Collaboration in Online Communications

Collaboration in Online Communications

Albert L. Ingram (Kent State University, USA) and Lesley G. Hathorn (Kent State University, USA)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 5
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-198-8.ch045
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Abstract

Collaboration and cooperation have become firmly established as teaching methods in face-to-face classes (e.g., Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). They are also rapidly becoming widespread in online teaching and learning in both hybrid (mixed traditional and online) course and distance courses. The methods are likely to be most effective if they are firmly grounded in how people actually work together. Some groups collaborate more successfully than others. Frequently, instructors may place students into groups in the expectation that they will collaborate without a clear idea of what collaboration is or how to recognize and encourage it. We must define what we mean by the terms, both so that we can use the techniques successfully and so that we can research them accurately. In addition, we must distinguish between groups in which people act independently from those who act collaboratively. As Surowiecki (2004) has pointed out, when all the results are aggregated, a large number of people acting independently may give a more accurate solution to a problem than an expert. Interdependent groups may often produce results inferior to the results obtained by their best-performing members or may be affected by a “groupthink” mentality.
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Introduction

Collaboration and cooperation have become firmly established as teaching methods in face-to-face classes (e.g., Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1998). They are also rapidly becoming widespread in online teaching and learning in both hybrid (mixed traditional and online) course and distance courses. The methods are likely to be most effective if they are firmly grounded in how people actually work together. Some groups collaborate more successfully than others. Frequently, instructors may place students into groups in the expectation that they will collaborate without a clear idea of what collaboration is or how to recognize and encourage it. We must define what we mean by the terms, both so that we can use the techniques successfully and so that we can research them accurately.

In addition, we must distinguish between groups in which people act independently from those who act collaboratively. As Surowiecki (2004) has pointed out, when all the results are aggregated, a large number of people acting independently may give a more accurate solution to a problem than an expert. Interdependent groups may often produce results inferior to the results obtained by their best-performing members or may be affected by a “groupthink” mentality.

Some writers (e.g., Dillenbourg, Baker, Blaye, & O’Malley, 1996) distinguish between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation, sometimes called “divide-and-conquer,” is defined as individuals in a group dividing the work so that each solves a portion of the problem. Collaboration is the interdependence of the individuals of a group as they share ideas and reach a conclusion or produce a product. If a group of students were given a story to write, its members could cooperate by each being assigned to write a portion of the story and then stitching the parts together. To collaborate, the students would discuss each part of the story, contributing ideas and discussing them until they reach consensus, and then write the story together. Individuals in cooperative groups may compete to produce the best portion of the project. Individuals in collaborative groups cannot compete against one another because they are accountable for the product as a group. Collaborative groups, by definition, share ideas and develop them into new products.

Some instructors use a hybrid technique that involves dividing the class into groups and assigning tasks to be done, with either the students or the instructor choosing the roles. The whole group is then graded on the outcome. Thus, the entire group is accountable for an individual’s efforts, and there is no provision for compensating for a slacker. If one participant fails to complete his or her task, then no one else can step in to complete it. This type of cooperation/collaboration may only provoke resentment and anger and, therefore, it should be avoided.

Collaboration places more challenging demands on individuals than cooperation. Readers actively construct mental representations of text (situational models) to understand situations and make predictions, using a combination of the information in the text and prior knowledge and beliefs (Kintsch, 1994). In a cooperative group, individuals only need to create an adequate situation model of the problem described to submit a solution. In a collaborative group, members must create a situation model and share it with the group. Each must also develop an understanding of the models of other participants so that the group can develop a shared solution.

To study collaboration, we must look closely at the patterns of communication within groups. This is easier to do with text-based online groups than with face-to-face ones, both because there is a permanent record of all interactions and because there are fewer variables in a text-based online discussion (which does not include intonations, facial expressions, and body language). Collaboration cannot occur unless there is roughly equal participation among group participants. Group members must actively respond to one another. If not, they may talk past one another, never reacting or changing as the discussion progresses. The product of the group must be a synthesis of ideas from all the group members. Without these three key characteristics, group interaction may be many things, but it is not collaboration.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Web-Based Discussion: An asynchronous discussion in which messages are placed on the Web under defined topics.

Synchronous Discussion: The immediate exchange of messages in real time. It is best used for sharing ideas and brainstorming.

Cooperation: Group effort characterized by individuals in a group dividing the work so that each member of the group completes a portion of the project.

Asynchronous Discussion: The exchange of information that occurs over a period of time. This discussion method allows for reflection and considered opinions.

Social Loafing: The tendency for some members of a group to do less work than others in a team task in which they are not individually accountable for the product.

Situation Models: The mental representation of text created by readers. It is based on information in the text as well as prior knowledge and experience.

Collaboration: Group effort characterized by members of a group working together to complete all aspects of a project, and all members of the group are jointly accountable for the finished product.

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