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Collaborative Learning Across Multiple Institutions

A new article in the 2009 issue of the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education describes an innovative research course, titled "Where is Conservation Science in Local Planning?”, taught by faculty at three universities through electronic communication. The course focused on local planning policies and practices related to conserving biological diversity.

It started innocently enough. A collaborative research course taught at one university led to conversations about graduate teaching among colleagues residing at different universities.

Exploratory meetings followed and, before any of them quite realized it, six faculty members at three universities spanning four time zones across the U.S. were teaching a graduate course together.

The course "Where is Conservation Science in Local Planning?” was offered during the spring 2007 semester, integrating inquiry-guided, collaborative, and computer-mediated learning approaches.

Jan Thompson, Iowa State University, and her colleagues (both graduate students and faculty) describe how and what course participants learned, in the 2009 issue of the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education.

Two faculty at each of the three universities worked collaboratively with 26 graduate students to examine local planning policies and practices related to conserving biological diversity. They used electronic communication in a “blended learning” environment to facilitate collaboration among dispersed participants.

“I’ve led several similar graduate courses at North Carolina State University,” says George Hess. “The new twist was distance collaboration with students and faculty at two other institutions, Iowa State University and the University of Washington. Collaboration among colleagues across great distances is becoming increasingly common, and experiencing this should be part of graduate education.”

The faculty members were never all in the same place at the same time before the course was launched. They developed the course using the same technologies they expected to teach with, allowing them to work out many “technical difficulties” before students joined the conversation.

Although she has long used collaborative learning in her face-to-face, undergraduate classroom, Thompson was pleasantly surprised at how well the computer-based technology supported collaboration among participants at the three campuses.

"Faculty and students were able to plan for learning, develop and implement a research project, and communicate about scholarly products largely using computer-based media," says Thompson.

Based on pre- and post-course questionnaires, students reported significant increases in communication skills, particularly in understanding how communication fits into collaborative problem solving and anticipating information needs of collaborators.

“Having diverse perspectives, both in an interdisciplinary sense and in a regional sense, also really enriched this experience,” according to Hess. “It sometimes felt like herding cats, but we had very good results in terms of learning and scholarly products. I think we are all looking forward to designing and conducting similar courses in the future.”

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at After 30 days it will be available at the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education website, Go to (Click on the Year, "View Article List," and scroll down to article abstract).

Today's educators are looking to the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education,, for the latest teaching techniques in the life sciences, natural resources, and agriculture. The journal is continuously updated online during the year and one hard copy is published in December by the American Society of Agronomy.

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA), is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

Sara Uttech | Newswise Science News
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