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3.1: Co-operative learning with computers

Brad Merrick

Faculty of Education - University of Sydney
Email: BMMerrick@s054.aone.net.au

Cooperative learning has been acknowledged in general educational practice for many years, with only some classroom teachers opting to develop their students abilities through meaningful interaction with their class members within the daily learning process. For many years classroom teachers have used cooperative based activities in conjunction with a variety of individualised and competitive strategies.

Before proceeding any further it is important to qualify what is actually meant by the term 'cooperative learning' within an educational context. A concise definition has been provided in "Learning Together Apart" by Anthony Kaye (1991) in a series of papers presented at a NATO conference on collaborative learning. He defines it as "individual learning occurring as a result of the group process" .

Deutsch cited in Johnson and Johnson, (1987.p.6)  outlines that "In cooperative learning situations there is a positive interdependence amongst students' goal attainments; students perceive that they can reach their learning goals if and only if the other students in the learning group also reach their goals".  Slavin cited in Nichols and Miller (1994, p.167) also points out that " when peers recognise that their rewards are dependent on the success of their teamates, they are more likely to provide emotional and tutorial support for learning".

Kaye, Deutsch and Slavin all emphasise that the role of each student within the collaboration is crucial to both the individual and collective outcome . This paper will attempt to examine some of the key factors that have been identified as being important in the way that cooperative learning procedures are used in education. Reference will be made to both the non-computer and computer based environment.

The use of Computers in Education

While a large amount of time and research has been devoted to the use of computers for individualised instruction in education through the use of CAI, CBI and CAL,  the notion of a cooperative classroom structure centred around computers still conjures up a a mixture of  uncertainty and interest amongst educators. Cooperative  learning with computers is continually being researched to ascertain more knowledge in the area.

As the need for information technology increases and new directives in subject syllabi  mandate that students are exposed to computers in the classroom, it is unrealistic to expect that the all schools can offer an individual computer for each student to work on. There will be a situation whereby the school has a laboratory of computers available for use or where a classroom teacher only has one or two computers available for student access. As Hooper, Temiyakarn and William, (1993) state, " In many schools, students work with computers in small groups because there are fewer computers than students"  This factor alone, has been influential, causing educators to reassess the use of technology in collaborative, group based learning situations.

At first educators were fearful that the use of computers would take the focus away from traditional student centred interaction and lead to a more insulated learning environment. Contrary to this it has been found that the use of computers in the classroom can lead to a change in peer interaction. Schofield (1995, p.206) emphasises that " in stark contrast to this fear, there is now an emerging consensus that the use of computers for instruction typically increases interaction amongst students".

It is this increase in interaction amongst students, derived from the use of computers,  that has created so much interest in the use of cooperative learning in a technology based setting.

Cooperative Learning - An Overview

It is well known that the use of peer interaction in small group learning leads to a variety of understandings for the students involved. It is stressed that students can gain from both the giving of suggestions and receiving of answers within the group. It is also known that these processes can develop cognitive skills specifically in a numbers of ways which include:-

It is the active involvement whereby students make connections with new and old information that really helps to develop long term understanding of concepts,  filling in missing pieces of the learning process that may not have been developed in other learning situations . This process of information transferal is directly linked to the constructivists' view whereby learners actively construct new understandings (Vygosotsky, 1978;Wertsch, 1984; Wittrock, 1990 in Webb, Trooper et al 1995). It is the realisation of these processes that have engaged teachers in the application of group instruction.

Another reason why the cooperative process is preferable for teachers to use  is that the students are encouraged to focus on team based learning goals (i.e. objectives) rather than performance goals  (i.e. trying to look good to others). Elliot and Dweck, (1988) cited in Nichols and Miller (1994, p.168) stress that students with a focus on performance goals tend to avoid challenges and have less persistence when difficulties are encountered. Another feature of cooperative learning is presented by Ames,(1984)  in Nichols and Miller (1994) where it was  identified that students own self perception of ability increased following group based success in the learning environment. Nichols and Miller also emphasised that students in cooperative classes were much more learning goal oriented while also having a much higher perception of their ability than students working in traditional classroom structures.

Despite the positive features of the cooperative environment presented in much of the non-computer centred literature, the simple placement of students into groups does not guarantee the establishment of good peer relationships and effective learning. Johnson and Johnson (1987) outline the that there is a large differentiation between teaching in traditional mode with groups of students and successfully attaining goals of cooperative instruction.

It is the nature of the peer interaction that develops qualities such as positive interdependence amongst students, individual accountability, face to face interaction, development of cooperative skills and time for group processing (Kaplan and Stauffer, 1994). As presented by Johnson and Johnson in  'Learning together and Alone'. (1987.p 29), " a cooperative goal structure with individuals encouraging and facilitating each other's efforts to achieve will support high intrinsic motivation and high emotional involvement in learning ".

Johnson and Johnson (1987. p. 25) also outlined the following outcomes that can be derived from the development of peer relationships and cooperation amongst students.

  1. Students learn and develop attitudes, values , skills and information unobtainable from adults,
  2. Students learn to model pro social behaviour,
  3. Students learn to tolerate delays in gratification,
  4. Students learn to view problems from perspectives other than their own,
  5. Students develop a sense of autonomy,
  6. Students develop associations that allow them to share feelings, thoughts and aspirations,
  7. Students develop their own definition of themselves,
  8. Students learn to maintain working relationships with one another,
  9. Students develop a greater sense of productivity by working with their peers, and
  10. Students ambitions are more clearly defined.

As already pointed out, much of the recent research into small group and cooperative learning in non-computer settings  reinforces that there are a wide array of cognitive and social benefits to be gained from group instruction including greater learning (Johnson,1981; Sharan, 1980; Slavin, 1980,1983 in Webb 1987).

One of the assumed benefits that is often raised when comparing individualised and cooperative learning is the self-regulated pace at which those in the cooperative structure can process information as opposed to the more formal, directed instruction often presented in the more individualised traditional classroom. Despite this assumption, Nichols and Miller highlighted that the pace at which students progress in cooperative learning conditions does not create changes in achievement and motivation, rather it is the  processes involved with cooperation that improve learning and stimulate student interest. In the study they carried out it was intersting to note that there was an immediate change in the motivation level of learning amongst students as soon as the cooperative group members were placed back into a traditional lecture format.

Cooperative Learning - Computer Based Environment

During the past decade much more research has been carried out into the use of computers for cooperative learning, and because of this, many specific components within the teaching and learning process have received attention or been altered accordingly to follow the direction of research.

In 1987 Webb presented a paper which analysed a series of studies that had looked at the effect of computers in small learning groups. Webb's criteria for  selecting studies were :-

  1. That they were conducted in an educational environment,
  2. That they measured individual behaviour and learning,
  3. That they had measured peer interaction or learning outcomes as opposed to just making anecdotal observations.

This paper outlined a number of significant findings that relate to the way in which computers should be used in the cooperative learning environment. It made observations in a number of key areas.

Group Work versus Individual Work

Nine in the total of fourteen studies analysed illustrated that there was no difference between the group or individual learning outcomes of students while five of the studies selected showed that there were stronger outcomes for those involved in the group process as opposed to individual instruction. Although there were many different variables that may have effected the outcomes of these individual studies, the important  point to be noted was that computer based group work was not seen as being detrimental to the learning process (Webb, 1987. p.195). The fourteen studies presented covered a wide range of student learning levels ranging from preschool through to undergraduate and encompassed a variety of computer based activities which gave validity to the conclusions that were presented. Conversely, Webb also identified that was no completed study had shown a significant increase in learning when the students worked alone on computers.

Becker 1986 cited in Webb 1987 identified that the introduction of computers into the classroom greatly effected the amount of students who engaged in peer tutoring or helping in both non-computer and computer based activities, ranging from a 10-50% increase overall.

Interactions Between learning setting and Student Characteristics

Webb also made an interesting observation by referencing the study by Sutter and Reid (1969) which assessed the effectiveness of CAI with undergraduates, identifying two other factors that can influence the effectiveness of learning. Despite the fact that there were no obvious variances found in student outcome when working in groups or individually, there was a definite link discovered between students who favoured working alone (low skills in sociability and high anxiety) in comparison to the students who chose to learn in the group environment (low levels of anxiety and high levels of sociability). This observation raised the need to consider personality and its effect upon the cooperative learning process.

On Task Behaviour , Helping in the Classroom and Cognition

Much of the research supports the notion that peer instruction in a computer environment leads to much more time 'on task' than that of  the  non- computer environment. Clements and Nastassi (1985) reported that students spent less time discussing non academic activities in a computer based environment than in the normal group instruction setting.

One of the important components identified in the group process is the 'helping' behaviour of the students. That is, how students interact and assist their peers. Do they provide direct answers, provide information that leads towards a solution or type the correct answer into the keyboard ? It is the understandings specifically associated with these types behaviours that will assist researchers understand the intricacies of student functioning within the computer centred, cooperative environment

Research has identified that this 'helping' procedure is most effective when there are pairs of students working at a computer, with almost 100% of questions asked being  answered (Webb, Ender and Lewis, 1986). Studies on groups of three students carried out by Webb (1984) showed that more than 28% of 'helping' requests within the group remained unanswered. Based upon this statistic one can assume that the larger the group size using the computer, the less successful the 'helping' process becomes. The most successful group structure for effective learning is placing students in 'pairs'. Carmichael, Burnett, Higginson, Moore and Pollard (1985) in Nastasi, Clements and Battista (1990) state that "that there is evidence to suggest that pairs of children  ....  become committed to a common goal; that is , the problem is mutually 'owned' ".

It has been identified that the most important component of this 'helping' interaction is the actual giving and receiving of explanations specifically related to the learning process for it is these responses that effect cognition. Webb (1987, p. 198) identifies the three possible kinds of help that may arise in this interaction as:-

Many educators feel that the benefits of cooperative methodology have their foundations in the cognitive processes that take place during the 'helping' - clarification phase of the group work.

Recent research in this area has highlighted that it is the re orientation of ones own point of view in relation to others that maximises the learning experience. Bearison (1982, p.203) cited in Nastasi, Clements & Battista (1990) said that  "individuals face others who contradict their own intuitively derived concepts and points of view, and thereby create cognitive conflicts whose resolutions result in the construction of higher forms of reasoning".  This process, which is known as cognitive conflict is seen as being very worthwhile. Students who undergo changes as a result of experiencing conflict during the group learning processes score higher on tests of achievement and perspective taking than students who are encouraged to avoid disagreement within in the cooperative learning process (Nastasi, Battista, Clements, 1990.p.150).

Additional benefits of cooperative computer instruction

Johnson, Johnson and Stanne 1986 clearly outline the following additional benefits of using cooperative learning  in the classroom. They include:-

In this study the data presented also identified the fact that the very nature of a cooperative group structure mandated that all students communicate more openly with each other with comments relative to the task at hand, reducing contact with the teacher whereas the competitive and individualised environment encouraged more socialising and work off task with many more comments being directed at the teacher. This study also suggested that groups of students in cooperative structures benefit from clearer goal structures prior to engaging in the actual learning process.

Effects of Cooperative learning and Learning control on Students

One interesting treatment of students was carried out in a research by Hooper, Temiyakarn and Williams  (1993) ,  where they looked specifically at the effects of having students completing Computer Based Instruction programs individually or in cooperative learning groups across the range of high and average ability students.

In this research it was identified that cooperative learning improved the overall achievement of high and average students on tests of higher level learning (p.14). Findings also identified that the student's ability to generalise was greatly enhanced following group work than when studying alone. It also found that problem solving skills of students improved significantly when learning had taken place in a collaborative environment.

Importantly this study also identified that students who worked in the group structure displayed more positive attitudes towards the collaborative learning process and learning in general. This finding is another positive indicator in support of cooperative computer environments.

Effects of Group work on Individuals

Another very influential finding relative to the group process and individual outcomes was identified by (Webb, Ender and Lewis, 1986) whereby students in groups imitated the behaviour of their peers and utilised students within the group as a form of resource. Looking at this result suggests that teachers could modify student behaviour more effectively and encourage positive behaviour in group setting as opposed to individual settings.

Conclusion - Educational Implications

As identified in the selected research articles presented and the nature of discussion in this paper, cooperative learning has a many educational benefits to offer the classroom practitioner within a computer based environment. These include increased motivation, higher levels of learning, positive attitudes to learning , more effective problem solving skills, the development of social skills, greater levels of achievement, more time 'on task', faster rates of learning and more developed cognition amongst students.  The research across a range of educational domains certainly seems to support the use of  more cooperatively structured learning experiences.

As with all educational practice, it will ultimately be up to the teacher to decide which form of instruction will be used to achieve particular learning goals. As Johnson and Johnson (1987) defined, it is essential that the learning activity and goal structure (cooperative, competitive or individual) meets the required educational outcome. Whether teaching conceptual learning, drill-review or mastery of simple information and skills (p.17) teachers will need to utilise technology accordingly.

The broader and more complex implication of using computers with group structures in the classroom is that it will require that teachers reassess their own role in the classroom and the needs of the students within their care.  Depending upon professional experience, attitudes towards learning and knowledge of methodology this will vary greatly.  As Kaplan and Stauffer (1994, p.13) highlight,  many features of the teaching process will require evaluation and modification including :-

This list of features is in no way conclusive but it does give the classroom practitioner an indication of the enormous amount of change cooperative learning structures will require if they are to be implemented with success.

As Clark (1983) cited in Johnson, Johnson and Stanne (1986) stated,  "computers are vehicles that do not in themselves change the consequences of instruction".  All teachers have a responsibility to change these 'consequences' through the use of effective and appropriate learning structures, such as cooperative learning.


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