Collaborating with smart technology

I am one of the facilitators on the Collaborating day of the forthcoming #BYOD4L course. I thought I would sketch out some ideas to help me prepare for discussions on that day.

Innovation through Collaboration

Following on from my previous post, I expect to find different and better ways of teaching and learning when changing the learning environment. In this case we are considering how personally owned smart technologies change the learning environment. There are two key changes in terms of collaboration that are being brought to the learning situation, which together create the classic 2+2=5 opportunity and a third difference.

  1. access to synchronous and asynchronous communication tools promoting learner and teacher interactivity
  2. media production tools allowing for user-generated content
  3. together, social media production

Socially-Generated Content (SGC)

Before we even consider ideas such as learner engagement or Communities of Practice, let’s simply examine the learning environment.
Everyone within it can communicate with each other wherever they are located, whenever it suits them, and whatever they are doing. The channels of communication are various. They can happen in real time between participants (synchronous) or not in real time (asynchronous). However, there’s more to it than that. Here’s a list of the many modes of communication:

  1. same place face to face (f2f) – real life!
  2. distant synchronous – different places, different media synchronously (consider different media to extend this)
  3. blended synchronous – different places, different media synchronously (consider different media to extend this) and f2f
  4. different places, different media synchronously, but recorded for asynchronous review
  5. same place (f2f), different media synchronously, but recorded for asynchronous review
  6. one to many asynchronous production
  7. many (e.g. students, clients, professionals, social networks, public) to one (e.g. tutor, student)
  8. many to many

I’ll stop at that. You get the point. You also notice that we are starting to see people who are neither students nor tutors involved potentially. This explains why the Media-Enhanced Learning SIG made a shift from just educational podcasting to broader understandings of media, especially recognising the importance of social media in its many forms. Extending that logic, if podcasting appears to be about communication, the availability of communication channels leads to interactivity and, thence, collaboration.


Collaboration is about communication with a purpose or purposes. It is more than co-operation, which literally means working together. It’s more than just working together, the purpose is really important. It fits in with the idea of ‘joint enterprise’ which comes from Wenger’s ideas (1998) about Communities of Practice (CoP); though it is not the same as common purpose. Collaboration allows for mutual benefit – that includes ideas like ‘by helping you I am helping myself’ as well as co-operative endeavour: ‘you work on this bit and I’ll do that bit.’ The third dimension of CoP, that of sharing practice, is not so useful to the idea of collaboration itself though, indirectly, it is likely that the open sharing of knowledge, experience and ideas will not be far away from a collaborating group.

Space – no longer the final frontier

I understand space to mean opportunity or room for thought or action, as much as it means place. Various meanings are useful in considering smart technologies for learning. But for the moment, let’s consider loci – place; the ‘where’ bit of this. Let’s create another list, bearing in mind the list about modes of communication above. This time let’s consider the possible locations for teaching and learning collaboratively with smart technologies:

  • formal university (classroom, lecture theatre, learning centre, lab, etc, etc)
  • Informal university (e.g. corridor, notice board, having coffee, entering or leaving a formal space, etc, etc)
  • work
  • home
  • on the move
  • ‘in the field’ – with our subject
  • many of the above at different times – it doesn’t matter so much

Then there are other places where other people, who we can now connect with, can be found. Fir example,

  • experts in other countries
  • ‘clients’ or real service users
  • students or teachers at other universities
  • members of professional associations
  • ‘publics’ – those disparate groups of people who have an interest in our purpose.

The point here is that space is no longer isolated because or connectivity and our ability to make recordings (notes, photographs, videos, audio recordings, postings to social media, etc.


If we look at purpose we begin to tease open learning and teaching, including formative activities and summative assessment and feedback. This is where we could generate a book without thinking, so rather than do that here, let’s focus on some sample ideas for teaching and learning. For example,

  • a student makes some written notes and shares them with a peer group using Evernote
  • a health service manager briefs a student project by posting a video clip to YouTube. The clip includes interviews with staff and patients made using the iMovie app. Student groups later access this clip over coffee as they discuss how they will address the group task assignment
  • students are asked to record peer audio feedback using the Voice Record app. They edit then share the recording via the option to use the Drop Box service.
  • students build a collaborative revision resource on Google Drive week by week
  • students are each required to interview one manager in an Inquiry-Based Learning module. Once they have submitted their recording and photographs of their ‘manager’ and their work place they are assigned rights to use the collective resource. The collective resource base of interviews and other materials provides a rich source of data for a report they must write.

Collaborative learning activities take many, many forms. The above ideas, and others like them, are easy to generate and would not take much more effort to work up into useful learning scenarios (there’s another collaborative task for Education students!). This list begins to put some flesh on the bones of collaborative learning with smart technologies.

In conclusion

So, SGC disrupts the learning environment by changing the nature of our engagement temporally, spatially and socially.
It also explicitly shifts expectations about the production of media: anyone can produce content. Or, more accurately, anyone can present their knowledge, skills, ideas and expertise.

About Andrew Middleton

NTF, PFHEA, committed to active learning, co-operative pedagogies, media-enhanced teaching and learning, authentic learning, postdigital learning spaces. Key publication: Middleton, A. (2018). Reimagining Spaces for Learning in Higher Education. Palgrave.
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