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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

World Without Walls: Learning Well with Others

How to teach when learning is everywhere.
Will Richardson

Bringing Their A-Game:

Humanities teacher Spencer Pforsich, digital arts/sound production teacher Margaret Noble, humanities teacher Leily Abbassi, and math/science teacher Marc Shulman make lessons come alive on the High Tech campuses in San Diego.

Credit: David Julian

Earlier this year, as I was listening to a presentation by an eleven-year-old community volunteer and blogger named Laura Stockman about the service projects she carries out in her hometown outside Buffalo, New York, an audience member asked where she got her ideas for her good work.

Her response blew me away. "I ask my readers," she said. I doubt anyone in the room could have guessed that answer. But if you look at the Clustrmap on Laura's blog, Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference, you'll see that Stockman's readers -- each represented by a little red dot -- come from all over the world.

She has a network of connections, people from almost every continent and country, who share their own stories of service or volunteer to assist Stockman in her work. She's sharing and learning and collaborating in ways that were unheard of just a few years ago.

Welcome to the Collaboration Age, where even the youngest among us are on the Web, tapping into what are without question some of the most transformative connecting technologies the world has ever seen.

These tools are allowing us not only to mine the wisdom and experiences of the more than one billion people now online but also to connect with them to further our understanding of the global experience and do good work together. These tools are fast changing, decidedly social, and rich with powerful learning opportunities for us all, if we can figure out how to leverage their potential.

For educators and the schools in which they teach, the challenges of this moment are significant. Our ability to learn whatever we want, whenever we want, from whomever we want is rendering the linear, age-grouped, teacher-guided curriculum less and less relevant.

Experts are at our fingertips, through our keyboards or cell phones, if we know how to find and connect to them. Content and information are everywhere, not just in textbooks.

And the work we create and publish is assessed by the value it brings to the people who read it, reply to it, and remix it. Much of what our students learn from us is unlearned once they leave us; paper is not the best way to share our work, facts and truths are constantly changing, and working together is becoming the norm, not the exception.

The Collaboration Age is about learning with a decidedly different group of "others," people whom we may not know and may never meet, but who share our passions and interests and are willing to invest in exploring them together. It's about being able to form safe, effective networks and communities around those explorations, trust and be trusted in the process, and contribute to the conversations and co-creations that grow from them.

It's about working together to create our own curricula, texts, and classrooms built around deep inquiry into the defining questions of the group. It's about solving problems together and sharing the knowledge we've gained with wide audiences.

Connection Meets Content

Inherent in the collaborative process is a new way of thinking about teaching and learning. We must find our own teachers, and they must find us. In fact, in my own kids' lives, I believe their best, most memorable, and most effective teachers will be the ones they discover, not the ones they are given.

That's no slight against the people in their face-to-face classrooms, who are equally important in a connected world. But it does suggest that we as educators need to reconsider our roles in students' lives, to think of ourselves as connectors first and content experts second.

As connectors, we provide the chance for kids to get better at learning from one another. Examples of this kind of schooling are hard to find so far, but they do exist. Manitoba, Canada, teacher Clarence Fisher and Van Nuys, California, administrator Barbara Barreda do it through their thinwalls project, in which middle school students connect almost daily through blogs, wikis, Skype, instant messaging, and other tools to discuss literature and current events.

In Webster, New York, students on the Stream Team, at Klem Road South Elementary School, investigate the health of local streams and then use digital tools to share data and exchange ideas about stewardship with kids from other schools in the Great Lakes area and in California. More than learning content, the emphasis of these projects is on using the Web's social-networking tools to teach global collaboration and communication, allowing students to create their own networks in the process.

We must also expand our ability to think critically about the deluge of information now being produced by millions of amateur authors without traditional editors and researchers as gatekeepers. In fact, we need to rely on trusted members of our personal networks to help sift through the sea of stuff, locating and sharing with us the most relevant, interesting, useful bits. And we have to work together to organize it all, as long-held taxonomies of knowledge give way to a highly personalized information environment.

That means that as teachers, we must begin to model our own editorial skills -- how we locate and discern good information and good partners -- at every turn, in every class, reflecting with students on our successes and failures. The complexities of editing information online cannot be sequestered and taught in a six-week unit. This has to be the way we do our work each day.

Collaboration in these times requires our students to be able to seek out and connect with learning partners, in the process perhaps navigating cultures, time zones, and technologies. It requires that they have a vetting process for those they come into contact with: Who is this person? What are her passions? What are her credentials? What can I learn from her?

Likewise, we must make sure others can locate and vet us. The process of collaboration begins with our willingness to share our work and our passions publicly -- a frontier that traditional schools have rarely crossed.

As Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, "Knowingly sharing your work with others is the simplest way to take advantage of the new social tools." Educators can help students open these doors by deliberately involving outsiders in class work early on -- not just showcasing a finished product at the spring open house night.

Fortunately, social tools like wikis, blogs, and social-bookmarking sites make working with others across time and space easier than it's ever been. They are indeed "weapons of mass collaboration," as author Donald Tapscott calls them.

We no longer have to be present to participate. Look no further than Wikipedia to see the potential; say what you will of its veracity, no one can deny that it represents the incredible potential of working with others online for a common purpose.

Opportunity Cost

As Wikipedia so wonderfully shows, while the tools make virtual work easier, navigating these work spaces is far from simple. We can use Delicious to organize our collective research, Google Docs to write together, and Skype to videoconference when necessary, but technical know-how is not enough.

We must also be adept at negotiating, planning, and nurturing the conversation with others we may know little about -- not to mention maintaining a healthy balance between our face-to-face and virtual lives (another dance for which kids sorely need coaching).

Biotechnology teacher Jay Vavra uses this figure for hands-on anatomy lessons.

Credit: David Julian

The Collaboration Age comes with challenges that often cause concern and fear. How do we manage our digital footprints, or our identities, in a world where we are a Google search away from both partners and predators? What are the ethics of co-creation when the nuances of copyright and intellectual property become grayer each day? When connecting and publishing are so easy, and so much of what we see is amateurish and inane, how do we ensure that what we create with others is of high quality?

At this moment, there are no easy answers for educators; most of the school districts I visit still have not begun to contextualize or embrace these shifts. Instead, as illustrated by the Canadian college student who faced expulsion for "cheating" after creating a study group to share notes on Facebook rather than face to face in the library, many of our students continue to explore the potentials and pitfalls of instant communication with little guidance from their teachers.

The technologies we block in their classrooms flourish in their bedrooms. Students are growing networks without us, writing Harry Potter narratives together at FanFiction.net, or trading skateboarding videos on YouTube. At school, we disconnect them not only from the technology but also from their passion and those who share it.

In our zeal to hold on to the old structures of teaching and learning and to protect students at all costs, we are not just leaving them ill prepared for the future, we are also missing an enormous opportunity for ourselves as learners. Regardless of the limits of technology or the culture of fear in our workplaces, almost every teacher I meet now has the ability to tap into these shifts in their personal practice should they choose to.

They could start by browsing Classroom 2.0 or searching Google's Blog Search for bloggers who share their interests. Anyone with a passion for something can connect to others with that same passion -- and begin to co-create and colearn the same way many of our students already do.

I believe that is what educators must do now. We must engage with these new technologies and their potential to expand our own understanding and methods in this vastly different landscape. We must know for ourselves how to create, grow, and navigate these collaborative spaces in safe, effective, and ethical ways. And we must be able to model those shifts for our students and counsel them effectively when they run across problems with these tools.

Anything less is unacceptable for our kids, for my kids, for the Laura Stockmans of the world, who so far have been relegated to learning how to add dots to their maps on their own. The good news, for those willing to accept the challenge, is that we don't have to do it alone.

Comments (29)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

therese bierwirth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My friend and I, (both teachers) were wondering if you could explain more about Waldorf education please?

raul nido's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Tough to get people to change. People have a difficult time moving out of their comfort level. Old school teachers, some quite very effective teacher, fear what they do not know.

Lee Underwood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I dig the following statement:

"The technologies we block in their classrooms flourish in their bedrooms. Students are growing networks without us, writing Harry Potter narratives together at FanFiction.net, or trading skateboarding videos on YouTube. At school, we disconnect them not only from the technology but also from their passion and those who share it."

This is the reality, friends. I face it everyday in my classroom. I often find myself having to justify activities like poster presentations and graphic organizers to my students who are routinely building websites and editing sponsor videos (skate or snowboard videos they send to companies for sponsorships)of themselves on thier Imacs using pirated software (which itself is a skill). I have come to accept the fact that, in many ways, my students are smarter than I am.

roger's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We need to be "ahead" of the kids only in terms of our thinking about how to use technology for good, purposeful activities rather than just entertainment and creating and consuming garbage.

Joy Campagna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What struck me the most was the statement, "We must also expand our ability to think critically about the deluge of information now being produced by millions of amateur authors without traditional editors and researchers as gatekeepers." I think about how important it is for all of us to recognize the need for only posting information on the Internet that has been thoroughly researched and edited. I myself get worried when kids are podcasting or blogging about their research findings, knowing that there may be an error or two. I think that I am trying my best in reviewing and having students review each other's work as well. I will always discuss the importance of being a "digitally responsible citizen" and that sharing educational information is not the same thing as email, or blogging. Students have to be held accountable for publishing false information. And, I tell them that unfortunately there are no "researchers as gatekeepers". Anyone can publish rubbish on the Internet, but as educators we need to implement standards for our projects, hoping to instill a belief that one should be responsible and appropriate when sharing their research on the web.

Fred Levenhagen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I find this article useful in my attempt to become not only a better teacher, but also different in the way I need to meet the needs of the 21st century learner. Students need to be offered opportunities that allow them to explore the global community, and communicate with others from around the world. This article was helpful to point out methods and hurdles for allowing students to expand their world. It shows the "different" in the teacher I would like to become. Thank you.

Cecelia Schliepp's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The most significant idea in this article for me was that "the most memorable, and most effective teachers will be the ones they (students) discover, not the ones they are given."

While researching Iwo Jima for a National History Day project last year, a group of my students found an internet site that provided contact information for Iwo Jim veterans. The project that the students created included phone interviews of five veterans reflecting on the experience/historical significance of Iwo Jima. The primary source communication and the bond that was established between these WW II veterans and my students was not something that I could teach.

DiAnne Pasholk's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Any suggestions about how to get started on shared research and or writing projects would be appreciated. This is a motivating and collaborative idea for my students. I am interested in investigating the possibility for my 6th graders.

Beth Ingersoll's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"The Collaboration Age comes with challenges that often cause concern and fear." This quote says a lot about today's educators and how some are fearful of changing and adapting to the new strategies and approaches students can use in and out of the classroom. Although difficult, I think more and more people need to look outside of the box and seek out new ideas and ways to allow your students to express themselves. Students are taking this task on their own without the guidance of their teacher and every day students continue to amaze us when they teach us something new with a program or search engine, etc. By collaborating with our students and seeking out their knowledge and giving them additional tools for their toolbox one can only imagine what our students will be able to accomplish.

Mike Fedyszyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is our jobs as teachers to make our lessons relevant to today's student. As always, we must stay progressive in the tools we use to reach students. While the tools that worked in the past will work now, there must always be other options (since students learn in a variety of different ways). It really is true - "We must engage with these new technologies and their potential to expand our own understanding and methods in this vastly different landscape."

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