Patterns, approaches and systems to support teachers in designing for technology-enhanced collaborative learning

These are a few notes and reflections on a research seminar hosted by the Research Centre in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh with Prof Yannis Dimitriadis from the University of Valladolid, Spain.
This seminar discussed approaches to design for collaborative learning using digital technologies – either in a blended classroom or wholly online. His  research is focused on how to support teachers to take learning design decisions and orchestrate effective and efficient learning scenarios for innovative pedagogy (efficiency here refers to feasibility rather than input/ output ratio). The research work has been largely based on the identification and replication of patterns of teaching practice in complex mediated teaching context. These patterns are being collected and shared at this online platform. So the research is based on the development and application of design knowledge in teaching and learning and to embed successful designs in professional development practices for teachers and in the tools and ecosystems of teaching. The aim is to ensure innovative practices can be sustainably delivered by ‘real’ people in the real world.
Dimitriadis referred to an orchestration framework as a learning environment ecosystem involving: 1. activities; 2. actors and 3. background (context) and alignment between these levels (Figure from Prieto, et al (2015). Orchestration in learning technology research. Research in Learning Technology, Vol 23, Fig 7). This framework appears to draw on some elements of materialist analysis with Dimitriadis citing the example of a classroom with whiteboards but no pens as a design decision that designates whiteboards as irrelevant in that particular teaching and learning ecosystem. Small-scale (atomic) teaching patterns draw in different actors and actions to enact larger pedagogical patterns. Hence patterns operate in three different social planes: individual; small group; classroom. From this, it is possible to build up toolkits for implementation of effective patterns. [presumably, at least in theory, these patterns can be built-up and replicated to allow for automation of some of the atomic teaching patterns, although this wasn’t discussed].
Dimitriadis argues that online collaborative learning can still be counted as innovative practice on the basis of the practical constraints on implementing it. These constraints can include organising synchronous events among learners, how to form effective learning groups and align different pedagogical standpoints that may exist in groups. These constraints make the accomplishment of collaborative learning in digital education especially challenging. The key work here is in identifying successful patterns of teaching activities to support collaborative learning. This, for me, was a really interesting part of the seminar with the acknowledgement of the orchestration framework as orientated to the needs of researchers and was too complicated to be a useful tool for teachers. Findings developed using the orchestration framework need to be articulated or translated in to practice tools or operationalisable design knowledge. Dimitriadis gave the examples of the Think-Pair-Share and the jigsaw patterns of classroom working that can be embedded in tools and techniques to be used by teachers as well. In repurposing of OERs, the patterns are often complex (abstract) and do not take account enactment issues so far which has limited the success of OERs.
Dimitriadis emphasised the importance of the design of spaces for learning in terms of ordering effects, sites of gathering of tools, techniques, materials and so on. Learning design innovations come into pre-existing spaces for learning rather than controlled spaces for experimentation. Innovations in design learning need to work in these existing learning spaces as real, rather than experimental, contexts. But these real contexts have emergent problems that can stop the sustainability of innovations. Here, it seemed to me that the agency of these ‘real’ learning spaces and ecosystems generate the key challenges in replicating promising teaching practices – the skills of the teachers, the attitudes and aptitudes of the learners, the configurations of physical spaces and the availability of materials and technologies all gather together as complex interactions where emergence and novelty are common and patterns of success break down.This may be why automation wasn’t discussed!  I was also reminded of arguments regarding managers or, indeed, teachers, as chefs not recipe followers and Lynda Gratton’s work on promising practices. So I’d have liked to have seen some more discussion of where and how patterns break down and what are the effects of such break downs. But it was a very interesting seminar and the importance of identifying effective patterns of activities articulated as design knowledge is an important component of sustaining teaching innovations and in working towards replicating such innovations and practices at scale.

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