Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Literacy Learning through Computer-Based Technologies: Rethinking Small Group Work

Academic journal article Literacy Learning: The Middle Years

Literacy Learning through Computer-Based Technologies: Rethinking Small Group Work

Article excerpt

This paper explores the nature of individual, paired and small group learning in a Stage 2 (Year 4) classroom as seven children used computer-based technologies to complete a project centred on a topic of personal interest (PIP). The children in the case described were given the opportunity to select a topic of interest and whom (if anyone) they would work with to answer the rich question they posed about their topic. Interestingly, observations of the children as they worked revealed that children working independently completed the PIP more quickly and with less deviation from the focus of the task than the children who worked in groups. Another interesting outcome was that children working alone still engaged in a collaborative process to complete their work, but it differed from the collaboration between the boys who worked as a pair and the girls working in a group of three.

Specifically, the following questions guided observations about the nature of collaboration during small group work using computer-based technologies.

* What elements of using computers in a small group are observed to enhance or inhibit literacy learning?

* How can teachers structure learning experiences for children that allow for successful collaboration as they use computer-based technologies to support literacy learning?

* These questions are explored in this article.


Learning is described as a social process where learners participate in a community of practice as they reach out to new understandings (Halliday 1975, Lave & Wenger 1991, New London Group 2000). That learning is collaborative in nature is documented in the literature, and classroom teachers are encouraged to organise children into small groups or pairs to foster this cooperative learning (for example, Maier & Warren, 2000; Reid, Green & English, 2002). Reid et al. (2002) identify four as the ideal group size so that members may work together, break into pairs or join another group to work with a larger (even) number of members. With the exception of working at computers, Reid, Green and English caution against allowing odd numbers of children to work in groups because 'unequal power relations can too easily leave one student out of a triad' (2002, p 34). Conversely, groups of three are advocated as effective when working at computers because one child can operate the computer whilst the remaining pair discuss and solve problems (Kutnik 1994, cited in Reid et al. 2002).

Maier and Warren's (2000) research, however, favours a more individual approach to learning. They identify the ideal ratio for successful integration of computers into classrooms as one computer for each child, although they concede that this is not the reality in most schools (Maier & Warren 2000). Colburn (2000) reports that, although the middle school students in her study sometimes worked individually or in pairs at the computer, a more common practice was for children to work in small groups because there was a limited number of computers available for use. It could be suggested, then, that organising children into small groups for literacy learning experiences supported by computer-based technologies is a management decision allowing the maximum number of children to access computers in the shortest time rather than a decision based on pedagogical rationale.

The increase in prevalence of computer-based technologies in classrooms is promoted as an opportunity for children to collaborate with others to contribute to new learning. Kreul (2005) describes a classroom practice where a small number of children are taught a new computer skill, then work with an 'untrained' partner to teach that child the new skill as well. Kreul (2005) reports that this 'train the trainer' model of learning allows the teacher to facilitate learning rather than to impart knowledge--it also enables the children to adopt the role of expert in the classroom (Kreul 2005). …

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