Scholarly article on topic 'Collaborative Environments, A Way to Improve Quality in Higher Education'

Collaborative Environments, A Way to Improve Quality in Higher Education Academic research paper on "Economics and business"

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{"Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs)" / "Higher Education" / "Problem-Based Learning (PBL)" / "generic competences" / "educational quality improvement ;"}

Abstract of research paper on Economics and business, author of scientific article — Rodriguez-Donaire Silvia, Amante Beatriz

Abstract The aim of this research is to observe how Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs) foster higher education quality improvement by means of enhancing students’ teamwork skills, the use of CWBEs and the use of teaching methodologies, particularly PBL. A survey was conducted in three different subjects with similar characteristics in courses held at the ETSEIATBarcelonaTECH among a sample of 98 students. Results shed light on two aspects which improve teamwork performance: 1) the functionality of CWBEs and 2) the ability and motivation of students in these environments.

Academic research paper on topic "Collaborative Environments, A Way to Improve Quality in Higher Education"

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Social and Behavioral Sciences

Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 46 (2012) 875 - 884

WCES 2012

Collaborative environments, a way to improve quality in Higher


Rodriguez-Donaire, Silvia a *, Amante, Beatriz a

aTechnical University of Catalonia, UPC - ETSEIAT, C/ Colom, 11, Terrassa and 08222, Spain


The aim of this research is to observe how Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs) foster higher education quality improvement by means of enhancing students' teamwork skills, the use of CWBEs and the use of teaching methodologies, particularly PBL. A survey was conducted in three different subjects with similar characteristics in courses held at the ETSEIAT-BarcelonaTECH among a sample of 98 students. Results shed light on two aspects which improve teamwork performance: 1) the functionality of CWBEs and 2) the ability and motivation of students in these environments.

© 2012 Pubhshed b y Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Huseyin Uzunboylu

Keywords: Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs), Higher Education, Problem-Based Learning (PBL), generic competences, educational quality improvement;

1. Introduction

The world is facing many challenges and is changing rapidly which in turn enhances the need to produce qualified and well-prepared professionals. Additionally, employers are demanding students who have the knowledge and the appropriate skills to be effective and productive in the workplace. In order to adapt to these challenges, universities worldwide are seeking how to redesign their academic teaching methodologies through enhancing quality in education by using Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs) based on Web 2.0 technologies.

Collaboration refers to planning, sharing, coordinating, decision-making and general communication between two or more members working together on a task. It is important to consider that there is a new context in which new teaching methodologies such as project collaboration through BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work), content collaboration through wikispaces, Moodle and Video Streaming through youtube, among others, have appeared. These CWBEs are designed not only to help people achieve a common task by providing communication tools but also to transform the way in which documents and rich media are shared in order to provide efficiency in team collaboration.

According to Rodriguez-Donaire and Amante (2010), these CWBEs are viewed as a complementary element in identifying new learning methodologies. Can these new learning methodologies foster quality in higher education? Moreover, which collaborative system factors would improve the quality of students' skills in higher education?

This research will focus its attention on which students' competences are improved by the use of these CWBEs and which characteristics of these environments are perceived by the students to improve their group performance.

* Rodriguez-Donaire, Silvia. Tel.: +34-615-21-1358 E-mail address:


1877-0428 © 2012 Published by Elsevier Ltd. Selection and/or peer review under responsibility of Prof. Dr. Huseyin Uzunboylu doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2012.05.216

Thus, the aim is to shed light on which factors of CWBEs improve the quality of students' competences in higher education during those pilot experiences carried out within the scope of adaptation to European Higher Education Area (EHEA) requirements.

We have found a large number of reports, conferences and accreditation reforms which are concerned with the importance of preparing engineers for collaborative practices (e.g. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) and Engineering Accreditation Commission, 2007; Agéncia per la Qualitat del Sistema Universitari de Catalunya (AQU), 2005; Tuning Project, 2008; The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, 1991). However, very little is said about the assessment regarding the enhancement of teaching quality by using CWBEs. Particularly, over the past year and a half, several pilot experiences using CWBEs have been carried out through several subjects (projects, quantitative methods and strategic management among others) and in different degrees at the Technical University of Catalonia, BarcelonaTECH UPC - ETSEIAT.

A survey was conducted at three different measurement points (i.e. at the beginning, in the middle and at the end) of three courses to assess how teaching quality is improved by means of new learning methodologies using CWBEs. The survey assessed students' motivation, perception of students' competence development and use of CBWEs in achieving group collaboration and learning. Another measure used was the students' scores and grades.

All these factors set out to observe how students' competences are positively influenced by the use of CWBEs in higher education, particularly at the ETSEIAT. The results shed new light on the use of these CWBEs in improving students' competences in the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) - specifically teamwork and critical thinking - and which CWBE features enhance quality in higher education (e.g. direct professor feedback, asynchronous and remote work, task coordination and management, etc.).

CWBEs would not only improve learning methodologies, group teamwork performance, but also allow us to collaborate with other institutions in related projects in improving quality in higher education.

The following sections will describe: firstly, the use of technology in Competency-Based Learning Environments (CBLEs), which includes Collaborative Web-Based Environments (CWBEs) and the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) teaching methodology; secondly, methodology containing research framework, how teamwork is organized in the courses, course dynamics and CWBEs used; then, how it provides a theoretical model with the hypothesis; next, the results and discussions of the theoretical model; and finally, the conclusions.

2. Use of technology in competency-based learning environments

Many reports, conferences, accreditation reforms and several articles are concerned with the importance of preparing engineers for collaborative practices and a global society (e.g. del Canto et al., 2010; Garcia-Almiñana and Amante, 2007). Additionally, universities as well as the EHEA are concerned with helping students develop and reinforce their abilities and competencies and also with creating new assessments requiring students to apply their learning to the real world.

According to Bastiaens and Martens (2000), higher education institutions are confronted with a demand for competency-based learning, which aims to narrow the gap between learning in an educational setting and a future workplace performance. Specifically, the Technical Industrial and Aerospace Engineering School (ETSEIAT) is reinforcing communication skills, teamwork, accuracy in the use of Internet sources, innovation and entrepreneurship, sustainability and social commitment, a third language (English), autonomous learning, and critical thinking.

In this Competency-Based Learning Environment (CBLE), teachers seek to confront students with authentic, open problems and learning materials which have personal meaning for them and which are presented in a variety of formats. This type of learning is named Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Additionally, as in professional work contexts, more and more collaborations go with Computer-Support Workspaces. According to Birenbaum (2003)

"emerging technologies of computer-supported collaborative learning provide increasing opportunities for fostering learning in such an environment by creating on-line communities of learners. [...] It offers a dynamic collaborative environment in which learners can interact, engage in critical thinking, share ideas, defend and challenge each

other's assumptions, reflect on the learning material, ask questions, test their interpretations and synthesis, and revise and construct their ideas" (pp.21).

2.1. Collaborative web-based environments

CBLE is integrated into collaborative environments by means of a new generation of web-based collaborative tools such as social networks, blogs, wikis, video streaming, etc. (e.g. Fernandez et. al. 2011; Karasavvidis 2010; Larusson and Alterman 2009), which have increased in popularity, availability, and performance in recent years.

These web services are commonly referred to in literature as Web2.0 technologies. According to O'Reilly (2005), among other authors, these web-based environments facilitate a more socially connected web where everyone is able to communicate, participate, collaborate and add to and edit information space. We will refer to these environments as CWBEs which allow asynchronous and synchronous distributed learning groups by means of collaboration. Collaborative environments, particularly, are referred to as groupware or workgroup support environments. According to Carstensen and Schmidt (1999), groupware or collaborative environments pertain to the technological elements of computer-suppled cooperative work (CSCW), since this "addresses how collaborative activities and their coordination can be supported by means of computer systems. Collaborative activities address the efforts made by different users in order to achieve a common goal in enhancing cooperation" fyp. 2).

Several authors have focused their research on the use of technology and assessment processes and uses, as well as learning outcomes. Through a qualitative methodology, they have confirmed the usefulness of technologies in the learning processes (e.g. Bouslama et al., 2003; del Canto et al., 2010). There is, however, a gap in the assessment of teaching quality enhancement by using CWBEs according to student perspective in Problem-based Learning (PBL) teaching methodology.

2.2. Problem-based learning teaching methodology

PBL and its variant is one of the new methods of the teaching-learning process consolidated in recent years within higher education institutions throughout the western world and which, in particular, allows excellent approximation to a rethink of education from the perspective of the EHEA.

The PBL teaching methodology reversed the conventional learning process. Traditionally, students set the information out first and then determine its application in solving a real situation. PBL attempts first to highlight the problem, identify the learning needs, seek the required information and return to the problem approach. Experience has shown that students who work from the original approach of the problem through to its solution work cooperatively in small groups and have the opportunity to practice and develop those competences which could rarely previously be put into action.

One of the most important features of PBL is teamwork and critical thinking oriented towards solving problems. During the different team group activities carried out to solve the problem, students take responsibilities, decisions and actions which are considered basic in their education to develop and reinforce their competences. This is one of the main reasons why this methodology is considered a model which combines teaching methodologies with students' competence development, above all in the case of technicians. Additionally, this methodology is feasible for use by teachers in most courses to a greater or lesser degree.

3. Methodology

3.1. Research framework

The study research framework seeks to observe the improvement in the perceived quality of students' generic skills through the use of collaborative tools. This framework consists of a set of three subjects included in the last three years of the engineering course taught at the School of Industrial and Aeronautic Engineering of Terrassa (ETSEIAT), an affiliated center of the Technical University of Catalonia (Barcelona TECH).

The subjects and courses related to this research are listed in Table 1:

TABLE 1: Subject and courses related to this research



Industrial Engineering Industrial Organization Engineering Aeronautic Engineering

Strategic Management

Projects _Projects_

Optional — 10 students Compulsory - 30 students Compulsory - 60 students

These three subjects are from different area and course types but have a common methodology based on collaborative work and project-based learning (PBL and CW).

In all three cases, the collaborative work is thought out to be done in small groups. Each group of students poses an engineering problem based on reality. They have to raise a resolution team, make and discuss their own decisions and organize and distribute their work freely among the group members. The teacher assigned to each group takes on the role of a client who has to assess the quality of the team's proposed solution and verify the process of the given solution.

Another common feature among the subjects is the inclusion of generic skills. They attempt to achieve development at the highest level. The skills worked on in the subjects (Appendix 1) are: teamwork, effective communication skills, oral and written communication, critical thinking (analysis and synthesis) and self-learning capacity.

Although we also consider the third language (English) as a generic skill, it is developed into different levels of depth in each case. For this reason, it is not considered a common element of the study as it is not comparable.

3.2. How teamwork is organized in the courses

Because of the disparity in the number of students in each subject (between 10 and 60), the organization of groups, particularly teamwork, varies case by case.

The subject groups referred to as Project are usually from 8 up to 12 students whereas the subject groups of Strategic Management are smaller, consisting of 3 or 4 students. The working groups are organized in all the subjects to a greater or lesser extent into subgroups working around the group coordinator (a student is chosen among them for this purpose). They establish regular meetings to monitor the group and share their progress, problems and relationships between the tasks in progress, reorientation of the work, and discussion of the conclusions reached, decisions made, etc. Additionally, a meeting with the tutor is held each week.

The operating rules of the group (choice of group coordinator and secretary, writing minutes of meetings, defining the work process, planning deliveries, generating mechanisms of decision-making and task allocation, etc.) are defined by the group in the first session and serve as the framework for project development. In this sense, the subject highly considers the formal aspects and project management.

Specifically at the weekly meetings of the Project subject, students propose a timetable for partial deliveries of intermediate documents and presentations. This is carried out to accurately ascertain each group's work progress, to provide feedback on developed activities and expectations on the achievement of the objectives set within the proposed time. However, in the subject of Strategic Management the teacher suggests a partial delivery schedule using its work website. This schedule helps him/her to evaluate the progress of the work carried out by each group and provide feed-back on the various deliveries in order to achieve the set objectives by the end of the semester.

In the case of the Project subjects, the project is defended at the end of each semester in front of a panel of three professors from within the field. There is a first presentation lasting about thirty minutes using PowerPoint, posters or videos and then time for questions and answers is set aside either to specify aspects which have not yet been clearly exposed or to assess the ability to surprise by the referees' unexpected questions. As well as the course tutor, there is one other tutor in the subject of Strategic Management who acts as an external referee in the assessment of the collaborative work carried out. A twenty-minute PowerPoint presentation is also given and then time for

questions and answers is again set aside to specify aspects which have been unclear in the exposition and also the ability to assess response to unexpected questions by the referees.

Specifically, in the subject of Strategic Management, students should formulate a strategy for a real or invented firm. They have to first of all detect the problem and then propose an improvement.

3.3. Course dynamic and collaborative web-based environment use

In the Project subjects, a virtual environment is used to facilitate communication between group members and the tutor and to organize and manage documents. This virtual environment is specifically BSCW (Basic Support for Cooperative Work) under an educational license issued by Fraunhofer FIT ( and OrbiTeam Software GmbH (

A folder structure is defined in this work environment by documentation cataloging experts from the BCT (Terrace Campus Library) and Project Department. This structure places all the documents generated and used by the group, all the work documents generated, group agenda and minutes of meetings, etc. It is an environment which allows tracking contributions made by each member of the team and both synchronous and asynchronous communication between students and tutors. It also allows activity and management organization of the progress of the project.

A wikispace is used to facilitate communication in the subject of Strategic Management between group members and/or the tutor and also to facilitate visibility with other groups as well as the interaction between them. This in turn facilitates document organization and written asynchronous or asynchronous online communication with group members. The tutor predefines a structure of the online space in order to name the different sections of the virtual environment and take control of deliveries although each group can redesign the structure of their space as they so wish.

4. Hypothesis

According to Table 2 below, we can observe to which degree the students consider the CWBE used in the different courses has helped them improve their competences. As the table shows, written and oral communication competences have improved less than the others. Teamwork, however, is the students' competence which has improved the most when using these collaborative environments (BSCW or wikispaces).

TABLE 2: Students' competence improvement by the use of CWBEs in higher education

In which degree do you consider that the CWBE used in the course has helped you improving your: Average Average above 10

Written Communication 2.48 4.97

Oral Communication 2.00 4.00

Critical Thinking - Synthesis 2.69 5.38

Critical Thinking - Analysis 2.88 5.76

Teamwork 3.72 7.44

Self-learning 2.89 5.78

Figure 1: Students' competences which have improved through CWBE use

As Figure 1 shows, the focus of our research is on teamwork competence and the aim of this research is to observe how higher education quality improves teamwork competence by means of CWBEs, PBL teaching methodology use and teamwork competence improvement by means of using CWBEs. Additionally, the report in the Economist Intelligence Unit (2008) pointed out that technology is changing the way in which universities teach and students learn. However, can CWBEs in PBL activities foster higher education quality in students' group team competence? To answer this research question, we would like to test the following hypothesis drawn in the theoretical model (Figure 2):

Hypothesis 1: The ease in understanding how CWBEs work has a positive influence on the improvement of the students' teamwork competence.

Hypothesis 2: A collective student attitude in the group has a positive influence on the improvement of the students' teamwork competence through the use of CBWEs.

Hypothesis 3: The students' previous experience in CWBE use for course development has an insignificant influence on the improvement of the students' teamwork competence.

Hypothesis 4: CWBEs which facilitate a great degree of autonomy, the member task coordination within the group and their ease of use has a positive influence on the improvement of the students' teamwork competence.

Hypothesis 5: The improvement of the students' teamwork competence is highly related to higher education quality improvement through CWBE use and the new teaching methodologies (PBL).

Figure 2: Theoretical model

5. Results and discussion

To answer our set of hypotheses, we conducted a survey in the 3 subjects (Table 1) with a sample of 98 students. The sample of responses was 100% and the survey consisted of 26 questions. Tables 3 and 4 highlight those which are more related to the five previously proposed hypotheses. Table 3 shows the rating scale ranges from1 to 7, while in Table 4, the scale varies from 1 to 5.

If we relate the selected answers in the questionnaire with our hypothesis, we can say:

Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 3: Only 15.3% of students had previously used the collaborative tool from which only 72% said (higher than 5 on a scale of 1 to 7) that previous experience of using online collaborative tools has helped in teamwork development. We can conclude that previous knowledge on web-based tools is insignificant. On the other hand, 81% of the sample considered that the ease of use of collaborative tools improves teamwork performance. The results are shown in Figure 3 and Table 3. We can conclude that the ease of use of these tools is more important for students to achieve a good teamwork performance by means of virtual environments than any prior knowledge of these collaborative tools.

I H1: Do you think that the previous experience help?

I H3: The collaborative tools are easy to use to work In group.

2 3 4 5 6 7

Figure 3: Ease of use has a higher importance than any previous experience of use

Hypothesis 2: 89.5% of the sample said (above 5 on a scale of 1 to 7) that they like working in groups. In addition, 99% attend all group meetings held during the course (whether face to face or online). 95% said that they always support their team colleagues and everyone is concerned with reaching the set group target. Yet 30% said they work better alone. Based on these results we could say that students of these subjects have a positive attitude to teamwork and try to get all members involved in the development of the knowledge required for the proposed activity. This shows that the students' attitude regarding teamwork is collectivist and has a positive influence on the improvement of students' teamwork competence (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Students' collective versus individualist attitudes (Hypothesis 2)

Table 3: Questions related to hypotheses 1, 2 and 3

scale H1: Do you think that the previous experience help? H2: I always come to the meeting group. H2: I like working in group. H2: I always give support to the other members of the group. H2: I work better alone. H3: The collaborative tools are easy to use to work in group.

1 2 5

2 2 15 1

3 9 4 1 20 5

4 31 1 6 4 26 12

5 29 2 23 13 18 17

6 11 20 45 42 8 44

7 7 73 17 35 3 16

Hypothesis 4: According to Caballé et al. (2005), students' motivation to learn the subject through the use of CSCW tools directly affects the development of competition for group work. Moreover, Salmeron, Rodriguez and Gutierrez (2010) indicated that students' motivation through the use of CSCW tools positively affect the development of other skills such as planning and management (critical thinking). These findings are also supported in our research as more than 64% of the sample believes that collaborative tools help in the development of teamwork skills.

Additionally, 63% of the sample believes that collaborative tools facilitate the planning and coordination of tasks for the correct achievement of the project. This finding is also supported by Ras et al. (2007). Additionally, 69% believe that collaborative tools facilitate an easier control of delivery time and monitor the progress of the project as well as the work contributed by each member of the group as shown in the results in Table 4. Solomon and Finch (1998) and Lewis et al. (2010) identified various factors in the use of PBL and assert that collaborative tools (such as BSCW) facilitate the organization and communication in teamwork. Other authors such as Schummer, Strijbos and Berkel (2005) proposed metrics to measure students' participation in collaborative environments and to relate the same participation to teamwork and to other factors such as the quality of work carried out by others. For instance, according to our results, 56% of students believe that through collaborative tools and work methodology (PBL) they have been able to learn both in content and skills from other group members.

TABLE 4: Results showing how collaborative tools enhance teamwork performance

To what degree you feel that the collaborative tool used in the course helped you improve your ...

Scale Teamwork capability Task coordination developed to end the project Follow up the group activities Learn from the work of others (information and cabilities)

1 1 2 6 6

2 8 9 9 5

3 25 24 14 31

4 45 54 36 45

5 16 7 30 8

Hypothesis 5: All previous assumptions lead us to affirm that the use of collaborative tools (CWBEs) improve not only the students' teamwork skill according to their perceptions, but also the quality of teaching in higher education. These arguments were also claimed by Bentley et al. (1997).

To support H5, Figure 5 shows the evolution of the scores in the Project subjects in the past five years. The X axis represents the evolution of the courses from 2006 to 2011. The Y axis corresponds to the average score of students who have studied the Project subjects during those years, knowing that the maximum score is 10. The variation in the scores is influenced by several factors, among which we highlight the incorporation of collaborative tools. This improvement leads to increased transmission of knowledge thanks to the use of different methodologies such as PBL with the support of collaborative tools. Additionally, according to Rodriguez-Donaire and Amante (2010), they argue that "the existence of these digital environments aids university teaching practice [...] Besides,

the use of these platforms encourages and facilitates students', professors' and other users' participation by

collaborating and sharing knowledge and information" fop. 114).

2005-07 2007-0

2008-09 2009-10 2010-11

Figure 5: Grade trends over the past 5 years in Project subjects

6. Conclusions

This study shows how the quality of higher education improves the teamwork skill by means of CWBEs through the use of a learning methodology, in our case PBL.

On the one hand, the evolution of the scores of the Project subjects allows us to observe an improvement of more than one point during 2011 and an improvement of more than two points if it is compared between 2006-2007 and 2010-2011. This improvement is determined by several factors: the use of CWBEs, the PBL approach to learning, and self-management and autonomy of students, as well as, motivation and commitment from both students and teachers involved in these subjects.

On the other hand, results of the survey show that the use of CWBEs not only encourages generic skills improvement such as critical thinking (task planning and work management throughout development) and teamwork in particular, but also student satisfaction for peer learning through their use - a point which had yet to be contemplated in literature - to improve higher education quality.

The theoretical model allows us to shed light on two aspects: 1) the functionality of collaborative environments (easy to use, allowing autonomy of space) and 2) the ability and motivation of students in the use of these environments. These two aspects have an impact on the improvement of teamwork performance, which in turn together with the use of CWBEs and PBL learning methodology in the courses, encourage better quality in higher education achievement.


Our thanks to all students who took place in the experiment. First, we would also like to acknowledge Prs. Garcia-Atomrna for his unconditional support and for offering his students as a sample of this experiment. Secondly, we would like to acknowledge also the support offered by the project awarded by the Generalitat of Catalonia, 2010-MQD00020.


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The definition and the objectives of our university ETSEIAT - BarcelonaTECH gave to competences a higher level of development in their courses as follows:

TEAMWORK - Being able to work as a team player, either as a member or as a leader. Contributing to projects pragmatically and responsibly, by reaching commitments in accordance to the resources that are available. Managing and making work groups' effective. Resolving possible conflicts, valuing working with others, assessing the effectiveness of a team and presenting the final results.

EFFICIENT ORAL AND WRITTEN COMMUNICATION - Communicating verbally and in writing about learning outcomes, thought, building and decision-making. Taking part in debates about issues related to the own field of specialization. Communicating clearly and efficiently in oral and written presentations. Adapting to audiences and communication aims by using suitable strategies and means.

CRITICAL THINKING - Being able to conduct an intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.

SELF-DIRECTED LEARNING - Detecting gaps in one's knowledge and overcoming them through critical self-appraisal. Choosing the best path for broadening one's knowledge. Applying the knowledge gained in completing a task according to its relevance and importance. Deciding how to carry out a task, the amount of time to be devoted to it and the most suitable information sources.