Time-to-Adoption Horizon: One Year or Less
Collaborative environments are online spaces where the focus is on making it easy to collaborate and work in groups, no matter where the participants may be. As the typical educator’s network of contacts has grown to include colleagues who might live and work across the country, or indeed anywhere on the globe, it has become common for people who are not physically located near each other to collaborate on projects. In classrooms as well, joint projects with students at other schools or in other countries are more and more commonplace as strategies to expose learners to a variety of perspectives. Collaborative environments can be off-the-shelf or assembled from a wide variety of simple, free tools — the key is the interactions they enable, not the technologies they include.
Collaborative environments appeared in the 2009 Horizon Report: K-12 Edition, and remain on the radar for 2010. While they have been adopted by many schools, the technologies that support collaborative work are still considered to be among the most important for education. Typically, once a topic has appeared on the near-term horizon, it does not appear in a report again, but the Advisory Board clearly felt that collaborative environments continue to bear watching.
The definition of a collaborative environment has not changed significantly in the past year. The technologies that support collaborative work range from small tools for jointly creating a single product, such as Voicethread, to shared document editors like Adobe Buzzword, Google Docs, and Etherpad, to wikis and group blogging systems, all the way up to self-contained environments for collaboration, like Moodle, Ning, or PageFlakes. The free, single-purpose tools at one end of the spectrum can be assembled by teachers with a technological bent into a collaborative experience that includes live video, synchronous and asynchronous chat and discussion, media creation tools, and so forth. For those who are less technically-minded, the comprehensive platforms at the other end of the range offer a suite of tools that already work together and that can be easily integrated into day to day work. The downside of the more comprehensive solutions is cost, although there are a number of open source solutions in this category as well, with Moodle being one of the most notable.
Collaborative environments support both the collaborative creation of content and also communication or sharing of existing content. Tools that enable the former are the most well known, and include familiar applications like wikis, Google Docs, and group or class blogs. Wikis were one of the first technologies in this category, and it is increasingly rare to find a collaboration that does not use a wiki in one form or another. The largest example in this category is Wikipedia, which through the efforts of thousands of contributors, has become the world’s de facto encyclopedia. Other tools, like Kaltura, allow people to collaborate around the creation of rich media, including audio and video, and make it easy for members of a community to share, comment on, and remix content.
The second category reflects how online communication tools are converging with social media in workspaces like Ning, PageFlakes, and Moodle. These tools can be customized and personalized, and membership can be open or restricted, but the primary purpose is not joint content creation or remixes, but communication within a group. Some of these systems can be augmented by plug-in widgets that extend their capabilities even further, and that spring from the growing community of users and supporters of collaborative environments of all kinds. In these environments, the emphasis is on the exchange of ideas and the sharing of knowledge. When these activities lead to action, tools from the first group (wikis, shared document editors, or joint multimedia authoring tools) are brought into play.
Still other collaborative environments are perhaps less customizable but come with tools already optimized for classroom use. One example is the Oracle Education Foundation’s ThinkQuest (http://www.thinkquest.org), a free platform designed to support the creation of collaborative multimedia papers that makes it easy for students to blend photos, videos, and text in their research projects. Oracle hosts a competition for the best student work; the ThinkQuest Project Gallery is populated with over 7,000 entries touching on every classroom subject.
Relevance for Teaching, Learning, or Creative Expression
The value placed on collaboration in the workplace is high, and professionals of all kinds are expected to work across geographic and cultural boundaries more and more frequently. Teachers increasingly recognize the importance of collaboration skills and are finding that online tools to support collaboration provide them and their students with opportunities to work creatively, develop teamwork skills, and tap into the perspectives of people around the world with a wide range of experience and expertise that differs from their own. As a result, collaborative environments and workspaces are gaining a great deal of traction and are poised to enter mainstream use in primary and secondary education both as supplemental and as primary classroom spaces.
Systems expressly built for K-12 use often include built-in tools for scheduling, grading, communication, and other classroom tasks that make it easy to seamlessly integrate the environment. Even learning management systems like Moodle have begun to add social networking components. Many states offer virtual or online academies for the upper grades, and nearly all of these use collaborative environments for discussion, teaching classes, managing assignments, and other classroom tasks. In some cases, students work entirely at home and attend class only online. In more traditional schools, teachers are finding that collaborative environments are an efficient way for students to work together, whether the groups are composed of students in the same physical class or not.
A class or project group can assemble a collaborative workspace very quickly using widgets that pull information from a range of sources. For instance, a custom class environment might include a calendar populated with data from the school’s online calendaring system, an RSS feed that displays recent blog posts or Twitter updates from students and teachers in the group, a cloud of Delicious tags bookmarking web content related to the class or project, a Flickr badge that shows relevant rotating photos, and synchronous or asynchronous message boards. All the resources needed by the group can be accessed and added to by any of them, in a virtual space that is always available from any computer and many mobile devices.
One of the most compelling attributes of large-scale collaborative environments is that they can facilitate an almost spontaneous development of communities of people who share similar interests. As the typical educator’s network of contacts has grown to include colleagues who might live and work across the country, or indeed anywhere on the globe, it has become common for people who are not physically located near each other to interact and share resources via online environments. Collaborative projects involving students at other schools, even in other countries, is more and more commonplace as a strategy to expose learners to a variety of perspectives. The Ning in Education collaborative space (http://education.ning.com/) is designed specifically to support its more than 9,000 members in using collaborative environments for teaching and learning.
A sampling of applications of collaborative environments across the curriculum includes the following:
- Mathematics. At Pleasant Street Primary School in Victoria, Australia, students created a collaborative environment dedicated to studying mathematics. Using collaborative tools including Voicethread and Ning, the students in the gifted and talented program developed an online textbook and workspace.
- Cultural Studies. Using the collaborative environment ThinkQuest, six students and two teacher coaches from the United States and Hungary created an interactive piece on the history of chocolate (see http://library.thinkquest.org/08aug/00696/). This piece took first place in the 2009 competition in the 15 and under category.
- Science. The Arctic Research Consortium of the United States (ARCUS) used the collaborative environment Wimba to connect K-12 students in 10 states with their teachers who were taking part in Arctic and Antarctic research expeditions. The teachers used both synchronous and asynchronous means of communication to work with their classes back home.
Collaborative Environments in Practice
The following links provide examples of how collaborative environments are being used in schools.
Backchannel with Etherpad Experiences
In this blog post, teacher Wesley Fryer describes how he used Etherpad to set up a backchannel — a supplemental discussion — for his Technology 4 Teachers class. The process Fryer describes is easily adaptable to other tools.
Cross–Cultural Collaboration: Students Bridge Cultures with Videoconferencing from Carnegie Hall
(Denise Harrison, THE Journal, 19 August 2009.) This article summarizes a collaborative social studies project that connected students in the United States with their peers in other countries, including India and Turkey. The students explored a variety of music from their respective cultures.
This international project facilitates collaboration between teachers and classrooms around the world. Teachers can select or propose projects for their classes to take part in, exchange ideas with other teachers, and share resources.
Examples of K-12 Class Nings
This is a collection of collaborative environments based on the Ning platform that are used by K-12 classes. The list is organized by subject and location and compiled by teacher Angela Cunningham.
The Flat Classroom Project
The Flat Classroom Project connects teachers and students in middle and high school grades. The site provides tools and templates and assists teachers in finding collaborators from other schools to work on joint projects.
Kites Around the World
Kites Around the World is an international project for students to exchange ideas and information about kites. Students can explore kite design, learn how to build different kites, contribute videos of themselves flying their kites, and collaborate on creating descriptions of how kites are made and flown in their country.
Solar Navigations Wiki
Duke University Libraries has launched a mentoring program for Durham Public Schools to help them implement and use technology in the classroom. This particular project used a wiki to facilitate student collaboration between classes to create jointly-authored reports on the solar system.
For Further Reading
The following articles and resources are recommended for those who wish to learn more about collaborative environments.
Digital Access, Collaboration a Must for Students
(Laura Devaney, eSchool News, 16 March 2010.) This article describes the results of an educational technology survey undertaken by Project Tomorrow. The survey identifies a new type of student, the “free agent learner,” who takes greater responsibility for learning and uses technology tools to create personal learning experiences.
Educational Networking: The Important Role Web 2.0 Will Play in Education
(Steve Hargadon, 16 December 2009.) This paper gives a broad overview of the importance of collaborative environments and their value in the K-12 educational space.
Howard Rheingold on Collaboration
(Howard Rheingold, TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, February 2005.) In this talk from 2005, Howard Rheingold discusses the emerging world of collaboration, participatory media and collective action. His insights then are still pertinent today.
The Impact of Collaborative, Scaffolded Learning in K-12 Schools: A Meta-Analysis
(Susan M. Williams, The Metiri Group. Commissioned by Cisco Systems, September 2009.) This report discusses how collaboration environments can be implemented in schools and the impact they can have when integrated with existing systems.
The Impact of Social Computing on the EU Information Society and Economy
(K. Ala-Mutka et al., Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Joint Research Center, European Commission, November 2009.) This report gives a comprehensive overview of social computing and its impact in the European Union.
Jazz as an Extended Metaphor for Social Computing
(Aaron McLeran, UC-Santa Barbara Transliteracies Project, 17 May 2009.) This unusual study looks at social computing and jazz and finds some striking — and surprising — similarities between the two.
Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning
(John Watson, et al., Evergreen Education Group, November 2009.) This report discusses the state-level policy and practices for K-12 online learning across the United States.
Delicious: Collaborative Environments
(Tagged by K-12 Horizon Advisory Board and friends, 2010). Follow this link to find additional resources tagged for this topic and this edition of the Horizon Report. To add to this list, simply tag resources with “hzk10” and “collabspaces” when you save them to Delicious.