Many people still feel that the immediacy of face-to-face collaboration is the gold standard in getting teamwork projects done. However, there are a number of high profile examples of digital and online collaboration that yield real results.

First, there’s the Polymath Project. What began as a thought experiment by Tom Gowers titled, “Is massively collaborative mathematics possible?” on his blog, has ended up as one of the most successful online mathematics collaborations ever. It’s called Polymath and while the posts, comment and problems proposed are an ever-growing conversation, the collaborators have also managed to solve a number if math problems together, resulting in publication.

Then there are Apache and Linux software that are massively collaborative, as open source software development hubs that draw from hundreds of thousands of engineers, developers and coders who work to voluntarily improve the code and applications.

Last but not least, even science-based R&D is being crowdsourced by companies such as InnoCentive, who tap into a network of more than 120,000 scientists around the world to solve problems too difficult or labor intensive for internal R&D labs. Over 400 problems have been solved to date.

If you are interested in further studying the online collaboration phenomenon and its future, start perhaps with the comprehensive book Wikinomics.

5 Digital collaboration skills every student needs to master

So let’s agree that online collaboration is certainly something many students will come across in their careers, as well as their studies. What are the key skills they will need to master online collaboration? Read on to find out more about five of them:

Communication

Hearing, listening and talking/writing are fundamental to basic communication skills. In an online collaboration environment these are arguably even more important. How many times have you misunderstood an email or text, because the intonation and tone was missing? What was your initial reaction? Firing off comments or emails in response to a “feeling” is seldom productive. For young students this requires a high degree of maturity. Continuing to ask for clarity, regardless of one’s initial feelings, is necessary to forge clearer communications and better outcomes.

Humility

Associated with the above skill is the ability to declare oneself “in the dark” — again maturity plays a role here. Conceding if a concept or piece of information is not clearly understood is essential to developing better communication as well as group-wide comprehension (if you are struggling to understand, someone else will probably be too). It also indicates to other participants that the forum is a safe place, where not everyone needs to have all the answers all the time.

Grace

For want of a better word, this is the ability to understand that not everyone, at all times, will have the information you require them to. Online collaboration requires enormous amounts of patience as well as a deep-seated sense of equality — every member brings different, but equal, qualities to the collaboration — yet not everyone will be up to speed, on everything, all of the time.

Generosity

Sharing your ideas and concepts online can be scary; we live in a world were individualism is paramount, and individuals — far more than groups — are awarded and acknowledged. As such it takes a certain amount of generosity of spirit to share with individuals online, with a view to enabling the entire group to become stronger and better able to resolve the problem at hand.

Netiquette

The fundamentals of good online decorum are even more essential in an online collaborative environment. Some basics your students should understand include:

  • Never write in capital letters
  • Try and acknowledge the other person’s point of view
  • Don’t troll or insult
  • Don’t publish others’ personal details on a public forum
  • Try and keep one-on-one conversations out of group chats to avoid irritating other members
  • Keep different time-zones in mind
  • Acknowledge and credit the work of others
  • Avoid long tranches, or essays in a conversational forum
  • Use supporting links, to help limit the amount of text

Closing thoughts

I like that online collaboration requires the characteristics we associate with a well-rounded, mature individual. Creating opportunities for your students to engage in online collaboration will therefore not only expose them to different, global ideas but will also test their intersocial abilities, emotional intelligence and develop their ability to communicate their ideas clearly and persuasively.

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