Jun 30 2016

Getting the Most Out of Collaboration Keeps Getting Easier

New tools are creating more opportunities than ever to bring collaboration to campus—and the rewards are plentiful.

As a growing array of technology solutions creates more opportunities for collaboration, stakeholders on college campuses are finding that the payoffs are equally diverse. From improving students’ post-graduation prospects to facilitating relationships with partner institutions, video conferencing, 3D projectors and other tools make campuses a more enriching, engaging place to work and to learn.

In the classroom, collaboration increases student engagement and comprehension, helping learners move from information gathering to knowledge building. The University of Southern California, Los Angeles has developed a comprehensive Cisco Systems–based WebEx program for more than a decade. Today, WebEx adds an interactive component to online courses, allowing students to ask and answer questions in real time. Students also use WebEx on a variety of devices to collaborate remotely with professors during office hours. On the administrative side, marketing and student recruitment teams use WebEx to offer meaningful exchanges to prospective and international students, respectively.

At Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, cloud-based video conferencing has given students access to opportunities they might not otherwise have. In one case, students used live video to audition for a musical theater show with a New York City director who was unable to travel to Alabama.

Collaboration takes academic programs to students in distant geographical locations and, conversely, brings far-flung experts into the classroom. At Florida International University in Miami, video conferencing has enabled the Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management to extend its reach — all the way to sister campuses in China. Students overseas use video conferencing to view lectures in Miami, either live or at a later time, using tablets and smartphones. The Chinese students who choose to watch live also can participate remotely: When a student types in a question, an icon and the student’s image show up on the instructor’s screen in Miami so the instructor can respond.

The University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy also uses video to expand its reach, using Cisco telepresence equipment and Jabber software in its classrooms and conference rooms. Together, the setup lets the university deliver high-fidelity video to partner institutions for live streaming or on-demand playback.

Collaboration also pays dividends when it comes to ensuring that institutions teach the skills graduates will need on the job. Employers want professionals who possess not only technical proficiency but also the “people skills” that enable them to thrive as effective team members. Collaboration in the classroom gives students great opportunities to develop these skills.

Whether you’re a veteran of collaboration or poised to start exploring, the following best practices can go a long way toward ensuring success.

Partners, Strong Cultures

Make IT the first stop. The available technologies are too great — and frankly, too user-friendly — to be stymied by poor planning. For many institutions, that means speeding the pace of planned network infrastructure improvements. Make sure faculty have the tools they need to deliver top-notch collaborative experiences.

Forge strong partnerships. The best work emerges when professors and IT staff work together to identify collaboration goals, evaluate the necessary tools and training, and actively partner to troubleshoot and share lessons learned. Build a culture that values and supports experimentation. For many faculty, collaboration is a great starting point, because the tools are already familiar through workplace norms such as document sharing, virtual meetings and teleconferencing.

Incentivize collaboration and encourage faculty to be strategic in integrating collaboration into curricula. Which portions of a course would best lend themselves to collaborative learning, activities and assessment?

Finally, with all stakeholders, communication is critical. Students, faculty and IT staff need plenty of chances to share feedback. Such check-ins should cover not only technical concerns, particularly for remote participants, but also issues of process and problem solving.

The Expanding Horizon

Faculty now have more options than ever to introduce collaboration into the classroom. Video, multimedia, collaborative learning software and conferencing tools have been around for a while, but educators continue to come up with creative, innovative ways to leverage them for educational benefit.

Interactive whiteboards, HD displays and digital podiums have the advantage of integrating easily into the flipped classroom. Students can develop projects independently and then share them to capitalize on group learning and discussion. The exciting news is that even these familiar technologies continue to evolve into more advanced, versatile products. The Promethean ActivWall, for example, captures up to 20 touch points at once. Lampless (LED) projectors deliver better Wi-Fi, sharper color and brightness, and 3D capability.

At A.T. Still University’s Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri, 3D projectors let students work together in a virtual anatomy lab. This not only creates opportunities to collaborate, but also solves a physical space constraint; previously, the college only had space to accommodate eight cadaver stations. The virtual lab features 56 desktop computers, multiplying student access and giving students the option to work independently or together. With 3D glasses and a video game controller, they can view and conduct a dissection on the big screen.

One of the newest iterations, of course, is mobile, which puts collaboration literally in the hands of every student and instructor. Movenote is a video presentation tool that works online and on portable devices, while VoiceThread is a robust platform (also mobile-friendly) that integrates into learning management systems and supports group work on more than 50 types of media.

Collaboration is one evolution that won’t slow down any time soon. Almost all of us, regardless of our role in the higher education landscape, can find opportunities to collaborate — and plenty of tools to help us do so. Jump in, and the rewards you find just might surprise you.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.