The case of Collaborative Learning (CSCL)

Sketch about collaborative leranirngThis week we are jumping to one of my favourite subjects… Education.

At the World Education Forum that took place in Dakar in 2000, 164 governments pledged to achieve “Education for All” (EFA) and identified six goals to be met by 2015. UNESCO, which is the leading agency in that movement, focuses its activities on five key areas: policy dialogue, monitoring, advocacy, mobilization of funding and capacity development.  Inclusive education covers a broad range of problems in accessing education such as children living in areas of conflict, cultural issues, gender issues etc. Including children with disabilities in inclusive learning environments is just a part of it. However, the techniques and methods that can be used to include all children in education remain the same. To that direction UNESCO has already published a guide for teachers titled “Understanding and Responding to Children’s Needs in Inclusive Classrooms” where it explains various possible problems that a kid might have in a class due to a disability or various other chronic illnesses and offers a variety of possible solutions that the teacher might exploit in order to facilitate learning for those children. In another document titled “Changing Teaching Practices: using curriculum differentiation to respond to students’ diversity” UNESCO offers a more extensive guide on techniques for curriculum differentiation that can be employed by teachers to help them include all children in education. Effective policies and practices for inclusive education are also explained and presented in the article by Cor J.W. Meijer in 2010.

In Europe, the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, which is an independent and self-governing organization established by EU member countries to act as a platform for collaboration in the field of special needs education, has published a series of documents on various issues of inclusive education. In the report “Inclusive education and classroom practices” they refer to useful and successful practices that can be used to implement inclusive education in practice and in “Key Principles for Promoting Quality in Inclusive Education” a set of recommendations is provided for policy makers. In another report titled “Inclusive Education and Classroom Practice in Secondary Education” a set of practices to implement inclusive education in secondary schools is provided through case studies in 14 EU countries and the report “Assessment in Inclusive Settings – Key Issues for Policy and Practice” focuses on practices of assessment that can be employed for inclusive education. Finally, the report “Special Needs Education Country Data 2010” shows the current status in education of pupils in primary and secondary schools in EU countries. Inclusive education might be a goal for 2015 according to UNESCO but the report shows the current status in practices followed in EU countries. Currently there are 3 kinds of settings for providing education to pupils with Special Education Needs (SEN). The first is through segregated special schools for pupils with SEN, the second is through segregated special classes in mainstream schools and the third is through classes with fully inclusive settings. The report reveals that there is a lot to be done to reach the level of full inclusive learning environments becoming the standard of providing education to students with SEN. Amongst the Europeans Agency reports though there is also a very interesting report titled “ICTs in education for people with disabilities” presenting case studies of ICTs being used to facilitate inclusive education settings for people with disabilities.

If you reached so far in the post without getting lost in the ocean of documents and links I can tell you that an interesting technique for inclusive education is collaborative learning. This is when a group of people learn something together which means that people have to depend on and help each other during the learning process. There are many different ways to implement collaborative learning and the introduction of technology in that technique has already lead to the development of a specific domain of collaborative learning called Computer Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL). The SharedExperience project which launched in 2007 is aiming to provide a platform for sharing experiences in teaching and learning and have already developed a quite explanatory table of different technologies for CSCL. A quick look at the table reveals that most of the technologies now used for CSCL are based on the web. Social bookmarking, social networking, learning management systems, blogs, wikis, social media sharing and mashups are all web based solutions for facilitating collaborative learning.

All this, leads to the first important point for accessible CSCL, which is actually web accessibility. Since social media and networks seem to heavily affect CSCL technologies, the accessibility of social networks and related applications is one of the major issues of web accessibility related with CSCL. Current social media content, blogs, wikis etc. already pose problems for persons with disabilities so there is a need for increased awareness in the area, to help students with disabilities participate easier in CSCL activities.

Another aspect in such solutions is that the content is usually produced by their users. Thus, there is also a need for either increased awareness amongst users of the problems caused by content that is not accessible. Another approach in that direction could also be the development of such tools in the future to prevent users from creating and publishing inaccessible content (if that is possible).

A category of CSCL solutions is also synchronous communication and conferencing tools. Currently, major players in the area of Learning Management Systems and Course Management Systems are offering such tools with in their platforms. Blackboard, being one of them, offers “Blackboard Collaborate” in that direction, Adobe has “Adobe Connect” while traditional teleconferencing applications such as Skype and Meebo can also be used for the same purpose.

To my knowledge, up to now, there is no indication on how accessible are these kinds of services. For example how does a person who is blind participating in a teleconference understand what is shown by the teacher who is sharing his desktop? Either the teacher has to know that there is a student who cannot see the presentation and describe it or the person is excluded from the learning process. The development of new ways of interaction with ICT such as speech recognition and gesture recognition might also help in making such tools more accessible for persons with disabilities. For example a student who is deaf could in the future be able to have automatically enabled the transcripts feature of the tool in order to follow the conversation online. However, on top of the interaction technologies a certain level of personalization is also required to achieve this state of inclusiveness.

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