Back to Basics: Electronic Collaboration in the Education Sector

Back to Basics: Electronic Collaboration in the Education Sector

Darren Lee Pullen
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-106-3.ch014
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Communication technology, which is not constrained by geographical boundaries, has increasingly resulted in faster and more efficient ways to maintain contact. When utilising electronic technology in the classroom it is essential for teachers to respect cultural differences and instil the importance of basic communication skills to their students. Many school students are extremely comfortable in using developing technologies, but are unaware of the equally important need to establish relationships to enhance the quality of information they are exchanging. Electronic communication is a necessary part of developing the skills of a lifelong learner. These forms of communication have encouraged processes such as collaboration to occur by creating exciting synergies between people and resources that may have not been previously possible. This chapter will explore several examples of how schools and teachers are using the Internet to collaborate and share ideas and resources between staff and students.
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At no other time in human history have humans been able to communicate as freely or as widely as they now do in the digital age. Because of its ability to speed up communication processes, as well as its inclusion in many diverse areas, technology has increasingly become an important element in many collaborative processes. Many of the traditional tools used to collaborate, such as phone calls, letters, and personal conversations are time consuming, and at times, inappropriate for the speed of communication required. Most areas of our modern life are affected by digital technology from global positioning systems (GPS) in vehicles, which help us find our way, through to mobile telephones that allow us to communicate anywhere and anytime. This pervasive and rapidly developing technology gives us rapid and easy access to information. Technology has enabled people to meet regionally, nationally, and internationally through the technology of videoconferencing, which allows them to interact in real time (synchronous communication). The rapidity and frequency of this type of communication, however, presents new challenges to society’s values. As technology develops, it is necessary to develop or recontextualise laws, policies, personal skills and attitudes to foster its desirable aspects and mitigate its undesirable aspects.

Digital technology—specifically computers, the World Wide Web (Web or WWW), and the Internet—are reshaping communication processes. Geographical boundaries, which belong to the traditional era of communication, are becoming less important as technology pervades the globe. The rapid and pervasive nature of technology means that communication across the globe can be as instantaneous as face-to-face communication. Therefore, digital communication, which can occur globally or in the local classroom, conveys cultural and ethical values and meanings. These need to be understood and respected by school students if they are to be purposeful and productive users of digital technologies. In recognising these changes, it is important for the education sector not to see global changes only insofar as they affect local change. It is imperative for the education sector to recognise how electronic information can be used to provide greater depth and breadth to the process of learning in a global context. An important concept underpinning the effective use of digital technologies is communication and collaboration. In this chapter, the term collaboration refers to a pervasive relationship in which all parties are fully committed to a common goal. This chapter aims to highlight current practice and research as it pertains to digital communication in education, and along the way to stimulate thought on the topic of synergy and educational collaboration.


The term collaboration has been generally considered to be a process engaged in by more than two people; but this is where general agreement of the meaning ends and misuse of the term begins. Many people purport to work collaboratively when in fact the process is more cooperative, meaning there is less personal and financial risk (White & O’Brien, 1999; Winer & Ray, 2000). Engaging in a collaborative process is about embarking on a relationship which relies on the positive aspects of human nature to work effectively. Although there are many texts, particularly in management or business which describe group work strategies (Brown, 1991; Chalmers, 1992; DuBrin, 1997; McDermott, 2002; Reed & Garvin, 1983; Toseland & Rivas, 1998), it has been only recently that the human aspect of working together has been emphasised (Barrentine, 1993; Buzzanell, 1994; Clift, Veal, Holland, Johnson, & McCarthy, 1995; Farrell, 2001; John-Steiner, 2000; Paulus & Nijstad, 2003; Rosener, 1990; Rost, 1991; Winer & Ray, 2000). For the purpose of this chapter, the word collaboration is defined as a durable, intense and pervasive relationship which is built up over time. People who collaborate are fully committed to the relationship, and there are well-defined communication channels which operate on all levels.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Digital Technology: The word “digital” comes from Latin—digitus, finger—and refers to one of the oldest tools for counting. When information is stored, transmitted or forwarded in digital format, it is converted into numbers—at the most basic machine-level as “zeroes and ones.” In the context of this chapter, the term represents technology that relies on the use of microprocessors; hence, computers and applications that are dependent on computers such as the Internet, as well as other devices such as video cameras, and mobile devices such as phones and personal-digital assistants (PDAs).

Education: Education encompasses teaching and learning specific knowledge, skills, and also something less tangible: the imparting of “learning how to learn” or “the concept of life long learning” which is based on knowledge, sound judgement, and wisdom. Education has as one of its fundamental goals the imparting of culture from generation to generation in addition to the skills and knowledge required to operate in society. At the heart of this teaching-learning process is communication and collaboration.

Knowledge Economy: Refers to how society and economies are changing their reliance from the labour and manufacturing of products or goods to an economy that is more reliant on the production and reengineering of information into knowledge. Hence, society and the economy are being transformed from a “physical-based” labour force to a “knowledge-based” one. The knowledge economy is centeralised on how digital technologies are transforming the way humans work, think, and act.

Community of Practice (CoP): Refers to the process of how learning occurs in a social context and that learners and instructors (teachers) come together through a shared interest or problem and collaborate over time to share ideas, experiences, and solutions to build the community. Within CoP, teacher peer mentoring offers a model for teachers to come together to learn from one another and to support each other in the learning process.

Collaboration: For the purpose of this chapter, the word collaboration has been expanded on from the general definition defined elsewhere in this book. Collaboration for this chapter is defined as a durable, intense, and pervasive relationship which is built up over time. People who collaborate are fully committed to the relationship, and there are well-defined communication channels which operate on all levels.

Synergy: Describes the type of energy created when participants are working towards the same goal and are able to share, exchange, and debate ideas in a supportive, constructive, and creative environment. Synergistic energy is necessary to create the third entity which although representative of the participants becomes more important than any individual in the collaborative group.

Netiquette: Refers to the rules or guidelines that users should follow when communicating with others over the Internet. The rules or etiquette of use ensure that users of technology know of and can follow rules to ensure that they do not offend other users and that what they communicate to others is understandable. These points are important when we consider that e-mail, bulletin boards and blogs often only reveal the text which the user has posted. This may lead to some ambiguity or miscommunication between users. To overcome some of this ambiguity, many users are taking advantage of emotion icons (emoticons) and acronyms to portray their feelings, emotions and facial expressions. For example, emoticons include:-) “happy,”:-/ “sceptical,”:-C “bummed,”:-O “oh,”:-& “tongue tied,”:-[ “not amused,” O:-) “angelic.” Whilst some common acronyms are BTW “by the way,” LOL “laughing out load,” ROTFL “rolling on the floor laughing,” TTFN “ta-ta for now,” IMHO “in my humble opinion,” IYKWIMAITYD “if you know what I mean and I think you do,” JK “just kidding,” NP “no problem,” WBS “write back soon,” and XMEQK “kiss me quick.” These emoticons and acronyms can also be used in text messages between mobile phone users.

Third Entity: The outcome of the group’s purpose for engaging in the collaborative process. As the project intensifies, the third entity will seemingly become to the participants more important that their own needs. The third entity appears to take on its own personality as participants sublimate their ego and work effectively together towards a shared goal. The third entity encapsulates the group’s identity, and therefore, particular attention is paid to its professional presentation in the public domain.

Communication: The process of sharing information between two or more individuals to reach a common understanding of the ideas or information being conveyed. In the context of this chapter, communication also includes information, or data, that is shared, or transmitted, between two or more actors. These actors may be human or machine. This sharing of information between human and human; machine and machine; or between human and machine is underpinned by the need for the information to be understandable to both parties.

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