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Match Zimmerman

The Digital Touch: Online Collaboration Inside the Physical Classroom

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In an effort to understand the role of online digital collaboration within the physical classroom, I observed students using Google accounts and applications in order to collaborate both online and in person.  Through connections made with Loyola University’s School of Business, a project emerged in which students were tasked with designing logos and branding for local organizations.  To realize this project, students worked with a variety of design applications and media, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and Google Apps for Education.  One of the Google Apps that played a major role in the reflective journaling, organization, and efficiency of the project was “Do” -- an online, collaborative, project planning platform.  My observations revealed that simply interacting with one another online, or merely discussing work within the physical classroom was not enough to create a strong collaborative environment.  Rather, the combination of discussing and posting online, paired with physical interaction within the classroom was an incredibly fluid, creative, and productive experience.

In my current position at an independent high school in the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, I teach an Advanced Digital Media class, which is made up of high school seniors who have previously taken a year of Digital Media with me. Since implementing the use of Google Apps in correlation with Do, I have observed a number of changes in terms of student interaction, engagement, productivity, and work quality.  Students, who initially did not interact with one another, are now commonly engaged in conversation during class and in the online forum.  Students are creating work in a much more efficient manner, and are openly critiquing each other’s progress. They are much more critical of online resources, as they now seem to realize that they are part of a larger collective of intellectual data online. My role has shifted towards that of a facilitator -- students are teaching each other how to use various elements of digital media applications.

During my observations, a student noticed an interesting graphic effect on a peer’s computer screen.  He got up from his seat, walked over to the screen that was interesting him and asked his peer, “how’d you do that?”  The two boys discussed for a while, pointing at the screen and nodding to each other.  After a pat on the back, the first student returned to his workstation and began applying the directions he had received from his fellow student.  Had this interaction been limited to online collaboration without physical interaction, the process would have likely been clunky, and potentially confusing.  It would have required a typed list of instructions, which would have then been emailed to the student.  Any questions would have to be answered via email, rather than in person.  Though this may not seem overly disruptive, it drastically slows the speed of a student’s creative flow, excitement, and overall engagement in the task.

This action research project has revealed a lot about the roles of both online collaboration and physical interaction within the classroom.  Previously, I had assumed that the mere inclusion of online applications would enhance a student’s interest and ability to share information with a group.  However, I have discovered that online collaboration is not inherently beneficial.  It is absolutely crucial that this form of collaboration is supplemented with physical interaction within the classroom.  Students do benefit from accessing a massive amount of information online and sharing it quickly via online connections. However, there is nothing more instant than a tap on the shoulder, a quick wink, or a verbal announcement to the group; these are interactions that cannot be replicated online and commonly express a depth of communication that is not present in many digital forms.

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