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  Preparing university students for a collaborative career

  • marius foley
    Hosted by Marius Foley
    Lecturer and Practitioner at RMIT School of Media and Communication


Preparing university students for a collaborative career

A story about how university professors are balancing a number of challenging factors in order to prepare students for a world in which collaboration is essential to their career success.

  • Organisation: RMIT
  • Project Name: Student Collaboration Training
  • Sector: Tertiary education
  • Industry: Education
  • Country: Australia
  • Free tags: education, tertiary, students, design, media, communications

The challenge: To give students collaboration skills that will improve their educational experience in addition to transfer to workforce

Collaboration scale: 3-50  

“Group work” are two words that strike fear in the hearts of most students. These words conjure an instant expectation of being saddled with people who won’t pull their weight, or control freaks who will hand out lowly tasks and do it all themselves. Few students are excited about being forced to work with others - especially knowing their grade will depend on how those they work with perform. This discomfort is routinely reflected in student experience surveys. RMIT is working to reverse this trend, actively taking steps to build collaboration skills of students and transform group work experiences from a negative experience to a positive one.

Working well with others is a critical success factor in many roles in the workforce. This has long been recognised by universities which have reflected a requirement to prepare students for this reality though mandatory group work - with as much as 4-8 weeks of group work per course, often counting for a significant portion of the course grade. For example, a course in the Master of Communication program intentionally brings together students from the five disciplines of design, journalism, media, PR and advertising, as these groups, while distinct, rarely work independently in the industry. Even with such a clear rationale for collaboration, however, there has been a tough challenge getting these students to work well together as the language and principles from their unique disciplines make communicating and agreeing difficult.

In addition to communication challenges, many students are accustomed to, and most comfortable, working alone to achieve their study goals. Relying on others to perform at their level can be intimidating or painful. Students don’t have a language for collaboration and there aren’t many good examples to demonstrate or emulate how to create a collaborative team from a group of diverse strangers. To add to this, real collaboration is a bit like an unused muscle - you have to overcome an initially unpleasant and potentially painful experience to get better at or appreciate it. But, with increasing evidence from recent reports such as Deloitte’s the Collaboration Economy, teamwork is a fact of life that students will have to face, and the better a university can prepare them, the more successful it will be.

In order to bridge this gap and find a way to provide experiences of collaborative work which taught students about its value in a less confronting way, RMIT has been experimenting in select courses, removing the team-work component from the major assessment and instead trying to find a meaningful new way to introduce group work. The intention is to create a structure to the work that prepares students for the sometimes uncomfortable give and take - especially of one’s ego - that is required to make space for ideas that differ from or conflict with your own before finding a shared way forward. So far a key aspect of this has been taking the course credit behemoth out of the picture, and encouraging a shared idea generation space.

In one such course, Lean Social Futures, students were broken into three groups and tasked with brainstorming and setting up two or three first stage concept proposals relating to one of three aspects of the lived environment. These proposals were then discussed and assessed by the course participants as a whole through a lot of discussion. This then moved back to being an individual project where students were asked to take one of the ideas from any of the groups and develop it to the next level of detail as their major assignment. This sets up a couple of dynamics:

  • The person who had the original idea has to ‘let it go’ and learn to see how others progress their idea differently

  • The person appropriating an idea has to understand how to imbue that idea with their own interpretation

This new approach gave students a provocative, tangible experience of the value of working with others to generate ideas. It also supplied a critical learning in changing the pattern of the more design-oriented students to leap to an answer, by forcing them to hear and acknowledge a wide range of ideas and potentially find a gem amongst them that was was better than or could augment their own idea.

While the learnings from the program are showing promising signs of improvement and a greater appreciation of the changed structure for group work, the program is still in its early days. There are aspirations to deepen the collaborative aspects of the course by more actively encouraging voluntary group-work as part of the individual project, or by bringing the larger groups back together to progress ideas even further as a third and final step.

“We want to make sure that students know, even at university, they are working in a network of people with valuable ideas and skills that can compliment and contribute to their own, and knowing how to recognise this and work with others will give them an advantage in the workplace”