Why Online Collaboration and Schooling Don't Mix Well
I was recently interviewed by David Weinberger for the Berkman Center’s Radio Berkman program. We ended up talking a lot about the kinds of conditions that can promote successful online, collaborative learning environments in schools. (Link to the podcast) David has a great insight at the end about the disjunction between norms in formal learning environments and conditions that promote successful online collaborations:
DW: No, but I wonder whether our experience with wikis is in fact showing that wikis by themselves do not enable collaboration. I’m thinking again anecdotally about the successful wikis and business and outside of business, the ones that have worked have not been, as far as I know, not purely open, everybody equal, everybody equally involved. They’ve often been – as friends of mine say, there’s a gardener involved, there’s somebody who is making sure that everything works. There’s somebody who feels primary responsibility and will take the actions required to make it a high quality wiki, not just a social experiment in openness. We’re actually trying to develop something that’s high quality. And in the classroom, there’s probably little experience of this. And it’s not a situation, given the way that we at least imagine classrooms running and imagine them running online, it’s not a situation in which one person assuming control – control is too strong, but the gardening position, the pruning of it – there’s no comfortable way for a student to do that because you will get the “Get your own damn page” kind of response. It’s not maybe a failure of our understanding of wikis.  
Essentially, schools are designed to reward individual effort, and so there are strong incentives for students to protect and isolate their individual contributions and strong teacher incentives to “make everyone participate” equally. In fact, however, successful online collaborations may depend upon good leadership and a necessarily inegalitarian distribution of work. I’d encourage readers to listen to the whole thing to get a sense of the context of his observation, and then leave a comment here about what you think!