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V. Pandolfini

University of Genova, Science of Education Faculty (ITALY)
This paper aims to investigate how, in a blended learning environment, online activities could be effectively integrated with in presence ones in order to promote higher levels of cooperation among learners and to favour collaborative learning processes (Kaye, 1992; Lévy, 1996; Calvani, 2006). It presents the main results derived from evaluation activities of “Puntoedu ATA”, an Italian lifelong learning experience addressed to school support staff. The research, involving quantitative and qualitative evaluation tools (questionnaires and online focus group with students and e-tutors), has been aimed to investigate if, and at which extension, PuntoEdu’s design and platform have favored collaborative learning, in order to allow the co-construction of knowledge and the arise of online learning communities among participants (Bransford et al., 2000; Garrison et al., 2000; Shea, 2007). The study investigates the effectiveness of synchronous and asynchronous online applications available in e-learning platform, like interpersonal communication (forum and chat), sharing of resources (access to training aid) and grouping process support systems (shared calendars, management projects systems, Harasim and VonEijkelenberg, 1989). Besides, being aware that in a learning environment based on computer-mediated communication the writing is the privileged tool in order to expose and share thoughts (Olson, 1994), the paper presents tutors and learners’ evaluation on the effectiveness of CMC tools in increasing the opportunities of interaction.
Empirical research showed one of the main weaknesses toward the effective realization of collaborative learning processes, that is the "free-riding problem" (Ostrom, 1990), deriving from the existing tension among a group between individual and collective rationality. A possible solution to the free-riding problem derives from a theoretical approach stressed in the paper, that is the "social interdependence theory of cooperative learning" (Johnson and Johnson, 1981): learning is structured for effective cooperation when members’ goal achievements are positively correlated, i.e., individuals perceive that they can reach their goals if and only when the others in the group reach their goals too.
More specifically, the questions to which the paper aims to answer are the following: which learning strategies as well as online techniques are best-able to favour collaborative learning processes? Are there specific contextual requirements for a strategy/technique to be adopted? What are the necessary student/group pre-requisites, if any? What is the e-tutor’s role and how can he/she influence such dynamics? To answer these questions the paper, combining research-based findings and theoretical principles, provides, through factor analysis, improvement aspects and best practices in order to identify teaching strategies (both in face to face and in virtual learning context), methods and techniques for fostering collaboration aimed to reach learning outcome.