Collaborating, Cooperating, and Co-opting

So, I have finally caught up on my RSS reading. Sort of. I keep getting side tracked and have been looking at two collaborative tools — Zoho Writer and ThinkFree — that I’ve known about for awhile, but came up in my reading tonight. (To digress for a moment, my goal this next week is to read my feeds in Google Reader every day. We’ll see how that goes…).

That said, I am interested in thinking more about the entire notion of collaboration that the discussions of the read/write web and school 2.0 have generated in the past year, and especially in the last month or so. It seems that every podcast that I listen to or blog that I read points to “collaboration” as one of the “new literacies” and that social networking (as a proxy for collaboration) holds such great promise in schools for rethinking the teacher student relationship, curriculum and instruction, and just about everything else.

What I find lacking in most of these conversations is a discussion of what would happen if schools do/are already co-opting some of the collaborative and social tools that students are using outside of school for classroom use. Now, this is not to say that I don’t think that we should try (or else I wouldn’t blog about these topics on a regular basis). However, I do think that we need to carefully consider what it means to “collaborate” as compared to just “cooperate” and what happens when we try to use tools in school that students gladly use on their own, but may (or may not) like to see in schools.

My concern stems partially from the many, many curricular documents that seem to be touting 21st century literacies and, inherent in those literacies, the idea that students collaborate. To the extent that we see collaboration happening, all the better. Yet, I don’t know that schools encourage collaboration (where the sum is, indeed, more than the total of the individual parts) so much as it promotes cooperation (hey, let’s get along so we can finish this project). There are many power structures in schools — from the community to the school board to the administration to the teachers to the students to cliques and types of students — that may say they want collaboration, when in fact what they want is cooperation.

This becomes problematic. When we teach under the guise of collaboration, yet all students are not expected to contribute meaningfully to the project, then we shortchange all the students working on it. We have all been a part of a group or taught a group of students who foist the work upon one or two students (or, contrarily, choose to take it upon themselves as martyrs). Moreover, there are times when group work is meant to be busywork and cooperation, not collaboration is the goal.

I don’t know that I have a strong thesis for this argument so much as I just want to express some thoughts and concerns about the current discourse surrounding the word “collaboration.” I would be curious to hear how others are interpreting that term in different contexts and to know whether or not I am thinking clearly about it. That, I feel, would be a powerful, collaborative discussion.

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