Monday, August 24, 2015

How to teach swarming?


The other day I came across a post on someone's blog on group work, and I saw this funny (but true, at least to most of my experiences) graphic on group work.  One of the soft skills required to graduate in the MEd program I teach in is to be able to demonstrate the ability to work with others on projects and joint efforts.  This is quite broad as it doesn't specify whether someone is cooperating all the time, collaborating all the time, or choosing the situation and working accordingly.

So, given my experiences working with others, in school, at work, and through extracurricular activities like Rhizo, I thought that it would be good to have a mix of individual activities and group activities in the course I just finished teaching.  This seemed to have worked out well enough.  As with any team project no one seems to come out of the activity without some minor bruising; working with others is a contact sport, at least as far as the ego is concerned†.  So, I was trying to figure out how to best approach these group efforts in the courses I teach.  My ideal would be to have some sort of swarming activity happen, in a manner similar to what I experienced in the Rhizo group.  Instead of thinking of my part and your part, I am thinking of our project.

I wasn't taught how to swarm, and I suspect that others in Rhizo weren't either.  We sort of figured it as we went through the various projects we've collaborated on over this time frame.  The question is: how do I operationalize it for my course? And, how do I help others swarm with learning how to swarm is not really part of the learning objectives? 

Getting back to group work, some of the concerns that have come up over the past 3 years I've been teaching can be classified into the following concerns:
  • one person's grade is based on group performance, so there is FUD about one person's grade
  • one person feels that they are contributing more than their fair share 
  • I work from time-x to time-y, why can't my group members work at the same time? 
It seems that the round robin approach and the synchronous contact approach are the two most common approaches for groupwork.  It makes sense because most learners learn to do this in a face to face setting, in-between course sessions for the round-robin, and either before or after class when the face to face course is in session.  Swarming is different.  People don't wait for one person to finish before going in, they work concurrently. This has the effect of potentially obfuscating who does what, which is another concern. 

As a research collaborator in the Rhizo group I have never been worried that I do a ton of the work and others are freeloading. On the contrary, sometimes I feel like the slacker of the group and that I don't contribute enough (so many smart people in that group).  I've grown accustomed, at least a little, to being able to contribute as much as I can when I can. I don't know how long the rhizo group will last in its current form, but fluidity seems to be the keyword with the swarm, so I am convinced that when I have more time to devote I will definitely do so.  In a class of 13 weeks, however, how does one make group members comfortable with varied levels of participation?  Does each learner need to be the exact same as their peers?  Grading rubrics would tell us yes.  The pursuit of objectivity, while a good pursuit to have (IMHO), also means treating learners the exact same, and I am not sure that's the right approach*.

Unequal effort, or at least the perception of unequal effort, also means that there is a worry on the part of learners that they will get a bad grade not because of their work, but because their team mates will let them down.  This leads people to want to work work on their own. 

So, back to swarming.  My course is over.  I probably won't be teaching it for another year. In the fall semester I am supervising the capstone project, and in the spring I am taking off from teaching (I can only teach 2 courses per year) and focusing on my final EdD course before I start my dissertation seminars (EDDE804). This means that I have time to think about this and brainstorm.  How would you help learners (in an introductory course) to unwind and swarm for their groupwork? 


NOTE:
† a little connection to "checking the ego" at the door discussion we've had with Rhizo folks :-)

* Interesting side note.  Before I started teaching, and in my first few courses taught, I tended to be more of a rubric person. Everything needed a detailed rubric.  While I value rubrics now, I am less "dependent" on them. I haven't been teaching long (in the grand scheme of things), but I do feel that there are more valuable experiences to be had by going off-road sometimes...
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