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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

J Whitmer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Interesting graph on "How America Works." I'd be interested in seeing two other graphs, "How Teachers Work" and "How Teachers Teach," especially in light of high stakes testing and NCLB.

david's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"From my readers." Wow! This has been an incredible year for me. I have two students who have created a blog for open-source programmers. A professional programmer might laugh at their attempts but the blog is active with young boys and girls trading their knowledge and frustrations as they contribute to open-source projects and write their own software. I wanted to share this blog with my colleagues in our professional development hour a few weeks ago but our filtering software not only blocked the site but wouldn't permit the use of my bypass sign-in.

This truly illustrates the two extremes we face today. On the one hand we have students who are doing amazing things with a far flung group of peers. Besides my young programmers, I know of several artists sharing their work (and even selling prints) on Devient Art, sharing poetry, short stories, DIY projects, and more. But rather than cheering their efforts, our regional internet governing body blocks them out during the school day while offering no alternative means to bring their projects into the school. The administrators seem oblivious to the fact that their efforts to maintain control and police the students are increasingly making the school irrelevant to them.

Barb Benford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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.... 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."

Well, said. The future though sometimes scary will arrive whether we prepare for it or not. How much better for our students and ourselves as teachers to take the opportunity to learn from them and to learn together as we explore the new technologies. As students see teachers modeling lifelong learning, we prepare them to do the same because the future of our students will change at an exponentially faster pace than the one we find ourselves in today.

Linda Eller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Will's perspective on students and teachers working in a collaborative world. It makes for such rich and complex learning. I enjoy learning from students just as much as seeing a light bulb go off for them. Likewise when I work with a fellow educator to help another teacher learn new ways to invovle students, I find that most exciting. Thanks for sharing. In my post today I mentioned this article.

David's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's interesting to me how much difficulty public schools are having adapting to change. Blocking the new technologies completely, while still expecting teachers to prepare students for the future seems like such a weird way to do business.

Can you send us the link to your students' blog so I can forward it to a colleague of mine over here in Thailand. We are always looking for innovative ways of using technology.



John Chadwick's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I applaud the vision you outline so well in your "Edutopia" article about the collaborative nature of learning broadly conceived to include all participants (students and teachers) with access to the Internet. And I share your enthusiasm for "authentic student learning" which parallels and draws upon the same canons, practices and traditions of scholarship and knowledge building in all fields of inquiry.
When I first started getting excited about the Internet (1992 or so) I ran "willy nilly" in a daily excitement through a host of ideas with my colleagues about the promise of the Net for student learning, but completely by accident, stumbled upon one that still has currency in my mind--only in a morphed and more technologically sophisticated form.
I wanted my 5th grade students, in effect, all students, to consider themselves learner/teachers and nascent journalists, experimenters, scientists, knowledge builders! ALL STUDENTS!! I wanted to set them loose in their school, home, community environment to learn about, write about and publish their findings on anything that interested them.
In so doing I would loosen their many attachments to the notion of school assignments, papers, tests etc.--what I call "prudential learning" with a view to grades, promotions, graduations, admissions (high school, university, career) and the infinite regress so familiar to us within and without education.
In short, students would undertake "authentic" intellectual work and they would do so because in and of itself the subject matter would invite their curiosity and their drive to learn.
Theoretically, students would undertake to learn something around any issue by developing questions about it, researching it, writing about it, photographing it, recording it, experimenting with it (think shared experiments) and publishing it in what for in that era seemed an appropriate venue--a newspaper, an electronic newspaper, if you will). That's the direction I took in my classroom with some success borrowing ideas from Roy Peter Clark who as a practicing journalist with a year off decided to undertake just that in his own 5th grader's classroom
These days any number of alternative media come to mind for a similar undertaking: wikis, blogs, web pages, audios, videos. You describe the potential here well. The learning students engag in by it's nature would not simply simulate the processes of real life learning, but parallel it. It would, in that sense be "authentic" learning in or outside of formal and physical school environments. It was evident early on that "authentic learning," now defined as learning with knowledge building as its end product, could be brilliantly and efficiently advanced by a electronically networked group of collaborators.
I hasten to add however, that thehe promise of internetworked computers in schools is dangerously close to bing lost if inquiry with computers and the net simply become a means to the end of advancing "school classes" as traditionally conceived, be they called "constructivist" or not.
What really interests me is the development of an asynchronous computer mediated learning environment where students are provided the preskills (the concepts and operations necessary) to engage in real knowledge building. Carl Bereiter is my guru here along with other great net tool builders (Daniel Tapscot).

". . . the challenge addressed by Knowledge Forum and knowledge
building pedagogy is to engage students in the collaborative solution of
knowledge problems, in such a way that responsibility for the success of the effort is
shared by the students and teacher instead of being borne by the teacher alone.

Creating a shared intellectual resource and a rallying point
for community work helps to provide an alternative to tasks, lessons,
projects and other expert-designed motivators of work, replacing them with a system of
interactions around ideas that leads to the continual improvement of these ideas. Tasks
and projects are completed, but they are not reduced to routine or sufficing strategies
that obscure the broader goals that gave meaning to them in the first place.

Thus to create an asynchronous, computer-mediated piece of software to facilitate and invite knowledge building on the part of students with the full range of intellectual preoccupations that one finds in the real world is a problem yet to be solved. --Knowledge Forum

Knowledge Forum in its current stage of development permits a depth of
embedding that goes well beyond what is possible with other forms of so-called
knowledgeware, such as the threaded discourse systems common on the Web.

In short, Knowledge Forum supports deep embeddedness: with notes and views serving
to embed ideas in increasingly demanding contexts, going deeper into the content
while at the same time situating these ideas in views that provide an integrative context for them.
This deep embeddedness is what brings ideas to the center of their work, and in turn enables
collective cognitive responsibility.

This vision or conception of technology education returns teachers and learners back in a loop to their primary mission to learn about any number of things in which they are interested and the technology (hardware/software) is but a handmaiden to this kind of dialogic literacy. On the same point, "genius" has been exhaustively investigated as the product of individual effort, gifts and capacities, but much is now being discovered about 'group genius" and cooperative intellectual work and how it drives innovation in every imaginable field field--Keith Sawyer's book < http://books.google.com/books?id=YIoGFZz4yQMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=Saw...
With some of the sample applications (case studies) on the Knowledge Forum web page, as well as countless other documented collaborative efforts by students, one can get a glimpse in detail what this software and others like it can accomplish and how a technology coordinator who is hip and savvy can entice teachers and students into inquiry learning in ANY KIND OF CLASSROOM and in that sense into a new kind of learning. The "medium becomes the message" if you follow the dictum of a 1960's guru who coined that phrase The site license for this software is reasonable.
I ran into Bereiter's work because he collaborated with Siegfried Engelmann at the University of Illinois (Champaign) and later at a distance at the University of Oregon in their joint efforts at that time to develop and test instructional programs for children (K-3rd grade) that worked because they were based on empirically and logically derived design principles that have yet to be improved upon .
I can sympathize without agreeing with educators presently 'murmuring' about the failings of bloggers and/or present blogging software to contribute and advance real collaborate cognitive work though we've seen an explosion of it's relevance to marketing and social networking . Lines of discussion about blogs and blog software that touch on this theme prove particularly interesting to me right now:


a) Teemu Leionen
b) Teemu Leinen
c) Teemu Leionen, a Finn: You'll like some of his experimentation with mobile devices.
d) Carl Bereiter
e) Teemu Leionen

Because of the length of this comment I can understand it would be necessary to exclude it or edit it severely and that's okay because my real purpose was to open up a dialogue with you (and possibly others) about this notion of blogging as "knowledge building." It fascinates me.

John Chadwick

Jen C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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."

This role's title is what we should all be striving for. To gain such a title through the use of the seemingly ever dwindling technology in my school district seems to be the challenge. My seventh graders are ready the tools are not there. Legislation (my students are 12 and 13), budgets, and school politics are the challenge. Why is it that those issues shadow the best for our kids?

Despite the obstacles, to become a connector in the world of web 2.0 is my goal for this year. Thank you for framing this for me.

Alli Masse's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would love to connect my students with the outside world. When I handed the web 2.0 poster to my tech guy at school (I had sent for the free poster), he looked at me and said, "They just want to make money...I don't understand." I am up against such negativity at this particular school...district. It just blows my mind to think that those in charge have no respect for what the Internet can do for students and their futures. I won't give up, but at this point, I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel.

kirsti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just recently read an article that stated that Truman was dedicated to reinstalling virtues of creativity, leisure and play and it made me wonder about the kinds of structures that support collaboration. How do children learn this? What kinds of environments support it at the educational level? What kinds of media? play tools? Is collaboration innate? Has our current education system failed to encourage this future requirement of our children as citizens and how can we begin to re-inject it into our everyday lives? My own children have been exposed to Waldorf education. Now as my eldest hits kindergarten, his teachers comment on his graciousness, his ability to include everyone in games, his delight in working and playing with others. I hope he holds onto these virtues as he works his way through the system.

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