In the weeks just before Thanksgiving, our class collaborated to create an annotated bibliography of interesting and relevant sources related to teaching with web tools. Seven students, plus the instructor, worked in a shared Google Doc, all with editing privileges.
I have used Google apps for collaboration before, at home, at work, and, more notably, as a part of a Nousion project three summers ago. In all of these settings, the number of collaborators has been less than five, and all those involved were committed to being present in the collaboration space, either all together or individually often enough to converse meaningfully. Because of this commitment, all of these projects have been successful and an enjoyable experience for all those involved.
When this collaboration assignment began, I was excited to have the opportunity to interact directly with my classmates as we worked together to create and edit our annotated bibliography. I was disappointed. I kept that document open in a tab in Chrome on my laptop for the entire two-week-plus window of the project. I checked it often, but I rarely found a classmate active in the document. I made suggestions, but they often went unresolved. I found it difficult to start a substantive conversation.
I can think of three reasons for my disappointment with this collaboration. First, the number of people: eight people can talk past each other or assume that someone else will answer a comment or suggestion. It is easy in a large group to diminish one’s ownership of the whole and take responsibility only for one’s own contributions. Second, I’m afraid that the active presence of the instructor in the collaborative document may have caused the other participants to defer to his judgments and preferences and to wait for him to resolve issues. And third, with no intentionally gathered collaboration time, there was no backchannel—that I could see—for broader conversations or consensus building around larger decisions.
The album I was playing while I was doing my work on this project was The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Looking back, eight teachers, spread around Alaska, sharing a Google Doc could be described in that way, too. I hope that no one reads this post as a gripe or an indictment. This was a learning experience.