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Intercontinental research and collaboration April 27, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in research.
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[This post provides my views on how two teachers in different countries and time zones have teamed up to research and publish academic writing. It provides an insight into what has been done, how it was done and the benefits of working this way.]


Creative Commons licensed (BY) Flickr photo by photosteve101: http://flickr.com/photos/42931449@N07/5418402840

I never really enjoyed writing in depth, whatever form that writing took. From school, through university to the world of work, it was always a chore to be overcome. I think it was during my first Masters that that changed. At first it was incredibly tough; plan, research, draft, redraft … redraft again! But at some point I began to enjoy and revel in the combination of intellectual challenge and creative endeavour involved in crafting a written description, explanation or analysis related to technology, learning or both.

Considering the effort that was expended in writing my first dissertation, I always felt it was a bit of a shame that only two or three people ever read it … though I’m sure the copy that went into the university stacks is now so well-thumbed it’ll be in need of replacement … or maybe not. I wonder if that’s how our students feel when they produce a superb piece of writing for an audience of one? So when I wrote my second dissertation, in addition to the ‘treeware’ version, I also elected to post it online. Maybe others would take a peek; maybe not, but at least there was the possibility that others might scrutinise, comment on or challenge my thoughts.

I felt however, that I still needed to go that little bit further, to push myself that little bit harder and produce a piece that would be formally published … and require rigorous review. Which was around the time that Nick Jackson (@largerama) made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. In response to wider curriculum developments, Nick had produced a set of resources to support the teaching of Computer Science at Key Stage 3, then shared them online with anyone who might find them useful. Interested in the value others extracted from them, Nick was keen to research and publish his explorations, and for some reason asked me to help with the project. Though our pathways in education have been somewhat different, I guess we share similar views and perspectives … most of the time! From exchanges on each other’s blogs, it was also clear that we challenge each other’s thinking, so maybe they were some of the reasons Nick invited me on board. I was delighted to accept.

Since the data informing the project was based on work Nick had undertaken, he would clearly need to take the lead and provide the scope and sense of direction. My role was to provide critique, suggest alternative ways of forming arguments or conveying messages and sourcing research which underpinned some of the propositions.

The practicalities threw up what might initially be perceived as problems, but I feel actually became strengths. Traditionally a collaborative venture of this nature would involve multiple back and forth exchanges of a document as drafts and revisions move forward. This is fraught with potential problems like getting different versions out of step, not working on the right revision, having to wait until a particular draft was complete and sent on before being able to see additions or amendments. We’re now of course in a place with the Internet, where any of a number of tools which facilitate multiple concurrent authors shimmies past those issues. We settled on working in a Google doc, which brought a number of welcome advantages. A second but significant practical issue was that we live on opposite sides of the world, so are only able to connect for short periods. This actually proved to be a strength since we had brief times where we could work in the document concurrently and exchange thoughts and ideas, but the reality is when you’re trying to write at length, you need to time to compose thoughts, turn them into written English and if you’re anything like me, re-jig words and sentences as your fingers peck away at the keyboard. So the fact that Nick might produce something in isolation, whilst I might be at work or asleep, meant that I had the chance to see a revised section in its entirety and be able to reflect on it, comment in the document and suggest amendments whilst he was away from the keyboard. The notion of turn-taking in the writing process, with occasional brief spells of interaction seemed to be quite potent for this type of composition. I guess it’s not unlike chess matches which take place by correspondence, with the added facility for ‘live’ intervention … but with the emphasis shifted from competition to collaboration.

Nick and I have now written two papers using this approach (one published and the other recently submitted), so we clearly feel the process works for us. Now it’s my turn to take the lead and work on a project with which I have a greater degree of intimacy, with the roles switched and Nick providing the counterbalance. I’m amazed that I’m looking forward to doing the heavy lifting and laying down a few words which someone else might adjust, replace or extend. I don’t think that’s something I’d have felt comfortable doing a few years ago, but I do think it’s a capability our young people will be increasingly required to develop in the near future, with an increased likelihood of them working in geographically separate, international communities.

What will the theme be I hear you ask? Suffice it to say, there’s more than one iron in the fire!



1. largerama - April 27, 2014

Great insight from Ian. You can read my view on things here: http://largerama.creativeblogs.net/2014/04/27/sharedresearch/

2. BYOD4L – Collaboration | Sheffield High School - July 17, 2014

[…] the process of collaboration on a single document that some of the considerations become manifest. Here’s a post with my observations on an international collaboration … which introduces yet more things to take […]

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