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Collaboration | Q&A

Informal Collaborative Learning at the Tipping Point

Earlier this year, Ron Danielson, vice provost for Information Services and CIO at Santa Clara University, predicted that in 2011, "New collaborative learning styles will be reflected and supported in learning space designs." Informal collaboration spaces may play as important a role as formal classrooms in Danielson's prediction. With the end of 2011 closing in fast, Danielson said he thinks we've reached the point where IT leaders must make sure their campuses offer ample informal collaborative learning spaces to accommodate a groundswell of student interest in learning collaborations with peers.

Danielson speaks from experience on his own campus.

Three and a half years ago, he led the design and construction of SCU's Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library, the university's learning commons and technology center--a 194,000 sq.-ft. signature campus building that is also home to the traditional library. The Learning Commons is now a central focus of the campus and strongly influences the community and educational processes throughout the university. A major design element of the Learning Commons is its support of collaborations, both formal and informal, with resources and spaces that are accessible for use by all faculty, staff, and students.

Campus Technology asked Danielson where we stand now, as 2011 comes to a close, specifically in supporting informal learning collaborations among students.

Mary Grush: Why should IT leaders and academics be concerned with informal collaborative learning environments for students?

Ron Danielson: I truly believe that collaboration has tremendous benefits for education in terms of getting students involved with and engaged in what they are learning--something that, as educators, we have been trying forever to find ways to do. Students creating their own informal collaborative groups, working towards a common learning goal, bouncing ideas off one another, exploring concepts, and expanding on their understanding of those ideas and concepts are things that seem to come naturally out of the mere availability of collaborative learning spaces and the resulting opportunities for informal collaborations by small groups of students.

Unfortunately we have been stuck with a physical plant that for the most part goes back to the lecture halls and study carrels of the Middle Ages, built around an isolationist learning style. Until we design new learning spaces or modify our existing spaces--or at least elaborate them with supplemental spaces that support informal student collaborations--we're not going to have the impact that we want on student learning relative to collaboration.

Grush: Should learning space design include the virtual spaces as well as the physical spaces when we consider these kinds of informal collaborative learning environments?

Danielson: It certainly should. Virtual space design is important for a number of populations. It's important for distance learning environments, certainly, where we want to continue to have similar collaborative approaches to learning as we have in face-to-face environments. And it is important as we move to serve more nontraditional populations, in which people have other responsibilities and need to interact at different times or are physically distributed. In SCU's case, the example would be the working adults in most of our masters programs.

But the difficulty with online learning environments is that we are still in early generations of tools that will support collaboration. And I haven't seen any tools yet where the medium doesn't get in the way of the collaboration. For example, in a face-to-face environment, if you observe a group of students interacting around an idea at a white board, where they each have a different color pen and they are all scrambling to get their ideas down, you'll see a lot of interaction. Given the rate at which that happens in a physical space, I haven't seen any online technology that could mediate and support that as effectively.

Grush: Are the concerns you just mentioned about online collaborative tools only about their use in distance-based education programs?

Danielson: No. I'm talking about their use in on-campus programs as well. For example, if some of our graduate students got on a WebEx session rather than coming down to the Learning Commons and using one of our collaborative rooms, the mediating technology still has a hindering effect on that interaction.

Grush: What is in the nature of technology-based, online collaboration tools that tends to be cumbersome or gets in the way somehow?

Danielson: I think they're just not fast enough, and they're not fluid enough. Certainly they will get there eventually, but the immediacy of the interactions is not as great at this time as one sees face-to-face.

Grush: I've observed that in the informal collaborative spaces that you have in the Learning Commons at SCU--where small groups of students find their niches and collaborate--students seem to feel at home and they seem to feel supported both by their group and by the technology around them. This approach to studying seems very popular, as you can see if you visit the Learning Commons during the academic year. Is this a new trend?

Danielson: Our experience with students here in the Learning Commons--and at other locations on campus where there are environments in which students can get together in study groups--is that this is not a new trend, but it certainly is something that is a growing phenomenon. I would argue that informal collaboration like this is something that small segments of our student bodies discovered long ago as being supportive of learning. When I was a graduate student, and when I was teaching, I saw that often times the best students would create their own study groups. They wouldn't limit themselves to studying individually. They'd go find a classroom that wasn't being used and they'd set up around a chalkboard and explore ideas. I think what's happened is that idea has now been popularized and these activities brought into and supported by the Learning Commons or by other campus entities.

Grush: Is the interest in informal collaborations coming out of course design?

Danielson: Not really. It's not just students working on assigned course projects who we see doing collaborative learning. In fact, those more formal uses of the spaces, though of course they exist, would be in the minority. The fact is, it's mostly students from the same class who are drawn together to help one another understand the concepts, or it's students from a residence hall floor or a campus club who are working together to help one another. So I think the importance of collaboration to effective learning is much more evident to current students than it has been in the past.

Grush: So do you think now, in 2011, we're seeing a major trend towards the provision of informal collaboration spaces as more of a standard?

Danielson: I don't have any hard evidence about whether 2011 is an inflection point for all this, but I think we're at least seeing a major groundswell that is growing. I think we have evidence that this type of collaboration is something IT leaders need to plan for: Over the past half dozen years or so, more and more facilities have become available that provide these collaborative learning spaces, and it's impressive how they are immediately swamped with hoards of students once they are open. Students find that these spaces fill a real need they have to collaborate with peers in order to be successful in understanding the things they are trying to learn.

We are getting to a tipping point around informal collaboration spaces, and there are enough examples now of facilities that are in place and successful. All that would suggest that now, in 2011, is perhaps the point when, if you weren't thinking of doing this on your campus and supporting explicitly this kind of learning, that you are going to become an "also ran."

Any of the 20 facilities that we looked at when we were designing and building the Learning Commons, and certainly our experience here, suggest that there is a huge unmet need on most campuses for spaces that support informal collaborative learning, and I can't even remotely imagine that that need doesn't exist and is perhaps even greater in a distance learning situation.

Grush: Within the Learning Commons at SCU, you've provided students with quite a range of resources, from furniture to white boards to meeting rooms chock-full of high-end collaboration technology, both hardware and software tools. Do you find that students are able to pull these resources together on the fly to create informal collaboration spaces that work effectively for them?

Danielson: One thing that our students appreciate is that, even in our high-tech collaboration rooms, each of those spaces has two walls covered floor-to-ceiling with white board. Often groups brainstorm on those walls and then plug their work into higher tech tools as needed, choosing some of the high-technology resources provided in those rooms. It's an interesting mix of high technology and old technology that the students are attracted to, and they really make the spaces their own. They are very comfortable doing that.

Grush: It sounds like a big part of this is the chance for students to pick and choose the technologies and resources they want to work with.

Danielson: There are resources located throughout the Learning Commons, so students can "mix and match" the pieces they need and quickly create an informal collaborative learning space that's useful for them. Some students work together at tables or booths, bringing over rolling whiteboards or whatever other tools they need. They'll even swap the pillows around--and they are welcome to and respectfully do move furnishings throughout the building--to get comfortable for a long night's study session and maybe even bring in food for the group. And with the plethora of tools that are available under the Web 2.0 umbrella, students may also supplement their spaces with social software tools in ways similar to the ways they pull technology and furnishings together physically in the Learning Commons.

So the phenomenon of students creating their own spaces--whether these are physical spaces, intellectual spaces, or technology spaces--is something that's going to continue, with or without the support of the institution. This is upon us now. The need for informal student collaborations is here in spades and is only going to get stronger. And the issue of students wanting to create spaces that meet their specific needs for collaboration, along with the realization that those spaces and needs are going to be different for every case is something we need to think about, in consideration of both online and physical spaces.

Informal collaborative learning is something that those of us working in IT and in academia are going to have to deal with and support. And the opportunities to offer new options for student learning are extraordinary.

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