The digital handshake is a critical point in any online interaction. Handled well, it will lead to successful and rich communication. Handled badly, it will take a long time to recover and get group process on track. I am thankful to Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay for this evocative name for a vital part of online collaboration.
I have long admired The Flat Classroom project almost from when it started in 2006. The story of a collaborative project between the US and Bangladesh which just grew and grew is inspiring on many levels. The two teachers, Julie Lindsay and Vicki Davis, who started the project have just brought out a book on how to get such international projects off the ground called Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time. Having run flat class projects, as they have come to be known after the first project which explored Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, every year since 2006, the two are expert in what works and what doesn’t. I will probably come back to the topic of this book in more depth at a later date because I can see it becoming a classic must-read for today’s educators. The experience is aimed at schools but really transcends age and could work equally well in a university setting as well as all the way down to about fifth grade.
One thing I like about the book is the mix of evidence-based theory and hands-on advice. I’m not done reading the book but one thing which jumped out at me was the idea of a digital handshake. This was the expression used by Davis and Lindsay to describe the importance of the first contact between groups who are going to be working together. The groups in Flat Class projects are always in different countries and so cannot physically meet. Therefore the members of the group only exist if they show signs of contact online. This is a two way process, hence the term digital handshake. Davis and Lindsay give the example of groups sending out emails to their partner groups and not receiving replies. It doesn’t matter if the recipient group has diligently read and prepared their response to the emails or acted on advice or requests made in the emails. If they don’t reply then the sending groups feels as though they have been ignored. They have not grasped the proffered hand in the digital handshake and things get off to a shaky start.
Davis and Lindsay also point out that they have noticed that the groups which get started the fastest are also the groups which get the most out of the projects and end up being the most engaged. I certainly found this with high school students. We were not doing a collaborative project but simply using the institutional LMS/VLE and those students which started posting first were the ones which stayed the course in a literal sense. I learned that I could spot who would need support within the first two weeks of a year long course using contribution to the LMS/VLE as my prime indicator. And in my online teacher facilitation, the first weeks are the ones where the facilitator is most active and most visible and this seems to work well in terms of creating a good group working relationship.
The implication for online projects is that the first weeks need to be extremely active to establish relationships and trust but that the rate of communication can be pared back once that trust is in place.