Online Collaboration & Learning: Highlights from e/merge Africa Festival

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In this series of posts we shared resources and ideas presented at summer festivals in 2018. By tapping archived materials, MethodSpace readers can learn from the presentations and related resources made available online.

This post is based on presentations from the e/Merge Festival of e-Learning in Africa taking place from July 9-20. Multidisciplinary presenters and conference goers from Africa and around the world gather in this all-online conference. Keynote presentations, workshops, and panels offer both synchronous and asynchronous opportunities to interact. Discussion forums and “Tea Time Chats” invite places for informal exchanges throughout the conference.

While conference materials are posted in a private meeting space, I will  share highlights from my own and others’ presentations.

Collaboration and Learning: Sharing, Acquiring, and Creating New Knowledge

Most of us find the need to collaborate as part of our academic and professional lives, and in our connected world, much of that activity occurs with the help of communication technologies. We are co-researchers, co-authors, or co-editors. We coach and are coached. We collaborate on efforts that involve people within our institutions or organizations, and people outside, who might have different cultures, norms, and expectations. Sometimes we choose to collaborate with people we know and like, and other times we are required to participate in a collaborative project with people we don’t know, and may or may not find compatible.

How do we learn the skills needed to work collaboratively, especially when mediated by technology? As instructors, we can craft courses, projects, assignments, that allow students to learn from and with each other, and develop as collaborative partners while mastering the subject matter of the class. As academics, researchers, writers, we can attend to the process of our collaborative work, so we improve our skills.

My contribution to this conference is an online workshop on this topic. The workshop consists of a forum area with multiple threaded discussions, and two live webinars. Here is an excerpt from some of the materials shared at the conference, and a link to a webinar recording.

Why learn together?

Let’s consider a fundamental question: why organize learning experiences that invite students to learn collaboratively? When we are clear on the purpose, we can do a better job planning and facilitating student learning.

The Knowledge Learning Model (Salmons, in press) offers a way to tease out the learning purpose by considering four ways to describe how we learn from and with others.

Knowledge Learning Model (c. 2015-2019 Vision2Lead)

Vygotsky (1987), writing about sociocultural theory in the early 20th century, described any person who possesses a higher skill level as a More Knowledgeable Other. Using the above framework, we could say that sometimes peers are the Knowledgeable Others. Or, we might need to seek knowledgeable others from outside of our classroom or team. Communicating online, we have many opportunities to tap into sources of expertise and wisdom.

Let’s illustrate these ideas with a mundane example: let’s say we want to learn how to bake bread.

If I know how to bake bread, and you do not, you could learn from me. I would transfer my culinary knowledge to you, demonstrating how it is done, and sharing my recipes and techniques.

We are collaborating, and I might learn something new by trying to decide how to formulate the best way to explain what I know. in this example we have some uneven power dynamics. I am the knowledgeable other. This uneven dynamic is not necessarily bad: transfer through coaching and mentoring can be positive and empowering.

But maybe we both know how to bake bread, but  do it differently. I might like to make banana bread while you like to make flatbread. I’ll share my delicious banana bread-baking tips with you in exchange for learning how you make that crispy flatbread. In this example the power is shared because we are both knowledgeable, and the engagement is clearly mutual.

Perhaps neither of us know how to make bread. We have to work together to acquire new skills. We’ll find and discuss styles, options, and ingredients. We’ll experiment with different recipes to see which we prefer. We might conduct some research to learn more, including observing or interviewing experienced bakers. In this example, the knowledgeable other(s) are outside our dyad.

Maybe, whether we have prior experience or not, we want to create something new. We have a lot of almonds, fruit, honey, and whole wheat flour– and together we will co-create an innovative way to transform them into bread. To devise our recipe, we might find that we will exchange what we know, and acquire new ideas. We will then take it a step further, and apply what we’ve learned to develop new knowledge.

As instructors, whether we are teaching research methods or other disciplinary content, we hope to encourage critical thinking. We hope our students will be capable of working with others to go beyond what they could achieve independently. Ultimately, we hope they will make original contributions and add new knowledge to the field. How can we use collaborative learning to offer them step-wise skills development?

Webinar Recording

If you’d like to see more about these and other ideas about collaboration, see this recorded meeting offered at the e/Merge Africa conference.

Here are a few open-access SAGE resources you might find of interest:

If your institution has SAGE Research Methods, you can access this Reading List I assembled for the conference. Learn more about creating and using Reading Lists in this series of posts:

Salmons, J. (in press). Learning to collaborate, Collaborating to learn. Sterling: Stylus.

Vygotsky, L. (Ed.) (1987). Thinking and speech: The collected work of L.S. Vygotsky. New York: Plenum.

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