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Open and Collaborative Learning #altsep12

October 21st, 2012 by Cristina Costa

This was the theme for the ALT module this past week (week 4).

For this week I created a mini collaborative activity that aimed to get all ALT Module participants to work together on the development of an online guide of Manchester. They were given a recorded message from a friend of mine reporting about their visit to the city and describing the habits and tastes of the different members of the family. This aimed to give ALT participants enough information to come up with a rough structure of the guide, which aimed to be the tangible outcome of this collaborative venture. I also provided a task brief that can be downloaded here. Yet, the focus of this activity was not so much on the content they would put together as it was on the context they would create for learning and collaborating on the open web.

“This is your mission, should you decide to accept it

The challenge was a bit of a Mission Impossible activity in that ALT participants were provided with the background information about their task. Yet, they were free to devise their own collaborative strategies as well as to decide what to include in the guide, where to publish it, etc. I wanted to give them that autonomy, but this seemed to have generated some confusion and frustration amongst the ALT cohort.

Collaboration online can be messy
Collaboration can be a messy process because it relies on different people with different ideas, personalities, aptitudes and experiences. Yet, these differences are the strength of any collaborative venture, in that we draw on the “specialities” of each member to learn and move a joint project forward. Hence the importance of negotiation and distribution of tasks. As part of that a leader from within the group usually emerges. I felt this happened in this occasion. A couple of days prior to the start of the task one of the ALT members attempted to define three tasks – one for each group within the ALT cohort. This is an important step in the negotiation of the different components of a collaborative task. but there are other aspects that are as important when starting a collaborative project.These may include the following steps:

  • Identifying a leader (someone who will help coordinate the activity – although we all have the opportunity to express our opinion, there is a need to have someone in the group(s) who negotiates a decision that will move the project forward. In these situations a leader usually emerges from the group activity. Distributed leadership is also important given that the ALT cohort was divided in 3 different groups who were working on different components of the same task)
  • Identifying what needs to be achieved and by when
  • Devising a clear plan of what is being developed (agree on a structure before you start the task)
  • Defining roles for the different team members (identify the skills needed to carry out the project. This often requires knowing and drawing on the strengths of the team, and thus give autonomy to the different members of the group)
  • Defining how group members will communicate with their core group as well as the entire cohort (which tools can be used as back channels for information and idea sharing)
  • Establishing which tools will be used to achieve the end product
  • Trying to enjoy the challenge!

Keep Calm and Carry on!?

Panicking is a common reaction at the start of such activities. This has probably to do with the lack of structure it is first given or the idea that the challenge posed is a huge task that is impossible to carry out in a 3 hour slot. And in that sense, it’s true. No one puts together a touristic guide in such a short period of time. But, then again, that was not the purpose of this task.

Frustration with technology often discourages people from carrying on such activities. Yet, my intention had been to enable the use of technology in a meaningful context in which ALT participants would be able to learn from each other. I felt that the focus that was put on the creation on content undermined this aspect…

Many people reported that they felt overwhelmed with the amount of information they were being exposed to as they navigated through different sites and communication channels. The flow of tweets was too fast at some point and, from what I was told, this seems to have generated some anxiety in the people using twitter to communicate whilst collecting data from other sources. Clay Shirky talks about filter failure instead of information overload. Based on people’s accounts, I think this is what may have happened. In an information rich world it is important to define the scope of our activity, and sometimes less is more. I also think that defining what our role in the project is helps make our contribution more effective, because it enables us to narrow it down and focus on a specific aspect of the task that will complement it instead of having the entire group working on the same thing. Collaboration is a bit like the creation of a quilt. The different patchworks we develop for it constitute the whole picture; yet each patchwork (each individuals’ work) is a special(ised) contribution to the overall project.

In that vein, I had anticipated that ALT participants would have made use of their own resources and (online and offline) networks to create a guide that was highly personalised. I had imagined that they would not only reuse content from the web – which they did and even observed the Creative Commons guidelines – Well done! -, but also create their own content by sharing, pictures, videos or even personalised accounts of a city they know so well. I keep wondering why this didn’t happen. … maybe I could have provided that hint!?

Have I failed you?
…maybe I have! Maybe I should have provided more guidance? Maybe this should have been a face to face activity?
Although I cannot say that this task was a success on my part, I hope it was still a useful learning experience regarding how we navigate the web, source out information and communicate with others as part of a collaborative activity.

My idea in developing this activity was to enable learners to decide on their role and thus negotiate what their single and group contribution to the jointly developed product would look like. The activity did not aim to assess the quality of the content; rather it focused on the development of a context for collaboration based on the principles and ideas we have been discussing for the last 6 weeks, if we include the pre-induction activities. These include participation, networked and communal learning, creative commons, etc.
What I would like to learn from you is:

  • What worked?
  • What could be done differently?
  • What have you learnt from this entire experience?

I would really welcome honest feedback! ;-)

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