Collaborative learning seems to provide significant benefits for learning as students can observe one another learning, ask questions from their peers, bring their own perspectives for other students, learn to work in groups and so forth. However, at the same time students can experience group work as tedious and needlessly complicated and just divide their tasks and work individually. Motivating students to work in groups is thus often a challenge for educators.
The social learning framework by Etienne Wegner (2009) distinguishes between four dimensions that are relevant for learning: meaning, community, practice, and identity. Wenger seems somewhat ambiguous of what “meaning” exactly means in the framework (based on 2009 article). My interpretation is that meaning is the outcome of learning, a way to signify the world and its phenomena. That is, when I learn something, I construct a meaning through which I understand the world. Of course, it is not only “I” but we in a collaborative learning. Meaning is central aspect of motivating students: if learning outcomes are considered irrelevant there is little reason to engage in learning.
Community refers to the relations between different people who are engaged in learning in one way or another. It seems that Wenger’s concept of communities of practice more specifically defines how learning is tied to its social context – learning does not take place in vacuum but it is always related to different groups of people, institutions, and organizations. Hence it’s not just about individual motivation that is at stake as learning is connected with others in the community. It is also interesting how Wenger (2010) responds to the criticism levelled against the concept as it potentially hides power relations and other issues in communities of practice and paints them as too homogeneous: the power is inherent in reproducing inequalities through communities of practice and there is always a possibility to change power relations in this constant cycle reproduction.
Practices are the ways in which learning is done. As learning is not done just by thinking, it makes sense to conceptualize the myriad of ways in which students can learn. Practices seem to be something of a challenge in collaborative learning especially in digital contexts – there are more and more tools available, but do these tools support meaningful learning practices? While certainly many of these are truly beneficial, the interactional practices between the students beyond such tools should not be forgotten. It is no wonder that students feel taxes after too many COVID-forced team meetings over the Internet without the immediate human interactions.
As for identity, learning has implications for how we define ourselves and who we are. As identities are not fixed, there is potential to challenge oneself in collaborative settings: for example, by taking up the position as a chair in a PBL group one assumes a particular position that affects the identity – at least for the time being. This can potentially be used in enabling student groups to function more efficiently by allocating different roles to students so that they can try different position (e.g. chair, devil’s advocate, innovator) in relation with one another and hence be more explicit about how the group functions.
Related to the identity of learners, our group discussed also how the composition of the group affects collaborative learning. Setting groups so that there are individuals from different social backgrounds can be beneficial for creating understanding between different people. Sometimes it might make sense to allow students to choose their own groups to enable well-functioning learning. One interesting aspects of group composition is how to make students accountable for the group when the students do not know one another and there might be less initial cohesion. Providing enough time for socializing and motivating students of the benefits of learning from new collaborators can provide some help in with respect.
Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer London.
Wenger, E. (2009). A social theory of learning. In K. Illeris (Ed.), Contempoary Theories of Learning: Learning theorists…in their own words (pp. 210–218).