Leap of Faith: Effective Steps for Establishing Online Collaborative Learning Initiatives

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Concepts of ‘traditional’ working and teaching practices are increasingly becoming insufficient, as technology continues to enable unprecedented collaboration across the globe. Boundaries of locality, time and discipline are breaking down, revealing new and exciting collaborative professional and educational possibilities. Tomorrow’s graduates will not only need to possess disciplinary knowledge and skills, but also the ability to effectively communicate and work with others in online collaborative environments. Despite this, there are still many sectors within education being ‘left behind’ when it comes to integrating appropriate online learning strategies into their curricula. This can result in a mad scramble to get content online fast, without considering that specific online learning and teaching approaches must also be established to ensure relevance, sustainability and effective student learning. Educators must evolve their approach – shape their own ‘learning futures’ (Salmon 2007), or they will soon find large aspects their teaching methods mismatched to industry practice. Students must be taught how to overcome the challenges of working together in digital spaces. Effective online communication and collaboration should be taught as part of an integrated curriculum, merging traditional skills and knowledge with new digital working practices, so that graduates are equipped to become true future leaders in their field. When faced with the reality of initiating such educational change, many institutions do not know where to start. Developing infrastructure, acquiring the technology, designing curriculum and developing online teaching approaches for such ‘a leap of faith’, can all seem like impossible barriers. - So how can educators overcome these problems and make a start? Over the last four years, the College of Fine Arts (COFA), The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia has successfully overcome such barriers to develop a suite of fully online courses in disciplines such as graphics, interior and urban design, and even more ‘traditional’ art disciplines such as drawing and sculpture. The success of these undergraduate courses also led to the development of a unique fully online Masters degree in art and design. Through the examination of a range of qualitative and quantitative data, along with reflections of both teachers and students from our staff development programs and COFA Online courses, this paper offers insights and accessible strategies learned through years of practical experience and continuing research to support the development of online learning and teaching initiatives, staff training and effective online learning and teaching techniques that engage students, and foster the collaborative and communications skills that will be so important in future workplaces.
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McIntyre, Simon
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