Collaborative Exploration

An extension of Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education that begin from a real-world scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, which invites participants to shape their own directions of inquiry and develop their skills as investigators and teachers (in the broadest sense of the word). The basic mode of a Collaborative Exploration (CE) centers on interactions over a delimited period of time in small groups—online or face-to-face—in ways that create an experience of re-engagement with oneself as an avid learner and inquirer.

The tangible goal of any CE is to develop contributions to the topic defined by the case, which is written by the host or originator of the CE to be broad and thought-provoking (see examples below).  An experiential goal is to be impressed at how much can be learned with a small commitment of time using the CE structure to motivate and connect participants. (See CPR Spaces for elaboration.)

The standard model for an online CE is to have four sessions spaced one week apart, in which the same small group interacts in real time live via the internet for an hour. Participants spend at least 90 minutes between sessions on self-directed inquiry on the case, sharing of inquiries-in-progress with others in the CE (and perhaps beyond the CE), and reflecting on the process—reflection that typically involves shifts in participants' definition of what they want to find out and how.  Any participants wondering how to define a meaningful and useful line of inquiry is encouraged to review the scenario for the CE, any associated materials, posts from other participants, and think about what they would like to learn more about or dig deeper into. Everyone is left, in the end, to judge for themselves whether what interests them is meaningful and useful.  During the live sessions, CE participants can expect to do a) a lot of listening to others, starting off in the first session with autobiographical stories that make it easier to trust and take risks with whoever has joined that CE and b) writing to gather their thoughts, sometimes privately, sometimes shared.

There is no assumption that participants pursue the case beyond the limited duration of the CE. This said, the tools and processes used in CEs for inquiry, dialogue, reflection, and collaboration are designed to be readily learned by participants so they can translate them into their own settings to support the inquiries of others (see Mechanics and processes, below). In short, online CEs may be thought of as moderate-sized open online collaborative learning. A CE focuses on establishing effective learning in small online communities, which stands in contrast to MOOCs—massive open online courses—which seek to get masses of people registered even if it is understood that only a tiny fraction will complete.  Moreover, a course is not the default model for teaching/learning in CEs.  Instead, CEs aim to address the needs of online learners who want to:
  • dig deeper, make “thicker connections” with other learners
  • connect topics with their own interests
  • participate for shorter periods than a semester-long MOOC
  • learn without needing credits or badges for MOOC completion.

  • Examples of Scenarios or Cases

    Connectivist MOOCs: Learning and collaboration, possibilities and limitations
    The core faculty member of [a graduate program] at... urban public university want help as they decide how to contribute to efforts at [the university] to promote open digital education.... It is already clear that [their] emphasis will not be on x-MOOCs, i.e., those designed for transmission of established knowledge, but on c-MOOCs. “c” here stands for “connectivist” in recognition of the learning that takes place through horizontal connections and sharing made within communities that emerge around, but extend well beyond, the materials provided by the MOOC hosts (Morrison 2013; Taylor 2013). What [the Program] is not so clear about yet is the kinds (plural) of learning that are happening in cMOOCs. What are their possibilities and limitations? Ditto for kinds of creativity, community, collaboration, and openness. By “limitations” [the Program] is especially interested in anticipating undesired consequences....

    Science and policy that would improve responses to extreme climatic events
     ...Recent and historical cases of climatic-related events shed light on the impact of different emergency plans, investment in infrastructure and its maintenance, and reconstruction schemes. Policymakers, from the local level up, can learn from the experiences of others and prepare for future crises.... The question for this case is how to get political authorities and political groups—which might be anywhere from the town level to the international, from the elected to the voluntary—interested in learning about how best to respond to extreme climatic events and pushing for changes in policy, budgets, organization, and so on. It should even be possible to engage people who resist the idea of human-induced climate change—after all, whatever its specific cause, extreme climatic events have to be dealt with....

    Mechanics and Processes

    In a small group running for a delimited period, a private wordpress blog or its equivalent suffices for participants to follow discussion threads.  A google hangout or zoom session allows a group to meet, see each other, and share any visual aids.  Use of such technology is simple, widely accessible, and unencumbered by concerns about production values and costs. The sequence of online CE sessions is, in brief:
  • Before the first live session: Participants review the scenario, the expectations and mechanics, join the online community, and get set up technically for the hangouts.
  • Session 1: Participants getting to know each other. After Freewriting to clarify thoughts and hopes, followed by a quick Check-In, participants take 5 minutes each for Autobiographical Introductions, that is, to tell the story of how they came to be a person who would be interested to participate in a CE on the scenario.  Other participants note connections with the speaker and possible ways to extend their interests, sharing this Connections and Extensions Feedback using an online form.
  • Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes on inquiries related to the case, posting about this to google+ community for the CE, and reviewing the posts of others.
  • Session 2: Clarify thinking and inquiries. Five-Phase Format Dialogue Hour, consisting of Freewriting on one's thoughts about the case, followed by a Check-In, then turn-taking Dialogue Process to clarify what participants are thinking about their inquiries into the case. Session finishes with gathering and sharing thoughts and Closing Circle.
  • Between-session work: Spend at least 90 minutes a) on inquiries related to the case and b) preparing a Work-in-Progress Presentation.
  • Session 3: Work-in-Progress Presentations. 5 minutes for each participant, with Plus-Delta feedback given by everyone on each presentation.
  • Between-session work: Digest the feedback on one's presentation and revise it into a self-standing product (i.e., one understandable without spoken narration).
  • Session 4: Taking Stock. Use same format as for session 2 to explore participants’ thinking about a) how the CE contributed to the topic (the tangible goal) and to the experiential goal, as well as b) how to extend what has emerged during the CE.
  • After session 4 (optional): Participants share, on a public online community or blog, not only the products they have prepared, but also reflections on the CE process.

  • For elaboration and sources, see Slow Edtech think-piece.

    Morrison, D. (2013). “A tale of two MOOCs @ Coursera: Divided by pedagogy.” (viewed 17 Nov 2013).
    Taylor, P. J. (2013). “Supporting change in creative learning.” (viewed 17 Nov 2013).