Friday, November 11, 2005

Assignment: Online Collaboration

So here I am once again completing a blogging assignment for my hypermedia course. The topic: "As we move from group work to independent work, please create a blog post showing some thoughtful reflection on any topic related to 'online collaboration.'"

I've given collaboration in general a lot of thought, in large part because the courses I teach in English as a Second Language often rely heavily on collaboration. Personally, I feel that the proponents of collaboration often overlook one key problem with collaboration: it's so very easy for participants to not participate very much. Even when the instructor puts a mechanism in place to supposedly ensure that everyone does a fair share of the work, there's always the tendency for the participants themselves to play towards their strengths and not their weaknesses; everyone gets better at what they're already good at but no one really gains the new skills they need.

I see this in the groups I participate in. I'm a teacher, so I'm very comfortable with all the "teacher stuff" -- writing lesson plans, creating activities, stating objectives. I am not comfortable with exploring new technologies or creating *shudder* flow charts. Therefore, when I work in groups, I leave the flowcharting to others, even though I'm probably the one who should be completing every single flowchart myself just to get the practice I so desperately need.

In our hypermedia course, we've just completed a group project and have now been sent off to complete an individual project. On the one hand, I'm glad to be doing an individual project because I'll now be forced to face my demons and do the things I've been able to avoid doing as a member of a group. On the other hand, I harbor no illusions that I'll be able to complete this project alone without soliciting help from my now former group members.

In the classes I teach, I've moved towards assigning individual projects with group support as a way of dealing with these issues. For example, students in my writing class have to complete a paper and presentation for their final project. Everyone has to choose their own topic, write their own paper and make their own presentation. However, from the very beginning of the process they're assigned to a group. The group is there for support purposes; at various points in the process, group members review each other's topics, make suggestions, provide feedback and serve as a mock audience for presentation practice. The group members are there for one another as a resource; even though each student produces his or her own separate project, they have a "go-to" group that can help them out when they need a hand. It gives them independence, promotes collaborative learning, but also helps ensure that everyone does every part of their own project themselves, even those parts they would rather avoid.

I'm such a proponent of this independent-production-with-group-support method that even when we were de-grouped after our mid-term project, I asked my group members if we could stay in touch and support one another through the independent project process. My group members agreed, and I've already emailed them my first rough ideas for my final project. The feedback I received helped me revise my work before submitting it to my professor for final approval. I wrote not one but five flowcharts all by myself -- something I never would have done had I been participating in a group project -- but I checked them all with my group members, who are all much more skilled at flowcharting than I will ever be. As I see it, this allows me to have the best of both worlds -- I'm forced to do all the parts of a project, even those I'd otherwise avoid, but I have the support of a group to help me with the areas I'm weak in. It's an option I think should be explored further by advocates of collaborative learning.


ap said...

I found your approach interesting, particularly the 'go-to' liaisons that are created in teams. Being that I've been lucky enough to be in your team, and knowing you to be a true pillar of knowledge, I am lucky to know you will always be in my list of 'experts I know'. :)

AWJ said...

I think you're absolutely right - we do tend to play to our strengths when in a group project, neglecting the areas where we need to gain experience.

The "independent-production-with-group-support method" is really the best of both worlds. I wonder if formalizing it in the classroom -- for example: the professor specifies that students will scaffold one another in independent activities -- would work as well as the system you've created as a student.