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Yes, but How Do You Teach Collaboration?

By: Rebecca Frost Davis, Program Officer for the Humanities, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education

Wednesday night Ken O’Donnell opened the AAC&U 2012 Annual Meeting by telling us that the road connecting civic and commercial activity is “collected work toward a common purpose.” He backed that up in part by citing the no. 1 answer on the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of what employers are seeking: “ability to work in a team structure.” I’ve been promoting collaborative projects (usually between different institutions) for almost ten years now, and I routinely work in a distributed team with colleagues at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education. But, after hearing O’Donnell speak, I wondered, how do we teach that skill to students?

This is not an idle query for me; in fact, it’s a homework assignment of sorts. I’m currently part of a working group (collaboration again) that is collectively brainstorming a curriculum for digital humanities pedagogy workshops, and collaboration is one of the topics we see as key. As those who attended the Digital Humanities for Undergraduates panel on Thursday know, collaboration is one of the practices that differentiate the digital humanities from traditional humanities studies.

One of the HEDs up speakers, Kristine LaLonde, associate professor of Honors at Belmont University, gave us one answer to my question—through team projects—but also suggested that many of us teaching in higher education don’t know good teamwork, which hinders our instruction. I think that’s true in some quarters. Certainly humanists are stereotypically loners, at least when it comes to research. On the other hand, I noticed a significant trend towards collaboration and teamwork when reading through the preliminary program before coming to the conference. Just to be sure, I did some rudimentary textual analysis of the preliminary program and found that roughly 20 percent of the sessions (twenty-six sessions) contained references to collaboration or teamwork in their title or description. Only about four of those, however, seemed to be referencing collaborative learning (though collaborative assignments and projects are listed by AAC&U as high-impact practices. Instead, sessions like “The Benefits of Collaboration: Lessons Learned from a Teagle Collaborative” focus more on teaching ourselves the value of collaboration. It seems that we are coming to appreciate collaboration, but we’re still working on how to teach it to our students.

LaLonde’s provocatively-titled talk, “Team Projects as Democracy Killers,” argued that if we aren’t doing team projects well, perhaps we shouldn’t do them at all. While Marc Chun’s “The Play’s the Teaching Thing” was clearly the most entertaining of this year’s group of HEDs Up talks (in the tradition of TED talks), LaLonde’s provoked the most discussion. One of the key sticking points was whether students could learn anything from a bad team project. I take LaLonde’s point that just putting a team project in a course doesn’t lead to active and collaborative learning; practices are only high-impact if you do them well.

On the other hand, I think the issue is a bit more complicated. What about learning from failure? I suppose that if an instructor doesn't put in enough time to make a team project work well, then s/he may not put in enough time to help students learn from failure. But, if there were time, then it would be great to have students reflect on their experience, to learn from their problems. Or (and I am now sitting in an e-portfolio session) perhaps a student could reflect on what a failed team project taught them in their portfolio or some other tool for intentional learning. As much as students may expect to work in teams after college, they should probably also expect to work on bad teams. Getting a little advance experience on how to handle malfunctioning team dynamics is not necessarily a bad thing.

Hand-in-hand with learning from failure is iteration. If students only do a team project once, I doubt they are learning much about how to collaborate. At the very least, they are learning only one variety of collaboration, whatever was required for that project. I would augment LaLonde’s ultimate message, then, to say, “don’t think you’re teaching collaboration just by putting a team project on the syllabus.” Take the time to do the project well (LaLonde’s message), and then put one on your next syllabus, too. Students need repetition, and so do teachers.

Fortunately, resources also exist to help you teach collaboration. Take a look at the VALUE rubric for teamwork available here. The framing language contains this important point: “This rubric is designed to measure the quality of a process, rather than the quality of an end product.” Like so many other things, learning collaboration should be an iterative process. We need to scaffold teamwork by breaking it down, modeling it, and giving students multiple experiences. For example, LaLonde described a less-successful project style where teams divide up the content, work separately, and then one person knits it together at the end of the project. O’Donnell, however, talked about teams built based on members’ dispositions and skills, such as free discourse, open communication, and conflict resolution. In my experience, good teams assess their own abilities (whether formally or informally) and deploy each member where needed. Though I am often the one keeping a team organized, it's a pleasure for me to be part of team where another member has that strength and takes the lead in organization.  So, a first student approach to teamwork may focus on the mechanical division of content labor; more experienced students will move on to attention to team dynamics.  In order to help our students understand the team process, we need to encourage students to reflect on their collaborative experiences.

It’s no mistake that newly developing fields like the digital humanities are turning more towards collaboration. As Clay Shirky argues in Cognitive Surplus, our whole culture is making the shift to collaborative creation. Whether the common purpose of our collective work is leisure, research, commercial, or civic activity, collaboration underlies our new, networked world. We all need to think about how to learn it.