Mar 29, 2011 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.
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Online collaboration in our classrooms

Fifteen short years ago, our classrooms were relatively closed places. When we spoke of teaching students to collaborate with one another or exposing them to the world beyond our school walls, we were usually talking about a very limited number of options: either going out into the world to experience it first hand on a field trip, or bringing the outside world in via hosting a guest speaker. In rare and wonderful cases, students had the opportunity to go on exchange programs. In this way, “collaboration” meant working in small teams with fellow classmates.

Today, such collaboration is no longer dependent upon proximity or time of day. Online tools have brought down the many barriers to communication, allowing students, teachers and professionals to interact with and learn from one another regardless of location.

The potential for learning is mind-blowing to say the least. With a savvy educator as a coach and guide, the entire world can become the classroom, and peoples who populate it can be our co-educators. Even our students have the opportunity to become the teachers.

What do our students have to gain if we take steps to embrace online collaboration in our classrooms? We need only look to a few real-life examples to see:

  • Students in New Jersey are building understanding by learning about others. Through video conferencing, they have interviewed others their age in Iowa to talk about how they perceive one another and how the economic crisis is affecting their lives and families.[i]Read aboutthe efforts that are transforming the Van Meter Community School District in Iowa, written by Superintendent John Carver.
  • Teachers in the US are using free video conferencing such as Skype to facilitate international conversations. For example, educator Silvia Tolisano put together conversations in German and English by connecting her class with one in Argentina. See this and lots more examples in this article,50 Awesome Ways to Use Skype in the Classroom.
  • If you haven’t heard of it, the ePals Global Learning Community is facilitating collaborative learning across the planet. Through their network, students and teachers come together to do everything from using digital storytelling to learn about world cultures to discussing and developing solutions to global warming. Visitthe Projects section of ePalsfor ideas and ways to plug into great work already underway.

Of course, these kinds of tools and techniques expose our students to all that the world—literally—has to offer. But just as importantly, in using these strategies we are helping our students establish the neural connectionsthat will make these kinds of experiences second nature to them. We are strengthening their abilities to focus more on the meaningful content and creative ideas that come from these experiences as opposed to focusing on just the superficial “wow” factor. Not only that, but we are helping them develop the habits of mind for using these tools and techniques that will serve them so well as they endeavor to solve problems in the future.

For more ideas and articles about online collaboration, check out eSchool News’ collection of articles on the subject at http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/11/21/engaging-students-through-online-collaboration/

[i]Prabhu, Maya T. Will Skype eclipse fee-based videoconferencing? eSchool News.May 17, 2010. http://www.eschoolnews.com/2010/05/17/will-skype-eclipse-fee-based-videoconferencing/?ast=55

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