Immersion as learning: collaborating on the learning journey Print E-mail
By Camilla Elliott   

Setting up the collaboration

The project was entitled OzLinks and commenced with an initial familiarisation period, after which time students were to plan a holiday together in an Asian or Middle Eastern country and present a journal or itinerary of their activities. Activities also included the use of personal avatars, development of an understanding of identity protection and a concluding sharing experience within Voicethread.
Partnerships were nominated and students used a group wiki to get to know each other and develop an understanding of each other’s geographical environment. This was a familiar project within the Year 8 curriculum, but its transfer to a collaborative web environment where all involved were embarking on a new experience in learning transformed it into an exciting learning adventure over a period of 12 weeks.
From the outset it was apparent that this was to be an exercise in trust. Trust between myself and Diane Peters, also between myself and teacher, Denise Knight, whose Yr 7 Humanities class participated as the Australian class. We were on unfamiliar ground but realised the necessity of jumping in and beginning the journey. Teachers will understand this approach. In dealing with the use of Web 2.0 learning it is particularly important as, while there are a variety of tools, there are many obstacles. The learning is chaotic with neither student nor teacher being entirely the expert. It is exploratory learning as students, on the whole, possess a level of comfort with the Internet that encourages them to explore. It is also a democratic learning environment with less skills polarisation between expert and learner than in the traditional classroom. Everyone is a learner.

Motivation and enthusiasm

From the outset, a high level of student motivation and enthusiasm was evident. Australian teacher Denise noted an increased level of engagement with some students who found this an environment in which they could excel and, in fact, they became expert assistants within the class. An inspection of the history log files on the wiki also indicated that students accessed the site at times other than during the timetabled class. It was clearly apparent that this project was providing a lever to student motivation in these critical middle years. One could say that it was an example of the type of learning articulated in the Melbourne Declaration (2009) which states that motivation “can be influenced by tailoring approaches to teaching, with learning activities and learning environments that specifically consider the needs of middle years students”. Students are highly engaged with web 2.0 and similar activities which involve the use of technology and cater for a variety of learning styles.
Knowledge of themselves and others is an important aspect of a student’s development. Organising students within a wiki facilitated a group working space with each group having a ‘personal’ page and a ‘project’ page. Immediately the personalities of students emerged and the majority set out to explore similarities and differences. In some instances, the personal page became a ‘chat’ forum, for example:
Hey Zoe – yah i think we should do indonesia and yes i do have a dog his name is gus he is cool i also have two kittens there sisters but one drowned in our pool but we have another one that is one month old and weighs 4 ounces she is mine and named her peanut.
hey Alex – Oh my Gosh!!!! your cat drowned in your pool!!!! that is so sad! i like the name peanut. i have a cat called Sparkle and a dog called roxy. do u have any siblings i have 2 older sisters.
Hey Zoe - Yes i have one brother and one sister my sister has had five open heart surgeries and is still alive. do you have surf board and do u surf.
to alex – i feel so sorry for your sister and i'm really glad she is still alive. i don't have a surf board and i have never tried to surf but i do ski in the river. one of the reasons why i have never surfed is because there is no ocean in Mildura (Ozlinks 2008).
For others it was an indicator of diversity as Austin stated: "[my] favorite tv show is bull riding. I dont do really any sports but i am going to take bull riding lessons, soon" (Ozlinks, 2008).

Authentic learning experiences

Throughout the course of the project students participated in collaborative teamwork, problem-solving, communicating, making connections, creating, and expressing themselves in a variety of ways. They learnt about time zones, seasons, customs and the differences in the structure of the school year. Numerous opportunities arose for instruction in the responsibilities of being a digital citizen and the need for identity protection. The implications of location in varying parts of the globe were highlighted in the students’ quest to meet at a set Asian or Middle Eastern location.
A skill relevant to all students was their reliability and responsibilities when working as the member of a team. The teamwork operated on a number of levels. Not only were the students collaborating with their online partner, within the classroom students collaborated spontaneously to support and learn from each other. There was a blurring of traditional teacher/student roles as in many respects we were all learners.

Future learning goals

Participating in this initial collaborative online learning through the Ozlinks project has provided us with the experience to heed the advice of educational leader Greg Whitby when considering future collaborations. He is adamant that a new pedagogy must emerge if students are to leave school with the necessary skills to function in their future lives, insisting that education must have a socialising focus that will “enhance the learners’ communal and global consciousness and foster responsible citizenship” (Whitby, 2007). A small sample of the numerous social consciousness raising projects appearing on the Internet that meet this criteria are: United Nations, Tunza Youth Advisory Council, Australian Youth Embassadors for development, Oxfam international youth partnerships, United to end child labour, Caritas Global Issues, EnViSci Network and Global Education Projects.
While the Ozlinks project differed from those noted here in that it did not have an established framework, the experience of collaborating globally taught us the importance of defining processes to ensure success. To this end, some basic recommended guidelines for a teacher embarking on a collaborative online projects are: 
  • Establish a relationship with the collaborative partner prior to commencement;
  • Plan an authentic learning activity with specific outcomes;
  • Set up students partnerships as pairs or small groups;
  • Undertake activities to build student relationships and perspectives;
  • Create a presentation framework e.g. wiki, that provides flexibility for students;
  • Be prepared to explore and abandon Web 2.0 tools if necessary;
  • Be aware for opportunities to highlight everyday cultural differences;
  • Use the student skills base to build cooperation and share teaching;
  • Be alert for opportunities for digital citizenship skills building;
  • Use school login details; no surnames or personal details;
  • Establish common passwords and search tags;
  • Use official school email only;
  • Use regular whole class discussion to review progress and share new knowledge;
  • Share multimedia resources were possible;
  • Encourage flexibility.