In the spring, I’ll be teaching an online course on “e-collaboration,” and I have the opportunity between now and then to tweak the design of the course a bit. So I’ve been mulling over the concept of “e-collaboration.”
The students will be expecting to learn about all kinds of electronic tools that allow for interpersonal interaction, but I’ve been stuck on the notion of collaboration. I do want to continue the focus on examining the functionality and affordances of various tools (that’s the “e-” in the course title and the core of the course description). But I also want to expand the discussion on the value of collaboration for learning and the techniques that will generate collaboration within the tools we explore.
working with someone to produce or create something
Tools themselves aren’t inherently collaborative, it’s how we use them that might promote collaboration. What makes the use of a blogging tool collaborative? In what circumstances does a discussion board morph from a communication tool to a collaboration tool? How does a shared net space transform from a holding tank for documentation and a Q&A forum to a collaborative space for inventing new ways of doing things or constructing new ways of understanding concepts or approaches? Can an LMS promote collaboration?
I thought I would share some of the ways I am answering those questions.
Prerequisites for online collaboration for learning:
Commitment – Having an urgent problem or an intellectual passion is what gets people in the mood to work more closely with others who share the desire to learn more. We need to be working with learners who are deeply invested in learning together, not simply interested in “learning something about” the topic at hand. If learners don’t contribute, then collaboration can’t happen. So we have to think about the degree to which the learners are committed to learning and to applying their learning to immediate projects and practices.
Psychological Safety – The term is a mouthful, but shorthand for the idea that people need to feel comfortable engaging with one another and taking risks. We need an environment where people will be listened to and respected; where they are able to make mistakes or “think out loud” and not feel they are being judged harshly. When my own learning has benefitted from collaboration with another, it has been because both of us were at least initially intent on understanding each other’s perspectives, not advocating for our own views. Disagreements didn’t degenerate; they continued give and take in a respectful way. (It’s an art that is becoming lost, I am afraid.) We have to think about what makes the online space safe and comfortable for collaboration.
Engagement – The design of a learning space within these tools needs to employ techniques that require active engagement in learning, not passive absorption of knowledge. There need to be enough people involved to get diversity of thought (which in some instances, can be two people), but not so many that the online exchanges are hard to follow. We want to draw learners into participation.
User-Friendly Virtual Space – Anyone who has experimented with technology understands the value in using tools that are intuitive and somewhat customizable. Any of us who use social learning tools have experienced the jarring realization that the tool’s development team has “improved” the product by changing our favorite features (to the delight of half the people who use the product). Allowing learners/users to customize to a degree can help keep people engaged and prevent learners from bailing out of the collaboration because of frustration with the tools.
What else is critical if we want to promote the kind of collaboration that generates new knowledge? I would love to hear your comments and advice on other avenues to pursue before sketching out a syllabus. (And yes, I do see the irony of singularly creating a syllabus when the topic is collaboration.)