Using computers to support student collaboration has significant positive effects on their learning, according to a comprehensive new review of more than 400 research studies conducted since 2000.
The new findings suggest an important three-way intersection between computers and digital technologies, getting students to work together, and employing extra learning supports and tools.
Using such strategies and technologies in conjunction had a more positive impact than having individual students use computers, or having students collaborate without using computers, according to the new study, titled “The Role of Collaboration, Computer Use, Learning Environments, and Supporting Strategies in CSCL: A Meta-Analysis.”
“Learners with computer-supported collaborative learning achieved significantly greater knowledge gains, exhibited better skills, and had more positive perceptions than their counterparts in computer-supported individual learning,” wrote researchers Juanjuan Chen and Minhong Wang (University of Hong Kong), Paul A. Kirchner (Open University of the Netherlands), and Chin-Chung Tsai (National Taiwan Normal University).
At the same time, the researchers wrote, “when comparing computer-supported collaborative learning with traditional face-to-face collaborative learning, we found significant positive effects of computer use on knowledge gains, skill acquisition, students’ perceptions, group task performances, and social interactions.”
A variety of “learning environments” and tools, such as virtual simulations and software features designed to track group members’ knowledge levels and participation, were also found to have positive effects on student learning.
The consistently strong, beneficial impacts will likely be viewed as a boost for schools that have rushed to embrace digital devices and software, such as Google’s Chromebooks and G Suite productivity tools, that promise to enhance collaboration as a key “21st century skill.”
Using Technology to Collaborate
The new study is a meta-analysis synthesizing the results of 425 studies conducted between 2000 and 2016. Many involved college students, and/or were conducted outside of the United States.
The focus was on studies examining the impact of applying information and communication technologies to support collaboration, defined as the process of two or more students working together to achieve a common task.
The researchers focused on outcomes such as knowledge improvement; acquisition of skills such as problem-solving; students’ attitudes and beliefs about learning and themselves; and social interactions, such as exhibiting teamwork or sharing information within a group.
Overall, they wrote, “many studies have reported favorable effects of [computer-supported collaborative learning] on learning outcomes.”
Among the examples they call out:
- A study that “compared the impacts of the Internet Virtual Physics Laboratory with a traditional laboratory on collaborative problem solving among four classes of 150 Taiwanese 10th graders.” After six weeks, the students who used the virtual laboratory to observe physics phenomena, measure variables, and analyze data were found to have “significantly better science process- and problem-solving skills.”
- A randomized experiment compared the effected of computer-mediated and face-to-face communication on student learning in the context of a seven-session task for American teacher-education undergraduate students. Those who used tools such as Skype and Google Docs to communicate, rather than communicating solely face-to-face, “submitted significantly higher-quality essays.”
- A study of a two-week collaborative learning project in which some students made collaborative annotations to a text via paper-and-pencil and some did so via a digital reading platform found that the latter group “significantly improved their reading attitudes compared with their counterparts.”
Such results were generally consistent across a range of studies and research questions.
Overall, the researchers found, students working in computer-supported collaborative-learning environments had “significantly better knowledge achievement than those who used computer-based individual learning.” They also better developed skills such as argumentation, critical thinking, reasoning, and elaboration.
Collaborating with technology, rather than without, likewise had statistically significant positive effects on everything from learners’ skill acquisition, to the quality of group performance on learning tasks, to the quality of social interactions within groups.
And among the learning environments and supportive tools and strategies that were found to be most helpful were “group awareness” tools, used to monitor or visualize group members’ interactions and provide cues about their knowledge and experience levels; visual representation tools, such as concept maps; and scripted guidance with direction on how to collaborate effectively.
Here’s how the researchers summarized the importance of those tools and strategies.
“Computer-supported collaborative learning goes beyond simply providing students with computers, electronic textbooks, and discussion forums for collaborative learning,” they wrote.
“More often, it is critically important to incorporate specific learning systems, tools, or strategies to foster productive group interactions and achieve desirable outcomes.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.