Guest Blog: Tech Forum Speaker Jon Orech on Collaboration

“Collaboration” seems to be one of the buzzwords in education today. Even the esteemed N.C.T.E. identifies one of its “21st Century Literacies” as the ability to “build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally.” Couple this with the explosion of Web 2.0 tools including blogs, wikis, podcasting, social networking and all the other “cool tools,” and you have a formula ripe for collaboration. But to call collaboration “new” is forgetting our roots. There is no topic more researched in the history of education than the value of “working together.” Leaders such as the Johnsons of the University of Minnesota, and Spencer Kagan, have researched and developed programs that have fine-tuned Cooperative Learning to a science. The problem, however, is that oftentimes, the connection between Cooperative Learning and technology is overlooked. Unfortunately, some teachers get so caught up in the excitement of the tool, that they may lose sight of the learning. Also, turning students loose on a wiki does not guarantee that any “learning” occurs. The philosophy of “If you build it, they will come,” should be changed to “If you build it, they will come…but they may not do anything.”

Enter Cooperative Learning.

A way to ensure learning in a tech-based collaborative activity is to structure the Positive Interdependence and Individual Accountability into the lesson. Let’s take for example, a collaborative writing assignment using a wiki. The “typical” wiki involves a large number of students adding text, images, and links to a rather substantial document. Many successful projects have been created this way; however I would like to offer another possibility. We must first realize that the terms “wiki” and “collaborative writing” are as interchangeable as the terms “stove” and “baking a cake.” The former is a tool, the latter, a process.

Many times in wikis, students add, but are reluctant to edit the work of others—and rightly so. When collaborating on a Google Doc with fellow presenters, I would not consider editing or deleting work of my colleagues. As a result, most wikis take on the look of a patchwork quilt, with each “panel” reflecting the ideas of a single individual. Don’t get me wrong, the quilt model can fulfill some great objectives; however, for a true collaborative writing process, the final product needs to resemble, not a quilt, but a blanket. To achieve this, teachers, once again must embrace those Cooperative Learning structures in cyberspace, that they did in their classrooms.

Positive interdependence: We are better together than alone. Johnson and Johnson identify twelve types of Positive Interdependence, and further go on to state that for a lesson to succeed, at least three need to be present. A wiki assignment constructed properly can have at least four. Goal interdependence relies on the teacher creating a challenge for the students to create a compelling document. A unified vision of that goal is essential. Role interdependence is achieved by assigning specific, unique roles to individuals in the group. Each may be responsible for drafting a particular section and revising another. Environment interdependence becomes inherent within the wiki itself. If students have a part in creating a unique space they tend to take more ownership; therefore, I encourage student to select color schemes, titles, and images to “dress up” the assignment…that is, after the text is completed. Task interdependence relates closely to “Role.” “Task” is the idea that one portion may not be completed unless another’s task is completed. Veronica cannot edit the segment unless Jonathan drafts it, and so on.

Individual Accountability: EVERYONE learns One of the common criticisms of “Group Work” is that an unequal distribution of work and learning often results. In order to ensure that everyone participates, contributes, and learns, the teacher must structure several layers of individual accountability. First, wiki groups should contain no more than four members, and two or three is actually more desirable. Identifying roles and assessing is much more realistic in a group of three. Furthermore, “hiding” among three people is very difficult. Also, teachers must assess the project at various times during the project. Teachers need to assess and give feedback at the outlining, drafting, revising, and publishing stages. Also, since most wikis have history features, teachers need to continually view the participation of each member.
Admittedly, even though these technologies are relatively new, these concepts are not. When I first attempted a collaborative writing project via a wiki, the results were far below what I expected. Achievement soared only when I applied Cooperative Learning strategies.

Jon Orech, the Instructional Technology Coordinator at South High School, in Downers Grove, Illinois, will be speaking at Tech Forum Midwest in Chicago on Friday, April 24.