Reflections on a Successful Collaborative Project – Marcia Lima
“We participate in meaningful online learning through connecting with educators and mentors in social networks, open online courses, and online educator communities. We feel supported, inspired, and learn tons. We also establish lifelong friendships with other teachers worldwide. Our online learning, blended or online courses should reflect our own personal experiences. Integrate these experiences for your learners. Have them share and exchange via online chats; contribute to class learning by collaborative curation with bookmarking tools like Pearltrees, Listly, Pinterest, or Educlipper; or meet each other via video chats like Google HangOuts or Skype. What has made your online learning a journey, adventure, and experience? Add this to your blended learning or online teaching project and you will have given your students an experience in digital learning that is meaningful.” – Shelly Terrell
Shelly Terrell always challenges us to be the best educators we can and I have always said “YES”! I have recently had the chance to experience an online collaboration project for the first time in my thirty years of teaching. Not that I hadn’t wanted to do it before, but having been teaching mostly YLs and exam classes somehow kept me postponing it. My last collaboration project was with Israeli students over five years ago, still using letters that came by post, and I must confess I’m too hyperactive to keep waiting for the mailman, let alone my teens!
It all started when I was taking two mobile learning courses last March: the iTDi Advanced Course “Language Learning To Go” led by Shelly Terrell and Mobile Learning EFL, moderated by Ana Maria Menezes and Jennifer Verschoor. The final task of Shelly’s course was to adapt three activities to use with my class. Soon after starting to work on my final assignment (check it here), I came across Ana Maria’s post looking for a partner to collaborate with on an online project. As both of us are Brazilians and our students could end up using L1 rather than L2 for the project, I did not volunteer to do it, although I felt very tempted to. It was then that I thought of adapting it to fulfill Shelly’s assignment. That made me even more willing to try it.
The first problem I faced was that the only two classes I was teaching that semester were two young learners’ classes, aged four to six. As I’m managing director at my own language institute, I managed to solve that initial problem by “borrowing” some students from two intermediate classes. So now I needed a partner and the first name that came to my mind was my friend Marijana Smolcec, from Croatia – a Webhead like me and a real enthusiast of mobile Learning and collaborative projects. In fact, she was already developing a couple of projects, but I was lucky enough she accepted my invitation.
A Google Doc and Skype made our planning easier: I had the adaptation made for Shelly’s assignment, so it was only a matter of adjusting it with Marijana so we could invite our students. We decided to leave students free to decide whether they wanted to join or not, as I had chosen to do it as an extra activity, and to my surprise, many more than I could take volunteered.
The choice of who not to choose was not an easy one, but because Marijana’s students (sixteen-seventeen year olds) were older than mine (thirteen-seventeen year olds), I had to tell my thirteen-year old boys their time would come (I will devise a project for them this semester, but that’s news for another blog post). Marijana’s girls wanted to be paired up with my boys, so Facebook profiles played an important role in helping us match up the students – but I must say it was much more “feeling” rather than a scientific selection method.
Facebook was not our platform choice, though, and neither was Edmodo, which my students associate with homework. Facebook wouldn’t let us divide students into pairs in a group and it would be difficult to organise/visualise posts. We decided to try out Google Community as it can be private to participants and enables us to easily create discussion pages within the community – so it would be perfect for each partner’s interaction. Another advantage of Google+ is letting students look at and take part in other pairs’ discussion, which we encouraged them to do.
Ten Brazilian students were then paired up with ten Croatian students to learn during four weeks as much as they could about the other student, football in his/her country and the place where he/she lived. At the end of this period of time each student would write a report on their findings. The students started to join Google+, which was a new platform to most of them, and exchange their first “shy” messages, which included their names, ages, home town and “if you want to add me on Facebook, here’s a link to my profile…”
A little pushing was necessary for some pairs to engage in conversation. I suggested to a student “write about your fifteenth birthday party plans and how you are involved in its preparation” and to another “share the news that you are joining Carnegie Mellon University” and I then commented on their posts and wrote follow up questions, even when that was not needed any longer, just to show them I, too, was enjoying the sharing.
But then our students surprised us, doing more than we had expected them to: Silvija shared a Tackk she wrote about Zagreb, followed by Juliana, who also did one on Rio. Sooner than we had expected, all of our students were writing about Brazilian and Croatian cities and even The World Cup.
What nice additions they were to our project, and even more meaningful, as they came from the students. They wanted to understand each country’s educational system a little better too, so we added a new discussion page to our community. The school year in Croatia came to an end, bringing along the feeling “I want more”, so the Croatian students asked Marijana if we could continue developing the project in their next school year, which my students happily accepted.
Speaking of “accepting”, you might be asking yourself what happened when the students, new to Google+ communities, exchanged links to their Facebook profiles. They did befriend each other and used Facebook messenger a lot as they were more used to it and they seemed to get notifications more quickly. This, however, did not hinder the validity of the project. Rather, one of the greatest outcomes of this project was that the students really managed to build a connection with their partners through social presence. Next term, this experience will be enriched through the use of such other platforms as Skype, Google Hangouts and Instagram.
Reflecting on our experience, I believe I was very lucky to have come across Ana Maria’s project, which required little adaptation, and to have chosen a great partner with whom to collaborate. If I were to do this project again, the only thing I would be more careful about would be to start it in the beginning of the school term and not at the end of it as was the case for both Brazilians and Croatians, so we could wrap it up properly.
And if I were to give one tip for those who have never done a collaborative project, that would be to listen to your students and be flexible: there is no need to be afraid of changing throughout the project if you listen with your heart.
“Tech is just the tool: what connects is the people using the tech” -Chuck Sandy
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