GROUP work with computers can develop thinking skills better than traditional methods of teaching, according to new research. The finding challenges the traditional view that group work underchallenges able pupils.
Students using Computer Supported Integrated Learning Environment (CSILE) - which acts like a bulletin board on which students post and interconnect their notes on class research assignments - out-scored control groups by an average of 25 per cent on tests of language, reading and vocabulary.
The tests were conducted by the Vancouver-based Telelearning Network of Centres of Excellence, a Canadian government initiative set up with industry partners.
Ten-year-old pupils who used CSILE for a full year scored 5.2 out of 6 while students in regular classes scored only 3.8 on a test of their ability to recall and use information on a difficult text about photosynthesis.
Researchers attribute these results to the difference between CSILE and earlier uses of stand-alone computers. Professor Marlene Scardamalia of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education said: "Now that computers can be networked in a class and linked to the Internet, we can use the technology to form learning communities in which every student has the responsibility to work together to help create the best work the group can do."
Laval University Professor Therese Laferriere, who trains teachers in the use of IT, believes that learning through CSILE reinforces cognitive science discoveries about the benefits of group learning over traditional teacher-directed learning.
"Cognitive science has taught us that knowledge is co-constructed and that students need to negotiate the meaning of things," she said. "Now they can go on-line and enquire about a topic and post notes. They are asked to build on each others' notes, so suddenly the classroom talk and each child's efforts are being supported by other means. Since they all use each others' notes, they take a critical interest in each others' work, and that means that what they are doing has a social value to them."
Professor Scardamalia said that, with CSILE, if a knowlegeable pupil posts a note, less knowledgeable students frequently send a message saying, "I don't understand what you are saying". Then the knowledgeable student has to rethink his or her understanding and statement of the point.
Telelearning researchers' discoveries have led them to develop new ways of training teachers on how best to use computers in their classrooms - by starting them off using e-mail to communicate with each other.