Technological tools for collaboration


Collaboration is hard (think of the most intimate format of collaboration – marriage, 48% of them fail in Canada and 53% in USA, source – divorce demography wiki). Virtual collaboration is harder.

For the four stage of (mostly offline collaboration) : form, norm, storm and perform, if we want to migrate that online, obviously we need tools which support the whole process – to know each other, to form standard and bond, to discuss and debate, until ultimate to produce outcomes and develop portfolios.

What are some existing technological tools available to facilitate this process? Are they fragmented along the process or can they be integrated?

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Profiling – we want to feel we are cooperating with humans, that makes the process and impact more personal. The network of Facebook and LinkedIn make it so much easier to establish a profile and network both in personal and professional context.

wechatGoogle hangout iconslack iconSkypeCommunication – There are numerous communication tools in the market. They can be in the form of either asynchronous or synchronous, pass over messages via the format of text, audio, video or multimedia. Some of them run better on mobile devices and others do so on computers.

google_docs_original_icons_by_painiax-d74oqqfCo-creation – This is where nobody does better than Google documents. For almost every group project I am in, all of them rely on Google documents and Google folder, except my projects in China. (power of firewall, see my related blog – love letter for Google)


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 e-portfolios – slideshare, pinterest, youtube are all possible e-portals for people to display their collaborative outcomes.

These technological tools are not just made for educational purpose and they are fragmented. Does it matter?


Is the world of education flat?


Assuming our world especially the world of technology continues to flatten, what does it mean for us, individually and institutionally?

I believe we need to have a global and a growth mindset. A global mindset to equip us to be able to collaborate with people beyond cultural boundary. A growth mindset to upscale skillsets in order to stay relevant.

The world of learning and teaching respond rapidly to our fast changing reality, in both formal and informal learning space.

student packingFor students – According to OECD’s white paper ‘Education at a Glance 2012’, ‘the number of international (tertiary-level) students has increased fivefold from 0.8 million worldwide in 1975 to 4.1 million in 2010…Since 2000, the number of foreign tertiary students enrolled worldwide has increased by 99%, for an average annual growth rate of 7.1%.’


world mapFor teaching – New business models emerged with a groundbreaking example of Minerva School. The university allows students to live and learn in seven of the world’s cities during four years of study in accredited residential program. The first batch of its students come from different continents. (read commentary ‘Is Minerva University redefining 21st century education’)

For informal lifelong education – Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) offer everyone with internet access to read, watch and digest educational content.

If we can make educational content open at massive scale, can we make collaborative learning at massive scale, using technology?

The technology world is flat


A decade ago, in his book ‘The World is Flat’, Thomas L. Friedman argues that the world was becoming a level playing field for commerce, citing ten driving forces such as

  • Breakdown of political division : collapse of the Berlin Wall
  • Internet ubiquitous allows information, content, work to flow, and the possibility of uploading and collaborating of online projects
  • Business model: outsourcing and offshoring

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 1995As of today, all of them are proved true especially in the world of technology.

In 1995 world’s top 15 technology company list (by market capitalization, source: Mary Meeker, ‘Internet Trend’ 2015) told us a few things:

  1. Companies were all from North America territory and Europe (1 from Germany)
  2. They were still largely operating in their home base.

Looking back it felt the world was living in another life.

Top 10 technology companies by market cap 200520 years after, situation largely changed. Among the top 15 list, 4 of them come from China. All of them are global brands aiming for the world’s lion share.

Most of them also did not exist in year 1995, such as Facebook (USA), Alibaba (China), Tencent (China).

These technology unicorns are young, ambitious and global known.

In year 2016, technology continues to disrupt all industries including taxi (Uber of USA, Didi of China), hotel (Airbnb of USA), personal finance (Ant financial of China). They entered into the world’s league table with equal ambition to face the flat world.

The question is – how does our formal and informal education respond to this new world?

Top 10 technology companies by 2016

Sweat together and bond after


Recently I did a talk about learning and collaborating online in small groups with slides HERE.

Main storyline goes as

  • Higher education is shifting from location/culture based towards objective/interest based. My undergraduate education was totally immersed by Chinese culture. But the situation is much different when I take a MOOC course or even doing an online degree program which was designed by a Canadian university.
  • A diversified learner population decreases the chance of marginalising minorities (in terms of races and professions). Being marginalised is not some experience I am familiar with as a child but something I had to deal with as a grown up. A carefully designed international program usually balances its student background mix so there will be no dominant culture. Naturally so does a MOOC course.
  • A good team communicates and works together to overcome a shared challenge.
  • Network formed from a good small group experience goes beyond course duration and course content. 

teamworkA good team and network formed after can be a result from either a MOOC course or an online degree course. The prerequisite is that the team shall be motivated intrinsically and have certain collaboration skills. So that they are prepared to spend time communicating, negotiating, sweating altogether in the same boat and know how to do that.

Isn’t that the same with all our human experience? You share a challenging journey together and bond after.

The Openness


This is another piece of learning experience comparison between MOOCs and online degree program courses – Openness. The further I explore into these two worlds, the more thorough I got to understand the meaning of openness, in terms of content, peer interaction, assignment and cohort community.

google catContent openness – It is a no brainer that you need to enrol in a degree program or in a MOOC course to interact with content. What is worth noticing is that some MOOC courses make their content open by uploading their videos on Youtube. All that means, you don’t need to register before you engage with content. And more importantly, the content is Googlable. That is a vital step to make educational resources truly open.

Interaction openness – In both cases, you cannot view peer to peer interaction unless you sign up for a course. But my question would be – why is that? Would it be ultimately thinkable that discussion of a certain subject be open to anyone? That means, people can Google about what others talk about when they learn basic algebra or biology. Would the pros overshadow the cons?

Assignment openness – For a couple of NovoEd  (NovoEd began as a social learning MOOC platform but pivoted towards a corporate training platform over time) courses I took, the best fun I had was to review others’ assignments. That is when creativity really exploded by viewing  and reflecting on what others think and do. In an accredited online course, the design is less so. One of my instructor did provide a very sound rational – since it is graded you can only view others assignments after you complete your own. That is very fair. I reflected on these two experiences and think – does it mean MOOC is for fun and accredited course is for external recognition? What are the implications and consequences of that? And would it be possible these two trespass one day?

Cohort community openness – I had a mentor from my NovoEd course ‘Technology Entrepreneurship’. He contacted me recently to introduce a current learner group to pick up my brain. Happily I accepted. Because I had fun in that course. The course design was superb, my group members worked really well together.  My mentor was very supportive and encouraging. You can feel everyone puts their heart into teaching, learning and mentoring. That engaging experience left me with no hesitance to be connected to future cohorts.

I keep my mind open when I felt openness.

No pay, no pain


This is an attempt to touch upon learning experience, as part of my blog series to compare MOOCs with online degree programs. 

A friend of mine went to pursue a full-time master’s program after more than a decade in corporate world. Burying his head into reading endless papers and writing more, he jokingly said – “I used to be paid to enjoy life. Now I paid my tuition to suffer.”

That is bizarrely true. For consumer business, customers pay to satisfy their needs or craves. For entertainment business, movie-goers pay to have a pleasant time. Continuous education is something quite different – people pay their tuition to work (and suffer). At least, from their point of view.

I hardworking catam the online version of him. A couple of times I wanted to drop out my current online degree program. The workload was a bit intimidating. It is far from being fun to stay at home at night doing the reading and assignments. Especially after you hear the what others are going at night – party, social meetup, dinner, movie, play, talk. It feels like the whole world is having a great time, except me.

But I have invested heavily in doing the application work, I have paid my tuition (US$1000 per course). The sunk cost became quite high for me to shrug off the burden. I had to persist.

It is not the same with a MOOC course. For all the courses I signed up for, there is no entry barrier, no initial financial cost, I could exit any time I would like to (which I did in many occasions, shame on me).

But for those I persisted are those which are truly taught well or I had superior peer support. The entry barrier was close to zero (I just needed to sign up for the platform and for the course), I paid no money for them. The only thing that kepe me going was it was simply so much fun to do it. In reflection, these courses do share some commonality – the videos are fun; reading load is light; a lot of assignments ask me to DO things; I felt strong presence of my peers, either I meet them in local meet-up events, or I worked with them as mentor-mentee or small group peer. hollywood cat

I still cannot get my head around one question – where should online learning experience go between a commitment game and an entertainment game. Shall we attempt to lock learners with heavy initial investment so they have to stay, or shall we allue them with a Hollywood model – it is so light, enthrilling and engaging, that they would not want to leave?

Different Englishness


After looking into the economic incentives for both learners and universities, I am moving to the second part of my effort to compare MOOCs with Online degree program, addressing culture inclusion/exclusion. I will start with a platform experience – different Englishness, followed by learning experience and community experience.

Any learners taking a MOOC course or an online degree program in an international context would naturally assume an English language environment. Does it make an indiscriminating climate for everyone when English – a universal language is anointed?

cat speaks english

Payment – money can’t buy you inclusiveness. I have issues paying my online degree tuition. The payment system requires me to either send a check of a Canadian bank or transfer online with a Canadian bank card. I have Unionpay card issued in China, master card issued in Hong Kong and visa card issued in UK but that does not help. This makes me further ponder, for cultures which are more cash driven, how easy it is to make money travel. 

At the same time, I have to awkwardly acknowledge my ignorance in payment process for any MOOC platforms.

Platform – please don’t say of course. 

For many websites, there is a house icon to indicate that this leads  you back to homepage. A colleague cited this example to show how a culture assumption is made that everyone’s home will be like a house.  He further asked if red is a merry color and white indicates death in Chinese culture. Without hesitation, I responded ‘ of course’. He looked into my eyes and said seriously ‘ please don’t say of course.’

It was that moment of truth,  I realised how many cultural assumptions I still make even I thought I am well-travelled. So do web platforms.

A culturally neutral learning platform means that anyone coming to virtual place to teach and to learn will gain the same understanding, no matter where they come from.

My experience with my online degree platform is that learning mostly takes place within the platform (Blackboard in my case). At the same time, a wider system is provided in order to give us a taste of campus environment. This comes in forms of a virtual access to university library or emails about national insurance card. It is an interesting taste of venturing into another culture, halfway.

My learning of MOOC courses usually extend to tools beyond the platform itself. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Google hangout, Youtube are used widely. In places like China these tools are not available. People engage tools such as wechat (a combination of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, medium, name it) to organize learning outside the platform. The separation of Facebook and Wechat world is there.We don’t know what we don’t know. Neither is fully aware how fascinatingly green grass at the other side is.

You think a platform in English naturally serves global. But when it comes to how you pay, what reading resources you access, which insurance scheme covers you and which social tool you base your community on: there are different Englishness.