PhD Thesis by Nikorn Rongbutsri: "Students Using Online Collaborative Tools in Problem-Oriented Project-Based Learning"
This research starts by presenting an overview of how students in Problem-Oriented Project-Based Learning (POPBL) adopt online communication tools; the main methodology is the mixed method: qualitative and quantitative. A survey of students was conducted followed by examination of students’ blog posts and results analysed. To investigate in depth, two POPBL project groups were observed: experienced and inexperienced; they were observed and subjected to qualitative analysis. Activity Theory was applied to analyse observational data. The research reveals the behaviour of students individually, and socially in their groups, in relation to their attitudes towards adoption of communication tools. Various existing concepts on tool adoption were employed to interpret and discuss findings in respect of students who are Digital Natives.
From the data, the researcher established that a weak division of labour in a project group better enables learning than a strong division; tasks are undertaken collaboratively rather than individually; thus, all members gain from involvement in all aspects of the project. Interaction between members could productively combine collaboration and cooperation; members learn from each other.
This researcher claims that online communication tools for POPBL projects can be classified into three types according to students’ communication tool adoption patterns: tools for general POPBL requirements, tools for newly emerged requirements and professional tools.
a. Tools for general POPBL requirements
As students gain experience of POPBL projects, they recognise the requirements of online communication tools to support their activities. They start to establish their practice by setting up tools to support several tasks in the project. When they start a new project they import their previous practices; in this case, discussion to select tools is unnecessary; they can start using them immediately with little or no support from institutions. These are generally are not professional tools; they are intended for public use; however, students find ways to adopt them professionally; their characteristics are simplicity, excellent at performing a single task and shareability.
b. Tools for newly emerged requirements
A group starting a new project encounters new challenges. Whilst undertaking a project, unanticipated requirements for online communication tools may emerge. Members quickly seek and appraise new tools before adopting them. If regularly used, they become “tools for general POPBL requirements”. Tools for general POPBL requirements are usually adopted during group formation; in contrast, tools for newly emerged requirements may be adopted during any phase. These tools share characteristics of tools for general POPBL requirements.
c. Professional tools
Professional tools perform work-related or professional tasks; professional tools are specialised. Students tend to shun professional tools because they are complex; familiarisation and setting up take time and effort. Even after implementation and using them for some time, they may still be abandoned. Initial and ongoing technical support should be provided in order to encourage students to seek and adopt professional tools effectively.
These educational tools are classified into two kinds: professional and personal. A professional tool is multi-purpose software or groupware; it is complex, expensive and designed for an activity rather than a small task; students can employ a professional tool only if it is provided by their institution. A personal tool has limited scope and is designed for a single purpose; it is easy to use and is accessible from different platforms and devices; it is usually available on free subscription and incorporates entertainment functions; this study reveals that personal tools have displaced professional tools in the context of education. These tools are adopted by students in three stages: Selection, Implementation and Application. The adoption is successful if the tool is utilized throughout all three stages; otherwise, the adoption can fail at any stage.
POPBL projects enable students to learn through solving open-ended problems. The author argues that learning and working socially are not the same; working socially does not necessarily result in learning; for example, when students rush to meet a deadline, they repeat established practice thus missing out on the exploration which results in learning. If a group chooses to be adventurous they may be less productive and could fail to complete their project; in conclusion, cognitive development must be balanced against achievement.