Tuesday, 12 August 2014

21st century skills: virtual collaboration

I recently started - but regretfully did not manage to finish - an interesting MOOC on the teaching and assessment of 21st century skills. The main focus was the teaching and evaluation of collaborative problem solving skills and case studies were drawn from an online, transglobal exercise in which the participants could chat with, but not see, one another whilst completing tasks of varying complexity. (Well, that's as much as I recall - apologies if I am misrepresenting the MOOC).

Anyway, yesterday I embarked on stage 2 of my international research collaboration project with Gemma and a third colleague, Victoria, which reminded me of the MOOC and caused me to reflect on the skills of collaboration once more. We were Skyping (without benefit of video) between the UK, Finland and Spain with frequent drops in the signal, occasional problems of translation between Catalan and English, and using Google Docs to capture ideas and action points. Clarifying meaning and intention was a key part of the discussion as we were each of us bringing a degree of knowledge about some, but not all, aspects of the project and experiences that varied in terms of our teaching and research backgrounds.

The MOOC I briefly sampled is now closed, but the assessment framework can be found here as a PDF and it provides a useful guide to the functioning of online collaborative partnerships. What I found interesting in our discussions yesterday was the need - and our willingness - to clarify misunderstandings and arrive at shared definitions of our "problem" and how we plan to tackle it. At times it was a case of groping in the dark - which reminded me of a great book about virtual teams I read many years ago and a training exercise it described where a team is sent blindfolded into a room to erect a tent!

I feel quite excited about the collaborative project. The subject matter interests me and fits perfectly with my teaching - indeed, starting on this project has already caused me to redesign the teaching and assessment for my module (and hopefully thereby improving it too). On a personal and professional level I am motivated to do the work in a way I never have been when contemplating starting on a research project of my own, which leads me to think that support and mentoring through the process is what has always been missing for me. Furthermore, collaborating with people who work in different institutions, different countries even, and in different disciplines from my own, is both liberating (I feel more free to make mistakes and admit my shortcomings than I might do with a close colleague) and challenging - the difference of perspective forces me to look at the subject matter in a new light.

Well, one of the principal focii of our project is reflection so here I am reflecting on the way we are working together - telling the story as it unfolds, recording my feelings about the process, making links with my previous experience and setting out my hopes for the future. I have already discovered a surprising new thing about myself from this exercise - I like being part of a team! and I feel a genuine synergy emerging from our combined efforts. This is perhaps a rather shameful realisation for someone who teaches team dynamics and indeed has mainly, over a 30 year career, been employed in the position of team leader. But maybe it simply reflects the perennial difficulty of finding exactly the right combination of people, with exactly the right collaborative skills, to make team work really work.

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