A Guide to Cooperative Learning with Computers
by Neil MacQueen, Sunday School Software Ministries, Copyright 1999, 2007
Other Articles:
Getting Started
Selecting Software

NOTE: Our Teaching Tips for individual programs (which you receive when you get the software from us) describe the many ways you can lesson plan with the specific program you have purchased from individual programs. Cooperative learning strategies require a skilled and prepared teacher ~and a knowledge of the software to be used. If you'd like to discuss teaching concepts and lesson strategies, email Neil MacQueen.

UPDATE: This article originally included references to numerous programs which are now out of print. I have removed those references and shortened the article down to its essential ideas. <>< Neil, November 2009

Why & What is Cooperative Learning at the Computer

Cooperative learning strategies help children work together, sharing one keyboard, one mouse, and one screen.

Cooperative learning strategies also direct and integrate the use of two or more different programs in a lesson.

Many of these other strategies can be found in the Teaching Tips we distribute with our software.

Researchers at John Hopkins, the University of California, and the University of Minnesota have been studying how learning is enhanced through cooperative behavior. They have been able to quantify what many of us have known experientially for years:

...when students work together they experience better acquisition, retention and integration of content. Cooperative learning also promotes positive peer to peer relationships, student self-esteem and the desire to learn.

These benefits are exactly what we're after —sharing, valuing, respecting, and heartfelt learning. If you want these things to happen in your computer lab, then cooperative learning is for you. It is an added bonus that this approach dovetails so nicely with rotating students between different pieces of software!

What is "Cooperative Learning?"

Cooperative learning is learning in small groups where each student is actively engaged in a three-step process: research, discussion, and group decision making.

Cooperative learning is the process of discovery through sharing. Cooperative learning creates an objective that requires the participation of each student in the process. This approach to learning understands that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each member of the group may have an assignment, —something to bring or contribute to the rest of the group. Each member gets their turn to add to the larger understanding. Leaders and followers will naturally emerge but the assignment is structured in such a way that all must contribute.

Cooperative learning is goal-oriented. Through research and the sharing of information and ideas, students construct a group understanding or larger picture which leads them toward new meanings and insights. The group may be working toward creating a statement or a report, a solution or a completed project that expresses what the group has learned.

Cooperative learning is not... four kids in front of a computer with one kid dominating the mouse, keyboard, or discussion. Cooperative learning isn't one team competing against another team and letting the brightest kids come up with all the answers. Cooperative means "cooperate."

Cooperative learning is more than telling the class to split into three groups to "answer these questions." It is a way of learning that the teacher both directs and models through their words and interactions with their students.

Cooperative learning is an intentional lesson planning strategy that fosters discussion and facilitates contributions from all participants. In cooperative learning, the computer becomes a means to an end, --a tool to promote the sharing of ideas and peer to peer relationships. Cooperative learning helps focus attention on software content and not just its whiz bang features. Cooperative learning embodies biblical values of sharing, listening, expressing your faith to others, and learning from each other.


Cooperative learning strategies have not always been used in traditional Sunday School. The biggest hurdles have been lack of preparation time and the limited class time we have for our lessons (typically once a week for 55 minutes --as opposed to six hours a day, five days a week in public education).

To be successful with your cooperative computer lab strategy, you will need to do two things:

1) Carefully and intentionally craft your lesson plans. This means taking time to know your software.

2) Schedule teachers in blocks of weeks rather than intermittently, and allow them to use the same lesson plan with more than one class in order to allow them to experiment and improve a single lesson plan strategy week after week. This will help them be better prepared the next time.

Cooperative learning is a LEARNED habit. So it is a great help to schedule students in for several weeks in a row. If they are only in the lab once a month, good habits will take longer to develop and students will have a tendency to want to "play everything" in their one visit. The computer helps us overcome another traditional hurdle, — irregular attendance. Advertising the computer lab schedule can be quite an attendance inducement.

Why Computers and Cooperative Learning Are a Great Match

When properly used, the computer can be a wonderful tool to facilitate discussion. Kids frequently find it difficult to open up and share with their peers, many of whom they may only see once a week in church. With a cooperative learning strategy, the computer helps them get around the problem. The reason is this: kids want to succeed with these tools and this motivates them to overcome their natural shyness about sharing or working together.

Example: Give out a piece of paper and markers to a group of fourth graders, ask them to each write a short psalm, illustrate it, and share it, and you will most likely be met with a fair amount of passive opposition, apathetic effort, and "I don't want to share mine." But have them perform that same task together in pairs using Kid Pix (a creative writing and paint program) and suddenly they are working together, trading off doing the typing and drawing, and proudly displaying their presentations to the rest of the class. Their desire to use the computer gives the teacher the leverage to help students move beyond their boundaries and comfort zones. I'll share more examples in a moment.

There are two other reasons why computers and cooperative learning work well together.

First, the use of computer software is often task oriented, i.e., moving about in search of information or using programs in combination with each other. This fits well with the cooperative teaching methodology described in this guide.

Second, because students approach this technology with varying skill levels and each program has a unique set of navigational controls, students often need each other's help. Third, computers can generate a lot of excitement and some anxiety among the kids.

Cooperative learning strategies can provide a comfortable structure and set of calming set of expectations. Remember, there are other lesson strategies and ideas described in our Teaching Tips. Cooperative strategies such as the ones listed below can be used in combination with many of those ideas. What works well with one age group, teacher or piece of software, may not work as well with another.


Copyright 1999, 2009 Neil MacQueen.