Once your students have identified and practiced collaboration skills, you will want to provide them with opportunities to apply. Depending on your instructional goals, this will generally be set up as student pairs or small groups. Working in pairs can be an easier place for students to begin with, since there will be more space for their voice and fewer personalities to navigate. The concepts and components for a tech-empowered lesson will apply in either of these settings.
Another consideration will be whether you are in a face-to-face classroom, a hybrid model, or teaching remotely. If you are face-to-face, you can facilitate most of the collaboration through real-time dialogue. If you are teaching in a hybrid model, some of the work can be in-person and some via remote teaching. You’ll need to determine which pieces fit best in which environment. Team building and initial group meetings may be best suited to in-person activities, with some of the collaborative work continued through digital channels.
If you are teaching in a completely remote setting, you will need to rely on digital communication for the entire process. In this scenario, consider using videoconferencing software for a synchronous launch lesson. You might want to create digital breakout rooms for students to physically see and hear each other during the initial stages of the group work. For asynchronous work, you might consider having each group determine its own preferred mode of communication. Do they want to set up a videoconference? Do they want to have a shared discussion thread or a collaborative document? Perhaps they want to exchange phone numbers and text each other? A class brainstorm might be helpful to get this conversation started, but giving groups a voice in how they connect can be empowering and improve participation rates.
Regardless of the class delivery mode, be sure to consider the following design elements when creating your lesson. As you review the list, think about how you would make this work in your unique class setting.
- A complex task: For students to really collaborate, the task must be complex enough to require deep thinking and complex problem-solving. It should not allow for a group to simply divide a task, work individually, and then paste the parts together at the end. That is not collaboration.
- Clear objectives: Make sure that students know exactly what they are expected to do. This does not mean that you provide a recipe for the final product, but outcomes must be clear. If they don’t know what to do, they can’t do it.
- Tech-empowered: For students to practice digital collaboration, technology needs to be inserted into the equation. During face-to-face classes, this might mean that the notes and final product are recorded digitally (and collaboratively). For remote teaching and learning, technology might empower the entire process from start to finish.
- Group interdependence: Design the task so that it requires the group to work together and rely on each other. This may include requiring input from each member and possibly a group grade (though the grade should not be the driving force for collaboration).
- Individual accountability: Students must have some personal accountability to the process and product. Otherwise, they may withdraw from the group and become an observer rather than a participant. This is a good place to assign roles to each member of the group. Strive for roles that are integral to the design process rather than simple tasks, like timekeeper, that allow students to disengage for long periods of time. You might also consider an individual grade to accompany the group grade.
- Choosing groups: Determine how you want to group students. Will this be random or intentional? If it is intentional, what will inform the combinations of students who you group together? Flippity is a free tool that you can use to quickly generate groups.
- Scaffold group size: To increase the odds of success, start with smaller groups, and then gradually increase them to larger ones. However, even in the larger groups, try to keep them to no more than four or five students in each group. If groups get too large, collaboration becomes more challenging and students will more easily disengage.
- Assign roles: As mentioned in the designing stage, create group roles for each member of the group. You may assign these or let students choose their roles from your list. Again, assigning roles reduces the potential for any group members to coast or disengage. Some possible roles to consider include: Facilitator, Opinion Seeker, Researcher, Recorder, Clarifier, Materials Manager, and Media Specialist. Of course, you’ll need to make sure that students understand these roles before they begin.
- Establish checkpoints: It’s okay to stop group work momentarily to debrief and reflect. If your activities will span multiple days, you might consider beginning and ending each day with a reflection activity.
- Assign a self-assessment: Have students privately reflect on their own performance. It is helpful to provide them with guiding questions or a rubric to structure their responses.
- Coordinate a group assessment: Have the group discuss what is going well and what can be improved in their collaboration process. Again, structured questions and even modeling can be helpful in guiding this conversation. It’s helpful for students to conduct a self-assessment before participating in a group discussion.
- Facilitate a whole-class debrief: It can be beneficial to discuss successes and challenges as a whole class, as this better enables you to guide the conversations and insert advice when needed. To avoid this from becoming a threatening environment, be sure to structure the debrief in a way that is positive and never personal. One strategy is to collect anonymous responses through a digital survey. Then, display and debrief the survey results as a class. This removes individuals from the equation and frames the discussion around what the “class” can improve upon. Again, students may need sentence stems or models to help guide their responses in any of these scenarios.