This is a guest post by Christina Yu, Marketing Manager at Knewton. This post originally appeared on the Knewton blog on February 24, 2014.

What is “Collaborative Learning”?

Collaborative learning refers to any situation in which multiple people learn or attempt to learn something together and thereby capitalize on each other’s skills and knowledge. The concept is related to Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” which holds that students are first able to do something with assistance before they are able to do it independently (with the difference between those states being their “zone of proximal development”). Today, collaborative learning is most frequently seen in situations where students work together to discuss a complex issue (often with some degree of ambiguity) or create an artifact or product that reflects their learning.

Why exactly is collaborative learning so effective? Students teach each other casually in collaborative learning situations and in the process, teach themselves. They paraphrase lecture notes, explain the same concept or body of information in multiple ways, and think of analogies and metaphors to help clarify their explanations. While one student is speaking, others may chime in or posit questions that force everyone in the group to reassess their understanding of the material. All this has the effect of allowing students to see how others are structuring and storing the same information in their memory (which increases awareness of how they tend to structure and store information in their own memory) — a key aspect of successful learning, across disciplines. In this way, collaborative learning is closely related to metacognition — learning about learning.

Just as the best learning programs weave text, video, and diagrams together to appeal to students with different learning styles, collaborative learning often incorporates a variety of activities (paraphrasing, debating, and outlining being just a few examples) so that all students’ needs are met.

E-learning can augment and enhance the effects of collaboration between learners through new tools, platforms, and applications. Here are just a few of the ways:

1. Learning platforms and applications will harness the strengths of increasingly large groups of learners and suggest complementary groupings based on granular factors.

2. Modeling, graphing, and bookmarking tools will allow students to show each other what they are thinking in sophisticated ways (collaborative learning won’t be limited to just talking).

3. Tools will allow students to record and map the evolution of their conversations (though it won’t just be conversations in the digital age). Online discussion threads and forums are just the start of a proliferation of asynchronous work and communication tools.

4. New tools will allow groups to store and share their collectively produced artifacts and conversations and share them with larger groups.

Can you think of any ways in which collaborative learning might take off in the digital age? What does collaborative learning mean to you and how do you think it will evolve?