Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Myth #5: Digital Learning is Collaborative

8 Myths About Digital Learning

Guidecraft Classroom Building Blocks
I have a love-hate relationship with Myth #5.  As an educational talking point, collaboration is not new. Some years ago I wrote about it in a piece called Who's on First? - And Why Should I Care?,  part of a lengthy post called Learning and Lobstering.  If you can tolerate the small print, the extended metaphor (I do live on the Maine coast) and the outdated resource list (muse on how quickly the internet has grown and changed), you will find a learning model in the post. It is still the one I stand by.

I talk about the role of the collaborative group (in education) as being primarily to inform the thinking and learning of the individual.  I define the collaborative group as a filtering, collecting, problem-creating, problem-solving, and solution-analyzing group. I define collaboration as greater than ping-pong-style or linear data collection; collaboration is feedback driven.  I stress that, in terms of learning, the individual is more important than the group. The individual is the focus of education.

Collaboration is not the cornerstone of education, as this myth would have us believe.  It may be a cornerstone of 21st century business, where a collaboration's product is more important than any individual on the team.  For this reason, it is important for students to learn how to collaborate using digital tools and methods as well as non-digital tools and methods.

Some important educational leaders (Elliot Soloway, for example, who is briefly profiled here) and of some important educational bloggers (Langwitch, for one - see the slideshow in her column Critical Literacy: Is Notion of Traditional Reading and Writing Enough) reinforce this myth unintentionally.  Slide shows and articles tout digital tools as magical gates to new collaborative learning worlds.  What is new is the scope of communication now possible for the digitally connected student. What is not new is the nature of the collaborative process itself and its role in learning.

The word collaboration looms large in the educational world, larger in the digital world.  For this reason, it is a powerful persuader.  But be alert to its misuse.  This is even more true of the phrase collaborative learning.

There is now and has always been learning without collaboration, digital learning without collaboration, and collaboration without learning - digital or otherwise.  Instead of talking about collaboration when we talk about digital learning, we need to be talking about a wide range of digitals tools and activities that the individual student can harness for learning.

As I have said before and now say again, a mobile or desktop digital tool is an individual tool, like a book, a marker or a pair of scissors. This is its strength.  However, like books, markers, scissors, cameras, letters, phones and language, the mobile tool is also a handy tool for group work.

Most of the time, digital group work is for the purposes of:
The above is not a list of collaborative digital learning activities and tools; labeling them as such is at the root of Myth #5.  However, a good collaborative task will use tools like these and contain all of the above elements.  In fact, one or more of the above bulleted tasks is generally meant when you read or hear the word collaboration.

The simple collaborative activity of building with a class set of blocks is a good way to envision this. I learned as a preK and K technology instructor that every child brings a unique perspective, skill set, and goals to even the simplest project. As a block structure emerges (tower, town, castle, museum, etc.), each child learns from the individual physical act of building (balance, design, geometry, spacial awareness).  Each child learns from subsequent group play/discussion/reflection. Each child generally also learns - from the physical and verbal streaming that takes place - something about how to collaborate (to fail, to listen, to respond to suggestion, to refrain from pulling down the work of another, to support and encourage, to criticize constructively, to adjust, to input constructively).  However, such learning is not serendipitous and it is not guaranteed.

Now digitize that activity.  I maintain that the digital environment, because its spacial borders have been removed, is often terrific for the discrete learning activities bulleted above, but it is far less conducive to learning through collaboration than is the traditional non-digital activity.  Why is this?
  1. Time - The delay necessitated by asynchronous tools and global time differences is significant to children.  Information can be collected, filtered, and analyzed, but this is not collaboration.
  2. Most apps and websites for digital devices are better for rubber stamp learning than they are for collaboration.  To use a 1:1 app collaboratively is generally to impede the learning process for which the app was designed.  Oh, some say, but when two children work on one iPad (or other mobile too) they are learning collaboratively.  Not often.  If you have ever had the opportunity to view two elementary level (preK-2) students working on one iPad or two middle schoolers making music on one laptop, you know what I mean.  I have seen this in school.  I have seen it in my own house with my grandchildren (all gifted or "very able").  Sharing is happening at best; collaboration is not.
  3. The collaborative process is hard work, much harder work than any other digital activity. It requires of the learner an enormous amount of communication, divergence, and back-stepping. If you have ever, as you should have, taken a graduate-level online course, or if you are in a PLC or teaching team, you know how difficult it is to collaborate with one peer, much less with a group. Someone must give way, someone must take charge. Everyone needs to participate. When this does not happen, the group task is not accomplished.  Given (a) the intense engagement or total disengagement of a child with a digital tool and (b) the extension of time the process requires, the k12 child must work harder to collaborate successfully than he would at a hands-on task. After all, it is a myth that all children are digital natives. Moreover, the process requires of the teacher a level of organization and oversight for which few are trained and experienced.  Check out some of the materials at Edutopia if you question this.
  4. Following #3, collaboration is often misunderstood as a process; poor task-making results. Collaboration is especially hard - it is almost impossible - when the task is perceived as one in which each member contributes the same type of content: all research, all write, all edit, all film, all talk, etc.  Many PBL tasks stumble because they insist upon such sameness.  Ironically, many well-designed PBL tasks also stumble because the team members are not up to their tasks. Only when prerequisite learning (skills, content, process) has progressed to mastery can true collaboration become possible. To believe otherwise is pedagogical wishful thinking that brings to mind the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant.  
  5. Many tasks, especially digital tasks, that are identified as collaborative are not.  They belong somewhere on the task list above. True collaboration requires a problem large enough for multiplicities of input, design, solution, and creativity.  It requires not sameness but a rich variety of skill sets and subsequent inputs. Samples of such collaborations include film, music and video (such as this great new video infographic - viewers can see the collaboration happening) and the new app The Silent History (read about it here). Cooperative data collection, even on a global scale, is not collaborative unless student groups also work to filter, interpret, make learning, and create a product from the data. Networking can be a powerful process to support learning, but it is a 1-way, not a collaborative, process.  Collage-making appears to be collaborative, but unless all students participate in the conceptualization and creation of a unique product it is not - it is just a mashup.  Collective Vision paintings, for example, are collage masquerading as collaboration.  
  6. Oh, you say, but when social media is an element of learning this is learning in a collaborative environment. Certainly digital learning should take advantage of social media.  But is are Shelfari reviews collaborative?  Is a Twitter stream collaborative?  Is a Socrative quiz collaborative?  It is certainly possible to use every one of these tools as part of a collaborative process - but to say that the these are digital collaborative learning tools is to vastly oversimplify and overvalue digital tools for learning.
To make digital learning collaborative is a complex undertaking for an educator.  This fact is not well enough understood by pundits and jargon slingers.

This is not to say that digital tools do not play an important part in working collaborations.  Science, economics, astronomy, physics, performance arts, political movements...  follow the news and you will find evidence of successful, powerful, ground-breaking adult collaborations that rely upon digital technology for the sharing, gathering, analysis, creation....  of new ideas and products.  

We are not there yet, folks.  Spending a lot of money on mobile classroom tools is not going to get us to collaborative digital learning.  The fact of the matter is this: students are not brilliant, experienced, opportunistic professionals.  Giving each a powerful digital device will not change that.

Myth #5 is a dangerous myth.  It facilely sells the concept of mobile tools as collaborative learning tools - often without any deep understanding of how to make it so.  Or of why to make it so.  It suggests to many that collaboration can not happen outside of a digital environment and that the focus of education for the 21st century must be collaboration.  Nonsense.

[Question: Are "blogging buddies" (re: Moving at the Speed of Creativity) collaborative?  What is the learning that happens from these time consuming commenting activities?  What do you think?]

If you get to the teaching stage where you are ready for Collaboration, check these out:

1 comment:

  1. You hit the nail on tyhe head! although... check your spelling of collaboration! (But you cheered me up!)