Collaboration (a mash up on issues of design in multimedia presentation) Classroom 2.0 social network hosted by Ning

From Stephen Downes

Wikipedia has a very fancy sort of defiinition for collaboration, and some words stand out: common goal, endeavor, sharing, building, decentralization, and introspection.

Story #1: Digital Stories on Endangered Species
I wanted to do collaborative digital storytelling with my students. I had to fulfill the research requirement for fifth grade. So I cooked up a small group research project on endangered species in which the product would be digital stories that would both inform and persuade. How I did this is in my blog here, and it involved playing with a few different web applications, like TrackStar and GooglePages , and the organization of a framework and timeline--all the usual teachery things. The tech turned out to be, in and of itself, not the big issue, because I built what I needed in advance over a few months.

Who goes where...and why?
I'll focus on one group--the three-toed sloths. The sloths included Taylor, who is sweet and quiet and struggles with reading and writing; Matthew, who is very outspoken and artistic but not interested in most academic work; and Connie, a bright and hard-working kid who just will not take leadership on anything. They are Indians sans a chief, because I'm hoping this will help each to step forward instead of coasting in the background. As they search for and collect information and images, as they organize and compose and build this story, they are plagued by indecision. Each has low regard for his/her own ideas, so at the start there's a kind of collective low esteem for their efforts.
I believe if we'd been working on a traditional paper report, "we suck" would have been the theme of the group's story. But digital storytelling worked differently on this group. First, the collaborative element forced them to make decisions (often as slowly as their namesake might), but since these were group decisions, no one person had to feel solely responsible--this group appreciated having others to help "carry the load". Second, the writing was very compact--it was not their job to tell everything, just what they believed would be important to help other kids understand the plight of the three-toed sloth. And third, the fun of finding and fitting images and music to help tell their story tapped into their artistic sensibilities outside of the writing. Finally, plenty of time and support were given for the project, and it was broken into small, manageable parts so that the technology (and the collaboration!) didn't overwhelm anyone.

And in the end...

This is the product that Taylor, Matthew and Connie brought to our festival and presented to students throughout the school. They looked so proud that day, and their reflections at the end of the project were very positive. Some of the things they learned, according to their own reflections:
  • about the three-toed sloth and the problems in the rainforest
  • how to do better searches for information
  • how to find and save photos from the internet
  • how to make a digital story
  • how to edit photos
  • how to do digital recording on Audacity
  • how to work together better
  • how to use MovieMaker

Group work is a huge part of my classroom community. I've assigned posters, mobiles, powerpoints, skits, you-name-it to groups as a way for students to construct and communicate their knowledge. But the work we've done in which technology is integrated, like digital storytelling, has been more urgent, more creative--I believe that the change of audience explains a lot of that. The technologies by themselves are simply means--ways of catching and sustaining interest, working both synchronously and asynchronously, providing opportunities for students to shine in a particular niche or get support in an area of difficulty, of creating a space for socially constructed knowledge, of sharing with one another and the world.

Story #2--The Reading/Writing Matrix
This part of my personal road to hell truly was paved with good intentions, inspired by the annual NWP meeting in New York last November. Again, I wrote about this idea in my blog. If I have all of these books I'm required to use in reading instruction, it would really help if I could find ways to use those same texts in writing instruction. So the mentor text that I use for working with students on making connections or inferring might also be rich with examples of author's craft and be pressed into service during writer's workshop. Ta-da!
I was already doing some of this, but post-New York, I got ambitious. I envisioned a data source that could be collaborative, dynamic, in which fifth grade teachers across my district could work together to pull the most useful instructional bits for reading and writing out of both the required texts and those that we each loved, put them together, and share them in a place accessible to all. Good intentions, indeed.
So I hopped on GoogleDocs and went to town, inputting titles, authors, and some initial ideas. I was so excited! Once I thought the spreadsheet showed the gist of my idea, I invited my fellow teachers to join in as "collaborators" via email....and waited for their excited replies. I waited without considering that none of them had ever heard of GoogleDocs, much less used it. My teaching partner told me she thought it was a great idea, and she'd give it a try when she got some free time...which she never got, because she had no sense of urgency for this in her own practice.
None of this deterred me, and I added some more to the spreadsheet in the hopes that maybe my colleagues just needed to see more happening. Yes, I know, I was still missing the point. Finally, in February, we were all gathered for a grade level meeting and when the subject of how to fit in all the read-alouds came up, I saw my chance. I mentioned the "matrix" I'd started, asked what they thought. Most said they simply hadn't understood how to access the document or use the technology in general. And how there was never any time. And how they didn't really know what I meant by "author's craft". I was eager to show them, but our meeting was at a local church with no access to computers, let alone internet. So I let the topic drop, and asked what other folks were doing to deal with the pressure of all the texts for reading and writing instruction. And then in the magical way of meetings, the next subject on the agenda was broached and we moved on.
I know I'm supposed to tell a story of how technology facilitates coaction. How wikis, blogs, social networks, googledocs, or twitter are positive catalysts for professional collaboration--which they certainly are. But not if you follow my example! In my zeal for this project, I neglected to actually collaborate with anyone--to consider my colleagues interests, strengths, and challenges. I skipped a lot of communication that would lay the foundation and facilitate this kind of work. The result at this point is that I have a data source, but it only reflects my own thinking and work, and lacks the depth and variety that would come from many minds contributing. Cue mournful violins.