End of Semester Wrap-up: Collaboration in the Classroom

This semester I taught a course on collaborative consumption. According to Rachel Botsman, who coined the phrase in What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption, collaborative consumption has emerged from “digital interactions” that have enabled consumers to “experience the concept that cooperation does not need to come at the expense of our individualism, opening us up to innate behaviors that make it fun and second nature to share” (xx). Social media and technology facilitate collaboration in the marketplace.

If technology can enable consumers to collaborate, surely it could help students too. In this course, not only did we study the theory of collaboration in consumer studies, but we also practiced collaboration, both as consumers and as student researchers. From the first day of class, I emphasized that students would receive 60% of their grade as part of collaborative work:

Photo Essay (2 members): 20%
Group Blog (4-5 members): 10%
Final Project (4 members): 30%

Over the course of the semester, I found that the larger the groups became, the more challenging the collaboration became.  Students became so worried about their individual grades and their individual successes that they were very ready to throw group members under the bus, accusing them of inactivity. They, not surprisingly, preferred me to mediate whatever confrontations erupted during groupwork. Since one of the major outcomes for this course is for students to master writing and communication skills, I declined to act as mediator and instead offered suggestions for how to communicate with unproductive group members.

On AcademHack, David Parry writes on the challenges of group assignments in “Designing Group Projects,” and remarks that: “I struggle with this, because I want to encourage and evaluate students for who they are, but on the other hand I see as part of my job to teach students how to work in groups. I think most of the kinds of work environments they are likely to end up in will require working in groups.” This dilemma is one all professors face when we assess group projects: how do we separate the individual from the group? My question is: why must we separate the individual from the group? Are there other alternatives?

David Parry proposes the two following guidelines in his group project experiment:

1. Everybody in the group gets the same project grade (which is 50% of the final grade).
2. If you are unhappy with a member of your group, i.e. feel that they are not sufficiently contributing, you can fire them from your team.

In the workplace, we rarely have the option of firing coworkers if they don’t fully contribute to a project. We do have power over communication and negotiation with our co-workers. It is the promotion of these communication skills that I seek to develop in my own design and assessment of group projects.

What follows is my narration of issues that arose during each of the major group projects, my assessment of these issues as teachable moments, and my partial solution to evaluating collaborative work. I realize in retrospect that the systems at the heart of the rise of collaborative consumption could also be adapted to collaborative writing and communication projects. I’ll conclude with some thoughts on how these systems might be adapted.

Group Blog – Mostly Quantitative Issues

As the group blog was a semester-long project, I frequently overheard conversations consisting of some variation on “dude, who was supposed to write for today?” or “hey, did you get your post up for Friday?” Working in groups meant that each person was being held responsible by 3-4 other people to write every week. This peer pressure, however, did not always promote productivity. Students often skipped their turn, despite these constant reminders.

When the deadline was nearing for the blogs to be wrapped up, I started receiving e-mails and office visits from students who professed that they had been blogging frequently and consistently, while their group-mates had not been, and that it was unfair they should be penalized for the failures of others.

While it was still early in the semester, I told students that they needed to work out these group issues on their own, but gave them the option of dismissing the unproductive member from their group, thus following Parry’s suggestion. By the end of the semester, a very small number of groups had taken this route. The students who were ousted ultimately produced very substandard work or no work at all. While some may consider this result the most just one, it is not the most educational result. Moreover, I suspect that if the blogs had been an individual assignment, many more than the 2-3 students who went this route would have failed. I don’t think the best solution to weak partners is to cut them off.

One class section in particular struggled with the consistency of writing that blogging demands, and many of those groups received merely “adequate” grades. Anticipating the great disappointment of the stronger students, I approached the class with a grading alternative. By default, I had assigned each member of the group the same grade, for example, a C or 7/10. However, placing power in the students’ hands, I gave each group the option of reallocating their points, taking points away from the weaker members and redistributing them to the stronger members. Each group had to decide these terms on their own, and the decision had to be unanimous.

What followed were some very interesting and often productive conversations. Students who found themselves at fault for the group’s low grade, if confronted by the other members, readily admitted to their shortcomings and were willing to negotiate points. I listened as they revisited the grading rubric and considered what exactly caused the low grade and how each person contributed positively or negatively to the final result. While I would like to say that their discussions were qualitative, they were for the most part quantitative. Nevertheless, they were assessing their performance and owning up to their failures.

After negotiations, the final results would look something like this for a group blog that was assigned a 7:

Student A: 7.5
Student B: 6.5
Student C: 7.2
Student D: 6.8

Some students became frustrated with this approach, because it required that they confront their classmates. But of course, this was the point.

Yet, this exercise also left me wondering whether the group blog assignment was qualitatively different from students simply writing individual blogs. While I originally envisioned the blogs as active social networks reaching out to the blogging community, the reality was that the members of a single group simply wrote in cooperation with one another, each taking their turn, writing toward a common theme. Collaboration, except for a couple rare exceptions, was grossly absent. The finest groups, it turns out, were those who created Facebook groups where they shared articles on current topics and peer reviewed each other’s entries. What was missing from my group blog assignment was a platform outside of the blog itself for students to collaborate on materials and writing. What was missing was a system for collaboration.

Final Project – Something for Everyone?

Before the final projects were underway, I decided, in response to concerns expressed by a couple students, to offer the same option of reallocating points in their final project grades. I suspected that weaker students, at risk of losing additional points on top of an already weak grade, would be encouraged to work harder. Strong students might work equally harder in hopes of gaining a few extra points from their peers. Yet I don’t believe that these factors ultimately motivated the best projects. Why, for example, would a student spend hours upon hours teaching herself Google Sketchup if it’s not required?

The final project asked students to bring collaborative consumption to Georgia Tech’s campus in an end-of-semester symposium. They needed to produce a website, 3-minute video, poster, and project statement. The project was immense and demanded that everyone contribute, but it also opened up the possibility for different kinds of contributions. Students could be web designers, video editors, graphic designers, public relations personnel, actors, spokespersons, concept drivers, and, of course, writers. There was something for everyone. But not everyone had the confidence or received the encouragement from their peers to perform well at what they do best.

My theory, grade differentials aside, is that students will work hard to produce something remarkable when the mode of work is satisfying. I believe that the student working with Google Sketchup did so because she enjoys tinkering with technology and found the process and trials of executing her design to be self-satisfying more than anything else. It’s what she’s good at. Some students just don’t know what makes themselves tick yet, or they’re nervous about articulating it. My advice to group leaders, then, was to talk and listen to those members who were not yet contributing anything of seemingly great value. Some students like to talk to strangers or to administrators. Other students like to draw and design. Some like to write and edit. Some are just good listeners and critics.

The purpose of collaborative projects is to teach students how to work together, communicate when problems arise, and execute tasks as democratically and professionally as possible. Every student has a talent, and it is primarily through collaboration that these talents can be unleashed. Nevertheless, there will always be students who just don’t care as much as other students. For those groups, grade differentials are the best solution when students administer the differentials themselves.

Concluding Thoughts

Rachel Botsman identifies four principles that make social commerce work: “critical mass, idling capacity, belief in the commons, and trust between strangers” (xvi). If strangers have been enabled to share, swap, buy, and sell from one another over the internet, surely four highly intelligent Georgia Tech students could learn to work together toward a common goal. What principles are necessary to implement in order to make collaborative projects work in the classroom? Here are a few ideas to get us started:

1. Safe houses for writing. Students need an online collaborative writing platform that facilitates idea-making and development, but I’m unaware of any that are particularly successful. While GoogleDocs and Wikis facilitate group composition, they are not the best platforms for deliberation. Something that adopts the structure of the Facebook wall combined with GoogleDocs would be most successful. (Google Wave, now defunct, was on the right track.)

2. Common beliefs. If the group members don’t believe in the same thing or possess the same values, they are not likely to be motivated to perform their best work together. While I usually prefer to have students choose their own groups, I think that a well-designed questionnaire could better unite students with common goals.

3. Group empowerment. Students need to feel control over the success of their projects and the future of their grades. Giving students the option of reallocating points based on individual contributions is one way of approaching this issue. However, students also need to learn to communicate with one another, whether it is to strengthen a project or reallocate points. In any case, the students should be making these decisions and conducting these talks, not the professor.

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