Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community
reviewed by Sharon Dole - 2005
Title: Collaborating Online: Learning Together in Community
Author(s): Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787976148, Pages: 112, Year: 2005
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Collaborating Together: Learning Together in Community is the latest book on online teaching and learning by Rena M. Palloff and Keith Pratt. It is also the second book in a new Jossey-Bass series of guides for higher education faculty who are teaching online courses or who plan to do so in the future. In addition to authoring this book, Palloff and Pratt are the consulting editors on the series. The books value lies in the fact that it is a practical handbook for the implementation of online collaborative activities. As such, it is a suitable follow-up to the authors previous book on building online learning communities, Building Learning Communities in Cyberspace: Effective Strategies for the Online Classroom (1999). Whereas the latter book deals with the concepts of collaboration, Collaborating Together offers a step-by-step guide for implementing it in online courses. As in their previous books, Palloff and Pratt provide rich examples from their own classes and other online classes to illustrate their points throughout the book.
The book is divided into two parts. In part one, the authors review the constructivist theory behind collaboration, describe the stages of collaboration, discuss the challenges of implementing online collaboration, and suggest methods for assessing and evaluating such collaboration. Chapter 1 deals with creating online learning communities. According to Palloff and Pratt, community building must be addressed from the very start of an online course for successful collaboration to occur. The authors contend that online groups move through developmental phases and that a good course design will allow time for teams to move through each phase, beginning with a normative phase, in which team members are getting to know one another and deciding how they will work together, and culminating in an action phase, in which the team is the most productive. However, before the team reaches this point of productivity, it is almost inevitable that there will be conflict or disagreement. According to the Palloff and Pratt, this is a critical stage in the development of the group, and a strong sense of community can help the team move through it (p. 15).
In chapter 2, the authors outline the four stages of collaboration: setting the stage, modeling the process, guiding the process, and evaluating the process. Suggestions are made on how to address those students who, because of negative experiences with collaborative activities in which all students did not share in the load, resist collaboration. Such resistance can be addressed early on in the course by explaining why collaboration is important and creating explicit guidelines for student performance. An example of a rationale for collaboration is included in the chapter.
Chapter 3 provides an overview of the elements that can hinder the collaborative process, such as dropping out, reduced participation, technical difficulties, turf protection, design issues, and cultural differences. Perhaps the greatest dissatisfaction among students in collaborative activities is the uneven participation of group members. The authors state that careful group selection with regard to backgrounds and learning styles can help offset potential participation problems. Indeed, Palloff and Pratt demonstrate in this chapter and throughout the book that good planning can eliminate many of the obstacles to successful collaboration.
In chapter 4, Palloff and Pratt discuss methods of assessment and evaluation for collaborative activities. In keeping with the principles of constructivism, they note, assessment should be learner-centered, ongoing, and aligned with learning objectives. A previous work (2003) by the same authors outlines the principles for effective online assessment, which are also discussed here: assessing students self-reflections, including the use of grading rubrics for discussion contributions; providing guidelines for good feedback; and modeling good feedback (p. 42). The authors rule of thumb is that collaborative activity should be assessed by collaborative means. Sample rubrics are provided for assessing collaborative work as well as for evaluating individual performance on a team. In addition, a list of guidelines for reflections is provided, and several examples are given on how to engage learners in the design of assessment instruments. I found this to be one of the most valuable chapters of the book. The suggested questions for students self-reflection on group activities are particularly useful (p. 43).
Part two consists of a series of clear ideas and examples to use for online collaborative activities. They include role playing, simulations, case studies, questioning techniques for collaborative discussions, dyads, small-group projects, jigsaw activities, blogs, virtual teams, debates, fishbowls, learning cycles, and webquests. Specific instructions are given on how to carry out each type of activity as well as how to assess it. Instructional designers can use the activities as they are presented or modify them to suit their own purposes. This section of the book is very brief, with approximately two pages devoted to each example. The resource section that follows is also very brief, with only a couple of resources listed under each topic.
Overall, I found Collaborating Together: Learning Together in Community to be a well-organized, informative, and highly useful guide for faculty in the implementation of collaboration in online courses. On the surface it appears that Palloff and Pratt have achieved their purpose of providing a practical handbook for higher education faculty wishing to include collaborative activities in their online courses. As an instructional designer, I am continually seeking ways to improve collaboration in my online courses. I definitely intend to use the book as a reference for courses I am currently developing and to improve collaborative activities in the courses that Ive already developed. The biggest drawback to the work is that it is too brief; it begs for further exploration of online collaborative activities and the inclusion of more resources. One is left wanting much more. Perhaps in the future the authors will provide us with an expanded version.
Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (1999). Building learning communities in cyberspace: Effective strategies for the online classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Palloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student: A profile and guide to working with online learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.