5 key types of (digital, online) collaboration

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This is an excerpt from the unit I created for the Warwick Online Learning Certificate, a course completed by thousands of undergraduates at Warwick University. It sat between an exercise in which the students reflected on the differences between on-campus and online learning, and an exercise about the Digital Visitors and Residents model (Dave White). The idea is that students should be good at choosing the right collaboration method at the right time, and that they need to become comfortable in technologies that support each form of collaboration. I argue that this is an essential skill set for the modern world.

The five methods are:

  1. Please do not disturb, I’m concentrating;
  2. Let’s meet up and work together (scheduled synchronous collaboration);
  3. I’ll work on our stuff at my own pace (asynchronous collaboration);
  4. I’m free, call me! (open synchronous collaboration);
  5. Switched off but not tuned out.

You can read the full details in the interactive slide show below. You’ll notice that the first method seems not to be a collaboration method at all. I argue that this is essential to effective collaboration, and we put this as the first item to ensure that students know that it is acceptable to block out large amounts of time to do this. The fourth method, open synchronous collaboration may be a sign of advanced digital residency. For example, in software development programmers will often sit on an open channel like slack all the time, communicating with their colleagues and helping each other as necessary, while working. They may not be working on the same things, but they are there to help each other and to provide a vital social aspect to work that can be intensely mentally focussed. I’m currently finding that this is the type of collaboration most missing from the practices used by staff in higher education.

Here’s the text used to introduce this to the students, followed by a H5P course presentation (by Jesse Young of Warwick University). In the next unit of the course, the students were introduced to the Teams collaboration platform, through which they can do and control the types of collaboration (a key practice is controlling your online presence indicator, which can be set to available, do not disturb, and lots of points in between).

Research into online learning has shown that opportunities to collaborate with other students are essential. This ranges from informal peer support, through to working together on assessed projects. However, online learning can sometimes feel like “busyness for the sake of being busy”. The key to avoiding this is knowing about the different types of collaboration, as well as the value of sometimes switching off, and planning these types of activity into your schedule.

Digital, connected technologies allow you to be connected to systems, resources and people at anytime, and almost in any place. However, in order to achieve your goals, you need to be conscious of how different patterns of interaction are suited to different types of work, and how to organise those different types of working into your daily and weekly plans. This will also help you to be more flexible, switching quickly between different modes as required. You should also consider your own preferred working style, and how your choices will impact on your wellbeing. For example, there is anecdotal evidence that people find being in videoconference-based meetings more tiring and stressful. This may be especially the case when you can see lots of individual video streams on the screen at the same time. You should take this into consideration, and achieve a good balance between those more intensive live events, and times when you are just working together in text chat or on documents. You can also design your study space to make things more comfortable.

When planning your time, choose a mode of interaction that suits what you need to achieve. You might want to get into a rhythm, switching between them, and also remembering to switch off to refresh yourself.

Collaboration tools and platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, allow you to manage your connectivity. You can set your “status” showing other people whether you are available, busy, or not-to-be-disturbed. You can control how you are notified about other people mentioning you in discussions, or wanting to contact you for a discussion.

It is OK to have your status set to “do not disturb” most of the time (effective professionals do that).

Let’s consider each mode in turn, before moving on to a planning exercise. Read through and complete these interactive slides:

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Academic Technologist, IT Services, University of Warwick Fellow of the Higher Education Academy National Teaching Fellow Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence

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