Talking Collaborating @GAvirtual

Talking CollaboratingThis is the third of three posts wrapping up my third semester with the Georgia Virtual School. The first focused on discussion boards, the second on synchronous sessions, and now the third is on collaboration. Particularly teacher collaboration, because I haven’t yet succeeded in helping students collaborate online. In pretty much all of my posts there is an underlying theme of communication and interaction. How can I leverage technology to have students work with people and not the learning management system? Some students do a good job at this, but I would be fooling myself if I said that I had any sense of community of learners in my courses. That just isn’t true. And I’d be interested to know if those students learning to code last week for the annual Hour of Code are also learned how to use this new language to communicate and collaborate and not just share their work.

Sharing work and evidence of learning (or teaching) is easy. That’s what this blog does. While sharing networks do possess a sense of community, especially if people actively like, reply, and now <heart> what others post, sharing isn’t collaboration. Schools and their teachers frequently share their lesson plans, resources, and now data. But many times, and especially online, when teachers share, they pluck the artifact from its context. We don’t see the genesis of the lesson, how the teacher facilitated it, how the students responded to it. Sure, descriptions can give an insight, but the process is gone. Collaboration needs a shared context, purpose, and process.

“In the trenches” is a phrase teachers sometimes use to imply the outside world can’t witness what really goes on in the classroom; the outside world isn’t in it. Trenches: long ditches underground where brave soldiers are huddled down together. From what I’ve seen, most of teaching – especially online – isn’t like that. Instead of trenches, we have gopher holes.

Caddyshack-Murray-gopher_l

“I got to get into this dude’s pelt and crawl around for a few days. Who’s the gopher’s ally. His friends. The harmless squirrel and the friendly rabbit.”

But this is still not exactly right, because gophers, and other adorable burrowing creatures like chipmunks and meerkats, create networks underground. On the surface, holes seem isolated, but underneath there are vast networks connecting these points of contact with the outside world.

So, how can virtual teachers build networks of collaboration? What can a school do to encourage it? Here’s what I know works.

Shared Experience

Collaboration needs a moment of shared experience. This can be face-to-face or it could be a shared presentation, but it needs to be a time when there is a unit and not two separate individuals. We chatted. We worked together. My time and space overlaps your time and space. During GAVS’ Fall Professional Learning Symposium, I met the other 8th grade Language Arts teacher. We sat next to each other and discussed teaching the course, but we also just talked. We were no longer usernames or email addresses, we were people. Also, earlier this fall, I had the pleasure of co-presenting professional development on incorporating games into synchronous sessions. Here, the moment was when we both agreed to present.

Dependency when working toward the goal or purpose

73-series-and-parallel-circuits-13-638Collaboration only works if there is an agreed upon end. Two parallel circuits doesn’t represent collaboration because if one fails, the other functions just fine, and even though each glows brighter, when one fails, the other continues to shine. Series circuits, like strings of Christmas tree lights, better illustrates how collaboration works: when one light fails, the whole string goes dark, until someone spends an hour untangling the mess and testing bulbs.

Following the shared experience, individuals must see a common purpose or goal, but they also must recognize how the other person is critical to achieving that goal.

Frequently, collaboration involves dividing the project into separate parts, but this doesn’t have to be the only way, nor do I think it’s the best way.

Validation of the individual

Rather, enduring collaboration affirms individual strengths and recognizes individual weaknesses. After that shared moment, and after a shared purpose or goal is identified, there should be some way of acknowledging how individuals might solve the problem alone. What are each’s strengths? What can that person, and only that person, contribute? Then dependency isn’t created by arbitrarily dividing tasks, a practice not too uncommon. However, I think in our efforts to agree and compromise, individual voices and contributions are too quickly overlooked. For collaboration to last beyond a single product, there needs to be a piece of each member in the collected whole. Think of an orchestra and not a chorus. Although at times one hears the basses or sopranos in a chorus separately, they sing one message. Whereas with an orchestra, the listener can isolate the trumpets, the percussion, the flutes, and they are all very different parts.

Extended time together

Once tasks are divided, individuals need to regularly check in with each other in both formal and informal contexts. Online, the formal context might be a weekly synchronous chat via Google Hangouts, Adobe Connect, or Skype. While I realize phones can also make calls and not just text, it’s important to be able to share documents, mark things up, and to see each other working during this time. Google Docs is great because it shows everyone where exactly users are typing. Formal meetings are a time for sharing progress, reaffirming or adjusting the goal, planning future steps, reviewing in-progress work, and creating. Weekly half-hour to an hour sessions is ideal. Any less time, it’s hard to create and nurture relationships. Any more, and the time becomes less productive, and it’s tempting to resent the meeting’s existence.

Informal contexts are also necessary, and these, I feel, are often overlooked. Online, this might mean reaching out via email to see how someone is doing or to share some humorous student response (remember FERPA). It might also be regularly checking shared social media platforms and liking or commenting on posts, if only to say, “I was here. I saw this. I value your work, ideas, and experiences.”

For both of my own teacher collaborations this semester, we met once weekly for an hour. During the formal context, we worked on the next week’s deliverable (either a lesson plan or the next professional development presentation), we shared reflections, and we planned our next steps. However, only one collaboration began to develop in an informal context: the one with the other 8th grade LA teacher. We’d send emails with students nailing assignments or completely missing the point. These emails were our “water cooler” chats. And now, at the close of the semester, I feel socially closer to the 8th grade teacher than I do my co-presenter, despite the fact that I regularly work with both.

We recognize that collaboration helps draw on people’s strengths and reduces the workload for individuals, but more importantly it forms bonds, and this is so important in an online context.

“Small Talk” by Randall Munroe. http://xkcd.com/222/

Common tools

Finally, when collaborating online, teachers need to be using the same tools. Be it PowerPoint or Slides, Word or Docs, OneNote or Evernote. I know, this seems like it should go unsaid. Naturally, a group must work on a single product saved on the same platform. But there is something else here too.

In using the same tool, we teach each other different methods of working. With digital tools, we share shortcuts, functionalities, and trouble-shooting tips. As an online teacher, this helps me work better on my own tasks, and I can share what I learn from others with my students.

Online, we can’t look over someone else’s shoulder to see how they work; we can only see the end result. A Prezi might have taken someone five minutes or an hour depending on their process. Formal meetings for creating a single artifact using a single tool help us learn how each other works. This spreads ideas and it also highlights individual differences. Both are equally important.

How can schools help facilitate this?

Create moments of shared experiences where teachers discover commonalities. Yes, this means requiring teachers to meet as a group, to mix it up, to interact with each other. Yes, there will be some grumbling from some, but not from all, and not always. If an organization only asks members to volunteer, the same individuals will participate while a majority remain in the periphery. We don’t teach in classrooms by only calling on students whose hands are raised, and I don’t know why organizations for the most part do.

Facilitate dialogues around student work. When teachers come together, ask that they talk about what works and what doesn’t work in their courses, but be specific. What do students do and what’s an example of it? What do students create and submit? Let me see it. Analyze products for evidence that the students understood the content. Identify where students have misconceptions. Without a single assignment or project to analyze, these discussion among teachers focus on generalities and become echo chambers. “Students don’t take the discussion board seriously.” Perhaps, but what do they write that makes teachers think that? By having examples of student work, conversations lean toward why students wrote what they did, what about the assignment lead them to that, what assumptions students make, and how can teachers change or introduce the assignment to create positive results.

Create a sense of lack or need in teachers, Plato style. Socrates’ description of Love in Plato’s Symposium has always stuck with me. Briefly, Socrates counters another’s definition (“Love is beauty”) by suggesting that love is desire for something: “Then such a person, and in general all who feel desire, feel it for what is not provided or present; for something they have not or are not or lack and that sort of thing is the object of desire and love?” [200e]. The debate is whether love itself is beautiful, and Socrates suggests it can’t be beautiful, but must be the lack of beauty, ugliness.

“Then if Love lacks beautiful things, and good things are beautiful, he must lack good things too.” [201c]

Love of beauty requires both the lack of beauty and the ability to recognize beauty.

Love of knowledge – learning – requires both the absence of knowledge and the ability to recognize knowledge.

Love of teaching – best practices – requires both the absence of best practices and the ability to recognize best practices.

In the past, teachers have been accused of closing their classroom doors and teaching however they feel. This trend is dying in physical schools, but for online teachers, it is alive and well. And I don’t blame the teachers. Technology and multiple online resources allow teachers to create closed-systems: one teacher, their students, the learning management system, and whatever web tools and resources the teacher uses. Since the Internet has everything, it’s easier to Google an answer or search for a resource. It takes more time to ask around, but asking around is how relationships are reinforced. Furthermore, teachers are overachievers, and asking for help, when we know the answer is out there but we haven’t found it yet, seems like a weakness. We are all the students who don’t want to raise their hands and ask a question.

But a culture of collaboration can only form when individuals realize they can’t do it alone. If we openly acknowledge what we’re struggling with, others will rush in to help. In droves. Then, not only are relationships formed and strengthened, but also individuals have the chance to share and show-off what they are good at. Sharing our successes isn’t bragging but solving someone else’s problems.

Speaking of solving problems, my problem, time and time again, is fostering collaboration among my students. Consider my blog my opening up my classroom and inviting you in to observe online teaching and learning. And consider this post an invitation to comment, to share, and to collaborate. What are your thoughts?

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