Collaboration Makes a Comeback

When it comes to virtual collaboration between teachers and learners, today's passwords are 'synchronous' and 'instant.'

Collaboration Makes a Comeback WHERE ARE YOU NOW? Today, more often than not, this is the opening line of our social exchanges. With mobile cell and IP phones, smart phones, and other such tools, we can work, share, collaborate, or socialize anywhere. And eLearning exchanges are no exception.

Still, in designing eLearning environments, a major challenge is selecting and supporting the synchronous collaborative environments that support spontaneous social and interactive exchanges. We want teaching and learning environments that support open dialogue, study reviews, presentations, and project work including brainstorming, producing, and revising. We want environments that are flexible and engaging, yet affordable and instantly available.

The full-function synchronous collaborative environments are invaluable for teacher-led gatherings and smaller group gatherings, making possible the types of synchronous interchanges between teacher and learners that we have valued so highly in the classroom environment. Once again, teachers and learners can discuss and dialogue in real time, bringing spontaneity back into teacher-learner interactions. The good news is that we now have available to us not only fullfunction synchronous environment tools such as Elluminate, Wimba, and Adobe's Acrobat Connect, but also a new set of mix-and-match instant synchronous collaborative environments, such as the free Google Apps Education Edition.

Why Synchronous Collaboration?

OPEN DIALOGUE, study reviews, presentations, project work that includes brainstorming, producing, and revising: Why are these types of synchronous collaboration gatherings so desirable for successful eLearning experiences? Answer:

  • They support Vygotskian constructivist and social learning strategies (Lev Vygotsky is the 20th century psychologist who promoted the theory that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of thought)
  • They support the three types of presence (social, teaching, and cognitive) described by the University of Calgary's (Canada) Randy Garrison in 2006, that make learning effective and satisfying
  • They support students' desires to be socially active and networking while learning

Think Real Time!

As online courses have evolved, faculty have primarily relied on text for guiding, mentoring, and providing feedback to students. The asynchronous discussion forums have assumed the role of the classroom discussions. The need to write everything out (usually checking grammar and spelling, and editing for quality) takes a great deal of time. And of course, many instructors and students do not do this type of checking, making for painful reading for those who do.

Most of us have discovered that customized feedback and collaborative dialogue are essential to satisfying interactions in the teaching/ learning process. Incorporating synchronous collaborative environments that enable this type of personalization is now making a comeback in online learning (since the pre-web, pre-highspeed- network era) and providing a real boost in faculty and student enthusiasm, as well as enhancing teaching/learning efficiency and, potentially, its effectiveness.

Take Sara Cordell, a writing professor (who also teaches British Victorian literature) at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Cordell says she finds she now can have more "give and take" with her students. She adds that the synchronous environment provides a great way to "pull things together" for them. Importantly, she describes how using a synchronous collaboration tool (in this case, Elluminate) saves her time: She reports she can now interact with students in real time and talk through an essay, for example, discussing how the argument and flow of a student's essay works (or doesn't work), and weighing inputs from the student in real time. Cordell says that her students have confided they feel as if there is more of a "real person teaching the class." (Check out a recent NPR interview with Cordell here.)

One of the questions often asked about these synchronous environments is how students who are taking an online class for flexibility and convenience respond to the need to participate in synchronous events. Cordell, for example, requires her literature/writing students to participate in 10 of 13 live classes, and to watch the archives of those they miss (she sets up a separate forum discussion for those students).

Of course, there's no getting around it: These classes also extend Cordell's day, as she meets with her students for two to three hours, starting at 6 pm. Yet she has been using the Elluminate product for five terms, and reports that while her students find meeting the time constraints somewhat challenging, they confess they enjoy the real-time spontaneity of the synchronous events.

The good news is that we now have available to us not only full-function synchronous environment tools, but also a new set of mix-and-match instant collaborative environments.

Instant Collaboration Options

As powerful as these environments are for teacher/learner collaboration, they do require support by the IT infrastructure (for software licensing and access configuration). And academically, these environments often require some thoughtful preplanning, in order for students to use them effectively. In fact, what we have needed to complement these more formal environments are ways for students to quickly set up collaborative environments, almost on a whim, just the way instant messaging for unplanned dialogues and brief, spontaneous social interactions works- with little demand or effort on the part of the faculty member or the IT staff and IT infrastructure.

Enter the new suites of tools-which brings us back to the Google Apps Education suite and others such as ThinkFree Online and AdventNet's Zoho, that support instant collaboration and social interaction among learners. The current suite of Google tools, for example, includes communication, collaboration, and publishing tools such as e-mail, calendaring, document sharing, and chat/talk tools. Particularly useful for student projects developed in the Google Documents application is a tracking and revision feature. A group of students working on a project-be it a report, problem, presentation, or production-can quickly review the revision history and the content of the revisions, and access earlier versions. The tracker also records who made the changes.

Mix and Match

What's most exciting about the new suites and products is their ability to promote the mixing and matching of tools so that learners can create whatever type of collaborating environment is needed for a specific purpose at a particular time. In other words, users can create their own customized synchronous environments for instant and spontaneous collaboration-in effect, their own "mobile ecosystems." For example, with the Google Apps Education suite (and with other suites' similar capabilities, where they exist), learners can set up collaborative environments in many ways. They can:

  • Use cell phone instant messaging along with Google Calendar to set up meetings of any type
  • Use cell phones and online docs such as web pages, presentations, etc., for initial brainstorming of projects, determining roles and responsibilities, and setting timelines with calendaring apps
  • Use Google Groups text chat and Google Docs combined with cell phones for creating, planning, editing, and revising reports and other learning content
  • Use Google Page Creator and Google presentation software to create a website

The only major constraint in setting up these mix-and-match environments is the need for relatively good and predictable network access and, I might add, relative quiet in physical spaces. Quiet is often hard to come by in popular "coffee offices" such as bookstores, cafes, and other public meeting places.

What is particularly promising about these new online suites of tools is that they are currently free (or almost costfree) for education and are readily available on the internet, resulting in fewer demands on IT infrastructures. Learners can have greater control and can reach out, "touch base," and be productive without much preplanning, as schedules are often so unpredictable.

Synchronous Collaboration Resources
  • For more on Google Apps, see the December 2007 video of Google's Rajen Sheth by David Berlind here.
  • For more about the value of synchronous conferencing, see the University of Memphis (TN) study (Grant and Cheon, 2007).
  • Find out about Arizona State University's adoption of Google Apps here.
  • Don't miss the NPR interview of Sara Cordell (University of Illinois at Springfield) and her use of synchronous collaboration tools, here.

It was back in 2001 that eLearning futurist Elliott Masie suggested we might want to use a metric called "Steps to Instant Collaboration" to assess whether or not setting up a synchronous collaborative meeting was as natural as "going to a meeting room" (go here). Are we there yet? If not, thanks to the resurgence of synchronous collaboration tools-and the understanding that students will collaborate academically the way they have become accustomed to collaborating socially-we're getting close, and learners and learning experiences will benefit once again.

-Judith V. Boettcher is an independent consultant specializing in online and distance learning and the pedagogical applications of new media.

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