In the context of the seminar „Learning Theory and Pedagogical Use of Technology“, the second phase of the course consisted of an international online collaboration on the creation of a teacher’s handbook containing information on the use of educational technology in various virtual and physical “classrooms”. This article reflects the circumstances of its implementation. I would like to point out the positive aspects first and then turn to the more challenging and stressful situations that our study team was confronted with.

To work together with students from a variety of countries solely in online environments like Adobe Connect, Facebook and Google Drive was clearly a new and exciting experience for me. The introduction video provided by one of the faculty’s researchers was very helpful, pointing out especially that discussions and proposals in the online forum should be based on sound theoretical work and on professional experience, avoiding commonsensical and ad-hoc contributions.

Once the actual collaboration had started, it was interesting to see how the group dynamics between the actually participating group members developed. Also, the quality and steadiness of the collaborative work between the group members that knew each other in person before (our group here in Finland) was very satisfying and rewarding. The content-related work blended well with the activities in the field, where we visited a course for senior ICT learners, which was the teaching environment that we had to focus on. Also, the experience of a jointly held, ICT-enabled virtual presentation including our fellow students from Estonia and Norway was an interesting and fascinating experience – although we didn’t know each other, a certain feeling of togetherness among the groups had developed during the fulfillment of the task.

Nevertheless, all in all it can not be said that this international collaboration was a satisfying experience. From the first meeting on, there was only few members of the group actually participating, and those who showed initiative had apparently been poorly instructed by their teachers or had received no instruction at all, as the identification of the task already posed a major challenge for them. Our local group tried to fix this problem by offering our understanding of their role in the collaboration, but for some reason these recommendations were not taken up, leaving a feeling of pointlessness right from the start. One of the major problems besides the physical or virtual absence of many group members in the meetings and group work was the technological problems we encountered, especially with the Adobe Connect environment. Only four of the 6 relatively active group members (the actual group size was 9) could establish audio connection, while 3 of those belonged to the Finnish group. Also, the students in Estonia and Norway had apparently not been introduced to and familiarized with the Wiki environment.

I think getting into the details of the group work done would include too much petty charging the work done and tasks fulfilled against those not fulfilled by the various group members. Nevertheless, a definite low of the “collaborative” work was reached with the total drop-out or inactivity of the team members from Estonia and Norway in the final phase, when the presentation and the final version of the handbook had to be edited. It was actually during this last phase in which my frustration with the project reached its peak, especially because the pressure to wrap the project up rose significantly and regardless of this situation 6 of our 9 group members just didn’t react to the Finnish team’s demands to participate at all. After the presentation and handbook chapter were done, of course, everybody was fast in giving their thanks. I actually found an interesting and charmingly done instructional video by Marina Kostina focusing on that topic, have a short look (it takes 4:46′):

 

This brings me to my central point: I think that in collaborative learning, and in online environments especially, the problem of free riding should be addressed more openly and consequently, both in theoretical reflection and in the actual implementation of courses. Maybe the contributions of each group member could be evaluated also during the work period and the tutor (who, in our case, was completely passive) could prompt inactive group members to contribute. I have recently made many negative experiences in collaborative learning and work, almost to the point that I would say that the idea of collaboration in the classroom is delusional if there is no mechanism installed in order to monitor the group member’s individual activities and contributions. Obviously, some learn a lot during these group sessions, but others might have learned through experience that it actually pays to not invest time and energy, as grades will be given to the group product. Free-riding will thus bring a relatively good result with a minuscule amount of work. Of course, mastery-oriented students in the group will always work for a good result and will all too often do literally all the work for a group’s presentation – as the social norm of not reporting the fellow student’s inactivity is still holding strong – which it should be. I think it is in the responsibility of the course designer and instructor to establish ways of monitoring and controlling a fairer distribution of work in academic collaborative learning groups. An interesting strategy in this regard could be to give the students tasks that require them to contribute to the group’s work through “interdependent learning”. Some examples for this kind of learning and many other helpful ideas for the realization of an international collaborative web-course can be found in the fourth chapter of the handbook our web-course produced. It is interesting to note that the teacher plays a central role in both the theoretical and practical implications discussed in this handbook chapter.

Nevertheless, I am happy to present the results of our work here, as I think the participating students have done a great job, especially regarding the challenging circumstances:

 The Handbook Chapter on “Technology Learning for Senior Learners”

Our presentation given during our virtual international final session of the course:

 

 

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