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Two years ago, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of speaking at the White House and sharing the story of a global collaboration project. It was part of the Future Ready initiative and I spoke about the need to leverage the connective and creative power of technology in design projects that were human-centered. I shared a few success stories, but the reality of the project is that we faced tons of mistakes and ran into tons of barriers. We had groups fail to complete the project. We had one class abandon the project right before it began.

The truth is that global collaboration is really hard to pull off. Here are a few of the barriers we faced:

  • Not every teacher had the same philosophy about student choice.
  • Each teacher had slightly different ideas about how structured the design thinking process should be.
  • Each school had different policies governing what teachers could and couldn’t do.
  • Each teacher had varying expectations regarding things like deadlines and late work.
  • Many of the tools we planned to use were blocked in different schools.
  • We ran into issues of culture and class and power and privilege. Global collaboration doesn’t happen in a cultural or social vacuum.
  • The curriculum maps didn’t line up perfectly.
  • Schools have really rigid schedules but also tons of interruptions (fire drills, awards assemblies, etc.)
  • We ran into a huge time zone issue, which meant the projects had to be mostly asynchronous.
  • We didn’t do a very good job getting our work to an authentic audience.

So, looking at the mistakes we made and the barriers we faced, would I do it again? Absolutely. Because, here’s the thing: those barriers happen all the time in global collaboration. You see these same issues when companies have remote workers. You see it when friends work long distance on creative projects. Global collaboration is hard to pull off. That’s why so many people never even try.

But whether we like it or not, we live in a connected world. We’re not sure what careers our students will enter, but chances are they’ll engage in global collaboration. This goes beyond group work or even cooperation:

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10 Tips for Global Collaboration Projects

  1. Start with a “cooperative” project before going collaborative. For example, when teachers participated in our Global Day of Design, they worked independently. Teachers shared their work with a global audience using the same hash tag on Instagram, Vine, and Twitter. However, in a few cases, these loose connections led to deeper collaboration.
  2. Plan it out in the summer. I have two good friends that I’ve known from blogging and Twitter. We tried to make global collaboration work but our schedules just didn’t fit. Things got crazy during the school year and every one of us dropped the ball.
  3. Choose one project. Global collaboration is important but so is your local community. These projects can be a drain on time and energy. By limiting yourself to one project, students are exposed to global collaboration and get a vision for what it could look like, but you don’t end up burning out.
  4. Choose asynchronous tools. We tried to use Google Hangouts and Skype but that turned out to be a nightmare. We had better results using email, blogs (in our case Write About, which I helped develop), and Google Drive.
  5. Remember the context. It’s easy to forget just how different the school culture and climate can be from place to place. It can be a challenge to pull off a global collaboration project in a dysfunctional culture.
  6. Double-check policies. Find out what tools are blocked from place to place. See what the rules are about publishing one’s work to the world. Make sure you have the right paperwork.
  7. Talk to stakeholders. Share why global collaboration is vital for students and how your project will help students gain skills for the creative economy.
  8. Create shared expectations. Each group will exist in a separate context, so this can create a clash in what behaviors are considered okay in each environment.
  9. Pay attention to culture, class, and race. We ran into this challenge a few times, where my students felt that they were given less leadership in their groups because of their native language, their accents, or their cultural background. Diversity is valuable and we want to see students connect cross-culturally. However, there are some real hot button issues right now and we, as teachers, need to be cognizant of this as we approach global collaboration.
  10. Do some team-builders. Let your students get the chance to get to know one another before launching a larger project. This could be a simple interest survey or a set of email exchanges back and forth. It could be a game or an interactive activity.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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