Thursday, January 03, 2008

Learning from My Online Project Mistakes

As usual, Graham Wegner is making me think. He posted a great parable about online collaborative projects and it's forcing me to rethink an experience I had last year that I never paused to reflect upon because it felt like a failure.

Graham's parable shows some of the challenges of coordinating an online collaborative project. I've been on both sides of this parable. Mostly I'm on the tech coach side, but after my experience last year of taking part and then disappearing from a good online collaboration, I've learned that even with all my tech experience, I can make a mess of it.

Differing schedules, teacher's declining, no class of my own all contributed to my failure. I had joined the project was to force myself to do more with wikis, more with Flickr, but the project itself kept getting more complex, having more requirements and steps to follow until, for me, it collapsed under its own weight.

Now that Graham has brought this experience back into my focus, I'm realizing I can take quite a bit of learning away from the experience...

  • Start really simple. If the students can't do most of it themselves, then chances are, I'll learn far more than they do. Nothing wrong with me learning a lot, but teaching time is too short for me to do things that don't greatly benefit the students.

  • Similarly, start small. Online projects often require a huge amount of communication and ongoing planning by the teachers. The more teachers, the more people who must be consulted at each step. The more people involved, the more formal a process may be needed to manage it all. Sometimes, just having two teachers, two classes will be the most effective, despite all that could be gained from having more kids in more places involved. Likewise, start with a shorter termed project. If it rocks your socks you can extend it.

  • Be very clear what you want the students to get out of it. Use backward design to fit the project to the learning and not the other way around, as is so tempting with new tech tools.

  • Check, check and recheck access before committing. My account at work has more privileges than student and teacher accounts. Didn't think to check access when logged in as one of them, until we were into the project. They couldn't add comments to the wiki. They couldn't upload to it either. And the wiki only allowed so many comments per hour from the same person, so I couldn't log them all in as me.

  • Upfront, try to make a realistic prediction of the time commitment and the the skills needed. Make those estimates based on the time it will take a new user, not you who have been experimenting with the tools for months. Based on the little I have done with online projects, I'd say double the time you think it will take, both in class and outside of class.

  • Consider all the schools' vacation schedules when creating the project calendar. Also note end of term, standardized exams, etc.

  • Keep communicating even when the ship is going down. I expressed my frustrations minimally and then bailed. I wish I'd had the guts to stay in longer or at least take my leave more gracefully. I really enjoyed the people in it, but after three months, it felt like it was pulling me under. I was so much happier when that weight was gone. I don't think relief is what we should feel at the end of collaborations.
Next time I feel tempted to dive into a project, I'll reread Kim Cofino's wise words about planning and implementing social networking projects. She has been involved in many successful projects. Her post comes from a place of wisdom and experience.

In the mean time, what tips can you add to my list? What else should we keep in mind as we embark on collaborative projects?