How can you encourage students to collaborate both in and outside the classroom? Daniel Barber and Brian Bennett suggest building online communities for project work.

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Student collaboration in and out of the classroom

Collaboration in class is not a new idea – the motivational benefits of working with friends is self-evident, not to mention the development of crucial skills for the future. In this article, however, let’s look at how collaboration can be encouraged both in and outside the classroom. We’re going to look at two areas for closer collaboration: project work and online community.

Project work with classmates can be great fun: videos, adverts, sketches, leaflets, presentations, business plans and posters all have the potential to transport students away from their everyday book-based routines and to give them a greater sense of purpose. There are many reasons for doing project work with your classes:

  • Projects encourage collaboration, so students exercise teamwork skills like leadership, compromise and willingness to be helpful.
  • Projects provide students a space to stretch their creativity, which is not always possible with more limited tasks and activities.
  • Projects allow students to realise their independence, by making decisions for themselves and their group with less teacher intervention or control.
  • Once set up, projects can go over several classes, providing a sense of continuity.
  • Projects end with a finished product – something students can be proud of because they made it.

One of the great things with running projects is that they often take on a life of their own; the students begin to drive the lessons, while you take more of a back seat. Students are keen to reach their goal, whether it is learning lines for a play or finishing writing in time for a poster presentation. Often there isn’t enough class time for students to complete the projects, so many groups get together out of class time to do this.

All of this requires organisation on the part of both teacher and students. It’s one thing for the teacher to get students in groups and provide space and time to work independently, but it’s quite another for students to get together when school is over.

Think about it

Read some of the problems students sometimes face when doing collaborative project work. Then answer questions 1–4.

  • It’s hard to find a time and a place to all get together at the same time.
  • I have football practice then. How can I participate in the group activity?
  • We’ve already done research and made notes in class. Who’s in charge of the planning notes and research we did in class? Will they remember to bring it to the next meeting?
  • We’ve arranged to both write the newspaper article, but how can we write it together when we live on the other side of town from each other?
  • How can we make the work look professional?
  1. What different ways can students keep in touch when they aren’t at school? Which ones do your students use?
  2. What websites and platforms do you know about where you can share images, files and music? How can students use these platforms in their project work?
  3. What websites or other resources might be useful in creating professional-looking videos, adverts, sketches, leaflets, presentations, business plans and posters? Which ones would be easiest to use?
  4. If you don’t know many answers to questions 1–3, how could you find out?

I wonder whether you mentioned social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram in answer to question 1 above. If specific projects can encourage students to work together, social media communities can provide the means for students to do so not just once, but all the time, day in, day out. With a class linked up online in such a community, the issues surrounding communication outside class no longer exist and students are free to contribute whenever they can and want. It extends the scope of the class from just a couple of hours a week to potentially every day, making the students’ English language lives richer and more varied.

Suggested answers:

1. Via text message, phone, email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, other social media devices and, of course, face-to-face. Ask your students what they will find most convenient.

2. There are many file sharing sites, such as Dropbox and Google Drive. Other sites where projects can be shared and managed include notetaking platforms such as Evernote, photo sharing sites like Flickr and Google Photos, and music sharing sites like SoundCloud and iTunes. All of these recreate the collaborative conditions of the group by allowing individuals to access and edit shared files, often in real time. Consider how similar to the classroom setup the following situation is: a group of students chatting on Skype while all looking at an open PowerPoint presentation, which they edit in real time. Again, ask your students what they are familiar with or already have installed on their devices.

3. For videos, most phones and PCs come with apps pre-loaded such as Windows MovieMaker and iMovie. There are a multitude of ‘desktop publishing’ programs that can help you create good-looking visual material, e.g. Microsoft Publisher, PagePlus and Adobe InDesign. For the sake of most student work, it is always worth finding out what the students already know – some of these programs take time to learn, which they may not have.

4. Ask other teachers in your staffroom and online about their tech go-to websites, programs and platforms. Ask colleagues on Facebook or wherever you connect with people. Simple Google searches are an easy way to get tech advice. 

How to use social media in class

Here are just a few ideas of what to do with an online social community:

  • Share, and allow students to share, self-study resources, files, personal photos and links from the Internet.
  • Share materials, e.g. YouTube videos, which are connected to class discussions, articles and topic areas.
  • Share writing tasks with the group, who can then give feedback on each other’s posts.
  • Set homework, and remind students of homework deadlines.

Remember

Here are some tips for encouraging collaboration out of the class as well as in.

  • First of all, don’t be put off by the disruption that project work can create. There is a certain amount of organisation required to get projects started, but as long as they are enthusiastically introduced to the class, and well run, with problems anticipated and planned for, they can lift the class to another level of motivation and progress. Use the problems identified above to get you thinking about what you may need to deal with.
  • Set up an online community for the class. Use the platform that most of your class are already on; that way, there’s no extra effort needed on the part of the students, and they will already know how to navigate and manage the site. For example, if most students have Instagram, create a group conversation and invite them to join. By creating the group yourself, you can initiate an English-only policy and start the group in the way you’d like it to continue. It’s always a good idea to create a separate, professional account for yourself.
  • Invest time at the start to make these online places worth visiting. Post homework tasks and project work details online so that students are obliged to visit, but also post fun, interesting and useful links there so that they want to come and look around. Give them incentives to contribute by posting things to the group page. A simple way to do this is to mention it during the next lesson: Jae Yoon, I really enjoyed the video you shared with the group. Thank you. Did everyone see Jae Yoon’s post? It was fun, wasn’t it? Another way is to give extra credit for online participation. These techniques work by acknowledging the online community in class and raising its pedagogical status. It is essential that the online work is recognised and integrated into the classroom side of the group.
  • Always remember to respect your institution’s rules about Internet use if you are teaching younger learners or teenagers, and to consult with their parents before you expect them to work online at home. Even with adults, sensitivity is required. For example, some students may not have easy access to the web, or may be reluctant to share material online because of security worries or suspicion about the exploitation of personal data by the corporations, and so on.