It has been famously quoted by Richard Dawkins that organizing atheists is much like herding cats. Collaborating in an online environment often has the same feel as that and it can be similar experience. This is said because cats tend to be independent thinkers and usually have a hard time conforming to authority. In an online environment, the same can be said about the participants or students. Everyone is independent of each other and unless there is a common goal that is clearly defined, then it can be quite hard to get everyone to work together smoothly.
This is not to say that collaborating online is impossible or that it is always a daunting task. In fact, online collaboration is great for many reasons and it allows experts from all over the world to come together in one chat room, or forum or web conference. Collaborating with others is a necessary skill and “E-learning experiences prepare students to become lifelong learners while acquiring essential 21st century skills” (Hayden, 2009). However, it can be difficult to organize and without someone leading the collaboration, you end up with a bunch of independent cats!
If a leader is established and the collaboration is prepared, then then half the battle has been fought. There are four phases to achieve successful collaboration: set the stage, model the process, guide the process, and evaluate the process (Palloff, 2004). If at any given point one of the four phases fails, then the experience itself can be disastrous for both the student and the teacher. From the student’s perspective, an unprepared activity can give the wrong impression of the teacher and the course. Also, if the process is not guided by someone (either a teacher or group leader) then again, the student will feel that he or she is a part of a disorganized process. This is more common than anything else as I am sure almost everyone has been a part of disorganized meeting whether it was in person or online.
Before these four phases come into play though, it is important that the course itself if prepared for such an activity. A challenge of collaborative activities occurs when a teacher simply tries to mimic a traditional activity into an online course. This will not work out to be a success and course designers and planning are necessary for a successful online course. A community must be built and “…to build [a] community, course designers must plan interactive, collaborative experiences and activities that bonds individuals” (Hayden, 2009). A well planned course can setup the possibility for a well-executed online collaboration activity.
Another challenge of utilizing online collaboration is the student. “Student’s confidence with the technology as well as accessibility will further impact on successful interaction. Adequate training in the technologies as well as constant technological support during the duration of the course is essential” (Geer, 2000). This is especially true of students who are taking an online course for the first time. Not all students are experts with technology and not all students are able to navigate around a web portal. Training is essential for the students so that they can feel comfortable enough to be able to participate in the online activities.
However, even if the student is prepared for the online course, “do not assume that students will jump at the opportunity to collaborate. Instead, anticipate that they will be resistant and use measures to counter that resistance, such as explanations for teams, early on in the course” (Palloff, 2004). If the students have taken an online course before, they may have had a bad experience with online collaboration and may be resistant to participate. This is where the four phases come into play. If the students are prepared, the course is organized, the collaboration is well defined and someone is there to guide the process, then there should be no problems! However, there are a couple more areas where the group work can go wrong.
A prepared course and classroom means very little if you do not have a trained and prepared teacher! A teacher may hear a colleague talk about how successful the online group work was in their class and this teacher may want to try and duplicate it. That’s great, but it will not work in every class. The class has to be built to support it and the infrastructure needs to be able to support it as well. This all has to be solved before the start date of the course and it should not be something to just add on midway through the course.
So the main challenges of having online collaboration breaks down to the teacher, the student and the technological infrastructure. It has already been discussed on how things can go astray without proper training for the faculty or student and without having an organized course structure. However, something that is out of the hands of both the faculty and student is the technology that they use. Unless the teacher decides to use tools outside of the schools domain, they are handcuffed to using what the school uses. If for example a student wanted to video chat and the school was using Moodle as their CMS, they would either need to contact IT to install a custom module, or use Google or Skype outside of Moodle. This leads to another username and password and add a layer of complexity on top of the course.
Overall, there are many obstacles that must be faced when doing online collaboration. However, the results (if the activity has been done correctly) are great. You are able to have learners who are continents, countries or cities away are able to interact and work together. There are great tools out there that make this a lot easier and smoother. Online collaboration will only get better in the future and infrastructures have already started to be built with that in mind. Learning should not be impeded by distance with the technology that we have available to us today.
Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2004). Collaborating online: learning together in community. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Geer, R. (2000). Drivers for successful student learning through collaborative interactivity in internet based courses. Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, 2425-2431.
Hayden, K. (2009). Best of the best in online instruction: effective strategies for designing online activities. 25th annual conference on distance teaching and learning.