Solving problems collaboratively is like cutting a pizza into equal slices. Or, is it?

The team has just received instructions for their assignment and are gathered for a weekly meeting.

Mirko: This week’s topic is on “Collaboration”. How shall we work on this together?

Hanna: We each do a slice like a pizza, then combine it later. Those of us ,good at a particular area can take up a role. I can create a google drive and invite everyone.

Ben: Ok, I can set up the google doc to put in the scenarios.

Marjukka: Ok, I will craft out the problem statement and add it to google doc.

Victor: Ok, I will do some literature review on the topic and update on google doc too.

Karen: Ok, I refer to the google doc to create the digital artefact using a padlet.

Anja: Ok, I will consolidate our assignment artefacts (google doc, padlet) and submit together with a short blog post write-up.

Sinead: Ok, looks like everyone’s involved and work is fairly distributed. Good meeting, thanks!

Solving problems collaboratively is like cutting a pizza into equal slices. Or, is it?

“,Vector image of pizza in slices,.” by ,Open Clipart is in the ,Public Domain, CC0

Everyone seemed to have a clear role and something specific to do, but was that really collaboration? What looked like a team working together, was in fact just a fallacy of teamwork disguised in the form of equal distribution and specialization of work. Not to say that specialization isn’t good. In fact, knowing the strengths of your friends, co-workers and leveraging it is a great way to achieve much more with limited resources.

What is collaboration, really?

Back to the fictitious scenario at the introduction. How many of you experienced something similar to the above? Hands up higher so that I can see you… 🙂

As a student and later as a working adult, I faced this scenario several times. While we know internally that it is not the ideal way to work, we succumb to pressures when deadlines are looming. Fortunately, the frequency of such “collaborations” have drastically reduced over the years.

True collaboration entails working interdependently with different teams, taking in the diversity from the different cultures and perspectives each person brings to the table. By ,working synergistically with others, we achieve more and also learn from as well as contribute to the learning of others (Kay, 2022).

Relating back to ONL

At a recent webinar on 07 Nov 22, Dr Oddone lamented how students when assigned to a group often use this strategy of “Divide and Conquer” to meet deadlines but miss out on the real purpose behind that supposed collaborative piece of work. Dr Oddone challenged us (as educators) to create learning activities that build upon each other’s inputs. She acknowledges that this is easier said than done but with today’s affordances in technology (e.g. google doc, miro, slack, trello, etc.) that allows synchronous, asynchronous collaboration, it’s entirely possible. Dr Oddone further emphasized on the virtues of getting students involved in real world problems and recommends working in diverse teams to solve problems collaboratively.

Same same but different.

The earlier pizza “Collaboration” analogy assumes that by splitting the project into different portions – where each student takes charge of a “slice”- their individual separate pieces of work can be combined seamlessly together. In real life, we know this approach does not work. Students & co-workers who chose to work together this way, are tackling a problem without looking at it in totality. This also wastes the potential of diverse perspectives that could come up with creative solutions.

Our role as educators is to help students draw a clear distinction between simply working together and collaborating effectively. Students who eventually join the workforce will learn that there is a very real impact of how certain ,changes upstream can greatly impact things downstream and that its ineffective to look at things in silo.

Experiential Learning

Taking Dr Oddone’s advice to heart, PBL04 decided to experiment with a ,3-6-5 brainstorming method (which is designed to build upon each other’s ideas to generate more ideas in a rapid manner) as a warm up to this week’s topic on collaboration and social learning.

6 participants, 3 minutes, 6 rounds. Yeah, we modified the rules slightly.

The red dotted lines (diagram above) help illustrate how my yellow sticky note ideas were influenced after reading others. This simple but effective activity was well-received by the team. Through this, we experienced an easy way of seeing how we could build upon another person’s idea. Check out our miroboard if this intrigues you.

From here we relooked at the scenario using the FiSH approach. In particular, we focused on the last problem in topic 3’s scenario, i.e. “How can I get people to recognize the value of becoming part of a learning community and experience the benefits of social learning?” and consolidated our findings into ,this Canva. Even the idea of using Canva was blatantly stolen from team PBL teams, but this could also be described as building upon other team’s ideas. Think positive!

Now that we know the virtues of working together effectively, why isn’t this happening all the time? Why aren’t’ learning communities (LC) sprouting like mushrooms all over the place?

Sense of Belonging & Community

To feel belonging requires time and effort. Students on campus have committed to relocating to a different location for a number of years in pursuit of education. They have invested more effort than purely online students, and thus have established a stronger form of identity and belonging. (White, 2022). Comparing this to students who were forced to hybrid arrangements or entirely online learning due to COVID-19, you wonder how much “belonging” this other group of students can generate.

Just because we study in the same cohort, does not mean that we are in the same community.

So, while teachers try their best to set up the right environment and opportunities for students to collaborate and learn together, it also requires students’ motivation to want to build bonds and continue contributing to the shared discussions. The saying goes “it takes 2 hands to clap”. Students could choose to stay as a “visitor” instead of moving to a “resident” continuum. In a nutshell, you get back how much you put into the LC.

Both students and teachers can choose to be independent learners or networked learners.

“Visitors and Residents, belonging and community mapping” by David White is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Closed vs Open communities

Dr Oddone shared a nice image of how the LC has evolved from classroom / theatrette to a network of nodes spread across the world. The different sizes of nodes represent our LC and PLNs. Through technology, all the large and small nodes are now connected. Learning is no longer confined to a specific physical location. However, this then leads to another question as to how to right size the teams?

Nice juxtaposition of Closed vs Open Learning

“Webinar Topic 3 with Kay Oddone – Learning in communities 2022-11-07” by Kay Oddone is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Right-sizing the teams

As educators, when we group students into teams (e.g. breakout rooms) to work on projects, how do we determine the right size? What’s the ,Dunbar number for optimal online networked learning community?

Looking at our ONL222 context, I consider our PBL mini-teams as mini-nodes that exist within a larger network (e.g. ONL222 itself). The larger the group, the less personal it becomes. Inversely, the smaller the group, the higher chance that richer discussion and stronger bonds can be built. I experienced this personally with my own PBL04 team and was able to relate to Dr Oddone’s assertion that stronger ties within a LC coupled with the shared goals lead to a higher chance of task completion (Oddone, 2018).

What’s next?

In conclusion, when a team truly comes together and synergies, it’s an obvious win-win. So, let’s keep on putting our best foot forward to support fellow learners. Yes, that includes writing our own blog reflections, reading and commenting on others’ blog posts and actively participating in ONL222 group discussions and webinars. Let’s get some skin into the game! What’s holding you back? I would love to hear your thoughts.

No learners were harmed in ONL222.


Benedict Chia

19 Nov 2022

Yes, we are working as a team, but are we collaborating?