Successful Collaborations

As the last stretch of the academic year winds down, I’ve been reflecting on the big projects I’ve been working on this year. Over the next few weeks, three of the projects will reach their culmination or conclusion in some way, which has been the impetus of my reflective journey. Looking over the three projects, one of the clear aspects that I want to celebrate is the collaborative nature of the teams and people I had the opportunity to work with. For example, our university is revising its general education curriculum and I’ve had the pleasure to work with a group of diverse colleagues from across campus to develop new curricular models. The campus is currently selecting which model to adopt, but regardless of the outcome, I know the team we assembled for the project were the best folks for the job. I’m proud of the work we did.

But it’s not the only project I’m proud to have worked on. I’ve also been collaborating with a colleague on a research project that we’re almost ready to submit to a journal. The project has been time consuming and thought provoking, but it has also been tremendously rewarding personally and professionally. Additionally, I’ve also been working with a bunch of science teachers and teacher educators to lead a series of professional development workshops across the state in support of the science teaching standards that were recently adopted in Pennsylvania. While most of the workshops have been virtual, the overall project culminates with a two-day, face-to-face workshop in a few weeks.

To be clear, I’m not sharing these projects as a way to pat myself on the back in any way. Sure, I’m proud of this work and I think it’s impactful. More than that, I’m sharing these because they represent awesome examples of successful collaborations. Again, I’m not saying “Hey, I’m an awesome collaborator” or anything. I’m just highlighting these successful collaborations because unless you work in a solitary profession, you know how rare these types of collaborations can be. To be involved in three projects simultaneously where the collaborations have been so effective is a true blessing.

At the end of a meeting with one of the groups recently, I shared these feelings. I said that I didn’t know what made our group function so positively and effectively, but I wanted to celebrate it. About an hour after the meeting ending, one of members emailed me a research article that might offer a clue to the success.

In an article published in Physical Review Physics Education Research, a group of researchers studied a physics class to better understand what factors made some groups more effective than others. Over the course of a semester, thirty students in a university-level physics course were given activities and problem to discuss in small groups. Students were randomly assigned to groups and the groups would change weekly. The researchers collected both video and audio recording of the group discussions and coded how individual students positioned themselves within their groups and how effective the groups were. For me, the positioning aspect of the article was the most interesting part. The researchers identified five different “positional” roles that students can hold during group conversations: expert, intermediate expert, intermediate novice, novice, facilitator. For example, when students made “firm statements of fact or firm or strong disagreement” they were identified as an “expert.” When students “asked questions” or “made softened statements or disagreements,” they were identified as “intermediate experts” or “intermediate novices” respectively. From these roles, the researchers examined what combinations contributed most to effective collaborations. In their discussion, the authors write:

“We have found a correlation between group effectiveness and group equality as indicated by the amount of time group members spend positioning themselves in the positions of intermediate novice and intermediate expert. From our quantitative and qualitative analysis, it appears that the most effective groups display a cluster of behaviors that complement each other in a myriad of ways…. they have more equal conversations and are better able to sustain their attention during periods of adversity and frustration... Our analysis shows that the underlying factors of respect and psychological safety are also key for a group to be successful. We suggest that the theme of respect that emerged from our qualitative analysis is connected to positioning because it is difficult or impossible to convey mutual respect if group members are constantly positioning themselves as experts” (Brookes et al., 2021, p. 11).

This description really resonated with me as I reflected on my experiences with these successful collaborative projects. While the collaborators were all really smart people and experts in their respective areas, they positioned themselves in a way to provide space for other contributors and their ideas. Their positioning also helped our group navigate the disagreements and debates that eventually happened. And that’s the real takeaway. There’s that old adage about being able to disagree without being disagreeable. The research shows that how we position ourselves in collaborative groups can contribute how disagreeable we are and how effective the overall group will be.


Brookes, D. T., Yang, Y., & Nainabasti, B. (2021). Social positioning in small group interactions in an investigative science learning environment physics class. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 17(1), 010103.


Being Social

I’m serving on a doctoral candidate’s dissertation committee this semester and in preparation for their upcoming defense, I was reading the final draft of their dissertation. As I was reading through the candidate’s literature review, I realized that as educators and researchers, we use a lot of terminology to describe different concepts about student learning and the classroom environment. For example, I consider myself to be a social constructivist. This means that I believe that social interaction is a key component of learning. For this type of learning to happen, classroom environments must have some collaborative components where learners engage with their peers and knowledgeable others (teachers) who can help them develop their understanding through social meaning making. But when we dig into the different ways to conceptualize the factors that may play a role, we introduce terms like social presence, social connectedness, and so on. While those words may seem like they’re synonymous, they’re subtly different and describe different concepts. They also have different research traditions and can play different roles in fostering a social environment for learning. I thought I’d dedicate a post describing some of the differences. Here goes.

Social Presence: Short et al. (1976) first defined the concept as the “degree of salience of the other person in the interaction and the consequent salience of the interpersonal relationships” (p. 65). When applied to online learning, social presence is a student’s perception of the existence of ‘others’ in the virtual environment. Social presence is also part of the Community of Inquiry model, introduced by Garrison, Anderson, and Archer (2001). In their framework, they define social presence as the ability to interact with others in a meaningful way.

Social Connectedness: Social connectedness refers to the degree to which individuals feel they are part of a community, have a sense of belonging, and feel connected to others around them. It involves a feeling of being included, valued, and supported by others, and having a network of relationships that provide emotional and social support. (Lee & Robbins, 1995).

While I’m talking about these concepts as separate entities, they’re related. Social presence is an assessment of the perception of the other participants within the space, whereas connectedness is an emotional experience, evoked by, but independent of, the other’s presence. A person can sense the presence of others, but not necessarily feel connected to others. For example, I can see friends’ posts on Instagram or Facebook and recognize their presence. But without interacting with them in that space, I won’t feel a sense of belonging or connected to them. In this example, there is social presence but no social connectedness. But there can also be social connectedness without a sense of presence. For example, let’s say I get a letter in the mail from a friend with whom I’ve lost touch. In this case, I can experience social connectedness, without necessarily sensing their social presence.

So, how does this relate to our classrooms? While I think these can naturally play out in our physical classroom spaces, the real challenge is fostering these in our online learning spaces. In those spaces, instructors need to design for it and facilitate it. They don’t happen without someone cultivating it. And that’s one of the hardest parts of being a social constructivist working in online spaces.

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education model. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2-3), 87-105.

Lee, R. M., & Robbins, S. B. (1995). Measuring belongingness: The Social Connectedness and the Social Assurance scales. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 42(2), 232–241.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. Toronto; London; New York: Wiley.

Being a worm in horseradish

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll probably recognize this rerun. It’s actually been rerun once before a few years ago. This post originally appeared on this blog in 2013, long before pandemics and learning loss and all of the other stuff we’ve survived (or attempting to survive) today. Over the last week, I’ve used the phrase “a worm in horseradish” probably five or six times to describe how we’re mostly unaware of the worlds we’re navigating. Enjoy the horseradish.

Watching some TED videos recently, I came across a Macolm Gladwell video where he discusses the history of Spaghetti Sauce and choice.  In the video, Gladwell talks about how people don’t always recognize their needs or wants because they don’t possess the worldview to see things differently from how they’re experiencing it.  He talks about Ragu and Prego spaghetti sauces and how Prego didn’t gain market share initially because consumers traditionally bought Ragu sauce and weren’t willing to try something different, even though marketing research showed they would prefer Prego over Ragu.  Drawing on a Yiddish saying, Gladwell says “To a worm in horseradish, the whole world is horseradish.”  In this simple quote, he captures that worldview concept.   People sometimes have a tough time seeing past the life they’re living.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worldview concept and how I’m sometimes “a worm in horseradish.”  This past semester, I had several sixth grade teachers from a local school district visit my class to speak to my students.  After the presentation, the teachers answered questions from my students and one asked about how technology is used in their classrooms.  One teacher responded that the school allows students to bring their own devices to class and that at any given time there might be a handful of students working on Kindles, laptops, iPads or iPod Touches.  Other students may choose to take notes in a paper notebook, he explained, but he allows his students to make their own choices.  The teacher then remarked that he was surprised that not a single one of my students was taking notes on anything but paper during his presentation.  No one was working on a laptop or a iPad.  He wondered whether he was seeing some generational differences between the populations.  One of my students explained that many professors don’t allow the use of laptops or iPads because they find the devices distracting and unprofessional.  The teacher laughed and said that his sixth graders managed just fine.

It’s hard sometimes to see past the world in which we’re working and see how our customs, norms and traditions are different from other places.  We’re surrounded by our institution’s history and work with colleagues who mostly share common experiences.  While newcomers can bring different worldviews and experiences, they can also be swept up into the traditions of the institution pretty quickly.  Take the experiences shared by a colleague recently.  Her daughter just finished her freshman year at another institution but is taking some summer classes at our school to get a little ahead.  On her first day, she pulled out her laptop to take notes and then looked around.  In the large lecture room, not a single other student had a device out.  While no one explicitly communicated that the devices were not allowed, my colleague’s daughter put her’s away before the class even started.  At her school, the daughter explained, she’d be a freak if she didn’t have some device to work on.  At another institution, she was a freak for having one.

My intention with this post isn’t to say that the traditions or customs of one school is better or worse than another or that students using laptops or not using them somehow says something about the university.  The post is intended to shed some light on those tacit norms that impact teaching and learning on our campuses.  Each of us is “a worm in horseradish” in some way.  Maybe the critical lesson to learn is from my colleague’s daughter whose eyes were opened when she traveled outside the world to which she was accustomed.    Maybe we need those new experiences to expand our worldview and see how things are different outside the horseradish.

A Case for Quality Course Design

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post detailing my institution’s efforts to qualify educators to teach online. Our college was piloting a peer review system where faculty would assess each other’s courses using SUNY’s Online Course Quality Review Rubric (OSCQR) which specifically targets quality online course design. To prepare for the peer review process, my dean asked each of us to self-assess one of our courses and to identify areas for improvement and growth. I chose to review a graduate course that I was currently teaching. The course is a seven-week class that focuses on tools and technologies for online teaching in K-12 environments. I figured if I was teaching a class on online teaching, I should assess whether my course design was high quality or not. And the OSCQR rubric helped me to that end. I’ve already identified several areas for improvement for the next time I teach this class.

I’m sure some folks look at the exhaustive list of standards in the OSCQR rubric and wonder whether all that stuff is necessary. The rubric attends to design and layout, interaction, technology and tools, and a host of other areas. Is that stuff really ALL important? Does it really have an impact? While the authors of the OSCQR offer research to back up the elements they have included in the rubric, I thought I’d share a different perspective. The graduate course I assessed using the OSCQR rubric ended this weekend. Sunday afternoon, I received an email from a student in the class. Here’s what they wrote:

This course was my first one back after having a baby last fall and I felt that this course was organized in a manner that was manageable for me as I balanced going back to work full time, having a toddler, and taking graduate classes. Your outlining of class expectations was so clear and easy to follow, your course readings and assignments were meaningful yet manageable, and having the set schedule of module due dates and discussion reply due dates was much appreciated.

Even more so than that, everything I learned in this course I felt was relevant to my own classroom practices and I was able to start implementing many of the elements almost immediately. Many others will be implemented moving forward as well. Although this was an elective course for my program, it is definitely one I will recommend others to take if they are able.

Thank you for all of the great resources and ideas to ensure my students are getting the best possible online instruction I can offer!

I do not feel the post-course survey would have quite gotten my appreciation across, hence the email. Thanks again!”

Just to be clear, I’m not sharing this email to pat myself on the back or anything. Instead, I’m offering it as a rationale for quality online instruction. When a rubric like the OSCQR offers standards like “A logical, consistent, and uncluttered layout is established.” or “Course objectives/outcomes are clearly defined, measurable, and aligned to learning activities and assessments,” this student is the reason why. Or maybe I should say students like this one are the reason why. I can’t imagine the amount of juggling and multitasking that my students have to do to navigate their personal, professional, and educational lives. If quality online course design can help to reduce some of the barriers to learning, I’m game.

Counting What Counts

It’s been a busy few days and I decided to rerun this post from Fall 2019. While I hope lots of people will find value in this post, I’m sharing it more for a graduate student of mine who needs to remember: Not everything that counts can be counted.

My daughter graduated from high school a few months ago. Her commencement ceremonies were an emotional celebration that a lot of family, friends and former teachers were able to attend. After the ceremony, I bumped into my daughter’s former fifth grade teacher who had worked with over forty students in the graduating class. Mrs. G had just completed her 25th year of teaching and I was excited to see her at the graduation ceremony.  Mrs. G was one of my daughter’s favorite elementary teachers and I always found her to be a creative and effective teacher. She was always student-centered and empathetic and I was impressed that she had come to the ceremony to celebrate with her former students.

As we stood there talking for several minutes, Mrs. G dropped a bombshell. This would be her last year of teaching. After 25 years, she felt like it was time to retire and was ready to try something new. I thanked her for her service and congratulated her on her long career. Since she had been such an amazing teacher, I asked her if she would share some advice that I could pass along to the beginning teachers with whom I work. Here’s what she said:

“Teaching has changed so much since I started. It’s so data driven. And that’s not a bad thing. We have so much more data on student learning and that can really help to drive the types of ways we reach and teach our students. But there’s so much that isn’t represented in the numbers we have. We don’t measure student motivation. Or passion. We don’t capture their personalities or their humor. The numerical data is important, but it doesn’t tell the complete picture of who our students are. And that’s being lost. We’ve become so data driven that we’re not being student driven anymore.”

There’s a famous quote that’s been attributed to Albert Einstein that says, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” I think that’s important to remember as we interact with our students and as we create assignments and assessments to gauge their learning. There’s a lot of important data we can collect about our students that can drive our instruction. But we need to get a whole picture of the students with whom we work to really be “student driven.”

In a way, Mrs. G’s advice from her 25 years of teaching echo the strategies from Dr. Newton Miller that I shared a few months ago. Teaching is about creating positive experiences for our students and this means seeing through the numbers and recognizing the other meaningful data that counts