Sunday, November 13, 2005

Diary of an Online Collaborationist


This podcast provides a tongue-in-cheek look at the experience of participating in an collaborative final project for an online course. Please do not miss the companion piece for this article: "Why Online Collaborations Fail."

Working on the collaborative final project for a recently completed online course was a wonderful experience in many ways. I went through a full range of emotions from the very beginning - from feeling embarrassed for being off to such a slow start, to euphoria for when my partner, Patrika (not her real name - I've altered it to protect myself), and I were really bringing things together, and we developed a structure that allowed us to both contribute without perturbing the piece as a whole in terms of voice or continuity.

Along the way, I found myself in different states of mind, or stages in the unfolding process. Here are a few (a bit tongue-in-cheek):

Phase 1: Self-flagellation: There's nothing like a good round of self-flagellation to motivate oneself to pull out of a state of lethargy or procrastination and to try to get back on track. I like to tell myself I am "deadline driven." Apparently, I'm not - at least not to the degree I had congratulated myself about. I am caught up in the throes of procrastination and work avoidance. Thankfully, a truly repellant task came along and I could avoid it by turning my attention to the long-neglected instructional design certificate unit. To my horror, I find I am several weeks behind on the discussion board. It is like one of those dreams I used to have about being assigned to teach a class, and then getting the day (or semester) wrong.

Phase 2: "The Fog:" What am I supposed to do? How do I get started? My partner describes herself as a person whose friends tell her she's the most driven person they've ever met. I'm happy she's taken the lead. That doesn't really lift the fog, though. I still am not sure what I'm supposed to do, or what the expectations are. As is my way, I decide to stumble around in the fog until I hit a wall or fall into a car-swallowing chughole. The fog always gets worse before it gets better. The darkest hours are… who am I? What am I doing here? Deep existential questions start intruding. I dig out the syllabus. It is a bit thin in terms of the final project, but it is at least reassuring. I look down and realize I have given myself a paper cut.

Phase 3: Whining and Self-Pitying aka Shame: Patrika e-mails me her first draft. It looks to me at first glance to be about 3,000 pages long, filled with original research and statistical gymnastics: chi-squares, linear regressions, and one-way ANOVA, along with a refutation of Occam's Razor, and blueprints for an intergalactic Noah's Ark to save all the world's endangered species' DNA. I immediately start wringing my hands and fretting. I call my mother and complain that I can't seem to lose weight and that every man I've ever met after I reached the age of majority has valued emotional doggedness more than (at least in my opinion) the more intriguing affective approximations of flux and chaos theory. I take a deep breath and start scrolling through Patrika's magnum opus. Thankfully, the 3,000-plus pages shrink before my eyes to a manageable 10, much of which consists of a nicely wrought outline. I can see where I need to add material. I'm even starting to have a few ideas of my own about how the collaboration could take place.

Phase 4: Exploring the Woods: The concepts are intriguing. I'm intrinsically motivated. I'm fascinated by the sub-topic I've chosen for my part, which is self-regulation and goal-setting. Researching this is helping me understand more about my own work patterns and behaviors. I'm playing in the woods, and getting a bit far afield. It is very satisfying.

Phase 5: Playing with the Dollhouse: Sooner or later, it's time to come inside. I can't play in the woods all day. So, I have my bundle of papers, printouts of articles, and notes. It's miniature furniture to arrange in the dollhouse I've constructed in my mind. The paper is coming together well, and I'm happy that we've decided that it is not necessary to dismantle the dollhouse once we've brought in our separate pieces of furniture. Instead, we've decided how to combine our separate pieces, and to move the armoire into the corner, and to place the tiny dhurrie rug in front of the teeny-tiny four-poster bed. I'm amazed at how much fun it is to collaboratively re-arrange the parts of the paper, smooth out the rough edges, and think of how to bring certain points into focus. Thankfully, we both had a good idea of what the desired outcome would look like. Rather less happily, it is just the two of us. Our other collaborators are gone. One dropped the class, and the other seems to like to post to the discussion board, but abhor collaborative paper-writing.

Phase 6: We Did It! aka We Are Women, Hear Us Roar: Well, actually Patrika should be the Helen Reddy of this duo, but, despite my slow start, I am proud to say that I contributed something of substance. Self-regulation, yes. Not only have I learned something I can use when I develop courses and programs, I have figured out how to take a massive task and to carve it into bite-sized chunks. It is all about how much you can chew. Okay, maybe it's not. Maybe it's about the rewards, and the good feeling one gets when the task is knocked off and another one underway. I reward myself by going to Closeouts and buying a pair of fuzzy gloves for $2.99 (plus $5.00 shipping), and a vintage library-bound copy of Truman Capote's Breakfast At Tiffany's. I wonder what it would feel like to become a caricature of oneself. I suspect I already know.

Phase 7: Oops, Where's Waldo? A twinge of conscience kicks in. Is it wrong to move forward when a partner is doing nothing? Is it ethically okay to structure the collaborative work so that it is clear which person contributed to each part? Or, as a true team, should we smooth it all together? The gaping holes left by our errant (aka Missing) partner are about as obvious as one could get without going the next step and signing him up for The Apprentice, just for that schadenfreude moment when the inevitable "You're fired!" happens. Is it healthy for group work to be so laced with resentment and self-righteousness? I'm not sure, but it amazes me how often that happens in traditional face-to-face group work. The nice thing about the virtual environment is that we can move on and compensate for the lack of participation of one or more. I dash off an e-mail to Patrika, thinking all the while that we were amazing. We looked straight into the jaws of ambiguity and came out alive, kicking, and ready to take on another instructional design certificate module.

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