Fostering True Peer-Collaboration

True collaboration between peers is more than dividing tasks. When students simply split a workload, the empathy and communication skills are lost along the way. To address this, I experimented with assessment practices that required students to collaborate more deeply.

It hit me like a stack of bricks. No sooner do I finish saying the words "in groups of" in a classroom and students are already making eye contact, silently forming alliances, performing that intricate diplomatic dance that is adolescence. By the time I finish articulating the task, they have already negotiated a complex trade deal for whom is going to do what; my students are the envy of UNCTAD. While it is an impressive display of stealth communication, the process my students employ is not "collaboration". Each takes their share of the work, like a lion with a limb of the kill, and retires to their private focus-zone to create a puzzle piece in the jigsaw of their group's submission.

This approach is common, but it's not very good. The reason we emphasize collaboration in the classroom is to secure disparate outcomes: socialization, planning, and communication. The scenario described above, however, marginalizes all three of these. I couldn't help thinking that there must be a better way. A way in which students would interact throughout their work, support each other, co-plan effort and product, and ultimately synthesize together, rather than stitching their individual products at the end.

I found inspiration in the programming world. In software development there is a thing called 'Source Version Control'. It is a set of software tools (there are many different camps) and workflows (...but they all work essentially the same way), which allow a team of programmers to collaborate on a complex code base without stepping on each other's work. Moreover, the programmers can help each other by contributing, sometimes even within the same line of code, to each other's solutions. A Git-powered programming team is a productivity force to be reckoned with! The most recognizable of these systems is actually a website, Github, which has grown from a niche Open Source project watering hole to a huge company with enterprise clients and an education division. They were bought by Microsoft this year for billions. You can find me on Github here for example.

Although there is some thinking being done on using Version Control outside of the programming world (I found Github's example in this training video interesting), the reality is that I don't want to be taking up time in English class teaching Markdown and Git. AND since my school uses Google's G Suite, we already have Google Docs' excellent co-authoring features available in class. These lack the explicit contribution workflow of Version Control (branching, committing, merging, etc.), but are much easier and more relevant for a majority of students; I felt that a solution was in how I designed my assignments.

... which is when I'm supposed to drop some game-changing paradigm-shifting assessment design that seems obvious once described but is actually just what we've all been missing. Sorry friends, I don't have a secret sauce for this problem yet. I do feel like keeping the goal in mind is helping though.

You can be sure that when I figure it out, their will be a post about it here!

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