Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why the Internet is such a breakthrough for collaborative education

Michael Glassman

NASA Goddard Space Photo via Creative Commons.

The word collaboration  is a little more than a century old – according to Merriam Webster’s definition the word was first used in 1871 based on the Latin word collaborare which uses to prefix com (shifting to col) signifying together and the root word laborare meaning to labor.  Probably the greatest influence on the concept of collaboration in education was John Dewey – although he himself did not actually use the word in his writings (which in itself is interesting).  Dewey suggested two important components for individuals engaging in goal directed efforts together – the need to create shared meanings and the need for all members of the goal directed group to have a sense of agency and autonomy in the task.  At first the idea of individual agency might seem at odds with collaboration, where after all individuals are supposed to be working together to solve some problem(s).  But it is important to remember that what Dewey referred to as “vital” or meaningful participation in an activity (especially a group activity) is a choice and when collaboration is effective in problem solving participants are engage in joint tasks because they want to – and are committed to the task – not because others told them to.  In other words individuals buy into the shared labor on their own terms.  Agency is important because in a collaborative group there are going to be times when members of the group (including titular leaders) may (and probably will) have to adjust their roles, their position in the group and perhaps their own beliefs about how to best reach a solution together.

The focus on teaching substantive knowledge and/or using education as a training ground for jobs, has in recent years caused the definition of collaboration to focus more on the creation of shared (group) meaning.  Starting in the 1990s, based on definitions put forth by a number of educational psychologists, learning scientists and educators in general, collaboration has often come to focus on the abilities of participants in a group to develop a shared knowledge base through open dialogue.  Perhaps more important collaboration itself has, in some quarters, come to be seen as a pre-determined educational outcome, with working groups expected to develop specific shared knowledge systems, or even create new knowledge; a perspective that can easily overlook the central role that autonomy plays when individuals genuinely work together in a group to achieve shared ends.  PISA, in its draft of a Collaborative Problem Solving Framework (designed to include collaborative problem solving as a testable skills in their battery of testing) propose the following definition,

“Collaborative problem solving competency is the capacity of an individual to effectively engage in a process whereby two or more agents attempt to solve a problem by sharing the understanding and effort required to come to a solution and pooling their knowledge, skills and efforts to reach that solution.”

There is no mention of individual agency and choice, and as a matter of fact – at least to my reading – the document focuses on working together with others to create a shared problem solving space, but not the role individual agency plays in the creation of truly generative collective labor.  The document seems to miss the point that participants labor together -including creating a shared meaning as a tool for their collective problem solving – because they recognize the need for a solution, and the efficacy of the group in finding that solution, as transcending their individual needs and desires.  And this needs to be true of all members of the community.  It is important not to replace “learning to work as a team” with “learning to collaborate.”  In order for collaboration to be collaboration it has to be a choice to join a community because you believe in what they are trying to accomplish and that working with the group is the best way to get there.  Do we need a word or phrase that goes beyond the overused, underdetermined collaboration?  One that integrates this notion of agency?

So what does the invention of networking technologies (Internet or intranet) have to do with this?  Why does Inter and intra networking capabilities create a new (cyber)space for collaboration?  There are I would suggest two reasons.  The first is these technologies demand higher levels of agency than more place based educational forums.  Users are online at a given point and time because they choose to be online.   There are of course different gradations of agency, but logging in to an ongoing project based community can require some of the highest.  The second is that communities in cyberspace are often not subject to the same type of hierarchies as place based contexts.  The communities are transient, often times based on the immediate problem at hand.  If a user becomes part of the problem solving community it can be easier for them to recognize they have an equal share in their community and that the fortunes of the task(s) at hand rise and fall equally based on the actions of every member of the community (very close to definitions of social capital which I would argue is based on Dewey’s concept of democratic education).

Find out more about Michael Glassman’s new textbook Educational Psychology and the Internet 

About The Author

Michael Glassman

Michael Glassman is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at the Ohio State University. He has published widely on Internet-related issues in education....

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