Figure 1. The Subject-Tool-Outcome Triangle

An Italian model: Blended Collaborative and Constructive Participation

World of research. In Italy, blended learning is still relatively underused. Beatrice Ligorio and Nadia Sansone present the theory and practice behind BCCP, their flexible blended learning model gaining in popularity.

Introduction

This article aims at describing a model the authors developed – called Blended Collaborative and Constructive Participation – suitable for higher education as well as for professional training. The model has been developed through a decade of trials during which feedback from participants, along with research results, have been collected and implemented in the current version

The overall aim of the article is to give practical indications, based on psycho-pedagogical theories, about how to implement successful blended learning. First, we will present shortly the theoretical background inspiring the model; later we will describe the seven steps through which the model can be implemented. Finally, we will give some suggestions about assessment and practical recommendations to ensure the efficacy of the model.

The theoretical background

The Blended Collaborative and Constructive Participation (BCCP) model has its roots in the socio-constructivist framework, with a particular reference to the recent Trialogical Approach to Learning (TLA) (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2014).

Socio-constructivism is based on the idea that reality is not objectively “there”, pre-defined and well-organized. Rather reality is subjectively and collaboratively built, based on interpretations, negotiations, new and sometimes unexpected connections between information, inferences, seeking insight, and anticipation of events. This theoretical orientation is linked to Vygotsky’s (1978) model of artifact-mediated and object-oriented action, represented as the well-known mediational triangle (Fig. 1).

The figure shows how every human action is directed towards an object and simultaneously mediated by a tool, since – as humans – we do not have direct access to reality. Tools are created and transformed during the activity. For instance, a pen is a simple tool for writing that could evolve into a more complex artifact like a writing software.

TLA builds on this knowledge-creation metaphor, with a special focus on the mediation of modern technologies. The term “trialogical” (or “trialogic”) refers to those processes in which people – collaboratively and systematically – develop shared and concrete “objects” (Paavola & Hakkarainen, 2009). The basic idea, indeed, is that “objects” (conceptual or material artefacts, practices, ideas) are considered as crucial parts of the learning process, together with the individuals and the group-work. Therefore, collaboration should be organized to jointly develop some actual and meaningful shared object, which allow students to externalize their knowledge creation efforts. This idea underpins also the BCCP model as we show later on.

For instance, in an Italian school for cooks and hotel managers in which the TLA approach has recently been developed, the object was a multimedia guide for professional combi-oven steamer. In this way, on the one hand, students could understand the physical processes involved in the functioning of the oven; on the other, they could create a useful object, not yet existing, that oven producers may propose to customers.

Vygotsky’s triangle is, therefore, re-designed in TLA as it appears in the figure below.

Figure 2. TLA graphical representation. Source: Paavola & Hakkarainen (2009)

 

The figure shows how the learning process results from the integration between individual learning and participation to a community, mediated by the use of tools (especially technologies) and directed to build a meaningful object.

The model

BCCP was first introduced – though as quite a different version- in 2005 to fill the absence of blended courses in Bari University, especially of courses promoting  students’ active and constructive role and not just conceiving the online environment as a depository of learning materials.

Moreover, within the Italian context, educational platforms were not so commonly used, and social environments such as web-forums or social networks were still considered as distractive and too informal. Sustaining and scaffolding online interactions aimed at educational purposes and finding ways to feed a cross-fertilization between online and face-to-face tuition appeared to us as the innovation needed at the time.

We began by testing the model to deliver specialist courses on e-Learning Psychology for Work Psychologists. The model we developed is not conceived as a mere alternation of on- and offline learning, but rather as a thoughtful mix of diverse teaching models, individual and collaborative activities and a variety of objects that students are asked to build (Ligorio & Sansone, 2009).

The current version of the BCCP model is the result of repeated trials covering ten years. Following the Research-Based approach (The Design-Based Research Collective, 2003), we collected and analyzed students’ and teachers’ feedback along with data from each course, looking for strong points and weaknesses, so as to improve the subsequent course.

By now, the model has been implemented in several educational contexts – high schools, universities, specialized training courses – showing great flexibility and excellent results. BCCP, indeed, can support the development of many abilities and soft skills: academic reading and writing, effective communication, teamwork, meta- reflection and collaborative problem-solving. It is based on a modular architecture of increasing complexity: teachers can select the activities deemed attractive and create their own version – more or less simplified or gradually more and more complex – to meet the specific needs of the training context.

The social dimension is always strongly supported: true to its TLA roots, learning is considered as knowledge building through the introduction of several individual and collaborative activities, all aimed at creating shared and meaningful “objects” through students’ active participation and the mediation of technological tools.

In the following, we will outline the seven steps composing the model, and report some concrete examples extracted from two applications of the model: a university course and a teacher training experience. The radical differences between the two courses should give a good insight of the flexibility the model allows.

First step: modules and groups

As a start, we propose to: (a) organize the course into modules, each having a different topic; the ensemble of the modules will cover the content of the course; (b) organize the students into groups, ranging from a minimum of five to a maximum of ten students for each group.

Example

The BCCP has been extensively used for the courses on Educational Psychology and e-Learning at the University of Bari. The courses were generally attended by more or less 30 students, organized into three or four groups. The course was organized into four modules: Module 1 about educational theories; Module 2 about learning objects and open source; Module 3 about identity and communities online; Module 4 dedicated to the construction of a grid able to guide the professional observation of online courses.

In another BCCP application, students were in-service teachers who took a course to acquire the competencies needed as students’ guidance counselor. About 100 teachers attended the course, 10 groups were organized, and 10 different modules were set, each of them led by a different instructor, according to the educational goals and the specific time span available.

Second step: individual profiles

You may propose your students to open a personal folder in the online environment you have chosen for your course. Such a folder could have the nature of e-portfolios, in which students can upload: (a) informal information about themselves such as of photos, notes, links, etc.; (b) formal information about their expectations concerning the course, their personal learning goals, a selection of the best objects and activities they have performed during the course and the competencies they think they have acquired. The fulfillment of this latter section should be encouraged by the teacher at the end of each module.

Example

In the University case, each student was strongly invited to open and maintain their e-portfolio; clear instructions were given about the structure of the formal section. In particular, it included self-assessment questionnaires to be filled in at the end of each module, reporting about the competencies they think they have acquired and outlining personal learning aims for the subsequent module. This choice was due to a specific educational goal: promoting students’ capability to self-assess their own learning and to outline personal strengths and weaknesses.

Third step: lecture, assignment of study material and research question

Each module should have a lecture as starting point, delivered by the teacher face-to-face. During this introductory lecture, the teacher will propose a number of study materials corresponding to the number of students forming the groups.

Example

For instance, if you formed groups of six students you should have six materials (e.g. chapters, articles, power point presentations, web-sites, etc.) strictly connected to the module and to the lecture. This implies that within the groups you have formed at the first step, students will study different material and, at the same time, that the same material will be studied by as many students as the groups have. Therefore, if you have formed three groups, three students will be assigned the same material. Inspired by the Jigsaw method (Aronson, 1978), we will call the group of students having the same material “expert groups”, and the groups of students with different material assigned “learning groups”.

The lecture should end by negotiating a challenging and motivating research question, which will guide the subsequent online activities. The final aim of the module will be to collaboratively articulate an answer to this question.

The aim of this step is to support individual participation and, at the same time, the sense of belonging to a group by sharing common goals – namely answering to the research question.

Fourth step: the review

An adequate amount of time should be allotted to the individual study of the material, followed by the writing of a review according to a template provided by the teacher (see the appendix).

Each study material should be posted online so that the expert groups can discuss the different request of the template via web-forum or chat – as they prefer. Once all the reviews are ready, a dedicated space should be opened online to post them.

We suggest the teacher to: a) randomly select a few reviews, b) comment on them by using the word-tracking option, c) assigning a general assessment, which also includes suggestions about how to improve the review. The commented reviews should be posted online and discussed via a web-forum.

Fifth step: assigning roles

To support active and constructive participation we suggest planning roles to be assigned individually to students. For instance: leader of the expert group, leader of the learning group, researcher in charge of seeking information to fulfill the points considered as unclear in the learning materials, person responsible of the objects that will be constructed during the following step. Further roles can be assigned to ensure the connection between online and offline activities; for instance: responsibility for of the classroom with the task to take notes during the face-to-face activities and posting them online; teacher-contact having the task to ask the teacher for further lectures about points students want to know more about. These roles should be rotated through the modules and students just leaving a role could post online suggestions, reflections, and considerations for the next student covering the role. This step can have different levels of complexity, ranging from very simple – activating just one or two roles – to very complex when a role is assigned to each student.

Example

In the university case, for examples, all the roles mentioned above were gradually implemented: each student in each module performed a role. Each role, indeed, was aimed at promoting specific skills connected to the course; in this way, each student could perform at least 4 roles before completing the course.  Less roles is also possible as in the teacher-training course: only the role of group-leader was assigned, as less time was allocated to the online activities.

Sixth step: toward a group product

During this step, learning groups are active. According to TLA, we recommend to finalize this step through the construction of a group-shared and meaningful object, which could be a map, a report, a poster, or a text. The teacher should propose the right type of “object”, according to the age and competences of the students. The aim is to combine the knowledge acquired through the individually studied material and the various answers to the research question that the students reported in their reviews. A new web-forum can be devoted to this step.

Example

In the university case, as a group-product, students produced conceptual maps using google docs as supplementary tool. In the teacher training course, at the end of each module, participants were required to write a collaborative synthesis of the concepts the instructor proposed both through the material posted online and the lectures delivered in presence.  To write the collaborative text, the groups used a wiki-like environment.

Seventh step: a course product – all together

At the end of the course, all groups are required to work together to produce a collective and meaningful object. Again, it is up to the teacher to choose the right object. For instance, if during the previous step the groups produced a map, now the teacher can propose to build a single, inclusive map, amalgamating the previous maps and including all the concepts studied during the modules. Alternatively, the product can be a questionnaire to interview an expert of the subject of the course, or an observational tool to analyze articles relevant for the course. This step is aimed at avoiding the fragmentation that the modular organization may induce. Therefore, while working on a collective object, a twofold aim can be pursued: (a) students have the occasion to gain a broader vision of the course; (b) they can go back to specific concepts not fully grasped during the module activities.

Assessment

This model allows different levels of assessment. Individual assessment is possible through the qualitative analysis of the reviews (Ligorio, 2012), the Role-Taking (Spadaro, Sansone, & Ligorio, 2009) and the e-portfolios (Impedovo, Ritella, & Ligorio, 2013). Group assessment could be based on the quality of the group and collective objects and on the quality of the discussions accompanying the construction of the objects.

We suggest to fill in a dedicated grid to report students’ and groups’ assessment, and to upload it at the end of each module, inviting students to read and comment on it by using a dedicated discussion forum. In this way, they receive punctual feedback, and their capability of self-assessment is modeled. By comparing the grids at the end of each module, students can take notice of their development and consequently adjust their learning strategies. At the same time, they can recognize their own progress and the progresses of their group.

At the end of the course, the grid provides rich information to the teacher useful for the final assessment.

Practical recommendations

The BCCP model is basically a set of activities and steps based on socio-constructivist principles, helping in collaborative learning. The main recommendation we can offer is to consider the model as a general guideline. Any step and any activity can be personalized, according to contextual issues such as age and number of the students enrolled, time span allotted for the course, available technology, and the specific educational goals. Therefore, we first recommend clarifying these elements and then keeping the structure of the course flexible.

The presence of one or two tutors supporting the teacher would be greatly beneficial. Such tutors can be students previously taking the course or someone acquainted with the theoretical frame of the model and the technology selected for the course.

As for the technology to be used, in the university case a free platform called Synergeia was used. Synergeia is provided with many tools able to support knowledge building and critical thinking, therefore it seems to be particularly suitable for the model. Nevertheless, any web-learning platform would serve the model as well, such as Knowledge Forum designed by Scardamalia (2004) or the Moodle open source environment.

Conclusions

In this article, we first briefly refer to the theories based on which the course is based: socio-constructivism and TLA. Subsequently, we describe: a) the steps through which students perform several activities and build individual, group and collective objects, b) the strategies to guide fruitful discussions oriented to knowledge building.

The strongest point of the BCCP model is its capability to sustain active and constructive participation, both online and live. This result is possible thanks to the thoughtful combination of well-structured individual and collaborative activities and activities capable of effectively connecting on- and offline activities (such as the role of responsible of the classroom). Also the model pays specific attention to personal e-portfolio and self-assessment. Moreover, as suggested by TLA, students’ participation is strongly sustained by the meaningful and shared object around which the collaboration is organized and which externalizes their individual and collaborative efforts.

Furthermore, the model allows personalization. For instance, the individual online profiles can be avoided in high school, since teachers meet students frequently and this activity can be performed offline. Similarly the fifth step, concerning the Role-Taking, could be skipped or abridged by considering only a few roles. Additionally, this step may be omitted in the first module but introduce it in the second module, to give students the possibility to gradually familiarize themselves with the model.

Indeed, the variety of the proposed activities should allow students to find the best way to express their potentialities. In this way, a complex yet sustainable learning system is obtained, able to promote proactive, scalable and self-perpetuating learning processes.

This model is particularly innovative within the Italian context, where technology is used mainly as a delivery content, in particular within educational contexts. Yet, we are aware that innovation is not an easy process, especially in crisis times as the one Italy is facing at the moment. Education is suffering from a lack of investment that is jeopardizing infrastructures, research, as well as teacher’s professional development. Nevertheless, we consider innovation still possible and we hope the BCCP model can be disseminated and experimented also outside the Italian context.

References

Aronson E. (1978). The Jigsaw classroom. Berkeley Hill: Sage.

Ligorio, M. B. (2012). The vicarious effect: Supporting Academic Writing Skills online. In C. Gelati, B. Arfè, L. Mason (Eds.), Issues in Writing Research (221-225). Padova: Cluep.

Impedovo, M.A., Ritella, G., & Ligorio, M. B. (2013). Developing Codebooks as a New Tool to Analyze Students’ e-Portfolios. International Journal of ePortfolio, Vol 3, 2, 161-176

Ligorio, M. B. & Sansone, N. (2009). Structure of a Blended University course: Applying Constructivist principles to a blended course. In C. R. Payne (Ed.) Information Technology and Constructivism in Higher Education: Progressive Learning Frameworks (216-230). London: IGI Global.

Paavola, S. & Hakkarainen, K. (2009). From meaning making to joint construction of knowledge practice and artefacts – A trialogical approach to CSCL. In C. O’Malley, D. Suthers, P. Reimann, & A. Dimitracopoulou (Eds.). Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Practices: CSCL2009 Conference Proceedings (83-92). Rhodes, Creek: International Society of the Learning Sciences (ISLS).

Paavola, S. & Hakkarainen, K. (2014). Trialogical Approach for Knowledge Creation. In Seng-Chee Tan, Hyo-Jeong So, and Jennifer Yeo (Eds.) Knowledge Creation in Education (53-73). Springer Education Innovation Book Series. Singapore: Springer

The Design-Based Research Collective (2003). Design-Based Research: An Emerging Paradigm for  Educational Inquiry. Educational Researcher, 32, 1, 5–8.

Scardamalia, M. (2004). CSILE/Knowledge Forum. In Education and Technology: An encyclopedia (183-192). Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Spadaro, P. F., Sansone, N., & Ligorio, M. B. (2009). Role-taking for Knowledge Building in a Blended Learning course. Journal of e-Learning and Knowledge Society, 5 (3), 11-21.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Appendix

The review templateKeywords

The keywords of this material are …
(about 4-6 words )

Answer to the research question

This material answers to the research question because …
(about 150 words)

Eventual unclear points

I found the following points unclear …
(about 50 words)

Personal opinion

In my opinion …. I think  …
(about 50 words)

Connections to other materials/concepts/authors (from module 2 on, also references to the previous module/s)

This concept makes me think of …

This looks similar/different/conflicting comparing to …
(about 50 words )