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who-are-you_avatars

I think we have all gone through it (several times) both professionally and in our private lives: group work -though often a lot of fun and rewarding at the end-…. can also be frustrating. There is often a gradient in activity level between all the participants, some people are really good starters and some are really good finishers. Some are excellent in the process along the way and some are perhaps having a winter sleep altogether…

So what happens when we take the collaboration ONLINE? Do the available collaboration tools (eg the sharing of documents in your own time) help us to deflect some of the problems as we are more flexible…or does the differences in time zones and delays in response from group members make things worst?

According to Capdeferro and Romero (2012) (Ref: Available here) the largest source of irritation still comes from inactive group members, even online. Second to that is the frustration of having varying goals among group members. As more freedom (and responsibility) is given towards the project work, learners seem to often have different aims within the project –even though they are members in the same group. Where in face-to-face meetings these matters may be solved through effective communications (and a lot of coffee), online communication allows for a delay in answering and perhaps still missing each other’s points….

Brindley et.al(Available here) suggest that some of these issues can be solved through very clear and transparent instructions from the teachers. Though they caution us to not forget to remain reflective along the way, depending on the actual learning behavior of the group.

So perhaps an optimal solution to ensure that collaborative online learning leads to actual collaborative work, with all of its benefits, is to start with a very clear instruction about the intentions and goals of the project, defining the level of freedoms/responsibilities and then already giving a careful prediction about possible issues that may come up….(Like a list of Q&As – Q: What should you do when one of your group members doesn’t participate…..A: hummm,….talk about it in a common chat?)

Though it feels very temping to come up with an overly structured set-up for an online collaborative learning course that avoids the generally noted pit-falls, I am wondering if the experience of a certain level of frustration may be in fact okay. Perhaps even good…. and can be seen as part of the process? After all, real life isn’t exactly always problem free either…

As teachers/mentors/facilitators we do have a role to play to facilitate the learning process and to avoid situations in which an entire group is running against the wall due to a misbehaving member. But Brindley’s advise on remaining reflective along the way is good one I think. I also think it is not possible to come up with a ’perfect recipe’ that fits all online learning efforts. One matter, which we shouldn’t forget, is the influence of our own backgrounds and cultures.

It is often advocated that the best and most creative teams are those that have a sufficient mixture of cultures/backgrounds/experiences. This is often quoted in the context of the need for more women in traditionally dominated male fields – which I couldn’t agree more with. But it is also valid for many other differences.

Unfortunately it is always easiest to agree with yourself, so having to deal with a team full of people that may see things very differently can lead to some start-up issues. The question on how to collaborate most effectively together to reach the team’s optimum may thus not be the easiest to answer.

When we were developing the C-Campus course between KTH and Tsinghua University on Future Highway Design, we wanted to make teams of students that would go through a creative learning process. Each team consists of students from both universities, but also from different disciplines. One of the structures that we built up beforehand was to give everybody the option to choose an ’avatar’ (see top picture, avators made by the very cool Dutch cartoonist Maaike Hartjes). So we would all be different in a same way.

Though this did not solve all the issues, it did work as a nice ice-breaking course start and created an immediate sense of community (as also advocated by for instance Martha Cleveland-Innes and her team at the Centre for Distance Education @Athabasca University). After we had the first round of the C-Campus course, we plotted some of the communications that the individual groups had had, trying to see who was initiating the communications, who where picking up on it, did the communication happen between disciplines and between the universities etc and we tried to relate this to the ultimate course results. Below an example of the visualization of such investigations.

cross-university-interactions

(An evaluation of the first C-Campus pilot can be found from here:
Shreenath V, Meijer S, Wyss R, Kringos N, C-Campus: A pilot study on cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary learning, in: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies, 7-9 July 2014, Barcelona, Spain, ISSN: 2340-1117, pp. 1296-1305)

But we also investigated something else: the cultural difference between the Swedish and Chinese students. For this we used the 5 cultural dimensions as defined by Hofstede, e.g Hofstede and Hofstede)

In short, these 5 cultural dimensions are defined as

(1) Power Distance: expresses the attitude of the culture towards inequalities amongst us
(2) Individualism: expresses  the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.
(3) Masculinity/femininity: Defines what motivates people, wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine).
(4) Uncertainty avoidance: The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these
(5) Long Term Orientation: The extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical short-term point of view

Below you can see a comparison between China and Sweden on these 5 cultural dimensions, as defined by Hofstede (see reference above).

cultural-differences-china-and-sweden

Though the students from KTH also came from many different cultures, we felt that some of the major differences between these dimensions shed some interesting light on the discussions and challenges that some of our groups had had.

Now the question still remains how can we possible use these types of insights to facilitate and optimize the process of collaborative online learning?

I do not really have the answer today. But I do think that the availability of an online platform will enable us to mobilize these type of tools better in the context of collaborative learning as we can: (i) more easily objectivy and measure characteristics, (ii) automatically update tools and structures depending and progress and (iii) track the behaviour of our learners to facilitate their effective iteractions…..

That, and perhaps (iv) some general common sense and a good portion of humor…. will certainly make our collaborative online learning communities into important vehicles for training our students into solving our society’s future problems!

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