Open Source

Different forms of collaboration in learning

Some months ago a friend, smau, made a very valuable comment to an earlier post in this blog (look the comments). He wrote a short list of different forms of collaboration. Since then I already used the list in one study report, even that I was not sure how should I make references to a blog comment.

I thought to elaborate the list in here a bit more. For instance it seems to be related to the ways (1) how free/libre/open source software is developed, (2) free/libre/open education organized and (3) how new kind of conferences are arranged. To gain quality software, high-level learning results and valuable conference experience we must move to more advance forms of collaboration.

We may analyze collaboration by looking for what are the objects (some people call them artifacts) worked out, how are the scripts (processes) handled and what is the density of communication in the systems. There are five – well four, as the first one is solo activity – forms of collaboration. I made a table out of the original list.

Let’s have a look of these forms of collaboration in software development processes, in educational systems and in a ways of arranging conferences. This is because I am right now in an open conference and we should soon decide what we are trying to do in here.

Whatever is the case – software, education or a conference – the most important thing is to define what is the object of the activity? In software development the object is very concrete, although it is digital. It is the software. In education the object can be whatever from national security, to students and knowledge. In a conference the object can also vary from political propaganda to the aim of innovating something new.


If you work on software alone, in a solo-activity process, you decide yourself when and how you program your software. You do not share your code or way of working. You do not communicate until your product is ready. Simple.

In a case of a whole educational system, solo activity is rather difficult to arrange. There are too many stakeholders. Some kind of co-ordination seems to be a necessity. Still, I am afraid that there are Ministries of Education who think that they can handle the issue just by themselves. In learning and teaching practice solo activity it is rather common. For instance teacher may ask students to do self-study and to take a full responsibility of the process. The communication is then limited to the test that is taken and to the grade given.

In a conference solo activity would mean that there is only one keynote speaker who will give all the presentations. Funny? Actually this was common in Europe in 1930’s and 1940’s and still takes place in some places. Communication? Lift your hand.

Co-ordinated activity

In a co-ordinated software development you may outsource some parts of the development (often coding) and then just co-ordinate that everybody is doing what they were suppose to do: your script is expected to be followed. The final object (the software) is not shared, as each person working in the project have had his or her own individual objects. The master object – the actual software – is managed by you. There is not need for intensive communication after the work tasks are defined by you. The whole code is not shared and different developers do not necessary even know who is doing what and where.

Co-ordination is probably the most common form of educational systems. The Ministry is keeping monopoly of the objectives and the script. This is done with the detailed national curriculum and lesson plans defining what teachers and students should do in the classrooms. Many attempts to standardize teaching and learning have been done to improve the co-ordination.

In conferences with tens of parallel sessions co-ordinations easily becomes the main task both for the organizers and the participants. As an organizer you try to fit everybody to the program. It is important to give all those who have proposed something to the conference, their 15 minutes, as this guarantees that they will come and pay the conference fee. As a participant you then try to run from one conference room to another and try to find the pearls.

Co-operative activity

Co-operative software development means that you as the leader give the code for all those parties participating in the project. However, you want to define with specification document what will be developed and when. You of course may listen other developers’ opinions and point of views, but you make the decisions. The script is yours. The code is shared. Some communication is needed.

In educational system co-operation can be seen in “national conference” and “public hearings” where the objectives of education in large are discussed. This is a common way for Ministries of Education to gather information and opinions from the society. This requires some communication. Based on this the Ministry may then defining the script – the national curriculum – that will be followed. This way the object is shared but the script defining how we will get to the aims is not.

Co-operative conference? I think many scientific conferences are actually co-operative events. There is single discipline (shared object) and the aim is to co-ordinate research in that field: to fill the possible caps in the research agenda, to define new interesting research problems etc. Still, there is the conference committee who makes a decision what will be presented in it, and this way leads the development of the whole field. There is a need form some communication. Co-operative conferences are good for hard science. In humanities, social sciences and education they are easily a bit fake, as is harder to base the decisions on purely scientific facts.

Collaborative activity

In a collaborative software development both the code (the object) and the script are in some extend shared. You as the leader give access to the code for all those who want to take part in the project. You are also happy to let other people to design the working process (the script). If there is a conflict on the objectives or the script anyone may anytime take the code and start a new project. Often this is happens when some of the partners are not happy with the collaborative activity, but would rather use more co-operative, co-ordinated or even solo process. To manage the situation you need a lot of communication.

In educational system collaboration means shared responsibility of the objectives and the ways of achieving them. I would claim that education in Finland is relying on collaboration. The object is somehow shared idea of highly educated and successful nation with delighted citizens. The high level objectives are defined in the national level (shared object), but schools are asked to write with parents and the surrounding local society (business, etc.) their own school curriculum. All these are then published online. This way the different practices and scripts becomes shared objects that are slowly shaping the shared object. Universities in Finland are all State Universities, but by law defined to be autonomous from the state. What this means is under continuous debate and actually right now a hot topic again.

Instead of collaborative conference we should probably talk about workshop. When there is a shared object (group of people know what they want to do) and willingness to do it together (script is shared) I would ask people just to start working on it and see what comes out of it. This rather requires non-formal meeting with the tools needed to do the job. Then you start to work on it and try to share your visions and ways of working with other as well as possible. In a good workshop there is a lot of communication.

Co-constructive activity

Probably the most successful free/libre/open source software projects have been co-constructive processes. In the co-constructive software development the code is naturally fully shared. Anyone can take it and develop it. The difference to the collaborative software development is the way of seeing the script – the practices of working with the object. In a co-constructive process the ways of working becomes very central issue. The script becomes one of the objects. The amount of work invested to software development environments (ways to share code, mailing lists etc,) is an example of this in a free/libre/open source software development. The object is no more the original object, but also the script and tools used to implement it. You may guess that this asks a lot of communication.

In an educational system co-construction would mean continuous development of the pedagogy by all the stakeholders. Teachers and educators should not only teach but also study and develop pedagogical practices, and share their findings with other stakeholders. Everybody should be interested in and willing to invest time and money to think and develop the pedagogical practices, methods and tools. This way the script could become the object of the activity. Again this requires a lot of communication.

I hope the Future of Learning in a Networked World event will be co-constructive conference. But I am afraid that we are still missing the shared object. Let’s hope it will be there in a couple of days.

BTW: I hope that also the Konfabulaari 2006 will be a co-constructive conference. Any shared objects? 🙂

Finally, I guess anyway in the best sessions there is not only one form of activity, but all different forms taking place in a nice harmony. You need solos, co-ordination, co-operation and collaboration to reach the co-construction.

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