Enabling Collaborative Science Learning Experiences on Mobile Devices

An interview with Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway about their NSF-funded project to enable collaborative science learning experiences on mobile devices.

What is the big idea of your project work?


The big idea is this transition from Web 2.0 to what we’ve been calling Social 3.0. Web 2.0 is support for asynchronous collaboration–whether it’s twitter, or SMS, or facebook–where there’s a post and a response to the post. What Social 3.0 is saying is that we need to support synchronous collaboration where people are working together in real time. For the classroom, synchronous collaboration really means supporting social learning – learning with and from each other. Coming up with a software environment that support kids in doing that is what we’ve been all about.

The Google Docs editor is the grandmama of this idea. It provides support when individuals write together. But if you’re a 3rd or 4th grade student, Google Docs may be a little too much for you. We try to develop our tools for a K-6 grade audience. We’ve “collabrified” a range of productivity tools for this younger age group, including a concept mapping tool (WeMap), a “What Do I Know, What Do I Wonder About, What Do I Learn” (KWL) charting tool (WeKWL), and a drawing and animation tool (WeSketch) and a very vanilla writing tool, WeCompose.. They are all collabrified in the sense that the Google Docs editor has been collabrified. We have several videos on YouTube of these tools in action.

During the 2014-2015 school year we offered the collabrified apps written in “native” code – one for iOS (e.g., iPads) and one for Android devices. Using some Google infrastructural tools — protocol buffers — were able to make the different, native apps work with each other, e.g., one child could be using an iPad in WeMap and another could be using a Nexus Android tablet and they both could work together. Pretty nifty.

But, for 2015-2016 we have re-coded everything from the ground up in HTML5 and now the apps are truly device-agnostic! HTML5 is in effect revolutionary; it enables curriculum developers to create computer-based learning activities that will run EVERYWHERE, e.g, in heterogenous BYOD (bring your own device) environments. That’s another story.

What schools and other partners are you working with?

We’ve been working at St. Francis Catholic school for three years, with the same teacher in science. She uses a project-based, inquiry-based curriculum, and uses the tablets and software almost every day. She is an early adopter; she can figure out how to use it. We’re also in first grade in Plymouth-Canton, MI, and second grade in Oakland, CA. They’ve been using it for a year, but not every day. In all of these schools, we’ve gone in with the software, but not with curriculum. While we talk and think with the teachers about how to use the software with their curriculum, there is still a barrier — nay, a chasm. How do the teachers come to see how they can use the technology as more than just a nice-to-have, as an add-on?

We also wrote a joint paper with the Michigan teachers for a conference. And at the last ISTE conference in June, we had 100 teachers and others at a workshop that we gave on the software. We had a lot of interest, including from the Chromebook people. Although the current project started with a focus on iPads, we are about to release a version of the software that runs on Chromebooks. So we’re very excited about that and think we’ll have more uptake. The teachers we’ve talked to also liked the idea of being able to collaborate between schools.

What have you learned about collaboration in the classroom?

NSF Project Information

Title: RAPID: Enabling Collaborative Science Learning Experiences on Mobile Devices
Award Details

Investigators: Elliot Soloway

There needs to be a good reason to want to collaborate. Talking “collaboration, collaboration, collaboration” is the wrong language. The right language is: What kind of inquiry or writing activities do you want to do in the classroom? Schools don’t want technology – schools want curriculum! WE talk techie; TEACHERS talk activities.

It’s even more complicated! Educators don’t often really understand “synchronous collaboration” means. We know that in general, teachers say they want students working collaboratively – they want to facilitate social learning – but in many cases they don’t really mean collaboratively, but rather mean cooperatively. They want the students to work together to cooperate on a project by dividing up the task so one does this part, and one does another part. But the students aren’t really coming to a common understanding of what it’s all about; each does her or his part. THAT is cooperation – not collaboration – according to Roschelle and Teasley.

For example, we saw a teacher asking 1st graders to come up with all the words they could think of that end in “ay”. Four of them around a table start with a three-letter word, like “pay”, “say”, “may”. Then one of them thinks of a four-letter word like “play”, and others will chime in with “clay” and so on. They tend to feed off each other and are having a good time, but they are just cooperating with each other to do a task. In contrast, we were working with 6th graders who were trying to build a model of what happens with molecules when they get heated up. As you add more heat the molecules move faster, and then they escape as gas. When two or three children are trying to create an animation of this phenomena together, they are really talking intensely to each other – they are collaborating to create the animation that reflects their common understanding. Compare the 6th graders efforts to those of the 1st graders: the latter were almost more competitive than cooperative at times!

Are you helping the teachers define more collaborative tasks?

Yes. And it’s really hard to come up with a real task that is collaborative and will force the kids to come to that common, shared understanding, as opposed to simply cooperate while working together to finish something. We’ve found that collaboration also varies depending on the abilities of the children. When you have very high ability children, your task has to be sufficiently difficult to push them to need someone else’s suggestion or input. If the task is too easy, they don’t even want to be bothered; they don’t want to waste time listening to somebody else.

But we have seen and some recent data support it that lower achieving children really appreciate the help from others and benefit from someone else’s ideas. We had some groups that were reading an e-book together, and then were supposed to be writing an essay based on what they had read using our collaborative writing app. One of the girls said that her partners told her to write longer sentences that were more descriptive, with more adjectives; she tried that, and thought that her writing was much better. This was in a 4th grade urban classroom. With the same task in a suburban classroom of real high-end kids, they didn’t want to collaborate. They didn’t want to use the software together. They could write their outline, get all their images, and write their story without working or talking with others. They thought that having to collaborate on it was more of an inconvenience than an asset.

What these stories suggest is that the nature of the task must truly require students to work together – to engage in social learning, to engage in synchronous collaboration. So, for example, you might change the task so that the students don’t already have all of the resources they need. That’s what teachers have to be mindful of. The task has to be sufficiently challenging for the students so they really benefit from working with someone else, getting some ideas or opinions from other people.

So how do your collaborative apps help?

In the case of 4th graders, there are typically 4 of them sitting around the table. Instead of all 4 of them trying to crowd around a device, they each have their own device, sitting in their own chair, and whenever anyone writes something, it appears immediately on the screens of the others. All of them see it at once. It gives the kids who don’t talk much an equal opportunity to have their input seen. If there were only one device, then, the person who has the keyboard is going to be in control, and the rest tend to sit back and say “let it be”. Here, every student has a device and an equal opportunity to have a voice. What the teachers say is that when the children work together, while high-achieving children may almost be experiencing a ceiling effect, the lower achievers are “coming into their own voices.”

What are you struggling with now?

Therein lies the rub: We need help in writing this curriculum. It is so hard to write these tasks. You have to take the kids into consideration, the content into consideration, the technology into consideration. And you have to take the time of year into consideration: In September, the kids don’t know how to argue, how to resolve conflict – how to engage in social learning! You can see them getting angry and frustrated with each other. But by April, they’ve learned how to negotiate. As Jeremy Roschelle and Stephanie Teasley write about the collaborative discourse frame in The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving, the collaborators talk a little, they hit an impasse/a problem, they they resolve the problem, and they start all over and repeat that process. But in September, the kids don’t know how to do that yet. So the tasks have to change over the course of the semester. Holy Toledo! Developing good collaborative learning activities is hard stuff!! The teachers start out excited, and then over time we get pushback from them because it’s really challenging and not obvious how to do create those activities and scaffold the kids in developing the collaboration – the social learning – skills. Sigh.

We really need curriculum people who will go into the classroom, use the technology, and learn and feel how this technology goes. There need to be materials to help kids understand community and discourse in the classroom. Unless you’re one of those higher-level Cyberlearning INDP grants, you may not have the money to develop those kinds of materials for the ranges of classes. We’d really like to see a renewed community effort to create curriculum where learning activities are plentiful, on computing devices, BYOD or otherwise.