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.
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).
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.