In the early days of computers in schools the normal mode of use was by pairs, or small groups, of learners - the notion of enough computers for one each was unimaginable. As a result, the widespread use of a computer as a shared tool in a collaborative activity was more a necessity than a deliberate plan. The end result, however, was that the power of the computer to support and encourage collaborative learning was discovered early on, and has been researched extensively, in every context with all ages and types of learners. Indeed, the community of researchers looking into computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) is well established and international, and there are journals, conferences and countless books devoted to the subject. Charles Crook's 1994 book, Computers and the Collaborative Experience of Learning remains a great starting point for anyone interested in the subject.
Currently there are three main areas of real interest in the CSCL world. The first can be characterised as the use of the computer in real time, working physically together and using the screen as a shared thinking space. Examples range from using a geometry package to investigate the properties of a shape, to co-authoring a story or jointly composing music. The role of the computer is to offer a shared representation of the work in progress, in a form that can be created, discussed and revised as a result of shared editorial and creative choices.
When working with younger learners this collaboration cannot be guaranteed - one member may dominate the activity, especially if they take control of the mouse or keyboard, or the discussion of choices may be limited. The extensive work on collaboration at the computer carried out at the Open University suggests that for the full power of the computer as a tool for shared thinking to be exploited, some coaching in collaborative approaches is needed, especially with younger learners.
A second area receiving a great deal of research attention is the use of Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). This is the use of online communications to create a virtual space where learners can develop their ideas and understanding through discussion. The use of a range of popular technologies has been researched, from the discussion boards in VLEs (virtual learning environments) to MSN (Microsoft Network), chat and even SMS (text messaging). Once again, however, even in HE and professional learning, collaboration is not spontaneous. Gilly Salmon's books on "e-mentoring" and "e-tivities" are classics, and her five-step plan setting out how to coach students to become active participants in collaborative online learning has achieved something of a cult status.
The third area of CSCL receiving a lot of attention occurs within internet-based communities of interest, often focused on a particular game. These websites are a vehicle for sharing a remarkable range of creative output, including stories and artwork, inspired by a favourite game or character. The interaction between creators and readers is a major incentive, providing both an audience and critical feedback for the authors. The level of complexity on sites such as Apolyton.net - based on the game Civilization - has been likened to working at Masters level. What sets this collaboration apart is that no one has been explicitly taught how to do it, or needs to be convinced of its worth. There is, perhaps, something to be learned here about motivating learners.
Angela McFarlane is professor of education and director of learning technology at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Bristol