Collaboration—Learning Collectively

This post was written collaboratively with Jesse Stommel.

This article was written collaboratively. On one set of keys, Sean; on the other, Jesse. Typing on opposite sides of the country, simultaneously, to create an article where each author’s voice is indiscernible from the other. What did Sean write? What did Jesse write? These questions are less important than the product we produced together.

One of the greatest capabilities of digital technology is its capacity to allow collaboration, both synchronously and asynchronously, across long distances, time zones, and nationalities.

Collaborative writing is a kind of apex learning activity. The benefits and possibilities surrounding this activity are numerous and multilayered. A collaborative writing exercise, especially that which brings multiple digital technologies into play, creates an environment where reflection, discussion, discernment, and negotiation are vital. Students must write, and they must do so in the space occupied by other students. Their words, not just their thoughts, are in conversation, connected and entwined so that it is the dialogue between them that creates the text, and not any one single author.

We learn in public online. Private reflection isn’t as feasible, not as economical, as public discussion. Learning is done more in interaction than in isolation. This is why discussion forums—for all their faults and problems—exist in every LMS. And this is why participation in on- ground and hybrid classes almost always counts for part of a grade. But in collaborative writing, degrees of participation can become exponential (even for lurkers, and the more reticent students who only look on).

And let’s not forget that collaboration is the way of most businesses, foundations, schools, and organizations, as well. Discourse is at the very foundation of leadership; cooperation and discernment the basis for success. As Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown say inA New Culture of Learning, “Almost every difficult issue we face today is a collective, rather than a personal, problem.” How better to train students to work with complicated, collective problems than by involving them in daring collaborations? There’s no telling what sorts of occasions for which students will need to be able to write.

If there is any skill among academic subjects that requires the ability to be responsive to new environments, it’s writing.

In his Hybrid Pedagogy article, “Theorizing Google Docs: 10 Tips for Navigating Online Collaboration,” Jesse writes that, “For me, doing important work has begun to depend on collaboration, a transaction that demands more than just the simple transfer of words and ideas from a writer to a page and then to a reader. My ideas are better when they are coterminous on the page (and produced together) with the ideas of my sources, my peers, and also my students.”

We have experimented with Google Docs several different times, in a variety of ways. During MOOC MOOC—a MOOC about MOOCs designed and held within Canvas—we asked groups of 50 to collaborate on an article about MOOCs. During Digital Writing Month, we used Google Docs to inspire a collaborative poem, written both by people in the room and participants online.

And most recently, we held the Digital Writing Makerthon, during which a syncopated network of authors wrote a 32,000-word story together.

Do such collaborations result in quantifiable learning? Not necessarily. Would it be difficult to assign grades to individual participants? Most likely. But the exercise can provide insights into group dynamics (for both teacher and student), and it can release the creativity otherwise latent in the class. It can also serve as a jumping-off place for discussions of authorship, plagiarism, appropriation, cooperation, citation, discernment, and more—discussions that will be all the more rich for the collaborations that led to them.

[Photo, “Work together“, by Alexander Staubo licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.]