Long live the king of collaboration, email and the attached word doc.

In response to Dan

This is a really interesting topic. I see one of the uses of technology as reducing the friction required for collaboration. When the telegraph was invented it reduced the friction of time required to exchange ideas. Next came the phone, then the Internet with email. Then at an accelerated and explosive rate and in no particular order: instant messaging, voice over IP aka Skype, wiki wikipedia, social bookmarking del.icio.us, social voting reddit, digg, collaborative document creation: google documents, synchroedit, blogging blogger.com wordpress.com, video youtube, social networking linkedin, facebook, myspace, webex, and video conferencing stickam.

I’m sure I’m missing a bunch, but what does this all mean. I think it means that collaborative friction is rapidly approaching zero. It won’t matter where, when, or who the other person is, you will be able to collaborate with them. It’s exciting and yet very scary and I think for at least two reasons. The first is, whether we like it or not, we are entering into a global economy where each individual is in a market competing with more individuals possible then ever before. If that isn’t scary enough, new tools for this collaboration are coming out if not daily then at least weekly. And probably will go from daily to hourly especially as the barrier to entry continues to plummet.

So how do you even find out about the new and upcoming players that will reduce your collaborative friction? It’s usually passed along by word of mouth or by taking advantage of some of the above mentioned channels.

But even if you do hear about something new, it is hard to take the leap and start using the new platform. And even if you take the leap most of the time no one comes with you! Sometimes it seems that a whole generation needs to retire before the next technology will really make inroads. Embracing change is a whole different topic in and of itself.

So what does this mean in education? I guess we can start out with what are the reasons that people go to school? Most commonly, I would guess, is some form of ‘I have a degree which indicates to an employer that I have certain skills, which should help with the advancement of my career’. There are also individuals that go to school because they like learning, as well as some who fall into both of those extremely generic categories.

So what would be of most value and/or interest to these students? I think it would be to teach as much directly applicable knowledge and skills as possible. Of course that can become extremely difficult if the whole framework for learning needs to be re-learned before the other learning even begins.

This is an extreme case but I can imagine a 65ish someone going back to school. When they were last in school there was no Internet and no Email. Hopefully, if they have been working, they have picked up a few of these skills. Although they still might double space a paper by hitting enter twice after each line (true story) since they don’t know otherwise. But in general, their collaborative learning framework would be tremendously weak. I suppose they would need a course or courses to try to get up to speed, although at that point they would still be behind anything new that had come out in the interim.

I’m not sure how to handle that sort of a ‘digital divide’ in a class. Not one based purely on finances (money available to purchase a computer etc.) but more so based on exposure time (kids have way more time to goof off and discover ‘new and upcoming’ things as well as less rigidity.)

I keep wandering all over with this though. I do think the current educational collaborative framework is very rigid. Blackboard makes me cringe, especially required ‘attendance’ by posting so many inane comments a day. The upcoming framework is extremely flexible. I think the students who want to ‘flex’ are going to do so in spite of whatever structure has been set up. They will work outside of the system.

But I would hope an educator would try to take advantage of tools that would lower the friction of learning as well as increase collaboration. It’s interesting that we require a lot of both rigidity and flexibility from educators. We need firm deadlines for assignments, exams, etc… from them. (Although I am amazed at how a group of ‘adult learners’ will often gang up, use their office politicking skills, and flog an instructor until they give in to the groups demands!) but flexibility is desirable, if a family member passes away, or an illness happens, compassion from a teacher is very helpful.

There is nothing more frustrating than being a student out of the loop. I would imagine an educator keeping their students well informed, most likely through a simple Blog. I would like a ‘communication happy’ instructor. One who would take questions from individuals, and make them answers for the group.

I think Dan is right though, there is no incentive for an educator to be ‘on’ all the time. There is no incentive for them to go the extra mile of blogging, setting up wiki’s etc. Why should they answer a question that was emailed at 2am in the morning? I wouldn’t mind some sort of SLA though when dealing with a teacher J a guaranteed emergency contact channel or channels would be very useful!

So then I guess to be most effective the educator needs to be a catalyst. And maybe identify a few key students to help with the process. Ideally, the students would form some sort of learning mesh network. I guess you could just call it a community (It’s interesting that the same difficulties companies have in forming a community around their product or services are faced by an educator). The first thing that usually is required in an online class is for a student to introduce themselves. Usually a short paragraph and maybe a picture. It would be far easier, and more interesting, to instead have everyone facebook everyone else, although that brings up the issue of how ‘close’ do you want to be to your classmates. People usually have different social circles and usually keep them somewhat separate. I think in this case you could have students create a ‘face book page’ (like you would for a band etc…) to represent a learning entity. You could then reuse this learning profile across classes as well as schools.

The educator could help grease the skids by having some ‘best practices’ ready to go. Useful software and tutorials on how to make it work together (written by students would be even better!). What would be most useful would be if students would turn to each other for ‘collaborative framework’ questions, and spare the educator from telling the Nth student how to do the same thing. They would maintain a FAQ. Maybe they would lay out some common scenarios showing how to collaborate.

This is one way they might work.

Joe, Tom, Samantha, and Susie are working on a paper together. They were assigned the topic of ‘X’. Susie was assigned to be the ‘lead’ and will handle the schedule. She asks everyone to create a gmail account if they don’t have one already. She creates a free basecamp account, and sends out invites to everyone. She sets up deadlines and tasks. The first task is for everyone to research their topic. Susie doesn’t like getting a lot of massively CC’ed emails going out to everyone so she creates a del.ico.us profile that she gives the password out to everyone. Then when anyone finds a useful site they post it to del.ico.us where everyone can see it and go check it out. Susie then fires up google docs for some collaborative document editing. She creates the document, with some of the structure and leaves the rest to be filled in later. She then sends it out to the team. All through out the team are either communicating either through gchat or through facebook chat. They pick a time to start working on the paper and she fires up a stickam group video chat. Pretty soon everyone’s able to see each other as they work on the paper. One person is assigned to handle the bibliography and bibliographical formatting. One person who is particularly good at grammar is assigned to fix the paper where needed. When the paper is done, Susie as the lead sends the shared google document to the instructor who is able to go back through the edits and see that at least some of the workload has been shared between the team.

There are many other ways that this workflow could happen. And new tools to take advantage of. The question was ‘how long should we wait until this becomes a reality ?’ My answer is ‘you don’t need to wait, its happening already.’

How do you socialize Web 2.0 tools into the classroom? For some people you will never be able to. I’ve worked with people who their only collaboration tool is email. (I’ve worked with people that will only collaborate over the phone or in person but let’s not talk about them). And I finally figured out why email and the obligatory attached word .doc is the king of collaboration!!. A lot of people that are going back to school, or going to school online, are at work. And a lot of them do their school work during work.

But there was no way that they could disguise what they are doing as work if they were blogging, or twittering, or chatting (their work blocks Gchat), or facebooking or a lot of the other social networks, because social networks do not pass the ‘does it look like I am doing work test’.

So integrating social networks into education will be somewhat difficult up until it becomes acceptable to use them while on the job.

So long live the king of collaboration, email and the attached word doc named final_paper_version_2_with_edits.



  1. Very interesting thoughts! Have you read The World is Flat? (if not, it sounds like you have!) Maybe I’ll hire you as my “educational consultant” once I find myself in front of a classroom… : )

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