In the mid 2000s, I was stood in front of sixty seated teenagers in front of a campfire in a forest in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. I said, "I'm really nervous, so I hope you'll join in and sing with me." I then launched into a call-and-response campfire song. I don't remember which song it was, but I remember the shaky feeling of standing in front of all those people, and the worry that I might call out and get no response. And I remember calling out at the top of my voice in spite of this. When the song was over, I rushed away to the back of the audience, leaving the next person to perform. My legs were shaky, but I had done it. And all the teenagers had joined in.
What had inspired me to get in front of all those young people and sing was a conversation with a man who had facilitated an outdoor leadership course I had taken a summer earlier. He was well-loved around a campfire. When he came to the front, everyone knew something exciting was about to happen. It was him that told me that the best way to get an audience to respond to you is to take a visible risk. To take an authentic, visible risk and make yourself vulnerable will inspire a response. And when you receive a response, trust is built.
I knew that calling out at the top of my voice in front of a group of sixty teenagers was a risk. I felt utterly vulnerable. But I strongly believed that my earnest and honest risk-taking would be what made my song a collaborative endeavour. In later years, this intuitive belief was validated as I read about the role of risk-taking in creating trust in collaborative learning (Kochanek, 2001).
When I registered to take part in a course on Open Networked Learning, I didn't know I would be reliving a similar experience, but in a digital realm. For the past few months, I have been working in a problem-based learning group made up of 8 learners and two facilitators (who have previously taken the course). The course is broken into four main themes and every two week period two learners facilitate group discussions about a scenario and the group submits an assignment related to the theme.
I was launched into my problem-based learning group with nine other people who I had never met before. Some lived in Sweden like me, while others lived as far away as Brazil, South Africa, Ireland, and Finland. Two from the Swedish contingent led the first theme, one of whom had a musical background. These two creative and adventurous Swedes proposed that we should submit a song as our first assignment. When they suggested this, there was a collective sense of uncertainty about the idea. Some of us felt that our voices weren't strong enough to sing in front of people. Others worried that it would be too technically challenging to manage online. I fell into both these camps. I was skeptical. But when the others in the group said 'yes,' I decided to as well. I didn't want to be a party pooper, even if I thought that we might crash and burn.
The pivotal moment in which our group became a collaboration, in my opinion, was when we all tried to sing Help! by the Beatles together on Zoom. I know from many renditions of Happy Birthday on Skype that there was no way we would be able to sing together because of the delay in our connections. But we gave it a try anyway, just to see what it would sound like.
When I picture this moment in my head, I can see it is a strange one. Imagine a group of ten, most if not all with PhDs to their name, who have known each other for merely a week or two - and only through a handful of virtual meetings. Imagine these people who barely know each other, coming from different academic disciplines, different cultural contexts, and with different mother tongues. Imagine these ten people, sitting looking at their computer screens, earnestly singing, mostly out of tune, and certainly out of time with one another.
In proposing to submit a song for our assignment, that week's leaders took a risk. They proposed something that the rest of the group could have easily rejected. But someone in our group took the leap and said, 'yes.' In doing so, the risk-taking became a mutual endeavour. We were in it together. When one person sang in earnest, the others reciprocated. Trust was built. The collaborative, experimental, and creative atmosphere we created in the first part of the course set the stage for the most powerful online learning experience I have been a part of. For subsequent assignments we experimented with different technologies (like Miro and Padlet), as well as different facilitation strategies for discussion. After our song, we submitted a videos about online learning communities and of our group engaging in a mock-debate about open education, a GIF made up of drawings illustrating how to design online and blended learning, and memes capturing our experiences with open networked learning. In creating these, we learned through collaborative experimentation.
So, how do I bring these lessons into my own teaching? In online learning, we know the enabling role of teachers is instrumental in supporting effective collaboration amongst students (Brindley et al., 2009; Capdeferro & Romero, 2012). Teachers need to walk a fine line between intervening too much and too little (Capdeferro & Romero, 2012), and offering too much or too little flexibility in tasks (Brindley et al., 2009). For example, to what extent should a teacher monitor students' collaborative processes? At what stage is it appropriate to take corrective measures when a group steers off-course? How much scaffolding do students need to be able to collaborate on a task?
Risk and vulnerability play a fundamental role in these questions, both for teachers and students. For example, leaving ambiguity in task descriptions presents numerous risks to teachers: What if students fail to engage with the appropriate material and therefore are not able to meet the learning objectives? What if students complain about the ambiguity in course evaluations? What if students react with a bombardment of emails demanding a clearer description?
Likewise, students are also faced with risks in their every online interjection. As Land (2004) has written,
Any user of an online environment, even experienced and battle hardened academics, surely could sympathise with the trepidation of a new, possibly shy student, being required to post up their response to a (possibly international) discussion group, in the knowledge, moreover, that their tentative contribution is likely to remain there, with all its feared inadequacies, for a considerable period, unlike the ephemeral and evanescent tutorial remark that is likely to be forgotten and beyond recall even before the students leave the room.
It's clear that risk is an inevitable part of online learning for both teachers and students. And by definition, taking a risk means that there is a possibility something bad might happen. In our group, risk-taking resulted in a positive (and possibly even transformative) collaborative learning experience. But not all risk-taking can be positive, or even learningful. Vygotsky highlights this in his work about the 'zone of proximal development' - the place in which learners work with tasks beyond what feels comfortable, but not so far beyond their competence that they will inevitably fail. As such, in order to learn, moderate risks must be taken (Clifford, 1991).
So what do we do with this information? How we we encourage students to take risks which might enhance group collaboration and build a safe, trusting environment where further risks can be taken?
One way is to foster a no-blame culture (Lloyd-Walker et al., 2014). This not only improves collaboration, but can also enhance innovative capacity thorough engaging in experimentation through trial-and-error (Lloyd-Walker et al., 2014).
Another is to take risks together. Then, in the event of adverse outcomes of risk-taking, the negative impacts can be shared. Furthermore, the shared risk-taking can build relationships that can act as the foundation for deeper learning.
I would also suggest that we, as teachers, communicate with students about the role of risk-taking in collaborative online work. Explicitly encouraging risk-taking can create a space where risk-taking is viewed positively.
There are likely many more ways to create online learning environments where moderate risk-taking is encouraged. And although I have considered it in only a limited way, the line between low- and high-risk can be a thin one, and is different for every person. Creating digital spaces and communities where all students have opportunities to take moderate risks is not a simple matter. But it is certainly an important matter to attend to, especially in online learning.