6 key dimensions for choosing collaboration options when teaching online

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Medium, synchronicity, scale, lifecycle, control, and flexibility – the six key dimensions, defined and explained in this article. For successful online teaching, choose the options that meet your students’ needs.

We are now supporting thousands of university teachers who have to start teaching online for the first time.

At the same time, the technology options and teaching techniques that are available have increased exponentially. As the tech industry seeks to fill the void with new products and services, that growth will continue faster than ever.

The following framework reduces the “choice architecture” to six essential dimensions. Focus first on making these choices to the needs of your students and your teaching. Then go on to consider technological solutions that will allow you to achieve your desired goals. There is still plenty of complexity to be dealt with when working out how to meet these needs with technologies, but at least by having a clear understanding of what we want to achieve, we can make smarter choices more efficiently, and keep focussed on the goal of high quality teaching and learning.

The dimensions are equally important. However, I find that it is best to initially focus on medium and synchronicity. Students and teachers need to be able to express themselves effectively (get the medium right), and they need to be able to interact in the right way so as to enable a learning dialogue around those expressions (get the pattern of interactions right). Scale should be a secondary consideration. If we cannot work with the desired medium with the necessary form of synchronicity at large scale, we need to find ways to break down that scale into manageable chunks.

Medium

Communication, interaction and collaboration may occur through text, images, audio and video. We can add to this special instances where physical objects (such as artworks) and events (such as performances) are digitised into these basic media – for live communication, or as recorded. When choosing a medium, consider the level of expressivity required to effectively convey student contributions and teacher feedback. In some cases it may be better to go for a simpler medium, removing distractions and concentrating on (for example) the logic of an argument.

Synchronicity*

The creation, processing, and alteration of all of the above media may happen more or less synchronously or asynchronously. By synchronous, we mean where people continuously attend the channel of communication and respond upon receiving messages, with interaction occurring in a focussed manner. Asynchronous communication occurs without this focussed continuous attention. In some cases, collaboration between parties moves between synchronous and asynchronous modes more freely. Getting this right is essential to learning. For example, students need to be able to develop and test their ideas, with actionable feedback. But they also need time to think and develop.

Scale

How many people are engaged in the collaboration? How many people should or could be involved, given the medium and synchronicity?

Lifecycle

What happens to the outputs of communication? What gets stored? How long for? How is it accessed and used? Do individual participants get to keep their own copies? How is it deleted? All important choices to be made. When we want to create evidence for assessment, this is even more important.

Control

How is the medium selected and configured? How are people given access (in different ways depending on their roles)? How is it made synchronously or asynchronously available? How is the lifecycle controlled?

Flexibility

How are all of the above dimensions modifiable over time? For example, how might a collaboration move between asynchronous and synchronous? So for example, students are discussing a topic in a discussion board over a week before live sessions. Can we easily transition that into a synchronous discussion? And then a videoconference? And then collaborating on a document?

* Synchronicity or synchrony? Synonyms, but I prefer the former term. Also note this has nothing to do with The Police.

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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