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Everything you need to know about collaborative learning

Collaborative learning could help build bonds between teams and ensure knowledge is retained for longer

Art Kohn, a professor at Portland State University School of Business, famously argues what many L&D professionals already suspect: that within 24 hours the average person forgets 70% of any new information, and 90% within a week. This is why more businesses are turning their attention to so-called collaborative learning. But is it really more effective than traditional learning methods?

What is it?

“Collaborative learning exemplifies a famous phrase in learning: ‘tell me and I’ll forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I may learn’,” says professor Vlatka Hlupic, author of The Management Shift and HR magazine’s 11th most influential HR thinker. At its simplest, it pools the minds of many people together to explore and develop answers to a specific problem. It works on the principle that knowledge can be gained from others – by sharing their experiences or taking on different roles.

As Michael Moran, CEO of consultancy 10Eighty, points out: “Where knowledge resides in organisations is changing; the collaborative approach is an acknowledgement that the way you access it is through more people, not just one who knows it all.”

How does it work?

It tends to focus on the experiential aspect of learning – where solutions to problems are realised through the input of multiple people. The method can be explained by the concept of zones of proximal learning, first introduced by psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the early 1900s. This argues there are tasks learners can and cannot accomplish, but between them there is a zone of proximal development in which they can learn through the guidance and support of others. Now it can also take place virtually, meaning relevant on-the-job problems can be solved or knowledge gained in real time.

What are the benefits?

“Collaborative learning energises and improves learning outcomes because it creates communities of interest,” says Anouska Ramsay, UK talent director at Capgemini UK. “It’s very different to traditional teaching. In our collaborative learning activities it’s individuals who set the agenda. Knowledge and learning becomes more organic and, we believe, more focused to people’s jobs.”

Hlupic observes that more subtle benefits can be gained: “It strengthens diversity of thought because people learn more from other types of people.” She also points to the potential to use the method to enhance “agreeableness and openness skills” in employees.

What are its pitfalls?

It’s often argued that collaborative learning is best-suited to more open-ended, problem-solving situations where there are multiple possible approaches, as opposed to situations of strict information imparting like compliance training.

“It’s limited to how many people you can get together in a room, which is why online communities tend to develop,” says Steve Wainwright, MD EMEA of Skillsoft. “But this raises questions around validation – whether the answer given by someone you may not know is the correct one.” As such, Wainwright argues L&D professionals should “authenticate content… or facilitate the direction communities take”.

For Moran there are social issues to consider: “Many people may not want to share information for fear of raising their head above the parapet… Getting people to feel able to participate is needed.”