Peter's suggested, though, that we start by looking at the pedagogy, then move towards the tools; on the grounds that it's better than the pedagogy drives the tool choice than anything else ...
Would anyone like to kick this off?
Either way, I think collaboration-oriented pedagogies recognize the importance of not assuming students already understand what it means to collaborate, and what quality collaboration looks/feels like.
As several have already mentioned, true collaboration is not simply throwing students together on a project that could have been done by students independently. Unfortunately, I think that is how most students think of "group projects."
Therefore, projects need sufficient expectations, structure, and scaffolding, to make it clear to students that they are interdependent.
Two articles I particularly like on this subject are:
Pedagogies of engagement: classroom-based practices
KA Smith, SD Sheppard, DW Johnson, RT Johnson - Journal of Engineering Education, Jan 2005
Turning Student Groups into Effective Teams
B Oakley, RM Felder, R Brent, I Elhajj - Journal of Student Centered Learning, V2 No1 2004
1. Positive interdependence
2. Individual accountability
3. Group processing
4. Social Skills
5. Promotive face-to-face interaction
(I remembered 3... hadda look up the other two...)
I think they would maintain that you need a focus on both a meaningful task and group processes for effective cooperative learning.
We seem to have made the assumption that collaboration is a good thing. One of the worst learning experiences I had was on my MA when we had to collaborate to produce a group presentation. I ended up feeling that I had to compromise my beliefs and educational philosophy to fit in with the group.
I can clearly remember Stephen Downes at an ALT-C conference (2005) saying that collaboration is - "the joining up of things that do not naturally want to be joined up" - http://fraser.typepad.com/edtechuk/2005/09/altc_stephen_do.html
Shock horror in the conference audience!
I also remember the first time I read Ferreday and Hodgson's article which they presented at the 2008 Networked Learning Conference -
The Tyranny of Participation and Collaboration in Networked Learning - www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2008/abstracts/PDFs/Hodgson_640-647.pdf
This article has made me a lot more sympathetic to students who want to do their own thing.
Whilst I have had some extremely enjoyable and fruitful collaborative learning experiences, it is not always a positive experience and I think in some circumstances can be detrimental to learning. I can't imagine the anti-social genius Newton wanting to collaborate! Would we have his laws of motion if he had been required to work in a team?
I personally have no argument with the promotion of pro-social behaviours. Some of my best friends are pro-social ;-)
But I think that the push for socialization in online environments (in ANY learning environment) is, in many cases, poorly considered. Collaborating, teamwork, social software tools etc. are pushed as if they were an Absolute Good in any learning environment. In many cases, strongly-social strategies don't relate to the learning outcomes at all & the activities are included in a course only because the instructor was led to believe that they HAD to be there. I remember an Accounting instructor coming to me for advice because she was having such a hard time thinking of a provocative forum topic every week in order to encourage more discussion. When I asked her why she needed to develop so much discussion in an Accounting course, she looked at me as if I were some sort of heretic.
My Master's thesis was all about how the distance education experience is different for rural learners. What I found out was that many distance education programs are designed by urban people & really push the distance learner to 'join the learning community' of the online class. However, most of the people I interviewed already had strong social ties to the community in which they were situated & did not feel a need to participate socially in the 'foreign' environment of the academic community.
An aside: I started responding to this thread directly within Google Wave & kind of got confused to see the discussion start up in SCoPE... this will take some getting used to!
That's where Johnson and Johnson come in. Jenny's experience smacks to me of a "collaboration" that didn't involve group processing or promotive face-to-face interaction or even positive interdependence. Instead a "power group" took over and imposed its worldview. Groupthink, like ideology, is both dangerous and stupid.
Effective cooperative groups don't just happen. The people involved in them have a conscious or unconscious understanding of what needs to be done both to make the groups work and to achieve an end that goes beyond the sum of the whole. In Jenny's case, I think the instructor made assumptions that weren't borne out in her experience of the group.
As someone who completed my doctorate partly online from Iqaluit, NU, and who watched my partner do the same (once I'd set up telnet access to the OISE/UT server), I think we have to stand back and look at what DE means for a remote learner. If it means completing lessons to acquire individual knowledge we may as well stick with correspondence courses. If it means being part of a community trying to work together towards a deeper understanding of significant questions, collaboration and cooperation are essential, good, bad or indifferent. "Contrived collegiality" is not a substitute to true collaborative/cooperative learning, but it shouldn't be confused with them.
Sorry. Long rant.
That was behind my initial statement that attention to learning outcomes and why collaboration might be employed is the first thing to think about under the "pedagogy" topic. In some cases, collaborative skills (like it or not) are seen as an important outcome for students in a particular course or program. It is especially sad when collaboration is seen as important enough (or, maybe, the tasty enough flavor of the month) to explicitly make it an outcome, but the instructor does not understand how to effectively create a learning environment where collaboration is likely to be successful.
When collaboration is more of a means than an end, I think that too is understandable, given the substantial body of literature suggesting the importance of interaction among learners and a bias toward social constructivism among many progressive educators in online learning.
What Gina and Jenny point out, though, is that there is still a great deal of critical thinking instructors need to employ when considering whether/how to employ collaboration as part of the learning process. Knowing who the learners are, what their needs and preferences are, and being clear about whether collaboration is a requirement or an option for all learners are important considerations.
And when collaboration is deemed essential, it is up to educators to be clear with their students about why it is thought of in that way, and to help students who may be uncomfortable with that to be more willing to engage in the hard work of collaborating despite that discomfort.
Different structures and activities organise collaboration differently and with different consequences. The skills required and the emphasis and self-control within such diversity means it may not be all down to the student and their notional skill-set. Often we shovel responsibility onto students in such settings and if it is not a success we implicitly suggest they didn't do enough. It may also be that the structure and scheduling and time available and whereabouts and the nature of the activities should carry as much responsibility for shaping collaboration. Also there are human variables in who we collaborate with! We live in a connected world where it is possible to collaborate globally but some cultures have different a pedagogical orientation and changes to this are more than the development of the 'skills.' Aren't they?
All of this leads me to think that throwing the term 'developing collaborative skills' around assumes an awful lot much of which needs careful unpacking. Have we really considered this in depth? Are we really thinking about a western understanding of these notional skills and in what context(s) are we discussing them? I don't have the answers but I certainly have a lot of questions about this stuff.