Collabocon ... The Collaborative Conference

Logo by Matt Fuller On November 7th, 2009, I had the opportunity to work with a local team of "Tech Facilitators" to develop an experience for teachers who are working in school districts that feed into New Trier High School
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Logo by Matt Fuller

On November 7th, 2009, I had the opportunity to work with a local team of "Tech Facilitators" to develop an experience for teachers who are working in school districts that feed into New Trier High School that focused on "Collaboration". We affectionately named it, "Collabocon". Collaboration is an essential professional skill in my opinion and it is very difficult to master. While educators talk about collaboration and cooperative learning a lot, it is rarely a perfect process and mastery is allusive. Collaboration requires a lot of trust and a heck of a lot of work.

Collaboration has always been important to my teaching. I worked relentlessly with my students as a social studies teacher. I tried every model and every apporach ... I can still hear a few parents saying, "Why should my child's grade be determined by another classmate's work?" Oh did I try ... Well, Collabocon was a very nice attempt that has some great potential! Here is the official description, "Collabocon 2009 is a free, voluntary conference hosted by the New Trier Township schools dedicated to technology-enhanced collaboration among educators."

While I really believe in the Collabocon experience, I know that I have more questions than ever. How can we teach collaboration well? How important are new forms of technology to consider when we create experiences for our students and teachers? Is it important for our students and teachers to experience the use of these collaborative tools? Can we learn enough about current methods of collaboration without using technology? 

The focus of Collabocon was focused on how technology can enhance collaborative work and I think we might reconsider this somewhat. Yes, Collabocon was received very well by the vast majority of our conference attendees. The final survey results were overwhelmingly full of positives, but as one of our planning committee members said, "How much more collaboration will really occur as a result of this conference?"

First and foremost, we tried to model how to collaborate well for the conference attendees as we focused heavily on optimizing our meeting time with a heavy emphasis on using technology well. Basically, we had everything ready to roll in only 6 weeks of planning. Meetings consisted of only 4 face-to-face meetings and the use of several collaborative tools such as Google Education Apps (Docs, Presentations), Skype, and Wikispaces. While I was very impressed with how well we all worked together to accomplish our goals, it is important to note that it was because of the quality of the individuals communication abilities and not their use of technology. Collaboration is really about clear communication, clear expectations and purpose, trust, and flexibility.

What went well?

  1. Focusing a conference on a skill instead of technology is very important. We need to continue to embed our professional development experiences in terms that our teachers believe in such as literacy, communication, citizenship, collaboration and not simply in technology.
  2. The attendess have a better foundation and understanding about what is available in our school districts for them. Each and every tool that was shared has a short learning curve and we can create collaborative experiences sooner than later as as result.
  3. Each presentation was dynamic and interesting which kept the audience's attention. Basically, attendees were excited about the possibilities.
  4. We have a nice foundation for teachers to continue to contact each other with our conference website's "Want Ads".
  5. The conference committee members are all in similar positions, technology facilitators, and we now have a common foundation of tools that we can all work with.
  6. A 1/2 day experience was a perfect amount of time on a Saturday.

Lessons Learned? 

  1. I think we need to more clearly express the skills necessary to have successful collaboration without technology as much as what the technology can do. We need a "Keynote" speaker who would focus on the idea of "Collaboration" and not on technology.
  2. We should have opened the "Back Channel" experience immediately.
  3. We need to build in more "sandbox" time for conference attendees. Teachers need to use the tools and embed themselves in the process while they have so many experts to get help from. Additionally, we would have learned a lot from their experiences as well.
  4. We need to breakdown the natural instinct to cling to the colleagues we know well. We should have contrived some experiences to force everyone to meet new people to collaborate with. Good collaboration is founded on trust so we need to work hard to create experiences that can begin to develop trust.
  5. While I think some of my fellow colleagues would like to extend the presentation time, I would rather shorten it. I would like to see us do 10 minute presentations and then allow for collaboration time where the teachers actually experiment with collborating.
  6. I would like to see a follow up "awards" activity for any success stories.
  7. I would like us to consider having "students" involved in this experience somehow. Perhaps students could model their use of technology or be there to help troubleshoot, etc.

Well ... Where do we go from here? Collabocon 2.0. Hmm ... Is this expereience important enough to become mandatory for systemic change? Does this become a mandatory experience for all teachers or do we continue to build it as a voluntary experience? Do we build upon success and let it grow naturally? 

I fall in the "let it grow naturally" group. Collaboration isn't something that can be forced in my opinion. If we build upon success, than we can naturally make systemic change based on those successes. Eventually, after sucess has been more documented, I do think this should be a mandatory experience... We need to focus on t basic skills and 21st century skills and not the technology. 

Finally ... I was privileged to work with such a great group of educators and I thank them for their dedication and work. I can't wait to see what we do next!

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