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Educators Face Familiar Challenges in Increasing Tech-Enabled Student Collaboration

Similar challenges appear in both traditional and digital learning environments when it comes to collaboration.

Most can agree that the days of the “traditional classroom” are limited. More schools and universities are implementing technology — from iPads to classroom websites to complete digital environments — to enhance student learning. Moreover, technology has brought increased opportunities for enhanced student collaboration and communication. But while the potential may be there, when it comes to actually developing the 21st-century classroom, educators are facing some familiar challenges.  

Key Challenges

Developing technology-enabled collaboration in schools and universities comes with some major challenges. But to have effective collaboration, says Marie Cini, president of the Online Learning Consortium Board of Directors, there must be effective training — regardless of the setting.

“It’s not about technology really. It’s about teaching people how to collaborate,” said Cini, who also is provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College. “It does not come naturally. There are models to teach what roles people take, how to have discussions, how to make action plans, etc. Technology makes it a little more complicated, but it gets at how do we make sure someone is leading a group, and everyone has a voice. It comes back to basic human behavior and how technology can ease that or how it can become a hindrance.” 

Cini also points out that basic issues that affect traditional classrooms present major challenges when it comes to implementing technology. Cost is one major issue she cites. It costs money — which many school districts and universities simply don’t have readily available — to have some kind of technological infrastructure and to keep it refreshed and updated.  

Another key issue Cini recognizes is access. Seventy-three percent of 1,060 teens ages 13 to 17 have access to a smartphone, and 87 percent can access a desktop or laptop, according to the Pew Research Center's Teens Relationships Survey conducted in 2014 and 2015. But 61 percent of teens from families earning less than $30,000 have the same access to smartphones, and 78 percent can access desktops or laptops. Similarly, 86 percent of them go online each day compared to 93 percent of all teens. Without consistent access to devices and the Internet, it's not easy to collaborate in learning environments. 

Practical Solutions

So how do school districts, universities and educators overcome these challenges to improve technology-enabled collaboration in classrooms? It’s all about rethinking what the classroom looks like entirely, says Andy Calkins, director of Next Generation Learning Challenges.

“Part of it is being proactive, about understanding that virtual learning environments represent a different kind of collaboration challenge and dynamic. It’s not safe to assume that the same things that worked for you in a face-to-face environment will work online,” he said. “Those who embrace that and experiment to ensure the collaborating is as rich as possible will find their way.” 

Besides embracing technology, Calkins notes that implementing it in the right way is also important to student success. Educators are considering how to transfer good practices from face-to-face classrooms into digital learning environments while also making them better.  

In Calkins’ experience, those educators and organizations that implement technology as a tool to connect typically find positive results. In surveys and conversations, higher education professors responded that they've been surprised by the rich dialog that students engage in online.

“It just takes extra effort from the educators to make sure it happens well,” Calkins said.