Vicki Suter

Discovering the power of good questions

What is the shape of collaboration?

What is the shape of collaboration? How do we produce a learning space that reflects this shape?  I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, as I’ve been talking to my colleagues about collaborative learning space design.

When we work with one other person, we can sit side-by-side. These days, there’s most always a third inhabitant of our working space – a computer. We use the computer as a shared focus; typically, we are only looking at one computer as we work together. And the configuration of the three points – each of us and the computer – can be pretty fluid. One can stand, the other sit. One can sit on the edge of the desk or table while the other sits on the chair. Both can sit on the floor, or side-by-side on a couch.

As soon as we add another person, we really can’t sit side-by-side anymore. And, while we can try and make it work, it starts to be too hard for all of us to see. At that point, the most natural shape of collaboration is the circle. And we do have to deal with the problem of attaining shared focus – which is critical to collaboration. Sometimes we can all do that from our individual computers using something like Google docs – looking at the same document, live. From all my experience with collaborative teams, the most effective teams have a way of projecting one computer as a shared focus for the group (sometimes this is just a large monitor big enough for everyone to see). We can all look at the same thing at the same time and often, one person “runs the mouse,” although we  now use portable keyboards and mice which we can pass to each other as the conversational lead changes.

But what is the shape of collaboration, when we aren’t meeting as a group? Does the collaboration happen only when we are together, sitting in our circle? There’s another place we can be together across space and time, and that is a collaborative space provided in the virtual environment. We can each continue to contribute to the joint work through shared documents and web sites, continue the conversation and discussion through chats and discussion forums. I tend to think of a cloud when I think of these kinds of virtual spaces, and well, a cloud is typically pretty circular in form (if more irregular than a table).

But what if some of us can meet face-to-face, and others can be with us at the same time, just not in the same space. What is the shape of collaboration then?  One important shared focus is the space for the virtual presence of those who aren’t physically there. They can be collaboratively “there” to do the work or explore the ideas together. This shared focus emerges from the voices of the collaborative team (a conference phone), or better yet, the video of our faces through video conferencing. For the phone, the shape of collaboration is a circle again. For the video, the shape of collaboration is a circle, if you see the remote participants as having their own “place” at the table. Here’s where configuration can get tricky – everyone needs to see and hear everyone else. And that virtual cloud of collaborative tools and resources surrounds all of us, whether we are sitting at the table, or participating at a distance.

What does it mean for collaborative learning space design if the shape of collaboration is a circle?

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This entry was posted on June 6, 2013 by in Designing learning spaces and tagged , , .
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