Larger scale collaborative projects

Larger scale collaborative projects

by Sylvia Currie -
Number of replies: 9
I starting a new discussion thread for this post because my head space is in bigger projects around curriculum development and sharing across institutions and boundaries.

Last week I participated in the Open Education conference. What an amazing opportunity to learn about the advantages and challenges of creating opportunities for collaboration. And as we saw during Randy's virtual field trip last week, there are some great stories coming out of WikiEducator. This got me to thinking about starting points and assumptions when collaborating on projects.

What are the reasons for collaborating? Naturally when you enter into a project you (and people you represent) are thinking about what you will gain from the experience -- short and long term. Does this there need to be some sort of balance in this give and take?

At the Open Ed conference Catherine Ngugi, Project Director for OER Africa, in her keynote talked about a curriculum development project with a university in Michigan. Following the talk, one question from a participant (I can't remember how it was worded) implied that faculty members in Africa would benefit more from the project than those in the United States. This disturbed me -- that we enter into these collaborations with so many assumptions about the people we are working with.

What are the key questions we need to ask at the beginning? What are the various dimensions we need to consider in collaborative projects that involve multiple players and layers?
In reply to Sylvia Currie

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Derek Chirnside -
I also was at the Open Ed conference - one of the best conferences I have ever been to. I presented a fragment of some of the things that emerged in a number of conversations on work habits and sharing as we undergo some huge change at the College of Education at the University of Canterbury.
Here is a little finding: those who DO collaborate and share are in a much better place emotionally and feeling about their role, their work, their students . . .
Collaboration is a thing of the heart, and is a nurturing thing. Not so much emphasis on what you get back.'
And the dark side: certain factors in leadership and environment can KILL collaboration dead.

In reply to Derek Chirnside

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Dr. Nellie Deutsch -

I love how you describe collaboration as "a thing of the heart, and is a nurturing thing. Not so much emphasis on what you get back.' And the dark side: certain factors in leadership and environment can KILL collaboration dead".

I agree with you wholeheartedly. Collaboration flowers with the heart but can go sour with leadership. I often wonder whether collaboration and leadership can coexist or not.

I would love to hear what others think about collaboration and leadership.

Thank you
In reply to Sylvia Currie

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Dr. Nellie Deutsch -

I was also disturbed by students who complained about losing out due to collaborations. My high school students and I have been collaborating with teachers and their students around the world since the mid 90s using WebQuests and other projects. Competition seems to take away from the collaborative projects. I have encountered negative attitudes from native speakers as well as non-native speakers of English. My Israeli students complained when the level of English was too low and the American and Canadians did the same against my Israeli non-native speakers of English. Apparently, collaborating is great when grades and competition are not involved.

I believe teachers should practice collaborating and encourage students to do the same. Collaborating may not be natural to some, but the benefits of learning to collaborate wholeheartedly are worth the try.

In reply to Sylvia Currie

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Gina Bennett -
Hi everybody. I'm joining this discussion rather late but feel motivated to jump in after attending the Open Education conference last week.

Sylvia asked "why collaborate?" Some of us accept it as an automatic Good -- a 'motherhood' issue -- but I think it's a question that really needs to be considered directly. Faculty set up assignments that encourage students to collaborate but unless there are some clearly-stated benefits for collaboration, many students resent it (I heard this comment mentioned from someone at the OpenEd conference as well). Some people focus on the economic benefits of collaboration but I'm feeling more & more leery about that justification; I think it's a far too insular & shortsighted view. So if you don't accept collaboration as an automatic good nor a financial investment, why collaborate?

I think the biggest change that technology has brought to education (maybe to the world) is a smudging of the boundaries & borders between us. The new incredible powers of communication make it painfully obvious that we do not exist in a vacuum; we can't maintain our little educational or cultural kingdoms. Even our tiny college, tucked away in a narrow valley within the Rocky Mountains, is vitally affected by what happens in other colleges in the province, by universities in the province next door, by the politics of our neighbour country to the south. If we don't communicate/collaborate often & well, we will disappear.

I, too, was very interested in Catherine Ngugi's keynote talk at OpenEd. I was fascinated especially by her description of how they use various open education strategies to help their medical students acquire patient experience. I realized how useful these strategies (& arguments) would be for a remote science lab project I'm involved in. In this case, we Canadians would be the 'developing nation' partner seeking to learn from the more 'developed' educational practices of our sub-Saharan partner.

Maybe being so small helps keep us humble shy

Gina Bennett
College of the Rockies
In reply to Sylvia Currie

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by anne marie mcewan -
I am a long-time listener, on and off, to Scope conversations. This one on collaboration is particularly interesting to me and is a topic that I know a little about.

Collaboration sounds so nice and fluffy. It can be hell.

You ask, Sylvia: " What are the various dimensions we need to consider in collaborative projects that involve multiple players and layers?". Great question.

We all have experience of collaboration. Here's my story. My baptism of fire was my first job after receiving a newly-minted PhD. I project-managed a 26 partner research project, involving 10 universities, a couple of think-tanks, Acas (employment concilliation service), unions and the CBI (Conferedation of British Industry). It was probably the most stressful thing I have ever done.

The CBI and unions were great. No strife or disagreement there. The researchers from the 10 universities were great - collegiate, collaborative, wonderful. What gave me problems were the strength of hidden prior relationships, both power-driven and antagonistic, among the project leaders. There were three leaders and one person who considered herself a leader in the project. I think it is fair to say that the three excluded her.

The dynamics among those four caused most of the problems. One the four came from a different work culture and had held CEO status in a major organisation. And here's me all new and shiny! This person tried to impose a highly controlled way of working on academics. You can imagine the reaction when I insisted on letting the academics get on with it. All was eventually well and tickety-boo. Quality research outputs were delivered on time, as I knew they would be, but the project was not good for my health.

I have since participated in EU research projects on collaboration and new ways of working. There is a plethora of research available but if I might recommend just one reference it is by Wendy Hirsh,Valerie Garrow and Linda Holbeche:

A practical facilitation guide for directors and senior managers - case studies, frameworks and checklists that enable effective preparation, management and delivery of collaborative ventures. Published April 2005 by Roffey Park
In reply to anne marie mcewan

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Dr. Nellie Deutsch -
Anne Marie would this description work for you: "power-driven and antagonistic...project leaders" ? My experience with collaboration gone sour is leadership related. Leadership seems to tear down effective collaboration.
Has anyone been involved with a group of people who were not power-driven and willing to collaborate for a cause? I have. I was a member of a few very effective teams in my doctoral program. The team members knew that success depended on collaboration and good will. I believe that practicing effective team skills can help people become good at collaborating.

In reply to Dr. Nellie Deutsch

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by Gina Bennett -
Hi Nellie,

I've been involved in some effective collaborations too. When I reflect about what made them effective, I can think of a few points:
  • we started out with clear tasks and a very tight timeline
  • we all had had past experience working in a team
  • consequently, we knew to jump right in & get to work
  • we didn't spend hours or agonize over who would do what; everybody picked something to do & set a time to report back
  • we communicated FREQUENTLY
  • we were always polite with each other, even when the time got very tight or if someone forgot to do something
  • when reporting out, we took credit (& accepted blame) as a team rather than as individuals.
When I think about it, some of my most satisfying teamwork experiences have been with virtual teams in which I never met the participants in person. I think there are some advantages to NOT knowing each other's detailed histories. But I can certainly vouch for the fact that practice makes for improvement when it comes to teamwork & collaboration.

In reply to Dr. Nellie Deutsch

Re: Larger scale collaborative projects

by anne marie mcewan -
Nellie, I have long had a real problem with concept of leadership. It is something I have written about elsewhere. Does collaboration need leadership? Definitely not, especially in a group of self-determining peers who choose to come together to do something. Like you Gina, I have also enjoyed very satisfying collaborations with the characteristics you describe.

Context is everything. The sort of collaborations Sylvia is talking about, large-scale and involving many different institutions, probably do need someone to play a co-ordinating role. Or maybe not. What do you think?

The project I spoke about in my previous post would most likely have been plain sailing had it not been for that one person. The three key players were all academics and would have understood the hands-off approach I took to the researchers. Their leadership would have been supportive.

In fact, their support for me was one of the reasons I got so much flack. She had a power struggle with them and I was in the firing line of her understandable frustrations. Then add different views about how things should be done, because of our different experiences of organisational culture, and the fact that she had held high office and I was gaining my first real project management experience - it is easy to see why this inter-institutional collaboration was challenging.

So I think that leadership in and of itself is not necessarily problematic in collaboration. The complex mix of diverse individual and organisational perspectives, cultures, prior experience, pre-existing relationships, propensity to seek power and dominance, existence of hidden agendas, etc are issues enough even without leadership. In my view, these are some of 'the various dimensions we need to consider in collaborative projects that involve multiple players and layers' that Sylvia asks about.

Thanks for an interesting conversation smile.
In reply to anne marie mcewan

Leadership and collaboration

by Alice MacGillivray -
Hello everyone. I am just parachuting into this conversation, which I realize could be rude as I've only skimmed a few posts. But I care deeply about this topic, thought I would toss a few ideas into the pot and apologize if they have already been explored. (How Canadian is that!)

For over a decade I've been interested in--and working with--different ways of looking at leadership in different contexts, including highly collaborative contexts. A few of us have been on this somewhat lonely path for a while; some are much more published and involved in more regular academic research than i am (Mary Uhl-Bien being one example).

There are so many ways of thinking about leadership (and related theories). Manager=leader (I fight that one); top-down leadership (love being self-employed), servant leadership, leadership from the side, distributed leadership and leadership as an emergent property. Many of the collaborative environments I've been watching could be characterized either as having distributed leadership (I use the term fairly generally; not necessarily exactly the way Gronn does) which regularly shifts, or as having emergent leadership, which one might not even associate with people as entities (using complexity language).

Hope that is food for thought for some community members!