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A Call for Collaboration

Today’s technology is making it easier and more important than ever to teach students how to work together.

In the digital world we live in, being a “viewer ” is past. Web 2.0 tools—social networks, wikis, blogs, voicestream, YouTube, Google Docs—allow users to be participants. Instead of creating isolated users, such technologies foster community and collaboration.

To many in education, these new technologies are arriving just in time. “A couple of years ago, we did a survey of 500 human resources managers about what skills they thought were essential for success at their company. Collaboration always showed up in the top,” says Ken Kay, president of Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national think tank that includes communication and collaboration as a key element for a new model of learning. “There’s nothing you work on in the real world that you do by yourself anymore. Work is done in teams. Collaboration is an absolutely essential skill.”

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE ) has also put collaboration on a short list of national educational technology standards, the result of talking with thousands of educators and administrators at town-hall style meetings about what should change from ISTE ’s 1998 set of standards. “It’s clear that there is a new generation of learning experiences students are able to engage in. Web 2.0 has really powerful motivational and operational tools for student learning. It’s a sea change,” says Don Knezek, ISTE ’s CEO , adding that this new model is being adopted around the country. “It’s definitely a movement.”

In the Hilton (N.Y.) Central School District, a five-school district outside of Rochester, students record poetry and stories online, where friends, family and other teachers can comment. Students and teachers use blogs to share what they’re learning. Some of the district’s schools have building-wide wikis that students create on research topics, where everyone can add resources, information and even illustrations.

“Learning is a very social thing. But we spend a lot of time in schools trying to undo that. ‘Do your own work. Sit in your seat. Don’t talk with your neighbor,’” says Lori Burch, an instructional technology specialist at the district who helps teachers integrate technology into their classroom.

Today her main focus is to promote collaboration, and she presents around the country on the idea at educational conferences. “It’s a bit of a change for teachers to think of collaboration, connecting students within the classroom, with other classrooms and with the world outside,” Burch says. “But it is very powerful.”

A 21st Century Idea

A few years ago, the School District of Collier County (Fla.) received a federal Enhancing Education Through Technology grant and has been integrating interactive whiteboards, document cameras, laptops and other tools into its classrooms. This year the district is using collaboration as the framework to incorporate these technologies into teaching. “We use a constructivist model—anything you own you remember in more detail, and you spend more time on it because you own it,” says Martha Green, an instructional technology specialist in the Collier County district. “It says that students learn a whole lot more of what they construct, rather than just what we tell them, when they’re producers and not just consumers.”

Green runs a program for 20 fifth- and sixth-grade teachers who have committed to 100 hours of training and teamwork around collaboration, focusing on projects in science, writing and reading. Green says when a student’s peers and family see and comment on student projects on an interactive site like a blog or wiki—in process and the final product—students get more feedback than just the teacher’s grade. And the variety of ideas helps them to discover and clarify knowledge.

Students today, especially older children, are increasingly familiar with the interactive digital world, from texting to updating their Facebook pages. They’re ready to create and share their work online. And they’re probably more likely to be excited if they’re able to work collaboratively and have a larger audience.

“Wikis, blogs, video—they get kids engaged, get kids writing,” says Sandra Wozniak, a teacher at Mt. Olive Middle School in the Mt. Olive Township (N.J.) Public Schools. For example, in one project, Wozniak’s students take different roles in a historic scenario, using a social network site to communicate in character. “Kids love it. And at the same time, every sixth-grader doesn’t have a Facebook page or a cell phone. So working with these kinds of tools in the classroom is a great way to teach them to use this kind of technology responsibly.”

Making It Work

Collaboration doesn’t require a dedicated computer for each student, Wozniak says. Just about every project she assigns is collaborative in nature. A course she teaches on robotics is housed in the home economics room with a handful of laptops, and a class in 21st-century skills is in the art room, with regular trips to the library to use the computers. Some of her lessons revolve around cell phones, and at times the class uses graph paper. The important thing is that they’re working together.

To get the most from a collaborative classroom, however, teachers need to do more than take existing lesson plans and simply ask several students to work school science class split into teams to create multimedia projects on what it would be like to travel back in time to a specific geologic era. A good group could consist of one student who does good research, an outspoken student leader, and a student who seems to stay on task.

“In a good collaborative classroom, the students know what their role is for a project and how to look at the parts of any project,” says Conni Mulligan, an instructional technology facilitator in Buncombe County. “Ideally, it’s good to have a mixture of different skills,” which may include research, leadership, management and public speaking, says Mulligan, who leads the workshops.

Done right, collaboration on a project is a great tool for a differentiated classroom, where the teacher understands the multiple intelligences of her students, Mulligan says. Teachers often find they get more from a collaborative unit when they keep the team size to less than six members and sometimes let the students organize the tasks and find team leaders.

Broad Benefits

In Collier County, Green says she’s seen the benefi ts of collaboration, especially at Golden Gate City Middle School, where 70 percent of students come from households where English is not spoken, one of the highest levels in the district. Students create blogs and podcasts to demonstrate what they’ve learned. “It puts students in a position where they succeed,” she says, “and that breeds more success.”

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Carl Vogel is a writer based in Chicago