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Kids working together

How collaborative working and technology go hand-in-hand. The trend continues.

Collaborative learning continues to feature regularly in lists of learning trends.  But how have developments in technology made it easier to collaborate and connect people? Really, what’s new?

Look back ten years and you’ll see that the hope that collaborative learning can be enabled by new technology is at least a decade old.  Of course, the theory and practice of collaborative technology go back further, all the way to the Ancients. In the last century Constructivists like Dewey, Piaget and Vygotsky gave collaborative learning theory and design new impetus with their observational research.

So, why does collaborative learning still seem as though it’s just around the corner? There still appears to be a feeling that it’s only a killer app away from ceasing to be a trend and becoming fully accepted into the learning mainstream.

We’re already collaborating

That collaborative learning is something we need to introduce is curious, given that collaboration is happening all around us.  What is social media, if not collaboration? Mobile connectivity and the creation of information-sharing platforms and apps that work across devices has brought people together as never before. At least, in terms of potential access.

And, there’s more. It’s not just about information sharing, it’s about learning and knowledge acquisition too.  People have the means to interrogate what’s being shared. They can respond to questions and deliver their own answers.  This exchange is the basis of the variety of information sources, from Google to YouTube to Pinterest to Wikipedia, on which many. if not all of us, rely on for our knowledge and learning, at least in our own time.

But is that real learning?

This would seem to be collaborative learning at its best. But, there are a couple of characteristics that might cause some to question whether this is real learning. Firstly, exchanging information is not necessarily learning.

It’s also informal, which means it may not be directed, assessed or officially recognised. Then, there’s the fact that it happens largely outside of training departments or educational facilities: it’s for leisure, for fun, not for work or study.

Increasingly though it’s being recognised that this form of social collaboration is so pervasive, so used and apparently so effective in providing what people need that it has to be acknowledged. Consider the development of Tin Can/xAPI and you’ll note that one of its key objectives is to record informal learning activities and provide a means to accommodate modern learners and the way they’re learning. There’s an acceptance that the way we use our portable devices, the way we access information and interact online is that way we like to learn and that organisations need to utilise this drive and benefit from it too.

Apps for work

The informality and pervasiveness of social learning pose both opportunities and challenges for organisations. The opportunities lie in the availability of tools to connect people and people’s corresponding willingness to use them.  

The challenges are less about adoption than over-use and over-reliance. If you take your average Google search with results possibly running into millions, you understand the scale of the challenge. It’s not that you won’t get an answer, it’s that you’ll get so many you may not know what to do with them.  And for an organisation, there needs to be the certainty of the preferred answer, the approved process and the recommended course of action.

So, the most recent developments in learning and knowledge-sharing software involve the development of apps that use the benefits in access and use of social learning and adapt them to the working environment. More than that, they are moving learning into the workflow and tearing down the barriers between training and performance in the workplace.

Programs like GoToMeeting and Zoom allow people to arrange meetings and work seminars across time zones and locations. Project management and development tools like Slack and Trello allow people to manage tasks and projects and contribute and share experiences.  They promote teamwork and collaboration. Google docs enable real-time collaboration as work is shared and edited by multiple contributors. Other apps like Wimi and Igloo facilitate the sharing of information and ideas in a unified workspace.

Collaboration with AI

There will certainly be other technological advances in the trend towards bringing the advantages of the collaboration and sharing of information we see in our social lives into the working environment.  One of the biggest areas here is in the growing influence of Artificial Intelligence.

Take, for example, the notion of introducing a chatbot into the working environment. A chatbot connected to an organisation’s learning resources can provide a short-cut direct to information that a person needs to know in the time and place he or she needs to know it. Chatbots can be used to onboard new employees and offer performance support to more established workers. They can act as mentors and personal assistants, bringing the Socratic method of learning through dialogue into the twenty-first century.

It’s more than technology

The appeal and effectiveness of collaborative learning have never really been an issue. The technology (whether it’s hardware or software) to make it happen is already there. And there’s collaborative effort all around us in the social sphere.  In short, all the elements are there to make it happen and make it a success for organisations.

The problem is not about the means to collaboration, it’s more about what to do with them. As we’ve noted, people are collaborating all the time, but those efforts tend to be informal, on the margins of work.  We need to bring those practices into the main arena of work.

But people are shy to disclose how they’re using collaborative technologies. This is because of their behaviour, their use of Social Media and other forms of collaboration, have been associated with trivial, non-critical, non-work activities.  These activities are for downtime, not peak performance.

There’s a legitimate concern that a trivial pursuit ends in a trivial goal. How does an organisation ensure that the ubiquitous technology and the easy access to the vast information resources not only yield useful information but that it’s the right information for the context?

That’s one of the prime reasons for adopting collaborative apps and platforms that are designed for the working environment. These help organisations control and channel collaboration and focus it on the tasks at hand.

L&D’s part

Nevertheless, we can’t rely on the assumptions that if we provide and build it, they will come. There needs to be a strategy behind the deployment of collaborative tools. L&D will still have a role in how training is deployed and accessed. Informal learning needs to be assessed and recorded – the xAPI bit.  

The logic behind collaborative learning is to make learners more responsible for their own learning, but nevertheless, they will still need to be supported. Not everyone’s voice is equal even in a collaborative learning environment. This distinguishes it from the basic information sharing we experience with Social Media. There are influencers and there will be subscribers.

Content too is not all of equal value.  It will, as in traditional learning, be conditioned by context and audience. So, collaborative learning is not simply about giving people the tools to contribute, it’s also about teaching them how to contribute effectively.

The collaboration will enrich the learning environment and change its dynamics.  Superficially it may seem like it will remove the need for L&D. In fact, it will reposition L&D, making it less a content provider and more a learning enabler. L&D will need to be more flexible and open to influences from learners, but in return, it will need to become more clearly established within the workflow making it part and parcel of the working environment.

A collaborative learning culture

The ultimate challenge is to create an environment in which collaborative learning can flourish. This is as much about how you work as to how you deliver learning. You want to maximise what your people can offer. That means supporting and rewarding people who give the benefit of their experience and expertise.

For collaborative learning to take full effect requires an open, distributive knowledge culture. Setting up communities and forums supported by new software allows knowledge to be traded. Programmes or strategies such as peer-to-peer coaching or mentoring schemes not only provide help for new employees but also recognise the role that more experienced employees have. This acknowledgement sends out the message that not only is knowledge valued but that it’s more valuable when it’s shared.  

Let’s connect and collaborate

It’s never been easier to connect. The tools are there. The experience is there. The willingness is there. We just need to cultivate the right environment for collaboration to truly take off.


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