“Teaming” Up to Change Learning With Collaboration Tools

In private enterprises, a new set of collaboration tools are emerging that are having a significant impact on how business is conducted.  And, interestingly, these new tools are evolving so quickly, no one is quite sure what to call them.  Names such as “team collaboration tools,” “persistent group chat/collaboration,” and “group messaging” have been suggested.  Communications industry analyst @DaveMichels wrote about this “modality with no name” – originally calling these systems “Workstream Communications and Collaboration,” but now calling them “workstream messaging.”

These new collaboration tools – whatever we are going to call them – have a couple of distinct features:

  1. They tend to organize workflow primarily by project or activity rather than other variables (particularly time).
  2. They have become modality agnostic – they tend to combine (text) messaging, voice calling, video calling, and a resource repository in one virtual space, but segmented by distinct project.
  3. They are very largely mobile friendly.

Some of the current notable brands in this “team collaboration” virtual world are Cisco Spark, Slack, and Microsoft Teams.  Amazon just recently announced its entry into the game with the release of Chime.

slack-screen-shot
Slack – Using “Channels” to segment projects

In education, use of these tools is still largely in its infancy.  However, the potential of these systems to broaden the reach of school is quite significant:

Administrative:  All professionals involved with operating and improving our schools suffer from the same challenges as private companies – not enough time, information overload, and difficulty connecting with colleagues due to packed schedules.  Tools such as Cisco Spark and Slack can help by changing how our educators work and how we can help one another.  Rather than conducting business by a long stream of emails, a series of missed phone calls and voicemails, and in-person meetings where much is discussed but little is documented or moved forward, these tools instead can transform work by enabling groups of professionals to conduct more organized work anytime/anywhere.  Documents specific to the initiative can all be housed in the tool’s virtual “team” (Spark) or “channel” (Slack).  Collaborators can connect via phone, via video, via text – whatever is most convenient at that moment.  And all of these communications are tracked, separated, and organized by project/activity.  My team has started to use Spark as a more productive way to stay organized and connected – particularly in projects with partners outside our organization.

spark-screen-shot
Cisco Spark – Workflow through distinct “Teams”

Instructional:  If we are trying to find impactful ways to enable student collaboration, we can look no further than to some of the tools that our businesses and higher education institutions have been embracing.  These “workstream messaging” tools will allow students to dynamically connect with peers in a robust, safe, and secure environment on iphonecollaborative projects – but still with active teacher facilitation within these team/channels.  Plus, because these platforms have been built for use on mobile devices, students can participate in learning activities using a device: 1. that is personal and most already have, 2. are very comfortable using, and 3. will be using in college or the workforce going forward.

This all said, these tools in and of themselves are not the full answer.  There are two additional components we need as educators in order to pull it all together:

  1. Integration with other, more-learning centric platforms. Google recently announced the integration of Slack with G Suite.  Cisco Spark is being integrated with leading learning management systems (our team has started looking at integrations with LMSs like Schoology).  A combination of a content or learning management system with a robust workstream messaging platform is powerful for collaboration.
  2. We need to better understand pedagogically how to shift instruction to include meaningful student-driven collaborative activities. While educators agree about the importance of students gaining collaboration as a skill, they often struggle with how to design activities within the classroom to build that skill.

I’m not sure where this is all going, but I’m encouraged by the initial direction and evolution of workstream messaging applications to transform how we work.  I’m hoping we will soon have more context and more feedback to see how these tools impact how students collaborate and learn.

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