7 Moving your teaching up the collaborative continuum

Collaborative learning should not be seen as a cure all for the ills of education. There are many things that require long, deep reflection and, actually, i would argue that personal reflection is critical to good collaboration. Some habits need to be acquired. Time needs to be spent. That being said, I still think the collaborative possibilities of the web can be applied, at least partially, to most teaching situations.

Rhizomatic learning – student centredness
The expression ‘student centred’ means different things to different people. For me it refers to a responsibility on the student’s part for the creation of things they are going to learn. I want my students to have control of what they are doing, as much as possible, so that they can feel like the learning is something that they own… however uncomfortable that can sometimes be 🙂

One of the things that the internet and associated collaborative technologies allow us is the possibility to connect in more direct ways. We do not need to go through the process of deciding what we want to talk about, months in advance, in order to get the books ordered on time. We don’t need to decide what’s going to happen before the students walk in the door. We can have access to any number of different kinds of content… and, more importantly, to the people and ideas behind that content.

We can let the community be the curriculum.

How does this help me plan for collaboration dave?

What i’m going to try and lay out is a continuum that runs out from the least to the most student control on the content. I would posit that the ‘content’ of a course is just an excuse, or at least, just a foundation, for getting accustomed to a context of a given field or discipline. We do need to get a sense of how language is used, and how concepts recombine in any new discipline, but definitions will hardly allow us to do that. We need to try things out, to test drive them, to see how they work out in conversation to really round the edges of our understanding. The content is part of that ecosystem, but not the goal of it.

A Collaboration Continuum – from a content perspective

Nameless person/company’s content that talks about your context

This is the least valuable, and potentially collaborative kind of content you can present to a class. In this case, you know nothing about the person who has created the content that you are using. Without a knowledge of who wrote a given piece of content, you can’t get any sense of what kind of experience the content is attached to. Are these people experienced? Do they agree with our fundamental premises? It could be very important as a foundation for other work, but it doesn’t allow for connection between learner and content creator.

  • Textbooks/Manuals
  • Wikipedia (in a certain sense)
Other people’s content that talks about your context

This is a serious improvement from the last category. The internet is full of people with expertise (albeit outweighed by those without it) in whatever context you’re working in. Finding relevant people in a field, checking out their work, using their work to triangulate to other people and ideas… this is what knowledge building is all about. This could be a research article printed in the library, a blog post, a tweet… it doesn’t matter. It’s content, and it has a person attached to it. That’s a step in the right direction.

  • Journal articles/blogs
  • primary sources
Content you made to talk about your context

Some people might disagree with me on this one, but i’m a huge believer in making my own content. It may simply be the remixing of other people’s content (at some level, that’s all we do) or you might be writing everything from scratch. Either way, being able to craft content directly to the students that you have, when you’ve actually met them, offers a host of possibilities. There’s no need to cookie cutter content in this day and age.

  • Teacher blog
  • Customized resources
Content that you make collaboratively with others (maybe your students, maybe not) to talk about your context

This is where the magic really starts. At this point you have the potential to not only pass along the conventions of your field, you can engage your students in the creation process of the knowledge that they are engaging with. Whether the students are themselves actually working with it, or whether they are around for the process, it allows them to not only see ‘the content’ but see how people engage with the content in a practical way.

  • Class wiki
  • In class projects
Content your students make individually to talk about your context

The next level of responsibility is empowering students to work on their own to make their own contributions to the process. The more other students see knowledge negotiation happening from their peers, the better. This might be as simple as a blog post or video. This doesn’t mean that students need to be ‘right’ about the content they are creating and sharing – the job of monitoring this resides with the facilitator. But the struggling with content, done in public, allows students to broadly understand what it means to come to know something.

  • Student created OER
  • Student blogs
Content your students make collaboratively to talk about your context

This is the most rhizomatic end of the continuum. From here students are not only engaging with the content, making knowledge with it in their own way, they are starting to make connections with that content. Learning how to use it with their peers, to build and make stuff with it, is an important step towards internalizing a context. To being able to work within a context… to learning.

  • Student collaboration via network feedback
  • Student supported collaborative projects

How is this helpful?
When you are planning your use of a technology for the classroom, try to keep your student in mind. It’s not necessary to have everything you lay your hand be collaborative. Put the student experience first and foremost in your mind, and think about what some of the collaborative technologies can allow them to do. Can they be part of the knowledge making process? The more that happens, the more they take control of their learning, and the better they learn.

At least… that’s how i see it 🙂