Four Steps for Jumpstarting Global-Collaboration Projects

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In the past, schools often existed in isolation. But now that we are connected to information and resources from across the globe, places that are located thousands of miles away can be as accessible as the corner store.

When students graduate, they will be expected to work across great distances and collaborate with colleagues via complex technologies. A globally connected workplace will be the norm for them, not the exception. This shift requires a unique and deep skill-set that teachers must help students develop.

Global-collaboration projects that connect classrooms across schools and countries are a great way to bring this shift to life. Here are four steps to make it happen.

Step One: Develop Habits of Collaboration

Starting small is key when connecting your classroom to schools in other locations. Jumping right into a global project without developing some important foundational habits in students might frustrate them—and lead you to conclude that global projects just "aren't for you."

Students will collaborate more effectively when you allow them to practice crucial skills like brainstorming, decision making, and determining accountability. For example, you might start the school year with a collaborative task such as coming up with a class theme or motto. After you model the expectations and protocols for collaborative work, these habits can be easily transferred to global projects later in the year.

Before connecting with another classroom, take time to develop these skills so that students become adept at collaboration. These skills will serve them not only in their schoolwork, but in the 21st-century workforce as well.

Step Two: Before You Go Global, Go Local

Once your students are well versed in habits of collaboration, it's time to expand your reach. Step two puts students' collaborative skills to the test by engaging in activities with other classes at your school.

Here are three ways to design collaborative work for students in the same grade and/or area of study. While these activities are general in nature, they are sure to jumpstart your collaborative efforts.

  • Ask An Open-Ended Question
  • Asking groups a question that has more than one answer or multiple ways to arrive at the answer is a great way to engage students and get them thinking. You could even ask a question that has no known answer at all!

    This type of activity works in nearly every subject area. You could ask a question about language arts (which character in these three books is most dynamic?), science (is there life on other planets?), or social studies (which American colony would have been the best for raising a family?). Mathematics provides a terrific opportunity for collaboration as well. A multi-step word problem or performance task can be challenging and exciting for students to work on together.

    This method also presents the opportunity to combine multiple subject areas. For example, a seemingly innocuous, yet challenging question like "how do you measure a puddle?" combines math and science and can yield some very creative responses.

  • Pose a Challenge
  • We've all been to workshops with team-building icebreakers or similar activities. These can range from exciting to mundane, although they're often the latter. However, a well-designed challenge can really help students build collaborative skills.

    Take the "Marshmallow Challenge" described by Tom Wujec in his TED Talk, "Build a Tower, Build a Team." Wujec proposes a challenge that asks teams to build the tallest tower possible using only dry spaghetti, one yard of tape, and one marshmallow—in just 18 minutes.

  • Use Digital Collaboration Tools
  • Ultimately, a global project requires students to use digital tools to collaborate. A great way to familiarize students with these tools is to practice using them with other classes at your school.

    Here are three digital tools and suggestions for using them:

      Google Drive. With Google Drive, students can work collaboratively on a shared Google Document or Spreadsheet. This work can happen at the same time or asynchronously (at different times). Google Drive allows multiple students to enter text or data from different computers and see who has made changes.
      Wikis. Wikis are simple to use, allowing multiple users to build a website together. One potential use is to have students from different classes build a website about a shared learning goal or topic. Wikispaces is my favorite platform.
      Edmodo. Edmodo is a safe and secure social network designed specifically for educational use. With Edmodo, a teacher creates a group and then provides a code that allows students to join the group. Students who are working together can exchange posts and comments, developing networking and communication skills in the process.

Step Three: Join Existing Global Projects

Now you and your students are ready to take on a global project. But before designing an elaborate plan and starting from scratch, you might want to consider joining a project that is already up and running.

By joining an existing project, you won't be responsible for thinking of a new idea. Furthermore, it will be much easier to find and make connections with other teachers from around the world.

The good news is that there is no shortage of projects to join. With many of these projects, facilitators are responsible for creating connections between schools, meaning they do most of the hard work for you. Some existing projects and sites include: Challenge 20/20, The Global Read Aloud, The Global Virtual Classroom, and iEARN.

Step Four: Use Social Networks to Create Your Own Projects

After participating in existing global projects, you're ready to create your own. So how can you use social media to make this happen? Again, there's no need to start from scratch. There are many social networks for educators that boast memberships in the tens of thousands. Using these networks can lead to meaningful connections and exciting collaborative opportunities. In addition, they are great resources for finding project ideas and learning from others' experiences.

A few networks that are excellent starting points include: Classroom 2.0, the Global Education Conference Network, and Skype in the Classroom. Twitter is also a fantastic way to make connections.

Just remember, Rome wasn't built in a day. By starting small and working your way towards a global project throughout the school year, you will develop useful collaborative skills that students take with them long after your project has finished.

This article is adapted from Chapter 5 of Engaged, Connected, Empowered: Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century by Ben Curran and Neil Wetherbee.

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