The Future of Collaboration in Education

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"Collaboration 1.0 was Lotus Notes and the Web. Then we got wikis. All are mediated by a document. We capture ideas in a document. But today's consumer experience with collaboration is real-time, mediated by voice, text and video, not documents. These are time-based record types — a WebEx conference, a video, a Twitter stream."1

What does the future of collaboration in education look like?

So far in this series we have explored possible futures for scholarly communication and the classroom.2 Now we turn to the world of collaboration, to explore how it might change as technologies, social practices, and education evolves.

Let's focus on one scenario, extrapolating current trends to the world of 2016.

Distance Collaboration Is the Norm for Work, or the Planetary Stage

After the day's classes, Olga returns to her dorm room to work. The camera built into her main computer wakes up, offering a choice of Olga status levels: ready to chat about school; free to talk; observable but busy; invisible. She picks the first option, shrugging out of a winter coat and settling down on the room's sofa. The camera's software picks her out and sends the image across the Internet, its microphone capturing Olga's tablet-shuffling sounds.

Over her desk the projector whirrs into life, displaying a series of windows across the wall. A vertical menu bar rapidly fills up with other people's names and statuses. Next to it Google Earth shows bright spots for each contact, colored to indicate their status: Jim is "always too busy but ready to help" in Virginia; Susan "needs help with resource wiki" in New South Wales. In another window Olga's image appears, letting her adjust her hair and posture almost subconsciously. Next to that her courseware projects list rebuilds itself, displaying timelines and available colleagues for each class item.

On the tablet in Olga's lap appears the framework for one of those projects, a multimedia analysis for French history. It's a mix of video and text boxes for now, mostly copies of archive material and Olga's first thoughts. Now she needs perspective. Running down the list of coconspirators (as she thinks of her many contacts), Olga looks for the most argumentative and the most document-minded, and calls on them for help. Her tablet screen sprouts some new tabs as Victor's work surfaces, his voice coming from speakers next to the dorm room's tiny sink. "I was hoping you'd ping, Olga," he begins. "As usual I've found way too much stuff on 1792, and would be glad to share. So long as you'll help with my physics assignment."

Olga grins. It's a good trade — she loves science, and she needs help with history. Never having met Victor never occurs to her as strange, nor does the way her room fills up with images, sounds, and documents.


It is 2016, and we live in a world of always-on collaboration. In a sense humans always have lived in this world, as we are social beings. What's different in this future is that collaboration occurs at a distance, on a global stage, and in a complex world of multiple social and media levels. Our assumptions about work and learning have begun to change.

Partly this is a result of the social media revolution. Media's default setting is now social, and by 2016 more of our lives integrate media than ever before. We're accustomed to the many shapes this takes. Think of what 2011 assumes: status flags, updates/tweets, friend networks, the social graph, multiple profiles, digital identities, sharing and embedding, commenting and co-creating. Extend this forward five years, assuming continued growth and the rise of new forms (remember when Twitter appeared and we had no category to fit it into?), and nonsocial media becomes a weird outlier, either a throwback or deliberate perversion.

Another driver is the increase in collaborative points of contact within daily life. As the number of devices increases (desktop, laptop, phone, tablet, wall-mounted, etc.), the number of screens grows. Unlike television or books, these screens tend to represent live social platforms, ranging from text messaging to shared game worlds. It is easier to connect with more people than ever before.

The scope and capabilities of those media are also growing. This is hardly a remarkable observation, but it does point to changes in collaboration. At one end of the media continuum we should expect more and better video collaboration; this year has already seen powerful projects from Google (Hangout) and the Skype-Facebook connection, and massively multiplayer rich-media game worlds are already an industrial staple.

My NITLE colleague Eric Harper observed that videoconferencing in 2011 is undergoing a deep transition, as incremental technological improvements yield qualitative differences to user experience. He identifies three particular affordances, starting with "signals of availability": small signals from status indicators speed the identification of synchronous collaborators. Moreover, large-screen video leads to a deeper engagement with collaborators. Much like the Kindle leads readers to focus wholly on a single task, big video makes multitasking more difficult, either by occupying screen real estate or making distraction too obviously evident to other parties. Beyond those two affordances, videoconferencing increasingly reveals an interlocutor's space by displaying numerous environmental cues. Remote collaborators are no longer isolated individuals, but, increasingly, situated persons in a distinct milieu.

At the other end of the media collaboration spectrum, low-bandwidth collaboration tools are simply mainstreamed. From text messaging to e-mail and the long-term rise of wikis (think of Google Docs), these are no longer remarkable, but assumed, production-level services.

All of these forces are not simply technological capabilities. They also describe current practices, people actually using them, as even the most casual glance at user statistics shows. Continued use goes far beyond adoption into realms of practice, habit, and expectation.

We've already seen evidence of such a world in open content and open source. Those two domains have long been predicated upon distributed collaboration in order to thrive. From Librivox to Linux there is a track record of an early, less media intensive form of Olga's world.

Collaboration changes when embedded in such a matrix. The emerging world of always-on human interconnection leavens established work practices, growing them into new forms: documents, meetings, memos becoming Olga's world. As we use media — in its full sense — in our projects, as we connect with people, we enter that matrix of social, ubiquitous computing.

How does this impact schools? The most obvious way is the most explicit. As we insist on teaching communication and collaboration skills from kindergarten onwards, our populations will increasingly expect, be immersed in, and assume these practices. It will be difficult to take the opposite position, of teaching collaboration without doing it in the mainstream sense.

A subtler impact draws on the end of closed classroom doors, which I remarked on in the last column. Collaboration's new scope is global, not national, and certainly not school-based. Not every human being has access to larger-screen video, obviously, although the numbers continue to increase. But growing numbers around the world use social media, from text messaging to Facebook, as the past year's global events have shown. Obviously there are numerous variations depending on nation, region, ethnicity, economic status, religion, and so on, as we've seen within the United States. The result is a planetary field of collaborative play, uneven and dynamic.

If that is true, then schools need to rethink a series of issues. What happens to communication pedagogy, sensitivity training, civics curriculum, digital literacy when the field is no longer the established one of locality and nation? IT resources will be increasingly stressed, from bandwidth to training to machines. Archiving of collaboration records becomes ever more challenging. Issues of privacy and intellectual property return.

Teaching and learning morphs into something new in this world of always-on, usually distant collaboration. How do we structure project-based learning when students naturally reach out to elsewhere for help and co-creation? Remember the old open-source adage: the best experts are elsewhere. How do we nurture collaboration habits with people we neither see nor know? Are we ready to teach and support teaching on a planetary stage? How do students, staff, and instructors do our jobs when the school's walls no longer matter?

  1. Kim S. Nash quoting Geoffrey Moore, "Give Middle Managers Better Collaboration Tools," CIO, April 27, 2011.
  2. See my earlier columns, "New Ways of Thinking About What Comes Next" (EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 1, 2011) and "This Visible College" (EDUCAUSE Quarterly, vol. 34, no. 2, 2011).
  3. Lena Groeger reporting on Kevin Kelly's conference presentation, "Kevin Kelly's 6 Words for the Modern Internet" (, June 22, 2011); note the emphasis on screens, sharing, and flowing.
  4. Cyrus Farivar's The Internet of Elsewhere (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, May 2011) offers an excellent view of this. See also Evgeny Morozov, The Net Delusion (NY: PublicAffairs, 2011).