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Collaboration Is Such An Easy Word to Say

table4I’ve heard the word collaboration used a lot lately. But what does it really mean? Collaboration is more than sitting students in a group at a table, device, or large sheet of poster board with colored markers. That’s just grouping, and something educators have always done for everything from field trips to choosing sides for games. There’s nothing new there. Grouping Tosses students into collections of fours or fives by class-number division, separating kids out by skills, behavior, using playing cards, strengths or weaknesses, or possibly the least friction between individuals. We all understand that just because you’ve divided up the class, it doesn’t make your groups collaborative. That takes a bit of teaching skill with the right content, and today, the right tools.

We need to understand that collaboration is not always an easy feat. Training to help teachers figure it out, with all the technological possibilities available requires coaching and preparation. Teachers, and for that matter adults, working together in groups know there may be conflict, too, some rough sorting out at times. Hopefully—eventually a team game plan develops—that may not work—there are no collaborative guarantees. The process requires interaction. What you hope to achieve, are results, collaboratively gained by individuals, but really achieved as a group effort.

Whenever I look at technology, I look beyond just the individual holding one device and heading in a singular direction. While some students prefer to work alone, it continues to be a world where we must work together as well. While you may not sit directly across from a colleague, or fellow student, those individual handheld or desktop devices must not become islands of isolation for students. Educators are the catalysts, which can create the technical continental shift from one, lone learner to a collaborative learning environment of more learners. While we talk individualized instruction, we must also talk cyber and physical learning laboratories, where students add to and gain knowledge with others.

markMy friend and colleague, Mark Robinson, expressed this so perfectly, recently. He said, “There’s a whole new class of software to be developed around collaboration. The ActivTable and the ideas behind it are driving a lot of new thinking about co-located computing—and how kids communicate with each other.” He was talking about Promethean’s ActivTable, but he could have been talking about oak tag and colored markers. As a technology education geek, I’d prefer his technology approach to the oak tag.

Let me propose a concept collaboration room possibility. While most schools maintain a fully equipped computer lab, I’ll wager that not many have thought of a collaboration lab. For example if you take six of these ActivTables Robinson talks about, put them in a room, creating a lab, if you will, where teachers can take classes, it would be brilliant in many ways. We did it, and still do it for computer labs—teachers signing them out on a scheduled basis, so why not have a collaborative learning lab in every building, too? I think it’s wonderful to have these devices as part of regular classrooms, but school budget watchers might see this collaborative lab/room as a starting option, especially when a whole school population can benefit from it’s collaborative use.

There are many ways in which students can work as individuals, and educators are figuring out that stepping off the front stage podium makes education sense. Using different styles of teaching during one school day is so much better than that chalkboard stance so many of us remember, and have tried to change. The next time you hear someone say “collaboration” ask him/her what he/she means.

While we continue in education to strive for those individual goals for student learning, we need to remember what collaboration means for students, as well as for their future as adults. It requires more work to do that, than it does to say it.

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34-year veteran educator, ed tech author, and education marketplace reporter.

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