Last Saturday I presented a session on community collaborative writing at Littleton Public Schools’ Inspired Learning Conference. Here is a link to the presentation, though the conversations led to most of the discovery during that hour. Here are some of those discoveries and some of the things not in the slides.
1. Digital citizenship is paramount.
Students need to have the tools to not only be safe in regards to online collaboration, but to deliver professional and respectful communication. We have students write letters to people all the time to practice these skills. They aren’t new, just digital. Hmmm…the postal service will soon only have to deliver bills, advertisements, and pen pal letters from elementary students.
2. Allow students to search for collaborators.
In a previous post, I described the writing professional biography project. To scaffold this so that students aren’t trying to collaborate with auto reply bots, simply add a teacher approval step to the process. Look for emails that may not be seen for a while or may be seen by multiple people (info@… or support@…) Look for personal addresses in the list of emails students supply (…@hotmail.com instead of …@csu.edu). These don’t have to be thrown out, only verified first. Maybe you could even create a Google form where the students enter email address, link to the site where it was found, and why the student would like to email this person.
The bottom line, however, is that a teacher cannot search for collaborators for each student – there is just not enough time. Students with access to computers will communicate with strangers on their own. It is our job to show them the safest and most respectful ways to do it.
3. Ask for what you want.
Pretend you are a busy rocket scientist and as you are deleting many emails, (most of which have the subject “Re: NASA Funding Denied”) you see an email from a sixth grader who wants to be a rocket scientist. The body of the email reads, “Please help me with my science project. Are you interested?” As a busy scientist, your answer is probably, “I don’t know. I have no idea what I am getting myself into.” You may reply asking for more detail because you have a love for education.
Meanwhile in the classroom three days have gone by and that same sixth grader is wondering if anyone will respond to the half dozen emails he sent out. He gets your reply and has to supply more detail. This collaboration is slow going.
Now pretend you are that scientist and you receive an email where the body includes, “I would like your help in learning about (insert learning outcome here). Would you mind answering the three questions below? I also must write a three page paper including my research and your responses. Once I have this complete, would you mind if I shared it with you online for your feedback?”
4. Hold students accountable, not their online collaborators.
“Dr. Xyz hasn’t emailed me back” cannot be a valid excuse. Make sure there are other options available for the student to get the needed information. Brainstorm with students about what to do if their collaborator suddenly becomes a ghost in the machine. Try to create opportunities for multiple collaborators per student and multiple students per trusted collaborator.
5. Search for blogs about the topic of interest.
In nearly every profession, there are those like myself that like to write about and share what they know through their blogs. By searching for blogs on a topic, you are at least guaranteed to find someone who likes to talk about what they do. These people are much more likely to start a conversation about something they have already shared on a blog than DrXyz@someuniversity.edu, who’s email address was found on the university web site. If they are already talking about it, they will probably be amenable to continue talking about it.