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Collaboration and Technology

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A group of prospective teachers from the University of Gothenberg in Sweden came by our office today, as part of an exchange program. They have been visiting schools and meeting with education organizations in order to learn about the U.S. education system. We learned a lot about the Swedish system during our conversation.

One topic that came up was the use of technology in schools. As in the U.S., there is wide variability in technology use in Sweden, they told us. Some teachers are eager to embrace the new tools, while others remain more skeptical.

One challenge to the use of technology, some of the Swedish students suggested, was the belief that technology might make it more difficult for students to collaborate on their work. Swedish schools are committed to teaching students to work together, but some educators fear that students with laptops or iPads will stare into their screens, rather than interact with their peers. (Anyone who has watched a group of teenagers knows exactly what they mean.)

But technology and collaboration need not be contradictory. Schools in the New Tech Network, for example, are equally committed to both. They provide a device for every student, and conduct frequent projects that require students to work together in groups. In fact, students are strictly accountable for their group work: if a student does not pull his weight, the other members of the group can "fire" him. And they have to call his parents to tell them that he was fired from the group.

The 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) offers another example. That year, PISA will pilot a new assessment to measure "collaborative problem solving." In the assessment, students interact with a virtual "agent" to solve a problem; they will be measured on the extent to which they establish and maintain a shared understanding of the problem, take appropriate actions to solve it, and establish and maintain the group organization.

That's the kind of collaboration many of us do every day in the workplace. While we meet with our peers, we also do a lot of work on screens while our fellow group members work on their screens. That's a skill worth teaching.

On the 2012 PISA, Sweden's performance declined, and that country's fifteen-year-olds performed below the average for industrialized countries in mathematics, reading, and science. This performance has produced a kind of "PISA shock," the Gothenberg students told us, and politicians are clamoring for reform. It will be interesting to see the results of the 2015 exam, and whether this produces a greater interest in collaboration and technology in Sweden--or in the United States.


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