10 May 2007

Promoting Collaboration - Horton Summary

Online collaboration tools like email, chat, discussion forums, web conferencing, shared whiteboards and screen sharing can promote collaboration in effective and unique ways. But what are the pros and cons? When do online tools work better for collaboration and when don't they? William Horton provides some answers.


In the context of putting together readings for a workshop on collaborative online learning, we were looking back at the ever reliable reference, Designing Web-Based Training by renown elearning expert William Horton. I thought it was worth summarizing some of his key points around learning in groups on the web, as they make an excellent quick list, even several years down the line.

Why collaboration works online:

  • Virtual teams can be as effective as face-to-face teams.
  • More participation than with face-to-face discussions and activities. Learners
    feel more empowered to express even confrontational opinions and ideas.
  • Because communication is easier, participants communicate more often and more freely.
  • Fewer questions go unasked. Fewer ideas are held back.
  • Race gender, age, background, appearance, and disabilities matter less in an online environment. Anonymity frees learners from bias and stereotyping, and allows people to contribute more confidently.
  • Learners become more self-reliant. They rely more on peers, form study groups, and take more responsibility and authority for themselves.
  • Instructors can monitor performance and behavior discretely.
  • Learners share knowledge and learn from each other.
  • Instructors don't have to comment on submissions one by one or answer the same question repeatedly.
  • More eyes are more likely to spot problems. The instructor is not the only evaluator.
  • Instructors have ample feedback to improve learning material.

When it doesn't:

  • Exchanges can lead to flames, slurs, and slams.
  • Discussions can meander way off topic.
  • Poorly designed activities can stigmatize low achievers, exacerbate status differences, and create dysfunctional interactions among learners.
  • Synchronous activities can exclude people unable to attend.
  • More workload for instructors, as learners require more virtual contact.
  • Conversations without gesture and tone of voice can be awkward or confusing.

Questions to ask:

  • Do you really need a collaborative event? FIRST decide what kind of person-to-person
    interaction best furthers the objectives of your course. Then, implement this interaction in the form and technology appropriate for your situation.
  • What media are needed to meet the objective? (text, body language, voice, pictures, software, etc.)
  • How do you need to send messages? One to one? Broadcast (one to many)? Some to some? or all to all? Or will it require a combination of these?
  • What are the needs and capabilities of your learners? (Language fluency, accents, typing skill, and technical expertise, etc.)
  • Which tools will learners prefer? What will they realistically use?
  • How big is the class? How far are they spread? Small classes (5-10) are good for collaboration. Large classes must rely more on broadcast and smaller groups. A class of one would emphasize self-guided activities. If students are spread across time zones, live events are difficult.
  • What will collaboration mechanisms cost? Consider what hardware and software your organization has in place.
  • Do learners have high-speed connections?
  • Pick an approach to technologies: Should you use in house tools, purchase new ones, or let the learners use what they have as long as they comply with standard protocols?
  • Implement collaboration policies (consider security, privacy, dispute handling, legal issues, protocol, etc.)

Characteristics of tools:

  1. Email:
    • Good for immediacy, intimacy, privacy and impact.
    • One to many announcements are good for urgent class announcements.
    • Only the instructor should broadcast messages and only in special cases, and keep these messages short.
    • Set reasonable expectations for response time (24-48 hours) and respond promptly
    • Introduce yourself
    • Save delivery receipts for necessary cases (such as warnings that may require recording).

  2. Discussion Groups (email lists, newsgroups and forums)
    • Groups let even globally distributed learners interact easily and indefinitely,
      answer each other's questions, and maintain contact between class sessions.
    • Learners, designers and instructors continually cite the discussion group as the best thing about a course.
    • Provide shy, language limited, or time constrained learners a chance to interact equally.
    • Learners feel connected to the instructor, closer to other learners, want to continue discussions after class, are more self-reliant and feel it helps them write more coherently, participate more outside of class and think more carefully before responding to questions.
    • Good for second-language learning as there's plenty of time to read/write, check dictionary.
    • Topics of particular interest to just a few learners can be covered.
    • Consider replacing chat and e-mail with a group.
    • Consider using an existing group (access to practitioners, link in to the industry, provide resource beyond the course.)

  3. Chat
    • For learning (as opposed to social chat), sessions have clear goals and are typically scheduled in advance, often lasting from 20-90 minutes.
    • Use for fast-paced exchanges (Q&A sessions, brainstorming, troubleshooting, "Office hours", "Oral examinations", interviews of experts, study group meetings.)
    • Don't text chat a lecture. It can also be awkward for narrating actions in a screen sharing or whiteboard session, particularly if the two tools are separate.
    • Good as a back channel during lectures/demos. Learners can ask questions without disruption as lecturer checks chat window off and on for messages.
    • Leaves a transcript (can be archived and referred to later)
    • Requires a small group.
    • Requires typing skills to keep up.
    • Provides nearly immediate feedback and can accomplish in minutes what would take days with email or discussion groups.
    • Use private chat to "pass a note" to individual learners, to ask a question or comment without interrupting the whole class, or to remain anonymous.
    • Use to continue niche conversations beyond class time.
    • Use for study groups, team, meetings, tutoring sessions, private instructor meetings.
    • Cut and paste: Prepare predictable answers to common questions or responses in a separate text window and copy and paste at the appropriate time.
    • Limit sessions to 7 or fewer people and keep then to 20 or 30 minutes length.
    • Stick to spontaneous thought and put deeper ideas that require more reflection in an email or discussion group message.

  4. Whiteboard
    • Use for visual learning - where text and graphics are mixed (editable diagrams, creating concept maps, commenting on screenshots, discussing charts and graphs, demonstrating visual symbols, etc.)
    • Prepare drawings and art ahead of time (objects to discuss, symbols in your profession, arrows, boxes and generic shapes.)
    • Assign each participant a distinct colour.
    • Set up rules (take turns, no criticizing drawing skill.)
    • Summarize the session and conclude (clean up the drawing, and save copy.)

  5. Screen sharing
    • Demonstrate computer programs and teach operational skills.
    • Let learners view data in applications that they don't have.
    • Show images that can't be pasted into a whiteboard.
    • Call on learners to try out skills demonstrated. Instructor can take over if learners fail.
    • Use it for demos that require only smooth simple movements.
    • Share only what you need to share (one application or window rather than the whole desktop.)
    • Let learners participate (control the shared application, show their screen.)
    • Use audio to narrate (speak slowly).
    • Keep graphics and backgrounds simple.
    • Keep security in mind (don't hand over control and leave the room).
    • Quit unnecessary programs (to improve speed)
    • Control an application remotely (put it on another computer rather
      than yours so you see the same delayed image others do.)

  6. Response pads (voting machines, polls)
    • Use to involve learners.
    • Incorporate into activities (force choices, administer surveys, tally votes).
    • Collect opinions at the right time.
    • Make sure learners know how to vote.
    • Phrase prompts and choices with extreme care.
    • Display vote numbers only (keep anonymous). Log changes of opinion during an event (for research purposes).
    • Ideas: Mock trial; Debate and let learners choose the winner; Instant surveys on an issue; Vote on what subjects to pursue in greater detail; Instant feedback on how well learners understand a concept; Before and after surveys to measure changes of opinion.

  7. Audio conference
    • Uses the network as a telephone - requires fast connection.
    • Use when voice is important (the discussion is complex, tone of voice is important, sounds are being demonstrated, learners lack writing or typing skills).
    • Use instead of a telephone when: a call would be too expensive, phones are not available or too expensive, setting up a large conference call would be too difficult.
    • Reduce background noise.
    • Speak slowly and distinctly.
    • Put the microphone below or near the mouth.
    • Wait before you talk (for delays).

  8. Video conference
    • Use to show movement (moving objects, to make people seem real as for introductions, deliver powerful emotional messages, show off technology).
    • Requires high speed networks.
    • Plan and prepare - prepare graphics beforehand
    • Keep segments short.
    • Minimize background distractions.
    • Limit to six remote sites (eg. 6 webcams).
    • Keep presentations simple.
    • Explain poor video quality.
    • Minimize unnecessary movements.
    • Send materials ahead of time.
    • Reserve space for picture within picture.
    • Keep props at hand.
    • Hire a sidekick (helper on hand)
    • Hire a director (to guide on-screen activities, pace an event, cue and coach instructor, control cameras).
    • Use a "dead-time" graphic when needed (for pauses and another for technical difficulties).
    • Vary the camera angle (if person must talk for more than a minute or so).
    • Move smoothly and predictably.
    • Do not hand write (such as on a chalk board).

The above tips are from Chapter 8 of the book "Designing Web-Based Training by William Horton.




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