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Collaborative Learning: Authentic Interaction or Budget Management?

A while back I wrote about an educational environment that led to a Loss Of Learning. A related practice came to my attention recently and that is the use of "collaborative learning" methods to "enhance" the curriculum. The idea of collaborative learning is, of course, not new - but some of the emerging variations on this theme seem to have a different rhythm...

My son's university tuition costs approximately $6,ooo CDN/year. During his first year he is required to take 10 courses, so we can approximate the cost at $600/course. Each course lasts approximately 12 weeks and meets 4 times/week for a total of 48 sessions. Typically, 3 out of 4 sessions are with a professor while the fourth session is with a tutorial assistant (TA). This means that $150 of the $600 for the course is spent on the TA [n.b. - these numbers are not precise as there are other expenses to be factored in but I would suspect that the proportions are close].

Simply stated, approximately $1500/year or 25% is paid for sessions with TA's. The first thing that I wonder about is why the university does not disclose this information. We are not privy to how much the TA is actually paid, how they are trained to teach a seminar, or what their qualifications are. Why does a magazine that purports to rank the quality of education at Canadian universities (e.g. - MacLean's magazine) not reveal this information? It may be that these TA's are highly trained and carefully selected - but the general public has no way of knowing this.

Based on my son's experience, the vast majority of TA's are third or fourth year undergraduate students. It seems that these tutorials are designed as a kind of review session for the lectures that have taken place. So the assumption is that one-quarter of the student's time and money should be dedicated to a scheduled review. This practice did not exist when I was in university - a TA would teach first-year undergraduate classes, but the minimum requirement was to be enrolled in a graduate program. There may have been some things to review, but this was not the main focus of the tutorial.

Of course, we might say that the first-year students have the benefit of "collaborating" with a third- or fourth-year student. Developing an effective collaborative learning environment is an incredible amount of work, but based on my current understanding of the situation what we are seeing here is not collaboration - it's administration. Collaboration can be highly effective and motivating, or ineffective and less than helpful. I've experienced the brilliance of collaboration when it works, and I have also experienced collaborative learning used as an excuse for knowing what else to do. I have already stated my deep support for higher education and I am strong in my belief that it plays a critical role in our society, and this is precisely why I think practices like this should be brought into question.

Undoubtedly the third and fourth year students are doing their absolute best to provide the best experience they can, but are these students ready to assume this kind of responsibility? Moreover, should we be paying for this? Is this a practice that will elevate education at universities? Why not simply create well-crafted collaborative experiences that cut across the artificial boundaries of first year, second year, etc. as a normal part of the program delivery?

In the case of my son, he enjoys getting into a good discussion and challenging ideas with other people - especially me. At the same time, he finds this formalized approach to reviewing lectures with another undergraduate student unnecessary. He wants to work with knowledge, not just review it. This, combined with a video-taped delivery of lectures, caused him to drop a course - not because of the discipline, but because of the educational process he found himself in.

Working collaboratively with other under-graduate students (from whatever year) on a concrete project of mutual interest that is related to the lectures - now that's a different matter altogether.

It would also be good to see universities adapting a more intensive inter-disciplinary approach to collaboration not only in the student body but across the faculties themselves.

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