The Benefits and Challenges of Group Collaboration
Group collaboration is an essential component of learning and develops many skills that are fundamental for lifelong learning. These skills, for example communication and co-operation, enable students to communicate and socialise effectively while in a group. Also an increase in productivity and learning occurs when students are engaged, motivated and interested. This increase in productivity is partly the reason why group collaboration is so widely incorporated into the work arena. Therefore teamwork is a necessary and valuable skill for the 21st Century workforce.
Another reason why group work is necessary is due to the fact that it assists students in becoming more active in their learning. Likewise Hendry (as cited in The Higher Education Academy, 2010), describes group collaboration as making a connection between problem-based learning and constructivism. This means that group work is assisting students to make meaning of the knowledge that they are attaining instead of just absorbing meaningless information. However, this theory could also be interpreted from a different perspective, being that group work wastes valuable teaching and learning time. In response to this perspective the main outcome of teaching is that the student learns. L. Dee Fink puts it simply as, "Teaching = helping someone else learn". As a result, group work when utilized correctly, results in students understanding the information and retaining it for longer periods of time (Stanford University Newsletter, 1999). Therefore group work is not a waste of time as it enables students to gain skills that are necessary for the future.
The future skills that group collaboration can offer are necessary for today's constantly changing workplaces. Likewise NDT Resource Centre (2010) suggests that it is important that students gain teamwork skills as they are constantly used in the workforce. The increasing presence of group collaboration in the workforce is due to the fact that companies need multiple people to produce one complex product or because it produces a better result (NDT Resource Centre, 2010). This theory that it produces a better result could be challenged. Some believe that individual work achieves a better result and is more efficient. Although this may be true in some cases it is apparent that group work has markedly high productivity and results in increased learning experiences. Randall, S and Hansen (ND) state that, "80 percent of organizations employ multiple types of workplace teams". This is a very dominant statistic and sufficiently highlights the importance and apparent success of group collaboration.
An additional feature of successful group collaboration is that it instigates social and communicative skills in students. These skills are necessary for the workplace and they also support learning (Chen and Wang, 2009). Although these skills are necessary it has been questioned that some group conversations are inefficient as they are off task. A conversation that does not relate to the work at hand is not productively contributing to the overall goal. However, it is developing the social relations between the group members and increasing their communication skills. This negative of group work could also be easily rectified through the group members taking responsibility for their own work and through the teacher providing valuable feedback on the group's progress. As a result this plan of action would maintain the conversation as being on task and would also create an environment in which the students had common ground for conversation.
This lack of common ground between the group members is often one of the reasons why group collaboration is a not a success. Another reason is that in the group there are often one or two students that are more dominant and authorative than the remaining students. This fight for power is easily exploited to the group's advantage by utilizing the dynamics of the group. These dynamics or the way in which the students relate to one another should be utilised at the commencement of the project (Deakin University, 2010). For example, roles such as a manger, leader and organiser could be harnessed depending on the group member's personalities and skills. This would result in effective time management, equal contributions and efficient communication.
Consequently communication is an important skill when entering a group regardless of whether it is in the workforce or school environment. All members must listen, share and express their ideas on the topic so that a successful goal can be achieved. This collaboration must be done equally so that the members can work efficiently together. However many individuals do not apply the factors that compose successful teamwork, which results in conflict. According to Smallwood (2007) this can be resolved by acknowledging the diversity of talents, skills and personalities present in the group. The group members need to discuss their own strengths, weaknesses, talents, skills and personalities with the group, so that an awareness of the individuals is attained and conflict is minimised. For example, the concept of "my way is the right way" (Smallwood, 2007) could be combated by the students through open-mindedness about the way in which the goal could be achieved. If this open-mindedness is implemented by the group members then an increase in group productivity, social skills and co-operation will result.
The ability to co-operate with others is a skill that can be taught. It can be taught to the students individually by the teacher and then they can make meaning of the skills by implementing it through group work. Jones and Isroff mirror this approach, (as cited in Jarvenoja & Jarvela, 2009), as they observe that collaboration stimulates motivation, which results in increased social skills, interaction and engagement in constructing knowledge. This construction of knowledge and meaning is one of the main focuses of group collaboration. It is the base for which learning truly occurs as the social interaction and motivation leads to new knowledge and understanding being constructed. Although the level of understanding may differ due to the diversity of ages, races, abilities, culture and personalities present in teh group.
According to Horreo and Carro (2007) the main factors that influence collaborative group work are intelligence, personality and learning styles. When the three factors are balanced in the group then a successful outcome will resolve. Likewise Cantwell and Andrews (2002) as cited in (Forrester & Tashchian, 2009), believe that a positive attitude promotes high sociability, a stronger learning awareness and lower levels of social anxiety. Other influencing factors depend on whether the group is predominantly or equally made up of both introverts and extroverts. Although there is a great diversity in the students who comprise the group work, it is essential that they work together and are open-minded so that a common goal can be achieved.
Another area in which diversity occurs is the individualistic learning styles. Firstly it must be noted that diversity in a group is beneficial and can be used to enhance the group's performance. With this in mind the seven learning styles should be analysed by the group members. This would assist them to understand the other students in the group and their learning styles. According to Learning Styles Online (2007) the seven learning styles are visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary. For example the challenges of group work could occur when a student who learns verbally and logically teaches the other group members via their own preferred styles of learning. This could be frustrating for members who learn visually and physically as their needs as a learner are not being fulfilled. As a result it is very important that the students are aware of the predominant learning styles in the group so that they can communicate effectively.
Teamwork not only assists students to communicate but it also prepares them for the 21st Century workforce. Blaylock (2010), outlines the top 10 skills that employers are seeking, the first being communication, then honesty and thirdly teamwork. Therefore learning managers must incorporate group collaboration and teamwork into the classroom so that students are prepared for the future workforce. Group collaboration assists students in gaining teamwork, communicative and interpersonal skills. It also promotes initiative, a strong work ethic, integrity, flexibility and organisational skills; these are a part of the top 10 skills being sought after by employers (Blaylock, 2010). Therefore despite the challenges and conflict associated with group work it is deemed necessary, as students use the skills they gain to become a successful worker and workplace ready.
Lastly group work enables students to become workplace ready and assists them in developing communication, teamwork, integrity and organisational skills. These in turn will enable the student to become a lifelong learner and socialise effectively. Also by working as a team player students learn to accept the diversity and differences of other individuals, which promotes co-operation. Although there are some difficulties and conflicts encountered with group collaboration, it is a necessary and valuable tool. This is due to the fact that it instigates and develops a wide range of skills and abilities that are necessary for the student to achieve so that they can successfully enter the 21st Century workforce.