Collaboration: The Lost Skill?

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This blog post is cross-posted over at Dangerously Irrelevant.

First I’d like to say thanks to Scott McLeod for the opportunity to write a post for Dangerously Irrelevant. The topic of student collaboration is one that has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. I want to disclaim at the forefront that I want this to be a conversation. I want to learn from you. I want you to make me think. This is not the end-all be-all about collaboration. I want to talk about the necessity of this 21st century skill and how I think it dwindles as a necessary skill as students move away from elementary school.

My daughter is almost 6 years old. She just started Kindergarten. Recently she was at a playground with her brother and numerous other kids. As I watched her play, I noticed how comfortable she was going up to kids she’d never met, introducing herself, and engaging these kids in conversation which led to a new playtime opportunity. She was probably doing whatever she could to not have to play with her younger brother for a while. 🙂

If you have young children it’s really an amazing thing to watch. She just went right up to these other kids, and started in like she had known them already. Right away I thought about collaboration. Even if it’s in the most simplest form, she is collaborating. It doesn’t matter if it’s in her kindergarten classroom or on the playground. She wants to have a productive play/learning time. That is her goal. It would seem, that she is eager to collaborate for this to happen. I feel like I’ve been a positive guide for her to be this way; but it wasn’t decreed like, “You shall speak to all of your peers and engage them!” I am blown away by her comfort level. Even when I’m in a classroom of younger students (I’m thinking Kindergarten through 2nd grade), I am always intrigued at their collaboration skills (as basic as they may be) to achieve a common goal.

All of this thinking on collaboration and 21st century skills led me to ask this via Twitter, “What field of expertise DOESN’T require some form of collaboration to succeed?” I didn’t get one serious response. My friend Andy Marcinek, however, gets the award for funniest response. “A mime.” Seriously though, how can we say that students don’t need the skill of effective collaboration? I want to hear your thoughts on this.

I have seen tweets and blog posts recently about frustration that teachers are having getting their students to collaborate. These were mainly secondary teachers and library media specialists. It was even an #EdChat topic a few weeks ago: “How do we engage students who find participatory learning uncomfortable?” What do you find most difficult when getting students to collaborate? Criticism from their peers? A bad experience with a previous teacher? It seems like there’s so many factors that can come into play.

How are we fostering this skill beyond kindergarten? What have you found that really is motivating for students to collaborate? What gives them true ownership of their learning? There’s awesome digital tools that aid in collaboration, but those tools don’t MAKE the collaboration. It’s a skill that still has to be fine tuned. It’s a skill we should all be modeling effectively if we want our students to do it effectively. If you’re looking for some great suggestions on how to foster collaboration in your classroom, I would suggest reading Michelle Bourgeois’ post titled:  The Collaborative Classroom: It’s a Juggling Act. In this post Michelle tells a story of teaching students how to juggle and says. “Just like the art of juggling, there are several skills that need to be balanced and constantly monitored in a collaborative classroom to make it all come together.” Please be sure to check out Michelle’s post on how to monitor and keep balance of some essentials in classroom collaboration.

This leads to my questions, “Where does this skill go?” Am I the only one that thinks younger students are better at collaboration than older students? Shouldn’t this be the opposite? This is something we want our students to be better at right? We should be fostering this skill in our classrooms, not hindering it. How often are you allowing students to collaborate? Not to say that awesome things can’t come out of individual thinking, but as I always like to say, “We’re better together.” Sure, one mind can do awesome things, but a collective could really rock someone’s world.

Thanks for reading.

Collaborative Document Tools for the 3Cs

I recently came across three document collaboration/publishing tools that I want to share. Both of these tools would be great for students to use inside and outside of the classroom. I think these tools represent what I refer to as the 3C’s of digital literacy: Communicative, Collaborative, and Creative.

EtherPad
EtherPad markets themselves as the “only web-based word processor that allows people to work together in really real-time.” I was introduced to EtherPad by David Jakes (@djakes) at the METC 2010 Conference. What I think is a great feature about EtherPad is that there is no sign-up required by the teacher or students. A public pad is created and students can start a collaborative writing project instantly. The pad has an exclusive link to be shared right away. An EtherPad document is limited to a maximum of 17 users, so if you have more than 17 students you might want to divide students up into groups to work on their documents. What I like it that each user can be easily identified by name and also by a specific text color. Multiple document types can be imported directly into EtherPad and the document can be exported in multiple formats. Be sure and check out the Saved Revisions and the Time Slider to see the evolution of the document and student participation levels.

Import/Export Options, Saved Revisions, and the Time Slider


CrocoDoc

CrocoDoc is a little different from EtherPad in a couple of ways. First, documents cannot be created directly from within the web app. They have to be imported from the computer or on the web somewhere else on the web. Second, not only can you collaborate and edit PDFs and Word documents, but CrocoDoc will also take PowerPoint presentations. The markup tools used are stickie notes, a highlighter, strikeout text, and add additional text. Specific pages can be shared via an exclusive link. Those you share the link with can not only view but also edit by default. A pro account is required ($36 per year) for added security features and support. Be sure to check out their demo document to get a feel for the interface before signing up.

A great document publishing web app

Issuu is a great document publishing application that gives a classy, professional look to existing documents. It gives your documents a “magazine” style look as you flip through your document’s pages. Your Issuu document is also very easy to share by email or by embedding it into your blog, wiki, or learning management system. A member of my PLN, Kelly Tenkely, used Issuu to publish a great guide to using Pages ’09 for Mac. Be sure to check it out so you can see what an Issuu document looks like.

It is my hope you find at least one of these resources beneficial to you and your students. I welcome your comments.