In all things human, education

With social learning on the rise, group learning and collaboration is becoming increasingly common in the classroom. Students can use google docs, wikis, and powerpoints to create their group projects, and connect across distance to produce their work. Researchers are watching the trend, wondering if this “collective intelligence” will result in increased “creativity, innovation, and invention” (Gray et al., 2013).

While “there is strong evidence that social media can facilitate the creation of Personal Learning Networks that help learners aggregate and share the results of learning achievement, participate in collective knowledge generation, and manage their own meaning making” (Dabbagh, 2012), implementing these tools effectively into the traditional classroom environment is proving tricky. While social media tools work quite well for informal, personal connections, scholastic use has generated an array of challenges around issues such as identity, motivation, and assessment.

America was built upon the ideals of individualism: work hard enough and you can make something of yourself. We pride ourselves on self-reliance, entrepreneurship, and tell tales of dedicated underdogs achieving the American Dream. Not surprisingly, our culture fosters a spirit of competition where individual achievement is valued and prized over the gains of the community. In this context, collaborative learning seems to contradict our fundamental values. How, for example, does one feel invested in a group project when participants don’t contribute uniformly? How do we reward students appropriately for their work? Who “owns” the A?

These scholastic issues are representative of the tensions around privacy and ownership that pervade the greater online community. While Creative Commons has stepped in the bridge the significant grey area between copyright and public domain, ownership is still fuzzy. If I take a screenshot, is it mine? If I tweet without acknowledging the source, is that ethical?

To step back and take a larger view: collaboration, information sharing, and interdependence are essential for progress. When people work together, our communities become stronger and smarter. But as more tools for information sharing are created, we need to cultivate the ethical wherewithal to give credit where it’s due. Taking information for free is still too easy: illegal downloading, plagiarism, and copyright infringement are rife. Our technology has outpaced our ethics and our policing. So until we have the protocols worked out, we need to take personal responsibility for the information that we appropriate and curate. We can start by questioning our use of information as well as attributing credit diligently.

Collective learning is providing us with an opportunity to question our culture’s dogged adherence to individualism. Acknowledging the power of collaboration liberates us from the idea that we need to “do it all” ourselves. Freeing ourselves from our usual short-sighted competitiveness permits us to attribute generously without being afraid that we’ll somehow undercut our own personal worth.

And when we trust others to honour our contributions, then we won’t cling to our own work out of fear that it will be inappropriately stolen or copied.

Who owns the “A?”

Maybe, eventually, we all do.


Clerehan, T., Hamilton, M., Gray, K., Richardson, J., Sheard, J., Thompson, C. & Waycott, J. (2012). Worth it? Findings from a study of how academics assess students’ Web 2.0 activities. Research in Learning Technology (20). 1-15. doi: 10.3402/rlt.v20i0/16153

Dabbagh, N. & Kitsantas, A. (2012). Personal Learning Environments, social media and self-regulated learning: A natural formula for connecting formal and informal learning. Internet and Higher Education (15). 3-8. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2011.06.002

Gray, K., Kim, H. & Thompson, C. (2014). How social are social media technologies (SMTs)? A linguistic analysis of university students’ experiences of using SMTs for learning. Internet and Higher Education (21), 31-40. doi: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2013.12.001


Photo courtesy of Creative Commons.


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