Collaboration online

Many online courses now require students to collaborate, but we know that just putting people together in the same space isn’t enough? What should a tutor do to prepare students for collaborative tasks?

Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model provides very good guidelines on how to prepare for collaborative tasks online. These are usually designed into Stage 4 of the model after it has been established that everyone has successfully accessed the learning environment (Stage 1), participants are socialising easily and the learning community norms have become apparent (Stage 2) and  information is being freely exchanged and a culture of open sharing exists (Stage 3).

Up to Stage 3 activities centre around helping participants to feel stimulated by and comfortable in the learning environment. Relationships are beginning to be established. Students who are not comfortable with each other and the learning environment will not be able to collaborate effectively, so it is worth spending time on the early stages of accessibility, socialisation and information exchange.

Tutors also need to decide whether the collaborative groups will be self-selected or whether students will be put into groups by the tutor. My personal view on this is that it depends on whether the collaborative group tasks are to be assessed and assessed for what, and whether it is a short course or a longer course. If the task is to be assessed, then if I was a student I would want to be in control of the outcome of that assessment as much as possible and therefore choose my own group. If it is the ability to work in a group that is being assessed then maybe random mixing of students is appropriate.

Nowadays I often work on online non-assessed short post-graduate professional development courses. In these courses there isn’t a lot of time for students to get to know each other, but as a tutor, having done quite a bit of ‘back channelling’ and being able to see the student log in statistics, its fairly easy to create groups made up of a mix of very active participants and lurkers – so that these student characteristics are evenly distributed across groups. Even then a tutor only knows what s/he has been told by the students, so there’s no way of knowing whether a very active student who you are relying on to get a collaborative group going, is, for example,  going to be on holiday or away from the course at the time of the collaborative task, unless that student tells you. So your carefully planned groups can still go awry.

Once the students have started the collaborative task, a tutor can do a lot to help them be successful by making the norms of online group collaboration explicit – so ask the students to inform each other about when they will/will not be online, when they will/will not be able to work on the task, what roles they would each like to volunteer for and so on. Encourage them not to be ‘backward in coming forward’ and not to be shy of taking the lead.

Having worked on online collaborative tasks myself as a student in the past, I know what powerful experiences these can be. It’s surprising how well you get to know each other in these circumstances, even though you are only meeting online and have never met each other face-to-face  – but often these collaborative activities do lead to long-term working relationships.

But I also know from personal experience that group work can be a ‘nightmare’. On my face-to-face Masters degree we had to do a group presentation and I remember having to argue for an educational philosophy to which I was  opposed simply because I was the only person in the group to hold the opposite view (this was about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation and the use of rewards) – and everyone else wanted to do a presentation on something I didn’t believe in – so groups do require a lot of compromise.

This raises an interesting question for tutors about whether you would allow a student to opt out of a groupwork assignment and do an individual assignment instead, if they could make a sufficiently persuasive case, or should we insist that all students engage in collaborative group work.

I once heard Stephen Downes – at the 2005 ALT conference, describe collaboration as – “the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up”, which challenges the whole notion of collaborative learning. But then David Jacques and Gilly Salmon’s have published a quite substantial text on Learning in Groups: A Handbook for face-to-face and online environments which really promotes groupwork.

So is it possible to collaborate online – Yes, of course and very definitely. Can tutors prepare students for this – Yes, of course – good teaching doesn’t change just because it’s online. Obviously there are things that you can do face-to-face (like a science field trip to study rock pools on a Northumberland beach) that would not be possible to capture in exactly the same way online, but an awful lot of what we do face-t0-face can now be done online.

The question is not whether we can get students to collaborate online – the question is whether we should. Are we asking them to do something that is worthwhile and that will enhance their learning.  Are we offereing them opportunities that they would otherwise not have? What is it that students can get from collaborative learning that they can’t get from individual learning? What specific challenges does online collaboration bring?

I don’t think there are necessarily any right or wrong answers here. If you want students to collaborate online, then there are tried and tested ways of making this a successful learning experience, but if you don’t then there will be equally effective alternatives that might suit the situation, context and culture better.

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