Authors: Peter Taylor and Teryl Cartwright
Collaborative Exploration invites participants to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). The basic mode of a Collaborative Exploration centers on interactions over a delimited period of time in small groups. Engagement takes place either online, for instance via Google+, or face-to-face. The aim is to create an experience of re-engagement with oneself as an avid learner and inquirer. This section combines practical information about how to run Collaborative Explorations as well as ideas and questions about how to make sense of what happens in them. A companion entry conveys one participant’s experience with several Collaborative Explorations (hereafter, “CE”).
The tangible goal of any CE is to develop contributions to the topic defined by the “case”, which is written by the host or originator of the CE in advance, and which is intended to be broad and thought-provoking (some examples are given below). We aim for a parallel experiential goal, which is that we hope participants will be impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using this structure. The standard model for an online CE is to have four sessions spaced one week apart, in which the same small group interacts in real time via the internet, for an hour per session. Participants are asked to spend at least 90 minutes between sessions on self-directed inquiry into the case, and to share their inquiries-in-progress with their small group and a wider community. Reflection typically involves shifts in participants’ definition of what they want to find out and how. Any participants wondering how to define a meaningful and useful line of inquiry are encouraged to review the scenario for the CE, any associated materials, posts from other participants, and to think about what they would like to learn more about or dig deeper into. Everyone is left, in the end, to judge for themselves whether what interests them is meaningful and useful. [PARAGRAPH] During the live sessions, participants can expect to do a lot of listening, starting off in the first session with autobiographical stories that make it easier to trust and take risks with whoever has joined that CE, and a lot of writing to gather their thoughts, sometimes privately, sometimes shared. There is no assumption that participants will pursue the case beyond the limited duration of the CE. This said, the tools and processes that the CE employs for purposes of inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration are designed to be readily learned by participants, and to translate well into other settings – for instance, where they can be used to support the inquiries of others. In short, online CEs are moderate-sized open online collaborative learning. It remains to be seen whether the CE “movement” will attract enough participants to scale up to multiple learning communities around any given scenario, each hosted by a different person and running independently. A MOOC (massive open online course) seeks to get masses of people registered, knowing that a tiny fraction will complete it, while CE best practices focus on establishing effective learning in small online communities, and then potentially scale up from there by multiplying out. CEs aim to address the needs of online learners who want to:
- dig deeper, make “thicker” connections with other learners
- connect topics with their own interests
- participate for short periods of time
- learn without needing credits or badges
Currently, even the most high-profile MOOCs do not appear to be conducive to deep or thick inquiry. For example, while link-sharing is typical in “connectivist” or “cMOOCs”, annotation and discussion of the contents is less common. By contrast, CEs are structured to elicit participants’ thoughtful reflections and syntheses. The use of the internet for CEs, in contrast, is guided by two principles of online education (Taylor 2007).
- Use computers first and foremost to teach or learn things that are difficult to teach or learn with pedagogical approaches that are not based on computers
- Model computer use, at least initially, on known best practices for teaching/learning without computers.
Thus, CEs bring in participants from a distance, make rapid connections with informants or discussants outside the course, and contribute to evolving guides to materials and resources. At the same time, participants benefit from the support of instructors/facilitators and peers who they can trust, and integrate what they learn with their own personal, pedagogical, and professional development.
The core faculty member of a graduate program at a public urban university wants help as they decide how to contribute to efforts made at the university program to promote open digital education. It is clear that the emphasis will not be on xMOOCs, i.e., those designed for transmission of established knowledge, but on cMOOCs. In other words, the plan is to emphasize connectivist learning and community development emerges around, but may extend well beyond, the materials provided by the MOOC hosts (Morrison 2013; Taylor 2013). What is not yet clear is just how learning works in cMOOCs. What are the possibilities and limitations of this educational strategy? How do they bear on themes like creativity, community, collaboration, and openness? The program is especially interested in anticipating any undesirable consequences…
Recent and historical climate-related events shed light on the social impact of emergency plans, investment in and maintenance of infrastructure, as well as investment in reconstruction. Policy makers, from the local level up, can learn from the experiences of others and prepare for future crises. The question for this case is how to get political authorities and political groups—which might be anywhere from the town level to the international, from the elected to the voluntary—interested in learning about how best to respond to extreme climatic events. Changes might take place at the level of policy, budget, organization, and so on. It should even be possible to engage people who do not buy into the idea of human-induced climate change—after all, whatever the cause, extreme climatic events have to be dealt with….
Independent of the topic, we’ve found the following common structure useful for our online CEs. Before the first live session: Participants review the scenario, the expectations and mechanics, join a special-purpose Google+ community and get set up technically for the hangouts.
Session 1: Participants getting to know each other. After freewriting to clarify thoughts and hopes, followed by a quick check-in, participants take 5 minutes each to tell the story of how they came to be a person who would be interested in participating in a Collaborative Exploration on the scenario. Other participants note connections with the speaker and possible ways to extend their interests, sharing these using an online form.
Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes on inquiries related to the case, posting about this to Google+ community for the CE, and reviewing the posts of others.
Session 2: Clarify thinking and inquiries. Freewriting on one’s thoughts about the case, followed by a check-in, then turn-taking “dialogue process” to clarify what participants are thinking about their inquiries into the case. Session finishes with gathering and sharing thoughts using an online form.
Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes on (a) inquiries related to the case and (b) preparing a work-in-progress presentation.
Session 3: Work-in-progress presentations. 5 minutes for each participant, with “plus-delta” feedback given by everyone on each presentation.
Between-session work: Digest the feedback on one’s presentation and revise it into a self-standing product (i.e., one understandable without spoken narration).
Session 4: Taking Stock. Use same format as for session 2 to explore participants’ thinking about (a) how the Collaborative Exploration contributed to the topic (the tangible goal) and to the experiential goal, as well as (b) how to extend what has emerged during the CE.
After session 4 (optional): Participants share on a public Google+ community not only the products they have prepared, but also reflections on the Collaborative Exploration process.
(Re)engagement with oneself as an avid learner and inquirer in CEs is made possible by the combination of:
- Processes and tools used for inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration;
- Connections made among the diverse participants who bring to bear diverse interests, skills, knowledge, experience, and aspirations;
- Contributions from the participants to the topics laid out in scenarios.
The hope is that through experiencing a engagement with learning, participants will subsequently transfer experience with this triad into their own inquiries and teaching-learning interactions, the ways that they support inquiries of others; other practices of critical intellectual exchange and cooperation; and that they will be more prepared to challenge the barriers to learning that are often associated with expertise, location, time, gender, race, class, or age.
The comments of Jeremy Szteiter and the contributions of the participants of the 2013 Collaborative Explorations have helped in the preparation of this article.
As a May graduate of the Master’s program in Critical and Creative Thinking (CCT) at UMass Boston, I owe my gratitude to Professors Peter Taylor and Jeremy Szteiter for inviting me to informally continue my education less than a month later. It is a tribute to them that I would then take four consecutive CEs without stopping. They can best share how to run a CE, but as a “student,” it is how to creatively take a CE that I’d like to share.
I was grateful participants took the time to post links and ideas to support my inquiries, yet something else intrigued me about the potential of Collaborative Exploration. Luanne Witkowski, an artist and one of the CCT instructors, took our ideas and made a diagram incorporating our scaffolding concepts together; she changed her own original drawing to include all of ours. I wanted to pay forward and back my learning too, so I combined the ideas of all the participants, adapted and taught a lesson outside the CE and then shared the results. From this jumping into someone else’s scaffolding, I went into even more experimental learning in the next CE.
In a second CE, I took the title literally and developed a design IN critical thinking. To try out my triangle tangent thinking model, during a lesson on leadership in church, I suddenly stopped teaching a classroom of older professional adults halfway in and asked them to participate in “design as you go” curriculum—by taking over the class. Since I wanted to be fair, along with my lesson outline I had already given them a supposed “icebreaker” activity that they could teach from, although they also had the option of my continued teaching. Results? My triangle drawing works as a lesson plan; the class took the tangent, but surprisingly, I wasn’t just relegated to moderator, it became a true co-facilitation,a model of change at the midpoint for both the individual and community in the choices and direction.
This CE had to be commended for its participants humoring my project and allowing the exploration of testing a CE itself. Was it possible to be a Creative Failure in a Creativity CE? To evaluate “Creative Failure in a Creativity CE,” I used a simple test. If creative success (unknowingly given by my CE community) was a product both “novel AND useful,” any post without a comment was a failure (“not useful”) to my readers. Any post that a reader commented on that was similar to something else already done was “useful,” but not novel. Failure had me posting again. Did I mention what nice people these were when they didn’t know what I was doing? It would have been easy for them to ignore my continued posting, yet the community of a CE cannot be praised enough. They were supportive of me and finding academic colleagues who have a sense of humor is mercifully not novel, but extremely useful in this experience.
In this CE I gave myself the challenge of indirect teaching. Could I be a story “shower”, not teller? I took concepts important to me about teaching with story, yet also tried to leave space for others’ interpretations. Ironically, in some ways creative failure continued—again I was not as helpful as I had wished. This CE also had a twist—no hero stories allowed, so my creative and personal stories had to be ambiguous or use other connecting structures based on the participants’ preferences. It was interesting which stories worked best—fiction worked more with humor, real experience worked if I shared about someone other than myself and other kinds worked with visuals. Collaborative Explorations provide a safe space for joint learning and teaching to occur. The resulting diversity blends well into a community that is curious, courageous and creative. Although I have an M.A. as the first completely online CCT student, the deeply connected CE community had face-to-face learning “feel.” It does require time, openness, and commitment during times of collective intense focus on a topic. Yet, seeing where the participant-directed ‘design as you go’ curriculum ends up is worth investing in and sharing with others. After all, there are many other ways still out there to try out CEs.
I also ran a CE for the Susquehanna Conference of the UMC for 10 days, working with a group of professionals exploring a call into ordained ministry. Going in cold, I had to work harder to do community building without the Google hangout meetings and recommend their inclusion to increase the comfort level and participation of the group members.
Further examples of CE scenarios can be viewed at
Recommended readings below convey some of the sources for the CE processes. Ideas about possible extensions of CEs can be viewed in the full prospectus at
Morrison, D. (2013). “A tale of two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by pedagogy”.
Taylor, P. J. (2007) “Guidelines for ensuring that educational technologies are used only when there is significant pedagogical benefit,” International Journal of Arts and Sciences, 2 (1): 26-29, 2007 (adapted from http://bit.ly/etguide).
Taylor, P. J. (2013). “Supporting change in creative learning”.
Paley, V. G. (1997). The Girl with the Brown Crayon. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.
Paley, V.G. (2010). The Boy on the Beach: Building Community by Play. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
Taylor, P. J. and J. Szteiter (2012). Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement Arlington, MA, The Pumping Station.
White, M. (2011). Narrative Practice: Continuing the Conversation. New York, Norton.