Collaboration at the Crossroads

An Explosion of Change

It is not about the tools.
Rather, it is about the evolution of thinking.

perspective put on new glasses

It’s a matter of perspective

Because technology in education moves at such a fast, fractious pace, it is sometimes hard to find the center. Temptations to try new tools and tricks abound, and it is easy to become distracted.

What is the big picture in education? When confused, I always return my focus to “student learning.”


A Collaborative Perspective

As much as the institution of schools may attempt to stand apart from the world around it, change is inevitable. School is more than bricks and mortar. It is a societal institution, a locus of learning. Indeed, with the rise of distance and blended learning models, one can see that school is gradually becoming less defined as a place with four walls and more defined as a collaborative space for building knowledge.

It is not just the technology that has evolved over the past decade, but the culture and social structure in which it is embedded has also developed. We are living in the midst of a major shift in access to information, knowledge creation, and communication. Perhaps it is something analogous to the Cambrian explosion , a period in earth evolution in which new life forms exploded onto the scene. Yes, students still come to class; we take attendance; we structure learning; we assess knowledge and needs. But new forms of life  – let’s call them “apps” – are emerging at an ever rapid pace.

In the world of apps, collaboration has evolved to become a more distributed function. Sound too abstract? It’s not. It just means that we are as likely to meaningfully connect with someone across the country as with someone at the desk next to us. The ubiquity of smartphones and tools like Twitter and Facebook abound as connection media. The use of newer platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat with teens is moving at the speed of fashion. What is a teacher or parent to do?

The Family that Tweets Together Stays Together.

“Retweeted by Mom? Teenagers might say they’d die of embarrassment. But teenagers who are connected with their parents via Twitter and other social media have better relationships with them, and fewer behavioral problems.” That is what a new study finds about families who embrace new forms of collaborating.

What about teachers? If students “speak in tech,” then shouldn’t teachers communicate or collaborate with them using that language as well? After all, modern kids live in this connected world. We need to teach them to think. We also need to help embed their reality in the context of genuine human relationships. That is both the heart and the art of teaching.

Does the classroom that tweets together also learn better together?

Think of tweeting as a metaphor of all social networking. Where you land on this question generally reflects your perspective on the role and impact of social networking on who we are. Nicholas Carr offered a very thoughtful exploration of this question in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (2010; 2011). The book has some excellent research. It is a quick read, but it raises many important questions. The New York Times Book Review accurately portrays the anxiety – and ambiguity – that Carr feels. One thing is clear: thinking itself has changed. Prefer a summary in cartoon format?

More In Depth

The following blog explores both the pros and cons of using social networking tools in the classroom. The non-profit ProCon.Org explores both sides of the broader debate, Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?

For further exploration of the Someday/Monday phenomenon and role of technology in learning, check out KQED’s Mind/Shift blog.


Time to Dive In

Many teachers and administrators are ready to embrace technology now. Like many of those same educators, I don’t plan to give up my authority as a mentor to a program that someone else wrote. I don’t do that with textbooks. Why do it with anonymous content creators? However, I do plan to embrace its reality. More than anything else, teachers are pragmatists. They teach the students they have.

When Monday arrives, and the students are in their seats, it is time to teach – ready or not. Check out the Teq blog, 11 Things We Learned About Social Media in the Classroom. Here are some quick tips:

  • Share and collaborate online with teachers as well as students.
  • Provide access to resources.
  • Use Twitter as an Exit Slip.
  • Gather content with Pinterest.
  • Create a scavenger hunt with Instagram.

New Rules for Engagement

What is the answer to the shifting world of technology? Do we resist it or embrace it? Many educators, philosophers and researchers have pondered the intertwined relationship of teaching to learning. From my perspective, school is primarily defined by student learning, and learning is driven by inquiry. For learning to become knowledge, it requires active participants who are engaged. It all needs to be embedded in the real world.

In order to maintain engagement and higher level thinking, it is essential to build in collaboration at all levels: between students and students; between students and teachers; and between teachers and teachers.  It is how we learn point-of-view. It is how we learn to evaluate truth or falsehood. It is how we create knowledge.