Sharing? Collaboration? No thanks

Last week I took our third year students to see a demonstration of the management of a patient with spinal cord injury as part of the Movement Science module that I teach. I noticed that during the demonstration many of them were taking pretty comprehensive notes, and thought that this would be a great opportunity to use a collaborative writing platform to create something useful for everyone in the class.

I proposed the following to them the next day:

  • I’d set up a shared online workspace, either using a wiki or Google Docs and create the document structure so that they’d just have to fill in the spaces from their notes
  • We’d use class time so that this wouldn’t be regarded as extra work
  • I highlighted the benefits i.e. additions to their individual notes from other students, adding multimedia e.g. video and images to enhance understanding, linking out to external sources to strengthen the evidence base, error correction by the group and myself, and creating a potentially useful resource for anyone else in the world

Their response…no thanks. It wasn’t even up for discussion. I found out that they didn’t even planning on typing up their notes, even after I’d pointed out the digital notes are searchable, expandable and shareable. They told me that if they wanted to share with their friends then they’d just photocopy the notes.

These aren’t selfish students, and they’re not limited by access to technology. They just don’t see that sharing in this context has any value for them as individuals, and that’s where I think the problem lies. They think that sharing doesn’t benefit them in the context of their learning (or studying as they call it, which I think is a fundamental problem in itself). They told me that they are connected but only in their social lives. They regarded studying as that thing they do in the classroom, and that learning comes from studying.

I also got the sense that they believe in some way that this is a zero sum game, in the sense that the notes they have will give them some kind of competitive advantage over other students in the class, thereby increasing the odds that they’ll get a higher mark. What it is they’re competing for is unclear. I wonder if grading is somehow related? Grading sets up a system of ranking and competition, not of sharing and collaboration. From that point of view, sharing knowledge is only good if it doesn’t impact on my own position in the ranking system. If you get a higher mark than me, it pushes me down the list. If sharing is seen as a zero-sum game in which your success impacts negatively on my success, then sharing isn’t a good strategy.

Anyway, I was pretty disappointed because I believe that sharing and collaboration has enormous potential for learning. What do I do…force them to share in the hope that they’ll see the light? Even if I design collaborative assignments that requires a sharing component, as long as they see it as work, I’m not sure that it’ll change their thinking.