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Roger McHaney: Virtual collaboration in academic courses

RogerMcHaney Note:  Roger McHaney will be co-presenting “Virtual Collaboration:  Applied Projects and Tools” 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, at Union 212, as part of the Instructional Design Technology Roundtables. All are welcome to attend.

What is “virtual collaboration”?

Those of you who attended preschool years ago probably learned the importance of sharing. Today, in the Web’s early youth, the same lessons are being reinforced as we learn to share without regard to geography or time constraints.

“Virtual collaboration” or “VC” is the term we use to describe the technology and processes needed for people to exchange ideas, content, and work processes both synchronously and asynchronously over the Web. An emerging set of powerful VC tools enables people to collaborate on projects in amazing ways. This surge of sharing has been extended into higher education where students and teachers have incredible opportunities to enhance learning.

What sorts of information and communications technologies (ICT) are needed for virtual collaboration?

VC is rooted in earlier technologies such as teleconferencing; audio or video conferencing; and computer mediated communication. The idea behind these technologies was to enable two or more people to talk, work, and accomplish tasks without the benefit of face-to-face interaction. As communication speed and bandwidth have increased, richer, media-enhanced tools have become available to help overcome limitations caused in part by the lack of nonverbal cues. Today we have text, audio, images, video, mobile communications, and a wide array of information technologies such as tagging, filtering, wikis, blogs, and social networks to facilitate VC in many different ways.

How hard is it to collaborate virtually?  What are some necessary skills?

VC can be as simple as typing at your computer’s keyboard or speaking into a mobile phone; or it can be as difficult as learning a new computer programming language and mastering network technologies. That being said, for most teachers and students, dozens of high-quality VC applications have been developed to ensure a relatively easy transition into new modes of collaboration. A basic set of computer literacy skills combined with the ability to either speak, type, or use American Sign Language (ASL) is all most people will need to get started.

What sorts of virtual collaborations have you taken part in yourself?   What were some highlights from these experiences?

I have been involved with VC since the mid-1980s and have enjoyed watching the natural progression of VC as richer and better ways of enhancing remote collaboration have been created. Some of my first VC experiences involved using Telnet-type applications and telephones to work with computer programmers located at auto plants hundreds of miles from where I sat. Over time, I experienced the transition to audio conferencing, video conferencing, and now multifaceted collaboration tools such as Wimba that enable shared learning processes to take place more easily. Some of my favorite collaborative tools include wiki technologies and Google docs for constructing common-authored documents. I enjoy working with students to develop online, shared team projects and think the current atmosphere has been super-charged by their experiences with social networks such as Facebook.

What sorts of assignments are the most effective for virtual collaborations?  Why?

Classroom collaboration can take many forms: Student-to-student, student-to-instructor, and student-to-broader world, to mention a few. In my experience, the best results occur when students develop team projects that will be “open” to the rest of the world. I use tools such as WetPaint, Blogger, and ELATEwiki (www.elatewiki.org) to encourage student teams to build persistent material that will serve a greater purpose rather than simply fulfill the requirements of an assignment. When material is developed for the general public and placed in a venue where outside interaction may occur, students become more engaged and motivated to do a thorough job. I enjoy the real-world lessons that emerge from working in an open environment and look forward to incorporating a wider range of tools such as VoiceThread, Scribd, and others into my assignments. I have been transitioning from a “research paper” approach to a”research compilation” construction that seeks to maintain rigor while encouraging the use of new communication methods. Student research can be augmented with video presentations, voice components, and a variety of comments, tags, and embedded artifacts.

What would you advise for a faculty member just starting out setting up virtual collaboration assignments?

My advice is to start with one technology and add components to the base over time. A wiki makes a good starting point for student VC assignments. Later, video, audio, embedded documents, screencasts, and other items can be added to project requirements until the students are truly interacting with a wide array of VC technologies. The key is to encourage trust between team members and allow them to work in a world that most of them have already experienced. Even on traditional team assignments, teachers will discover their students are interacting through Facebook applications and in other ways. Allowing student groups to view, comment on, and enhance other groups’ projects becomes a great way to share knowledge and let everyone learn from each other’s work.

Editor Note: Roger McHaney is serving as interim head of the Department of Management.  He is a K-State University Distinguished Teaching Scholar.