By nature, we are collaborative learners. True, this might just mean we try to get a glimpse at someone else’s exam paper, but overall, we like the reassurance that comes from feeling that we are on the right track.
The dynamics of the workshop or classroom are well understood. The teacher or trainer stands at the front and everyone else is there to learn. Certainly it’s a dynamic process, of question, answer, discussion and observation, but knowledge transfer is essentially one way, and the interpersonal dynamics are much the same as they would be in a pub.
Online, these dynamics differ. Interaction is sometimes instantaneous, as it would be in the pub, but is often delayed, as people post and wait for responses. Faces, which in real life would be clear, are replaced by avatars, photos or simple text tags. What’s in a face? Well, a great deal really, because it’s not just faces that are hidden online, it’s identity, and identity is central to communication and collaboration.
People draw together to face challenges, be that challenge to build a bridge or to build a strategy. Work done together is often easier than work done in isolation, or, at the very least, the pain is shared. But collaboration is based upon trust, and trust, when push comes to shove, is built upon common challenges, common interests and a desire to put the needs of others at least on an equal footing to our own needs. Trust is most easily built in person and built on experience, but in an online world, where we may never meet and where identities can be disposable, trust is harder to come by.
When people first meet, there are fairly predictable activities that take place, many of which are grounded in the process of establishing commonality, reducing risk, determining dominance and generally stepping around each other to work out who is in charge, or, at the very least, whether there is any threat (either physical or intellectual). This posturing (which does, of course, differ widely between the sexes) has, at heart, a collaborative basis. Communities are built upon commonality, but also upon difference. Every member needs to bring something that they share with the others, but also, ideally, a point of difference that enhances the whole. A community may need a doctor, someone who is good at engineering and an accountant, but all of them need to have a common desire to build a safe town to live in. Sometimes a community will be prepared to go out on a limb to include someone whose skills are particularly necessary, so the doctor can be bad tempered and churlish, but will be tolerated as their skills are not easily replaced.
The same is true within learning communities. There is a value in having someone who is good at asking awkward questions, someone who is a good proof reader, different people with different experiences and backgrounds. But the point is this; collaboration cannot be assumed. Learning communities may form voluntarily, emergent communities formed by like minded, expressive, individuals, which are highly likely to succeed, but most often, in a corporate context, they are imposed, and these types of arbitrary communities are the most likely to fail.
So, from the start, communities that we actively seek to form for specific learning projects, be it a distance learning degree or a sales training course, are unlikely to flourish. Or, to be more precise, the more collaborative and socially confident IT users may flourish, but the majority may hide, and this is what we see time and again; low levels of engagement, high levels of drop out.
We can influence this by ensuring that we actively encourage task and activities that may not be focussed on learning, but rather are focussed on that bedrock of community; commonality. Instead of starting out by trying to deliver a result, we need to build the foundation. Early work with any embryonic community should be around establishing commonality of interest and commonality of challenges. If we focus our efforts on building the foundations and laying the first few bricks, we should see momentum from within the community to grow further. Our intervention can then change, from the task of founding to a task of nurturing.
Ultimately, the success of any collaborative learning experience is going to be based on people engaging with it and, whilst there are a whole host of reasons that this might happen, we can be confident that if we take account of the dynamics and motivations of individuals, we have the greatest chance of success.
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