Why Collaboration is so Hard

Posted by on Nov 7, 2011 in Collaboration, Research | No Comments

I’m in the process of writing a paper based on some findings about collaboration in wikis, from a large scale content analysis of 400+ wikis drawn from nearly 200,000 wikis. The core findings are that student collaboration only happens in about 11% of U.S., K-12 wikis, and most collaboration is simply posting individually created content on the same page rather than actually co-constructing some kind of performance of understanding. To be sure, a small handful of wikis have display some amazing collaborative efforts among students, but most wikis are teacher-centered content delivery devices, failures, or individual student presentations.

In all of my writing, I’m constantly trying to be sure that I get at the “so what” question. Why should educators and researchers care about what I discovered looking at hundreds of wikis?

One challenge with all of my writing is that it’s very easy to frame classroom wiki use as dismal and uninteresting (though not more dismal and uninteresting than the distribution of pedagogical practices broadly used in classrooms, with or without technology.) Student collaboration is incredibly infrequent on wikis, and most of what we find is quite trivial. But I don’t want to argue that wikis are pointless or that collaboration is a waste of time–I want to try to unpack why it’s so difficult, and give my fellow educators blazes along potentially promising paths.

So to do that, I’m planning backwards from a few big concluding ideas, and here’s what I’m working with so far:\

Collaboration is hard and infrequent for several reasons:

  1. There are few built-in incentives for collaboration in the curriculum. Anything which is not reading comprehension or computation is very hard to fit into the curriculum in our No Child Left Behind world.
  2. There is very little collaboration built into the curriculum. There is good evidence that collaborative activities rarely happen in most classrooms. Why would the availability of wikis change what people are doing? How would teachers, who don’t have students collaborate often, be expected to use a new technology to make collaboration happen. We teach how we were taught.
  3. Students are taught to have a strong sense of individual ownership of text. In all kinds of ways, direct and indirect, we teach students that they should have a strong individual ownership of their words. We grade them individually, punish them for borrowing words from other places, have them sign their work, etc. But one could imagine alternative approaches where we encourage students to think of words as tools for a purpose, and people should use the best words for a purpose regardless of their origin. We need not just new tools, but new pedagogies for a networked age.
  4. There is no real-time collaboration for wikis, and the consequences of failed collaboration are psychically quite high. If you have ever had someone edit your wiki page at the same time as you, and you have your work get disappeared, it’s incredibly frustrating. The inability to have true realtime collaboration, as with etherpad or Google Docs, is a huge strike against wiki use in classroom settings. Teachers feel like they need to have every student have their own page so as to avoid problems. While we still have a lot of synchronous activities in classrooms, asynchronous collaboration tools are hard for teachers to work with.
  5. Our tools for measuring collaboration are not very good (creating and measuring are not the same thing). Wikis are well set up for adding content from multiple people, but actually they don’t have very good tools for tracking contributions from multiple people. As researchers, we had to develop our own tool to suck up data from the wikis and reorganize them into a format that allowed us to easily examine the development of each page. One of my biggest insights from this work is that the tools we use to create online content may not be the right tools to research online content. And the activity of grading is really not all that different from the activity of research. Teachers face the same problems.

I should also note that these kinds of challenges plague all sorts of potentially collaborative platforms. For instance, of the major open-source, collaborative software development platforms (like GitHub and SourceForge), the emerhing literature suggests that the vast majority of projects are created by individuals.

So the point here is that it’s not just collaboration technologies that need to be designed and implemented. Those technologies for creating collaborative environments need to be paired with technologies for evaluating collaboration and with pedagogies that value and scaffold collaborative work. That’s not particularly easy, though I increasingly feel that a big part of my work is clarifying with people that nothing is easy about ed-tech. We’re not going to build the easily scalable killer app that solves education problems; pedagogy reform is going to have to be the partner of technology innovation.

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