Building Higher Levels of Critical Thinking With Collaborative Solutions


The comparative advantage of nations is built upon the intellectual capability of its people. In an organisational context, learning provides the catalyst and the intellectual resource to create sustainable competitive advantage.

As Jack Welsh, former Chairman of General Electric said in 2001, “The desire, and the ability, of an organization to continuously learn from any source, anywhere – and to rapidly convert this learning into action – is its ultimate competitive advantage.”

A new model of learning which integrates online collaborative technology and process-centric learning is slowly emerging in response to the need for improved critical thinking in education and the workplace. If it succeeds, the new model will change ‘bricks and mortar’ learning to a multimodal model where learning occurs in physical and virtual spaces, collaboratively and individually, with real-time input from teachers supported by peer-to-peer collaboration; anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

In the conventional instructor-directed learning model, a person’s capability increases as a result of the individual’s own intelligence and application. Learners with high IQ do well in this environment. An alternative learning model emphasises the use of online collaborative technology and process-centric learning. The learner’s capability increases as a result of the environment in which the learning takes place. Learning becomes truly learner-centred as apposed to instructor-directed. The ultimate success of the learning process is measured by how well the learner can convert what they know into what that can do. The same holds true in organisatioins.

The Role of Collaboration

Advocates of collaborative learning claim that the active exchange of ideas within small groups not only increases interest among the participants but also promotes critical thinking. There is persuasive evidence that cooperative teams achieve at higher levels of thought and retain information longer than students who work quietly as individuals (Johnson and Johnson 1986). The shared learning gives students an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers (Totten, Sills, Digby, & Russ, 1991).

However, a collaborative group does not automatically improve the development of higher order cognitive skills and complex knowledge structures. In order to increase the possibilities for mutual understanding and task-related social interaction, interaction tools and process-centric learning structures are needed that recognise the new concepts to be learned and the previous experience and knowledge of the learners.

The Role of Process-centric Learning

  • Process-centric learning can be defined as: ·
  • The collection of processes that govern the creation, dissemination, and utilization of knowledge ·
  • The full utilization of information and data, coupled with the potential of people’s skills, competencies, ideas, intuitions, commitments, and motivations

Process-centric learning is aligned with the constructivist theory of learning according to which learning is perceived as a process of adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences. Using the method, learners build on what they already know and become actively involved in learning, using a variety of sources and media. In contrast to other learning theories, the constructivist theory promotes learning as a process of creative thinking, problem solving, research skills and higher-level thinking that usually results in behavioural changes, and creates new skills and knowledge.

The constructivist approach to learning emphasizes authentic, challenging projects that include students, teachers and experts in the learning community, be it in the execution of education or a business process. Its goal is to create learning communities that are more closely related to the collaborative practice of the real world. In an authentic environment, learners assume the responsibilities for their own learning. They have to develop meta-cognitive abilities to monitor and direct their own learning and performance. When people work collaboratively in an authentic activity, they bring their own framework and perspectives to the activity. They can see a problem from different perspectives, and are able to negotiate and generate meanings and solution through shared understanding. Under the theory of constructivism, instructors focus on making connections between facts, and fostering new understanding in learners. Teaching strategies are tailored to student responses and encourage analysis, interpretation, and prediction. Process thinking may be as fundamental as asking a group to work collaboratively to answer a structured sequence of questions about a subject and providing reference materials, quizzes or thoughtful provocations to jump-start creative thinking.

The Role of Online Collaborative Technology

Online collaborative technology has grown out of wider research into computer supported collaborative work (CSCW) and collaborative learning. It is defined as a computer-based network system that supports group work in a common task and provides a shared interface for groups to work with (either face-to-face or remotely or a combination of both modes). It is based on the premise that computer-mediated systems can support and facilitate group process and group dynamics in ways that are not achievable by using conventional learning.

Online collaborative systems support a wide range of activities, such as group problem solving and planning, quizzes, surveys, knowledge sharing, group editing, debating, negotiating, relationship development, software application sharing, polling and projects and curriculum learning.

Research into the use of online collaborative learning in classrooms highlights has produced some interesting findings:

· The results of ACOT’s two years (1986-87) study of seven classrooms that represented a cross section of America’s K-12 schools were promising. Teachers were able to translate traditional text-based instructional approaches to the new electronic medium. Student deportment and attendance improved across all sites, their attitude towards self and learning showed improvement as well. In terms of test scores, at the very least, students were doing as well as they might without all of the technology and some are clearly performing better (Apple Research Labs Publications).

· Scardamalia (1994) showed that the group becomes a self-reflective and self-organizing system that each member contributes her own expertise to, and, in turn, learns new skills and extends the group knowledge based.

· Another study showed that the more the skilled teacher participates with the technology, the more positive attitudes they have developed toward technology (Zhao & Campbell, 1995).

· There is substantial evidence that students working in groups master science and mathematics materials better than students working alone (Slavin, 1989).

· King (1989) observed verbal interaction and problem solving behaviour of small collaborative peer groups working on CAI tasks. He finds successful groups involved in more task-talks than social- talks. They ask more task related questions, spend more time on strategies use, and obtain higher elaboration scores than did unsuccessful groups.

· Weir (1992) indicates that both teachers and researchers find that students who work together on “real world problems show increased motivation, deeper understanding of the concept and an increased willingness to tackle difficult questions that they cannot answer alone.” This focus on authenticity and experiential learning is reiterated in numerous articles.

In the organisational context, online collaborative technologies, such as email, group calendars, electronic meetings and web conferencing became available through the 1990’s and are used in organisations as tools to improve productivity and accelerate decision-making and learning.

A Sloan Management Review Study conducted by Gallupe and Cooper (1992) showed that groups using electronic brainstorming gained productivity improvements ranging from 25-50% for four person groups and up to 200% for 12 person groups (Figure 2). More ideas were generated and large groups could be effective. Importantly, there was a greater likelihood of producing more high quality ideas than traditional brainstorming with flipcharts. Parallel entry of ideas and a record of ideas generated were also positive features.

While there have been many advances in these forms of collaborative technologies, they essentially remain “task-centric” tools. However, collaboration strategies are shifting from a focus on tools to a focus on improving process performance. Improving work practices within business requires collaboration around (processes) and context, while tapping into communities of interest as sources of best practices and innovation. In this new environment, collaboration becomes embedded in educational and business processes, delivered via online collaborative technology. There is now an overwhelming preference among senior management for collaboration strategies that evolve from a focus on personal productivity and innovation.

New Model

The integration of process-centric courseware delivered by online collaborative technology, emphasises the development and use of critical thinking skills, and offers the potential of improved capability among workers and learners.

In this new model, classroom learning becomes multimodal, occurring in the classroom, remotely and combinations of both classroom and remote, in real-time and asynchronously, with real-time input from teachers supported by peer-to-peer collaboration. The current distinctions between physical and virtual learning spaces become blurred as learning occurs anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

In an organisational context, the new learning model will enable teams undertaking any of the myriad of business process methodologies to be more productive and improve in capability and decision making. A consequence is that the process itself will perform at a higher level. Success will be measured by improvement in process outcomes and more sustained levels of innovation resulting from insight.

Models of online, process-centric collaboration, embedding the learning processes within the technology are only beginning to emerge. The new processes will be tested broadly in organisations and in education through industry sponsors, universities and schools.

Australian company Grouputer Solutions Pty. Ltd is pioneering the new approach initially through business processes such as the business improvement methodology Six Sigma, and through a new initiative to trial the new model within the education community.

Anne Hudson is CEO of Grouputer Solutions Pty. Ltd. Enquiries:


Johnson, R. T., & Johnson, D. W. (1986). Action research: Cooperative learning in the science classroom. Science and Children, 24, 31-32.

Mike Gotta, Meta Group, April 2004

Slavin, R. E. (1989). Research on cooperative learning: An international perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research, 33(4), 231-243.

Totten, S., Sills, T., Digby, A., & Russ, P. (1991). Cooperative learning: A guide to research. New York: Garland.

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