Beyond the Paper Screen / Collaborative learning makes everyone a successful learner, even online

REUTERS/file photo
The University of Redlands in Redlands, California May 28, 2014.

From the Marx Brothers film “Horse Feathers” (1932) to the more recent movies “Legally Blond” (2001) and “Old School” (2003), popular culture representations depict the college campus as a liminal space — a transitional space detached from the rest of society, where the norms of mainstream society are suspended, even reversed. Small private colleges are especially prone to the satirical take, exemplified by “Animal House” (1978), presumably modeled after a top-rated liberal arts college in the United States. The worst of the college partyers are the most successful professionals of the future.

Like all popular culture representations, the portrayal of the college campus as liminal space contains a kernel of truth. Academic institutions themselves held other-worldliness as their privilege for much of the history of higher education. Times have changed, however, and more and more college students and their parents demand “value” for their tuition dollars. Even small liberal arts institutions like mine, which used to shy away from a professionally oriented curriculum, have no choice but to respond to these new demands by pitching the practical virtues of their brand of college education. Now, the faculty — many with no job skills or work experience outside academia — are scrambling to figure out how to teach professionally relevant skills in their classroom.

Two years ago, when I returned to teaching after an administrative stint, I decided to take this challenge head on. I discovered that some of the most important attributes employers look for in job candidates were teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal skills. As an anthropologist, I also knew that human beings were “social animals,” who liked to stick around with each other whenever the conditions permitted. So what could I do as the instructor to produce these conditions in my classroom, where students would find it possible, and even desirable, to bring their efforts together and learn with/from one another? This is how my course “Collaborative Ethnography” came into being this spring, in which students are asked to work together and make sense of the impact of the COVID pandemic around us.

Easier said than done, as always, it involved a very steep learning curve, not only for myself but also for my students. The first challenge was the negotiation process to decide what our collective goals were and what process made the most sense. For me, this process was nerve-wracking because I had to relinquish my taken-for-granted control over the course content and learning process. For many of my students, offending others or being seen to dominate the decision-making process seemed to be significant concerns. They also didn’t know me and how to gauge my claim to let them decide how they learn in this course. But much of the nervousness came, I think, from losing the comforting certainty of a set curriculum they have been accustomed to since kindergarten.

It was — ironically — the teamwork that helped us through this first collaborative challenge. Students had already been working in small teams and they chose wisely to use this mechanism to generate consensus. After a couple of meetings, each team put forward a set of recommendations, which was synthesized into a collaborative work plan that everyone found to be a good and fair compromise. Some students wondered afterward whether it was necessary to take a whole week to go through this negotiation process; from my point of view, it was more than worth the time we spent. That early student feedback not only made my course better than what I initially proposed, but also, it worked as an effective team-building exercise, which forced us to work together under significant time pressure (I did give them a decision deadline) to make a high-stakes decision (after all, their grades would be based on our collective agreement).

Students went on to learn more about collaborative research methods and then to conduct interview exercises. The moment of truth arrived shortly after the midterm when their interview reports were due. Even though it fell during the stressful time of the semester, every single one of their interview reports were turned in on time, uniformly well-written, thorough, and informative. It was a testament to each student’s commitment to their collaborative endeavor, which in turn, made the meaningful analysis possible in the next sequence of peer-driven activities. Most of what I did was take care of the logistics — sending reminders, setting up breakout groups, etc. — so their collaborative work would go smoothly.

The end of the semester is fast approaching, and I can’t wait to read what my students have to say about their experiences in their final essays. In some ways, though, I already know what we are taking away from this course. Yes, COVID-19 took a heavy toll on us, and no, our lives will never be the same. Perhaps these findings merely confirm what we already know; yet hearing what people had to say and sharing our thoughts with one another gave us new perspectives on our own experiences. Equally important, we overcame the limitations of online communication and figured out how to work as a team. Robert Gagne, the founding figure in the field of instructional design, defines learning as “a process that leads to a change in a learner’s disposition and capabilities that can be reflected in behavior.” By this definition, I have no doubt in my mind, we will all conclude this semester as successful learners.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.