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Collaboration in the Classroom and Over the Internet

written by Yvonne Marie Andres
email yvonne@globalschoolnet.org
Copyright 1995


Why Collaboration is Important

Significant global changes are rapidly occurring and political boundaries are becoming less distinct. Certain issues such as the environment, terrorism, and inflation affect all populations of all countries. Job market skills and employment requirements are changing. Communication skills are becoming essential to earning a living, yet American students are not coming to the workforce adequately prepared. The Internet offers one of the most exciting and effective ways to teach students how to both communicate and collaborate by connecting teams of students with other classrooms around the world.

The creation of "telecommunities" can unite students and teach them to work cooperatively. Collaborative learning becomes even more significant when the students who are working together are from different nations with varied cultures, histories, and socio-political beliefs. Yet, little has been written about how to prepare students to work in teams over the Internet.


Students as Collaborators

Although, the best collaborative projects can be designed to have students measure, collect, evaluate, write, read, publish, simulate, hypothesize, compare, debate, examine, investigate, organize, share, and report, it's important to remember that not all students need to be doing the same thing at the same time. Ideally, the class is divided into several teams or "crews" comprised of four or five students each. The teacher assigns each crew member a job title and a responsibility according to the student's individual talent or strength.

For example, a unit on space exploration might be comprised of a commander, a pilot, and a team of two mission specialists. The "commander's" responsibility could be to encourage the crew, keep the crew on task, and report crew findings. The "pilot's" job might be to determine crew needs, manage supplies and materials for activities, check for understanding of assignment, and summarize crew accomplishments. And, the team of two "mission specialists" could be responsible for network operations. Their job might be to access Internet databases like those found at NASA Spacelink and research the questions their crew has generated. Since most classrooms still only have one computer available, the teacher should set up learning activity stations for crew members not working on the computer(s). In the Global Schoolhouse(TM) Project talented students are encouraged to serve as "student ambassadors." They learn how to train other students and teachers and to share their findings with the community. They act as reporters and spokespersons for the project.

Schools that collaborate on curriculum-focused projects often begin their activity with a "hello" greeting message. Rather than have each student write a separate hello message, it is more effective if groups of 2-3 students create different sections of the message. Group One might write about their school, Group Two can describe their city, Group Three can tell nearby places to visit, and so on. The result is a single collaborative document that reflects the input of all the individual students.

It is important for teachers to guide their students in an unthreatening environment where they can work together in teams to accomplish common goals. It has been observed that the more communication exchanges among students of different ethnic and racial backgrounds, the greater the understanding and acceptance of one another as they learn their similarities often outweigh their differences. Electronic interactive communications between students, educators and the world community offer exciting potential for gains in literacy, cultural, geographical, and socio-political understanding, preparation for the workforce and democratization of society. Collaboration in the classroom is the first step towards collaboration over the Internet. And, collaboration over the Internet can be the first step towards global cooperation.


Before, During and After Collaboration:
Being Better Prepared

When teachers decide they are going to involve their students in a collaborative on-line activity there are things they can do to make the experience more rewarding and less frustrating.

It is helpful to think of the preparation in THREE phases.

Here is a brief look at the steps that thousands of teachers participating in Global SchoolNet activities over the past decade have identified to better prepare students, teachers, and parents for rewarding on-line collaborations.


Phase I: BEFORE Going On-Line (Pre-Production)

The steps listed below begin after the teacher has successfully located a collaborative project they want to be part of.

  • teachers introduce the topic that students will be researching by presenting background information, holding a class discussion, visiting the local library, and inviting local guest speakers
  • parents are sent home a note describing the collaborative research project their students will be conducting and are invited to participate or contribute in any way they can
  • the teacher divides the class into individual groups, teams, or crews of 4-5 students
  • the teacher lists and describes each of the tasks needed to conduct the project
  • each student within the group is assigned a job title and a task to accomplish according to the student's individual talent or strength
  • the teacher reviews proper on-line behavior and net-etiquette (no flames, no sarcasm, no bad language, no posting of home addresses and phone numbers)
  • students must sign an AUP (Acceptable Use Policy) stating they have read the rules and will follow them just as they must if they were taking a field trip
  • parents must also sign an AUP form indicating that they have reviewed the on-line rules with their children and will assist the teacher in enforcing those rules (and, they will not hold the teacher responsible if their child purposefully violates the rules)

Phase II: DURING the Collaborative Project

  • Schools that collaborate on curriculum-focused projects often begin their activity with a "hello" greeting message. (Rather than have each student write a separate hello message, it is more effective if groups of 2-3 students create different sections of the message. For example, Group One might write about their school, Group Two can describe their city, Group Three can tell nearby places to visit, and so on. The result is a single collaborative document that reflects the input of all the individual students)
  • ALL students keep a written or typed log of their activities describing their research, their explorations and their findings (this helps ensure that students are staying on task)
  • when students are involved in real time video conferences over the Internet, they often record the events by video taping and audio taping their interactions (they then digitize the best of these clips in and use them in multi-media presentations and to create WWW pages)
  • students meet periodically and report the highlights of their activities to their group
  • once a week, a student spokesperson from each group reports the group's findings to the entire class
  • a student "scribe" from each group writes a report of the activity that can be shared with the rest of the school, the PTA, the school board, or the community via a newsletter
  • throughout the activity teachers exchange lesson plans and dialogue with one another to refine and improve the project

Phase III: AFTER a Collaborative Activity (Post-Production)

Often the most significant learning takes place after the formal interaction is over. Teaching students to articulate what they have learned is a very powerful skill.

  • students write thank you notes to their project partners
  • students prepare a list of questions about their collaborative project they might be expected to answer
  • students practice answering the questions by interviewing one another (students sometimes video tape each other during this phase)
  • student "ambassadors" make presentations about their project to other classes and to the community reporting their findings
  • students organize their findings in a shareable format (including images, audio, and video clips) and post the information on the Internet in a Gopher or on the World Wide Web (crating an electronic library)
  • Other schools are encouraged to add to the electronic library, by making their own contributions

If you have additional insights,
please write me at: yvonne@globalschoolnet.org


Copyright Yvonne Marie Andres (Article originally published in Electronic Learning March 1995)