Piaget’s classic work on cognitive development showed that engaging learners in critical discussions with peers about ideas that are different than theirs leads to deep conceptual understanding. Implementing such an approach in college level STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) courses has some specific challenges: (a) Short meeting times and large class sizes; (b) Competitive nature of the courses and single answer questions on assignments and exams; and (c) Overall lack of collaborative learning culture where students are unsure of how to seek help and many faculty members tend to think that engaging in collaborative activities may affect content coverage; etc. Based on Piaget’s theory, we have developed a highly innovative collaborative learning approach that exploits specific affordances of web technologies to address these challenges. This approach, named CONSIDER (short for CONflicting Ideas Discussed, Evaluated, and Resolved) allows creation of small groups of students with different ideas about the topic in question, engages them in a highly-structured rounds-based discussion so that the group progresses at an equitable pace, and makes their submissions anonymous to others so that students can receive the comments without any preconceived notions they may have about the poster.

We built a platform independent responsive web application using Google App Engine and Python to implement this approach and to compare it with the commonly used discussion forum approach, where students respond to other posts in a threaded discussion. This app was used in various undergraduate Computer Science & Engineering courses at The Ohio State University, where one discussion was conducted using the forum-based approach and the other using our approach in each course. Students performance on the pre- and post-discussion question and participation of individual students was measured.

Our evaluations are generally positive. See some relevant publications for more details.