Thursday, March 08, 2012

Collaboration Grid

by John Spencer

In working with collaborative groups, I've noticed that tools are often chosen based upon comfort level, trendiness or simplicity rather than the function or the format in relationship to identity of the group and the purpose of the task. I've grown frustrated with brainstorms on visual topics where we used text-based tools or in trying to co-create something using a medium designed for communication. For that reason, I've created the collaboration grid. I realize that it's pretty arbitrary. I don't pretend to base this off of research or science. However, I thought I would share it with anyone interested.


When I think about collaboration, I tend to think in two domains. I typically have times when I am co-creating and other times when I am communicating. On some level, the two will always co-exist in collaboration. However, sharing ideas over a cup of coffee is very different than painting a mural together.

In terms of online collaboration tools, I find myself using Twitter or Google Chat for sharing ideas and using Google Docs or Prezi for co-creating. For that reason, I have placed various web tools on a continuum between the creative and the communicative domains. Some tools fit evenly between these, like simple blogging, where the user is just as likely to engage and share as he or she is to create and post. Others fit on more extreme sides of each domain.

A few questions to consider:

  • Are we helping to ensure that we are creating rather than simply consuming information?
  • Is there a balance between sharing in the communication along with sharing in the creation of a product?
  • What is the nature of a tool with regards to creating and communicating?


In terms of format, there tends to be a continuum between text-based and multimedia. Some tools, like blogging and micro-blogging are toward the middle. However, Skyping with someone is a very multimedia experience while shared writing documents tend to be very text-based.

It's important that teachers and students think about the format as they collaborate. Too much reliant on text or visuals can skew the nature of the collaboration. A visual brainstorm on Pinterest will look far different than a text-based brainstorm on a Google Document.

A few questions to consider:

  • Does this allow for audio, visual or text-based information? If it allows for multiple representations, which one is it most geared toward?
  • How do these tools mirror in-person interactions? How do they vary from face-to-face interactions?
  • What is lost in this medium? (For example, tone of voice, facial expression, etc.)

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. One can easily do this with any two topics and always limit it to two sides. You could do time-based or not time-based. So, really, what makes this valid at all?

  2. This is great example of thought process. Really, when any of us choose to use a tool, we need to think about the function and format of what we are trying to do before using the tool. One of the most exasperating things for me is when someone chooses a tool because it is trendy or something they already know how to use, and then are frustrated that it can’t do everything they want it to do. Your graph is a nice visual representation of how people SHOULD choose between tools. I also like the questions that want people to consider. Do you think there are any other major questions that people should think about when choosing tools?

  3. A very thought-provoking visual. Thanks.

    I've noticed that, for 5th graders, it's best that they have a plan before they start collaborating or creating by text or media. This requires a step with paper, but the paper planning helps the collaboration be more focused.

    For example, student book clubs are now creating projects where they demonstrate their reading processes and the communicate the "big ideas" they have grown from reading and discussion. I had to redirect groups who were doing the following:

    - deciding on the tool before deciding on the message or content
    - engaging with tools before knowing the purpose behind the use of a particular tool.

    When student start working with a tool before they have a plan, the project takes twice as long, involves innumerable conflicts, and is of lesser quality than projects outlined in advanced.

  4. This will definitely help. I have been using Google Docs for sometime now. A colleague of mine told about this new tool which is gaining lot of traction its CollateBox gotta watch out for this, looks like a simple tool for online sharing and collaboration.

  5. I like the potential of this as a visual way for a teacher to gain perspective on instructional strategies. A teacher can ask her/himself "am I covering multiple quadrants?" No reason to limit it to technology-based methods! I can even see benefit for a third axis - individual-group, or expressive-analytical, etc.

  6. Are you familiar with Ran into that in a training Saturday and I thought I would ask you what you know - looks like that is the next big thing for us - PBL.

  7. Again, I watched this post get retweeted on and had to laugh. First, you made absolutely no effort toward placing your categories in the correct quadrants. Second, the categories themselves seem entirely arbitrary. It's this time of educational technology gobbledy-gook that makes me cringe. It's never as simple as you've made it appear.

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  9. I will research and take a look on your questions to consider about collaboration tools.


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