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2016 November 7 - 10:38 am

Today’s Workplace Welcomes Collaboration. Why Not Higher Ed?

Colleges, Students Could Benefit By Using Tech Tools To Work Together

Step into the offices of Faraday Future, the new electric-car startup south of Los Angeles, and you’ll discover that there are no offices. Instead, 600 people work in one giant space, not behind closed doors. The CEO roams the floor, engaging one group after another, trading ideas and solving problems.

That’s a far cry from the Mad Men era, when everyone worked in their own little room. Talking to a colleague across the country cost 25 cents per minute, and speaking on the phone to two people simultaneously required an executive’s secretary to reserve the call with a telephone company operator and pay a bundle for the privilege.

Today’s creative economy requires collaboration to solve problems; effective problem solving is done by teams, not individuals. That’s true whether you’re working in R&D, developing a social media marketing plan, or producing a movie.

“Open work environments increase the opportunistic interactions between people that would not normally talk about a particular project,” Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor of management and organization at the UCLA Anderson School of Management told us. “It gives you increased perspectives, additional information, and more information processing capacity with diverse individuals.”

In fact, companies like Google, Facebook and eBay are big fans of open floor spaces — Facebook even hired Frank Gehry to design a 10 acre-space for an engineering team made up of thousands of employees.

But while collaboration has become the norm in the workplace, it’s still an educational outlier. In fact, some teachers worry that letting students collaborate will reduce their ability to learn, leading to a nation of slackers and cheaters who, like cyclists drafting in the middle of a peloton, rely on others to win the race.

Collaborative tools in the workplace are a given: Google Drive, Box, Slack, Prezi, MS Office, and even iWork all have been developed to encourage people to work together and learn from each other. And they’re certainly not going away. Over the past two decades, the time spent by employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

At thousands of technology-driven companies, software engineers ask and answer questions on S t a c k E x c h a n g e , search and share code and open source projects on GitHub, and collaborate on projects using Asana. At Course Hero, multiple software engineers typically work on the same code and solve a problem faster together than if they each did it by themselves.

We’ve seen how collaboration in the workplace can result in increased productivity, improved learning and happier employees. Increasingly, workplace collaboration is seen not just as a benefit but as the norm of how successful organizations thrive.

So if collaboration works and becomes the expected way for current students to become successful future members of the knowledge economy, what benefits can collaborative learning bring our students and how can this impact their work outside of the classroom?

The Association for Psychological Science notes that “Working in groups appears to offer some longterm benefit by re-exposing learners to material they themselves may have forgotten.”

And a study by Virginia Tech researchers found that “students who participated in collaborative learning … performed significantly better on critical-thinking tests than students who studied individually.”

For collaborative learning to work, Pearson Research says that students must believe that they will succeed or fail together, and everyone’s participation is required to succeed. There must also be individual accountability and personal responsibility; no “social loafing” can be allowed when individuals collaborate.

With today’s online tools, students have the ability to collaborate in ways never before possible, not just when they’re physically together in class but at home or on the move as well. Students can chat, talk or engage in video discussions in real time literally anywhere; they can use no-cost tools like Facetime, WhatsApp, WeChat, Messenger, Hangouts or Zoom on their tablets or smartphones.

They can post slide decks, documents, and other visuals online, and jointly iterate and comment on them in real time. Instant internet access to the world’s storehouse of information—the greatest research library in history—allows them to discover facts and study guides before they even finish discussing a problem.

Today students even have the ability to get online tutoring, post their course outlines, class notes, coursespecific study guides, questions and answers, flashcards, advice, and other materials on various websites (including coursehero.com ) to provide their peers and future students with materials that can help them learn more deeply and efficiently. This levels playing field of access to study materials and support outside of the classroom in a way not seen - and not possible - in classrooms of old.

Of course, any such venture requires strict safeguards. Copyrighted material that are uploaded without the proper approval must be discovered and removed promptly. Technology should be employed to record material that has been removed for copyright reasons in the past and prevent unauthorized copies of the same work to be uploaded in the future. Finally, educational institutions and publishers need to be provided with easy-to-use tools to be able to quickly scan and mark for removal materials of theirs which have been uploaded without permission. All student and scholarly papers should be indexed and searchable; which would make it easy for students to find and use them to complement their learning in the classroom but also make it easy for educators to find materials that have been submitted by students as their own when, in fact, they have been created by someone else.

To be clear: We’re not advocating the wholesale replacement of the classroom or teachers with collaborative learning; they each have their places and there are times when collaborative efforts simply do not make sense. “There’s an over-utilization of teams for tasks that do not require collaboration,” Bendersky had noted to us. In those instances, whether in school or the workplace, collaboration can slow down the learning process, making it less efficient and more costly.

Some companies also think they should be collaborative in areas where there’s no need to. I know of one international automobile company that provides a communal kitchen in the hope that disparate groups will mingle. But because there’s never any food or drinks there, the kitchen remains deserted, with employees continuing to hunker down in their cubicles. Clearly, the workers feel no real need to share ideas with those outside their normal circle.

Mechanisms also need to be devised that adequately test individuals for their own capabilities when they’re working in groups. One approach: give a grade to the entire team, not just individuals. To grade each individual’s work, ask the other team members to anonymously rate each other's’ input. By using the weighted average of all, we can guard against bad grades being given simply because one person doesn’t get along with another.

Like it or not, Faraday Future’s “one room fits everyone” approach to its work environment is becoming the norm, making the ability to collaborate a basic job requirement. We must do everything we can to prepare today’s students for the communal workspace of tomorrow that many of them are destined to enter.

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