocked that elegant bloggers often turned out to be the clunkiest and most pretentious of research-paper writers. Term papers rolled in that were shot through with jargon, stilted diction, poor word choice, rambling thoughts, and even pretentious grammatical errors (such as the ungrammatical but proper-sounding use of “I” instead of “me” as an object of a preposition).

But it got me thinking: What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in college—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process? I hadn’t thought of that until I read my students’ lengthy, weekly blogs and saw the difference in quality. If students are trying to figure out what kind of writing we want in order to get a good grade, communication is secondary. What if “research paper” is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?

Research indicates that, at every age level, people take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers than when it is to be judged by teachers. Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers. Longitudinal studies of student writers conducted by Stanford University’s Andrea Lunsford, a professor of English, assessed student writing at Stanford year after year. Lunsford surprised everyone with her findings that students were becoming more literate, rhetorically dexterous, and fluent—not less, as many feared. The Internet, she discovered, had allowed them to develop their writing.