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Cultivating Collaboration

There’s group work and then there’s collaboration. Group work is the distribution of a task to more than one set of hands. Think ants building an ant hill, a law school study group divvying up chapters for review, or the team in the kitchen of a downtown restaurant. Group work thrives on sameness—each team member pulling their weight equally and consistently. At its best, group work is efficient and predictable.

Collaboration, by contrast, is a challenge given to more than one brain. Think the United Nations, teams behind the COVID vaccines, or the writer, director, composer, and costume designers of a movie. Collaboration thrives on diversity—each team member mutually dependent upon the unique perspective and skills of the others. At its best, collaboration breeds new ideas and changes the world.

“Working with people who have different perspectives or areas of expertise can result in better ideas and outcomes.” –Benjamin F. Jones, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Northwestern University

Digital tools make collaboration easy and fruitful. Unbound by constraints of space and time, students can work together whenever they want, wherever they are. Digital tools also help make assessing collaborations easier, as contributions are often user attributed and time stamped, providing a clearer sense of who did what when and allowing us to assess process as well as (or instead of) product.

“Research shows that educational experiences that are active, social, contextual, engaging, and student-owned lead to deeper learning.”—Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation

Two factors can significantly enhance digital collaboration: choosing the right tool and providing structural support for the students.

Student sample of Google comments
Annotations on the Declaration of Independence

The right tool for the right task

Want to unlock student-driven conversations about Sense and Sensibility or Obergefell v. Hodges? An analytical, text-based collaboration could use a text-based annotation tool. If the text is easy to copy and paste,* students can layer dissections and responses to each other using the comment feature in Google Docs. Or, try to let students collaboratively annotate online content in situ, such as Le Monde's recommendations for great concerts to watch from home or the New York Times’ interactive article on photographer Dawoud Bey. (Here's a how-to video.) For collaborative video or image annotations--perhaps investigating symbolism in a Frida Kahlo painting or choices made in clips from movie adaptations of books, VoiceThread is a great choice, and one familiar to most of our students. (Here's a how-to video.)

If the collaboration is more creative or requires greater organization, consider tools with a wider range of media such as the one I’m experimenting with right now: Mural, pictured below. (Email me if you'd like to play!)

Providing structural support

While we are collaborative by nature, students still need guidance on how to collaborate in an academic context. For quick analytical assignments, setting clear parameters for contributions (see “Got 5 minutes?” below) may be enough to spark exciting results.

For larger collaborations, such as curating an exhibit on Japan’s Edo Period for the space outside the LLDR, building a website of visualizations of Census data, or crafting a multimedia reading of The Tradition, students can set themselves up for success before they even begin: they can start by sharing skill sets. By identifying what each student brings to the table in advance and pointing to possible roles, skill sets are a great way to build teams and promote buy-in. Teams can also create collaborators’ agreements, identifying communication preferences, timelines, and strategies for what they’ll do if someone is struggling or a deadline gets missed. (Geoffrey Rockwell, Associate Professor of Humanities Computing at McMaster University, offers prompts for collaborators agreements.)**

Got 5 minutes?

Try a collaboration that requires minimal set up and some structure. Pop next week’s reading into a Google doc for each team. Prompt students to visit their group’s document two different days within the week, adding three comments of a variety of types such as asking questions, connecting to current or historical events or pop culture, defining words in peer-friendly terms, offering insights, or responding to others. Email me if you’re not amazed by their insights.

Got a class period?

Have students create collaborator profiles on a shared Google Doc, identifying areas of expertise, personal interests, and skills they’d like to develop. In the next project, use the profiles to build student teams, using them as a starting point for identifying responsibilities. The document may also give you and the kids ideas for possible collaborations you hadn’t even planned on.

Got a whole unit?

If you plan to dedicate weeks to a collaborative project—perhaps making multi-voiced audiobooks of public domain literature for LibriVox or creating digital presentations on COVID data—take a class period for groups to make collaborator’s agreements. Then, take time throughout the project to debrief explicitly on process and adherence to that agreement. Whether students assess themselves or you are the ultimate arbiter of the grade, all of the projects will be better for this proactive step.

Got an idea or a collaborative tool to share?

Add it in the comments below, please!

Interested in more?

In five minutes, you can get some more helpful pointers from Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation.

In just two and a half minutes, you can make it to the line, “Innovation is not about solo genius, it’s about collective genius,” in this Ted Talk by Linda Hill, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. The next several minutes after that remind us of how important true collaboration can be.

*As our school Google accounts are restricted to the community, Fair Use applies.

**Thanks to Professor J. Bret Maney for introducing me to both of these concepts.


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