How to Maximize Online Collaboration for K-12 Learners

Author: | Category: 21st-Century Skills

One of the most important skills in the 21st-century workplace is collaboration. It’s also essential in high-quality project-based learning. With much of the workforce and many schools having shifted from face-to-face teamwork to virtual collaboration, many educators are working to increase the effectiveness of their practices online.

We asked several Maker Learning Network and iLEAD Schools experts for their insights on virtual collaboration, and here is what we learned:

Why is teaming important? What skills and experiences do your learners get from teaming?

“We think of teaming as ‘people working together.’ But it’s a far deeper, richer experience when approached as an opportunity to learn and practice deep communication skills or to self-reflect. For facilitators, it’s a unique opportunity to see learners working when the facilitators aren’t watching them. This means you will see learners showing their native self — all the warts and habits they hide from facilitators – which then gives one the perfect opportunity to coach. I always say ‘Welcome bad behavior in teams — that’s your real opportunity to teach!’”
— Thom Markham, iLEAD Maker Team

“It’s important for a variety of SEL skills, such as empathy and compassion. We all have to learn how to be able to work with diverse groups of people and interact with various perspectives. Learning how to collaborate leads to critical thinking, better communication and ultimately success.”
— Emilie Evenson, K-8 Leadership Resident, iLEAD Online

“Teaming is important because in many cases, and in many jobs, we have to work with others to accomplish tasks. You need to be able to work with subordinates, supervisors and peers. Teaming teaches learners to listen, use their voice, take the lead and also take the backseat. Teaming teaches you how to steer the ship, delegate tasks and learn to take direction from others. Normally, when we are on-site, teaming is 100 percent of our day. Learners work collaboratively to complete tasks.”
— Dustin Lengning, 8th Grade Science & Language Facilitator, SCVi Charter School

“This is good for not just learners but facilitators as well. Working collaboratively with my colleagues helps me better support learners. For example, I encourage academic coaches to share as much information as possible about their learners with the facilitators so the facilitators can come up with the best individualized support plan for the learner.”
— Samin Davari, Science Team Leader, AP Coordinator, Testing Coordinator, iLEAD Online

What’s important to consider when forming virtual teams?

“From a virtual approach, it is important to consider tech abilities (digital literacy) and access to communication/technology. I try to balance teams with tech-savvy people vs. non-tech savvy.”
— Emilie Evenson, K-8 Leadership Resident, iLEAD Online

“I try to think about different talents everyone brings to the table. I try to pick people who think differently and offer different areas of expertise so that the work we do together can be well-rounded and address all areas of concern.”
— Samin Davari, Science Team Leader, AP Coordinator, Testing Coordinator, iLEAD Online

“Virtual teams are very difficult because there are a lot of factors. Not only the usual factors of personality and working styles, but also internet concerns and being able to monitor learners’ progress. At school, we can monitor groups. Online, we can’t be in all rooms at all times to make sure tasks get completed and all parties are self-regulating.”
— Dustin Lengning, 8th Grade Science & Language Facilitator, SCVi Charter School

“You have to make up for the face-to-face gap. Think Match.com. Who are you, and what do I need to know about you to proceed as a team member?”
— Thom Markham, iLEAD Maker Team

What are some effective techniques you have used for successful virtual teams?

“We have a lot of spreadsheets that highlight specific tasks and responsibilities so everyone can work at their own pace on their portion. I make sure to check in with them. I also let my team decide their own deadlines. For example, if I need a series of courses to be written by June, then I let them decide how long each one will take and I check in based on their pacing timeline.”
— Samin Davari, Science Team Leader, AP Coordinator, Testing Coordinator, iLEAD Online

“Checklists help. Learners need to know what needs to be accomplished and in what order. Trying to also find the right match of teams can be tough, but once figured out, it helps tremendously!”
— Dustin Lengning, 8th Grade Science & Language Facilitator, SCVi Charter School

“The face-to-face rubrics for collaboration and communication work fine. Just adjust some of the language for the virtual environment.”
— Thom Markham, iLEAD Maker Team

“I try to deploy a variety of things. Here are a few: (1) Modeling and organization are extremely important with virtual teams. When facilitating, I make sure to model and provide different ways or tools to tackle projects. This way they are provided multiple ways/methods to utilize. (2) Assigning roles has been beneficial. Each person can take on a role for the meeting or project. This way people are able to understand their role and boundary. (3) Self-Awareness is created by having them recognize their strengths and what they can bring to the team. At the beginning of the year, I facilitate activities where students or colleagues are able to reflect and learn about their strengths. (4) Team contracts and agendas help. We break up tasks to do independently or create agendas to complete together for a group meeting. (5) Create a timeline for a project and place it in a shared calendar so everyone in the team is receiving reminders and alerts. (6) Communication, communication, communication! I have used and introduced tools, from Slack to Instagram. We use collaborative tools like Google Slides, Docs, Projects, Drive, etc. This allows everyone to be able to contribute at the same time and see what others are doing for the project.”
— Emilie Evenson, K-8 Leadership Resident, iLEAD Online

What tips or recommendations do you have for your peers and colleagues?

“Figure out what works best for you as an educator and with your specific learners.”
— Dustin Lengning, 8th Grade Science & Language Facilitator, SCVi Charter School

“Be organized, keep a timeline of all projects, schedule lots of check-ins and, finally, offer support if you see someone is falling behind.”
— Samin Davari, Science Team Leader, AP Coordinator, Testing Coordinator, iLEAD Online

“Creating virtual teams can be fun and interesting. I have found that introverted people in real life are more extroverted when working virtually. Technology provides so many tools that it naturally creates universal access. It is important for the facilitator to be up to date with ed tech tools and resources that they can add to their virtual classrooms.”
— Emilie Evenson, K-8 Leadership Resident, iLEAD Online

Final Thoughts

“When people of any age work closely in a team, they are brought face-to-face with themselves. Social situations are the chief way we learn about ourselves. That’s why teams are so critical to the whole-person-development aspect of PBL. If we focused on this aspect of PBL, we would do more for preparing young people for the future than just having them present a solution to a problem.”
— Thom Markham, iLEAD Maker Team

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