Purposeful collaboration: Rules of engagement

Inclusive collaboration in online spaces

Collaboration is a vital 21 Century capability (Drummy et al., 2022), the importance of which has been encoded into the graduate outcomes of every level of education in Australia for at least a decade (Matters & Masters, 2014).  

The process of leveraging human resources intelligently, cooperatively, and productively acknowledges unique strengths, facilitates reciprocal learning and generally increases a project’s chance of success (Robinson, 2010; Vygotsky, 1978).

Collaborative learning empowers students to participate in authentic and creative projects that are interest-driven, while teachers build capacity in relevant 21st Century capabilities (See NPDL-inspired projects [2m20s;3m20s; 4m05s]).   

Global challenges require global solutions, and Covid-19 provided a litmus test for the world’s leaders’ capacity for cohesion. Nationalistic and siloed thinking may well have resulted in the uneven vaccine rollout (Peacock, 2022) that WHO’s Director General (2021) termed “catastrophic moral failure”.  

Graduates therefore require the kind of integrated thinking scholars have been recommending for decades (See Godinho et al., 2007; Mockler et al., 2018; Rose, 2011) — so they can be collaborative responsible global citizens (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014). Reviewing international literature revealed the following cognitive, social, and circumstantial ‘criteria’ for productive collaboration in this globalised world (Kumaravadivelu, 2012).

Criteria for successful creative collaboration: The rules of engagement

Successful collaborators:

  • Have common valued objectives, are completing meaningful tasks, authentic to their lives with clear self-determined goals (Fullan & Quinn, 2022; Wang & Hong, 2018).
  • Accept and integrate feedback, even if it means renegotiating objectives. They understand this is part of the design process. They know how to ‘let go’, and teachers can model this by allowing students agency in their classrooms (Meyer, 2024).
  • View success as a collective condition, integrating others’ goals into a new shared direction (Robinson, 2010; Wang & Hong, 2018).
  • Share responsibility and accountability which may advance the group’s efficacy as a whole, increasing self-efficacy for all students (Schruijer, 2020; Foder et al., 2020).
  • Play the critical ‘friend’ when needed. They have the confidence to speak up when they see a problem and the social capability to do so constructively (Fullan & Quinn., 2022; Killen, 2018; Makematic, 2019).
  • Listen to opposing views, suspending judgement to see how they can connect with or even integrate the differing view (Byram, 2021; Fullan & Quinn, 2022; Yunkaporta, 2019). Indeed, internal diversity of groups enriches the talent and perspective pool, and successful collaborators embrace this (Cavanagh, 2021; Curşeu & Pluut, 2013; Robinson, 2010, 2m,10s).
  • Take creative risks to try new things even if they risk being ‘wrong’ (OECD, 2019; Robinson, 2007).
  • Self-regulate their work practices. They manage goals and deadlines, work autonomously when required (Marzano & Kendall, 2008).
  • Communicate regularly and proactively when they are struggling or have a new idea (Gardner al., 2021).
Creating collaboration: Building capacity for all students

An interesting OECD study sparked my interest in how technology can combat gender discrimination in education by mediating collaborative learning spaces for girls, making them ‘safe spaces’ (Fitzsimmons et al., 2018). This notion resists the narrative that gender discrimination must be addressed by girls themselves, who should just “lean in” to micro-aggressions and interact more assertively (Gill & Orgad, 2017; 2022).

From the 20 icons below, I have therefore decided to focus particularly on gender (14), technology (17), and assessment (7) in this example of practice.

(image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad).

Safe online spaces: Removing the social cost of speaking up

In recognition of its relevance, collaborative problem-solving was included in PISA testing from 2015, with results suggesting girls were “much better than boys at working together to solve problems” (OECD, 2017) — but they didn’t necessarily enjoy it.

According to a ‘positive learning index’ that “weighs and combines the frequencies of feeling happy, self-confident, cooperative, in control, competitive, and having fun when learning”, OECD (2019) found girls experienced lower levels of ‘positive learning feelings’ than boys, while collaborating on projects.

However, girls usually report enjoying working with peers (Fitzsimmons et al.,2018), and if — as OCED claims — they’re “better” at it, why don’t they experience collaborative problem solving positively?

Interestingly, in STEM-related activities, many girls lack confidence, and a lack of confidence reduces active participation and contributing ideas (Carter et al., 2018) — perhaps accounting for lower engagement in science and technologies (Gonski et al., 2018).

Girls are known to be more risk averse, socially and academically, but rather than some biological determination, the cause tends to be gender-based micro-aggressions (Booth et al., 2014; Fitzsimmons et al, 2018). OECD (2019) suggests that girls might therefore struggle with “stretching and playing with unusual, risky, or radical ideas” in group projects.

“At the highest levels of creative achievement, student work will feature many instances of risk-taking” (OECD, 2019). This character trait must therefore be developed if gender outcomes are to be equitable (Toussaint, n.d.)

“If you are not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”.

(Ken Robinson, 2007, 5m,44s)

Educators must facilitate a safe space within which girls can become ‘literate’ in these 21C behaviours — instead of disengaging from fulfilling learning experiences (Burns et al., 2019).

The challenge: to leverage both the social tendencies of girls and the safe spaces that technology affords, to create a mutually supportive learning environment that builds capacity with explicit goals (NPDL, 2016, 4m7s).

Drawing on assessment as learning (Earl, 2003) and principles of authentic assessment, explicit success criteria have been developed — aligned with the dynamic cognitive, dispositional, and creative qualities of successful collaborative learning (Carless, 2015). Shared data will be gathered through self and peer-assessment (Grainger & Weir, 2020; Wiliam, 2016) with feed-forward opportunities informing next steps (Sadler et al., 2023).

Leveraging technology through online feedback dialogue and peer assessment

Context: Year 9 English “Story Circle” activity: Step 1 in Trimboli’s (2020) “digital storytelling methodology”, giving students “the opportunity to provide ‘voice’”, as “project participants gather together and share script ideas” (p. 41).

Background: The school is offering Film and TV for the first time next year. The plan is to initiate students to the subject through collaborative digital storytelling in English, with a film showcase night planned. A class survey revealed that boys felt more confident to engage with Film & TV projects, citing making Tik Toks with friends as a key motivator. Girls indicated that it sounded stressful but they might be interested in writing scripts, but wouldn’t want to direct or appear on screen. (This aligns with OECD [2019] reports of risk-aversion in girls).

The activity is conducted over two weeks, at home and at school. Students form groups of their choosing and plan the specifications of their film clip in Flipgrid. Discussions take place in closed Flipgrid groups, with group and teacher access.  

The product is an initial set of design criteria (characteristics/techniques/audience/impact descriptors) for a short film to be developed using tools from here.

Students will analyse self-selected short films to identify features related to (or techniques to manipulate) structural elements, language, sound, and visual elements to convey meaning. They will also be considering the affordances and barriers of techniques for their audience.

Each student will select 2-3 videos to analyse, recording their thoughts on Fligrid. Group members will respond and the group will discuss, negotiate and evaluate various recommended elements from each group member. The group will select elements to synthesise into a collective set of specifications for the project. Nothing else is required at this stage. The focus is on the process of collaboration.

Collaboration as a learning outcome

Orientation: Prior to collaborating, students watch this video and this video and reflect on what they see. Students prepare a one-minute soundbite (recorded or live) to “explain collaboration to a five-year-old”. Formative assessment data informs explicit teaching of collaboration.

Task begins: Students form groups. Students can assign roles if desired, or work flexibly, but roles must be clear and goals established (Teachthought, 2020).

Students are provided with this simplified version of the collaborative practice criteria already identified (under first heading, this page).

Process: The video function will be used for students and teacher to provide feedback. Through “online feedback dialogues” students will “co-develop actionable feedback points” to inform their shared criteria list, with the safe space provided by Flipgrid allowing them to “process some of the socio-affective and relational aspects of feedback engagement”, in peace (Wood, 2022, p. 327).

Next steps thinking: “The technology could also mediate multiple, recursive task-oriented discussions over space and time in emergent collaborative learning spaces” (Wood, 2022, p. 327).

The final product: Ultimately, students collate their planned criteria as a video or shared Google Doc. The teacher can demonstrate ways to combine various video streams, upload videos from another platform (for example if they want to record a Zoom meeting they have had).

Curriculum alignment

Links to the Australian Curriculum: Languages Version 9.0

Yr 9 English:



General Capability for Personal and Social Capability (Lvl 6).

Collaboration: devise strategies for collaborative work and outputs in a range of contexts, building on the perspectives, experiences and capabilities of group members

Communication: devise strategies that apply effective verbal and non-verbal communication in response to feedback