In early 2001, Steve Jobs, then the CEO of Apple®, summoned a motley crew of employees and contractors to meet in a secret boardroom. Jobs tasked the team with an ambitious assignment: create a new MP3 player in six weeks. By all accounts, the group should have failed. The timeline to complete the project was unrealistically short and the team consisted of five engineering, marketing, and design executives who all had strong, competing views about how to develop the product.
But against all odds, the group was able to capitalize on one another’s unique skill sets, allowing ideas and perspectives to emerge that had never been combined before. The result was the innovative iPod® that ultimately changed the face of technology and the music industry.
Educators recognize that collaborative teamwork doesn’t just benefit business. Collaborative teamwork is also useful for students. Research shows that by exposing students to divergent perspectives, collaborative learning can improve creative thinking, reflection, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.[i] In fact, recent meta-analyses indicate that computer-supported collaborative learning can produce stronger student achievement outcomes than when students work individually.[ii]
So how can educators ensure they are delivering high-quality online collaborative learning experiences? To facilitate collaborative teamwork in your classroom, start with these three steps:
1. Prime students for success.
Educators need to prepare students for successful collaborations carefully. Before beginning collaborative projects, students should be armed with the requisite reading, writing, and mathematic skills to complete activities. Students should also be taught critical metacognitive skills needed for collaboration, such as planning and negotiation, and given ample time to complete projects. Once students are prepped for success, their learning will flourish.
2. Promote trust and accountability.
For true collaboration to emerge, teachers need to promote trust and accountability. Trust can be built by encouraging students to share personal experiences, conclusions, and feelings, without allowing students to cast judgment on other students. Educators can ensure accountability by having students sign learning contracts that define roles and responsibilities. They can set expectations and regularly monitor student assignments and communications for acceptable and unacceptable work. As teachers model support and encouragement for diverse points of view, students will learn how to be respectful of one another’s ideas.
3. Use online discussions to facilitate dialogue.
Teachers should post provocative, open-ended questions that facilitate deep learning and dialogue. To do this effectively, educators need to model the behaviors they expect students to use with one another (questions, humor, addressing others by name, praise, and inclusive pronouns).
[i] Goodyear, P., Jones, C., and Thompson, K. (2014). Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning: Instructional Approaches, Group Processes, and Educational Design. In. J.M. Spector, et al. (eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (4th ed., pp. 439–451). New York: Springer.
[ii] Johnson, D., and Johnson, R. (2008). “Cooperation and the use of technology.” Journal of Educational Research, 38(5), 365-379. In J.M. Spector, et al. (eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (3rd ed., pp. 1017–1044). New York: Taylor & Francis.