Cooperative Learning Activities using the Internet at German Schools

[English version of talk in Japanese held at the 1999 Media Education Research Seminar by Matsushita Audio Visual Education Foundation, Kouchi, Japan, Nov. 12, 1999]

Outline

The following is an attempt to put together some typical examples of cooperative learning activities with the Internet at German schools, a topic that to my knowledge has not been comprehensively dealt with so far.

I. Research Setting

Terminology

In German educational technology (or rather "media pedagogics") CSCL (computer supported collaborative/cooperative learning - cf. Koschmann 1996) is mostly being discussed under the term of "cooperative learning" ("kooperatives Lernen"), but also under its synonyms "collaborative learning" ("kollaboratives Lernen") or "group learning" ("Gruppenlernen") (Hesse 1997:254).

Criteria for networked cooperative learning projects

In a 1995 article Magenheim and Opitz discuss the pedagogical foundations of computer supported group learning in social studies classes. The authors state that several concepts originally developed for the project method in general can be used also as criteria for CSCL settings [the following are my summarizing translations]:

(Magenheim/Opitz 1995:129)

Material

Although, taking the criteria above, a lot of Internet projects carried out at German schools can actually be called cooperative learning activities, only few of them are explicitly documented online under this label. Some case studies are being reported in educational journals, but I don't know about any comprehensive study of the collaborative aspects and their impact on students' learning.

I took the following approach to search for online resources about collaborative learning at schools:

  1. Questionnaire At the beginning of September 1999 I sent out a questionnaire to roughly 60 Internet moderators, multiplicators, people from ministries of education and maintainers of educational servers in those federal states that had contact addresses mentioned on their web pages about Internet education at school. I asked the multiplicators to forward the questionnaire to teachers who conduct cooperative learning activities (or to alternatively point me to relevant resources). Alltogether 10 people responded, 7 told me that they had forwarded the e-mail or introduced other possible informants to me. But eventually only 3 teachers actually answered my questions.

  2. A search on the German Educational Server (dbs.schule.de) and other educational servers for keywords like "koop*", "kollab*". Most "cooperative" activities found reported about school cooperation with external partners and only very few hits led to actual accounts of pupil-to-pupil cooperation.

  3. Through sites on educational policy to real projects? Like in many other countries, in German educational policies in recent years a clear trend towards individual school profiles, fostering of self directed as well as team learning activities, interdisciplinary project work and media use, driven by pedagogical, social, and business demands, can be observed. Some of the main documents (e.g. the BLK recommendations of 1995: http://www.iid.de/schule/sonstiges/heft44.html, new curricula and model projects) are now retrievable online (but not in every state yet). Nevertheless the model project links don't necessarily lead to actual project evaluations.

One early example of a telecommunication in education model project, conducted 1993-96 mainly in the state of Hesse, was called "KOKOS" (Cooperative Learning in Networked Systems - Development of Lessons using Networks for Learning together in Europe). Within this project several groupware systems and model lessons have been developed, among them a groupware "Decide" for decisions making, and "Balance" for political planning. The software is available for download, but actual experiences are not documented on the project page (http://www.bildung.hessen.de/abereich/inform/archiv/kokos/index.htm).
One concrete social science project developed under the framework of KOKOS, the "Trasse" project dealing with route planning for streets and railways has been described in print by [Magenheim/Opitz 1995], but this article, too, doesn't report results of the actual project implementation. So without further investigation for me it remains hard to assess, what kind of impact those systems might have had. Maybe the rapid Internet development with its huge amount of interesting new possibilities has prevented such specially developed systems from getting very popular.
Recent big model projects don't focus on the aspect of cooperation alone, but in many ways they indirectly support Internet projects with cooperative elements
(cf. http://www.blk-bonn.de/mv-gliederung.htm).

Further procedure

Because of the apparent lack of systematic information on the subject, in section II I will try and categorize German Internet projects with cooperative elements into some basic types I found to be common in the school networking scene. Because the actual cooperative activities, results and evalutaions are mostly not documented in detail, this has to remain a somewhat superficial categorization according to the general project contexts, the visible forms of interaction and the technology used.

II. Common types of Internet based cooperative learning at German schools

1. Student to student cooperation

Joint database building

Joint database building dates back to the early days of German school internetworking. It can be conducted on a low tech base, asynchronously, the participants' number is scalable and the degree of cooperation very variable. The joint product can be used for further learning activities in different disciplines. A lot of environmental projects are suitable for this kind of approach. Cooperation can be sought with interested parties ranging from local authorities, which often don't collect the data as detailed as the schools, up to the international level.
Among the educational benefits are the closeness to real problems, awareness for diversity can be risen, factors that influence the quality of our environment are easily detectable and thus responsibility for one's own environment can be recognized. Learning outside of school (nature observation, measuring; cooperation with third parties) can be combined with activities inside of school (data processing, analysis, presentation etc.).

Examples:

Some more detailed examples, where value is being added to the mere data collection, are also available.
Activities within Bionet have become more comprehensive throughout the years, e.g. the Environment and Health (E&H) project (http://www.bionet.schule.de/health/) with some of its sub-projets:
The medical plants database (http://www.bionet.schule.de/health/healmed/index.html) does not only compare occurences in different countries and regions, but aims at writing a medical plants guide book and developing an HTML script for scientific classification of medical plants.
The project on environmentally induced risks of health (http://www.bionet.schule.de/health/healrisk/index.html), e.g. distribution of ticks, will probably be extended to a cooperation with forestry offices all over Lower Saxony in order to become the main resource for tick occurence in this state.

Email (communication) projects

Email projects have been very popular since the times of UUCP school networking and teachers working on private accounts only. Features like the low bandwidth needed, asynchronous communication across timezones, flexibility with respect to individual, small group or large mailing list communication and the variety of possible topics and partners still make this genre attractive for schools. Different degrees of controll are possible (collective sending of mail or personal accounts for students). If external parties are involved, mail projects need good preparation and moderation. Special value here come from the fact that students can "meet" real persons as opposed to abstract subject matter. For many of them language learning now makes sense, because they want to communicate with their peers. Friendships can evolve that lead to real life meetings and long term contacts.

Examples

Joint research and web presentation (one class / club)

Together with e-mail projects this is probably the most common form of collaborative Internet activities, one reason being that it can be conducted in the context of different subject lessons as well as interdisciplinary or club activities, over a short time or as a long term project, with partners or without. Students help each other with finding resources and presenting, the teacher can take the role of a guide or moderator.
Among the activities for such a project are web searching for certain information, selecting, evaluating, synthesizing, presenting. Several small teams can take different tasks, e.g. background research in the library or environment, web search, taking photos, drawing pictures, web layout etc.
Valuable experiences can result from coping with masses of different kinds of information, discussions about suitable material, design decisions, coordination between different tasks, or learning through presentation.

Examples:

Collaborative writing

This can be done on a low tech (email) basis with students from the same class, but also from different countries, from low grades as well as high. Coordination is important, so that participants keep interested, communication additional to the special topic of discussion can be helpful. In contrast to some mere communication projects the result is a common product.
Some of the special potential of this type of interaction lies in the chance to learn about different ways of thinking on the same topic, development of creativity and language abilities, flexibility and willingness to compromise are being required, learning to keep on schedule is important.

Examples:

Working on competition entries

Although whole schools and classes can participate in Internet competitions, it seems like participation of small teams in international competitions like ThinkQuest is especially attractive. Students have a clear aim, prices and public comparison of achievements can foster high motivation, independent concentrated work on a certain topic within a limited time can make this an intensive experience. Sometimes international cooperation is required, and professional presentation is important.

Examples:

Use of shared workspaces

The product probably most popular right now for educational projects in Germany is BSCW - Basic Support for Cooperative Work (http://bscw.gmd.de/). Although currently mainly used for teacher to teacher cooperation (e.g. on the educational server of NRW "learn-line" http://www.learn-line.nrw.de/) and projects on a university level, it is being promoted for use by students too and has the potential of becoming a common tool for upper school grades in the future.
The workspace can be used with ordinary web browsers and is platform independent. Documents can be uploaded, annotated, altered; social awareness and communication features are also built in. It is free for educational use, and within Germany it is also convenient to use GMD's public server so that no own server is required. Interfaces exist in several languages (Japanese not yet - cooperation would be welcome!). As a general platform it is usable for a variety of tasks for groups from a local to an international distribution.

Examples for school trials with BSCW can be found at Ludger Humbert's talks page http://in.Hagen.de/humbert/vortraege/welcome.html.

2. Cooperation with teachers and external parties

There is also a broad field of cooperation by students with partners other than fellow students, the most natural new type of cooperation beginning at school.

Teacher-student joint learning / partnership

It is increasingly recognized that the new media bring about a special chance for a new partnership at school, because in this area students often are more knowledgable than their teachers. A couple of projects try to encourage joint learning and tutoring of teachers by students.

Examples:

Community projects / Local Agenda 21

Opening up the school into the local community is one of the aims many telecommunication projects at schools try to achieve. Not only contacts to people of the students' own age and social context, but to many different groups and institutions are built up. This can be libraries, kindergardens, hospitals, senior citizens, foreigners, adult education centers, companies, environmental groups, citizen initiatives, universities and many others. Recently Connections to Local Agenda offices and initiatives can be observed in many places.

One Example is K.i.d.S. Part, where children participate in planning of a playground partly via the Internet.
(http://borneo.gmd.de/MS/KidsPart/)

Student companies

With computers and Internet connections getting cheaper and entering more and more families, students often teach themselves Internet skills, especially in the field of layout and publishing. Some not only publish their schools home page or student newspaper, but start to take on real life jobs under real life conditions - which of course need a lot of cooperation skills. In many cases they manage the online presence of local companies, either on their own, or in groups of fellow students or jobbing regularely in an Internet publishing or web hosting company.

Sometimes schools encourage students to think in terms of real business contacts by building a practice-company within school or simulating negotiations.
Sometimes teachers and students actually make money for their school together by teaching Internet classes to the general public (like at Altenforst-Akademie: http://www.altenforst.de/akademie/).
And sometimes students just create their own company like Webfactory (http://webfactory.de), which started as an Internet Club at Clara-Schumann-Gymnasium in Bonn (http://www.clara-online.de/).


References

[BLK 1995]
Bund-Laender-Kommission fuer Bildungsplanung und Forschungsfoerderung: Materialien zur Bildungsplanung und zur Forschungsfoerderung Heft 44 Medienerziehung in der Schule - Orientierungsrahmen - 1995
http://www.iid.de/schule/sonstiges/heft44.html

[Hesse et.al. 1997]
F. Hesse, B. Garsoffky, A. Hron 1997
"Interface-Design fuer computerunterstuetztes kooperatives Lernen"
In: Issing, L.J., P. Klima (Ed.) Information und Lernen mit Multimedia, 2. Aufl. 1997 Weinheim: Psychologie Verlags Union: 253-67

[Koschmann 1996]
Koschmann, Timothy (Ed.)
CSCL: Theory and Practice, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1996

[Magenheim, Opitz 1995]
Magenheim, J., G. Opitz
"Computerunterstuetzte Gruppenarbeit im Unterricht - Das Projekt Trasse."
in: S. Schubert (Ed.) Innovative Konzepte fuer die Ausbildung. 6. GI-Fachtagung Informatik und Schule (INFOS '95) Berlin u.a. Springer 1995: 128-37

[Wessner et. al. 1999]
M. Wessner, H.-R. Pfister, Y. Miao
"Umgebungen fuer computerunterstuetztes kooperatives Lernen in der Schule"
in: A. Schwill (Ed.): Informatik und Schule. Fachspezifische und fachuebergreifende didaktische Konzepte. 8. GI-Fachtagung Informatik und Schule, INFOS99, Potsdam, 22.-25.9.1999 Berlin etc.: Springer 1999: 86-93


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