Paul Stacey

Collaboration & The Collaborative Laptop

My work at BCcampus focuses extensively on generating collaborations and partnerships among largely autonomous public post secondary institutions. As a result of this focus I think a lot about collaboration.

My son Noah sent me a time lapse video of a big collaborative painting he did as part of an art show at the Fall Gallery here in Vancouver.

I love how Noah and his friends have taken the act of painting, traditionally a solitary venture, and made it into a collaborative real-time group event done publicly.

I often have this image in mind when I’m thinking about collaborations between groups of faculty on the creation of Open Educational Resources (OER). Authoring OER, or for that matter any course content for higher education courses, has historically been, and is largely still, a solo effort. One of my big hopes is that OER will shift the authoring process to a collaborative one. I’d love to host an OER authoring event that brings faculty together into groups based on shared academic field of study or subject area and supports them in collaboratively authoring OER.

BCcampus has been carefully setup and positioned to not be an institution itself. We don’t teach or credential and as a result we don’t compete with BC’s public post-secondary institutions for students or faculty. Instead we act as a facilitator of partnerships and collaborations among the institutions. This is a bit of a tricky proposition when working with autonomous institutions who want to maintain their self-sufficiency and not dilute their brand. Its further complicated by the competitive nature of higher education. Although the 25 colleges and universities we serve are publicly funded they actually operate as competitive business units. Each institution receives funding based on the number of student enrollments they acquire. This competition based funding formula is a major disincentive to collaboration.

In a sense at BCcampus we focus on enabling that which no one institution can do on its own. We get involved when multiple institutions want to work together toward a common goal. That goal may be development of a collaborative academic program, pooling requirements for educational technology and deploying a shared service that meets those requirements, or implementation of an online admissions service that allows students to apply to multiple institutions at the same time.

A major challenge for BCcampus is the voluntary opt-in nature of our work. We don’t force collaboration. Sometimes our role is simply creating opportunities for institutions to get together and hear about what each institution is doing. Through these events a shared understanding of challenges and successes can emerge and networks of like-minded people who share a common interest across institutions form.

Recently BCcampus joined the Open Educational Resource Foundation (OERF) as a founding member. Wayne Mackintosh who heads up the OERF asked us this interview question as part of the BCcampus case study writeup on their site;

“Traditionally, fostering collaboration among traditional research-led universities, community colleges and vocational education institutions can be hard given the cultural and operational uniqueness of these teaching institutions. Clearly, BCcampus is getting this right. Based on your experiences, what advice can you offer policy makers grappling with educational efficiencies in a digital world?”

Its a great question and in reply I said:

“Its true that fostering collaboration can be hard work and here in BC we are following an opt-in approach rather than anything mandatory, so this approach makes our work especially challenging. Over the years we’ve found the following kinds of approaches work:

  • Focus on achieving outcomes that no one institution can do on its own
  • Help institutions connect with each other and form partnerships by organizing and hosting events and virtual spaces that allow them to speak to each other and solve common issues or challenges
  • Provide financial incentives (either new money or savings) for partnering and collaboration
  • New licensing scenarios for technology can be structured such that licensing costs are based on the cumulative student enrollments represented by participating institutions. In this scenario the more institutions that collaborate the lower the cost for all
  • Partnerships and collaborations need not involve the entire public post-secondary system for them to be successful
  • Maturation and sustainability of value often follows a path from exploratory proof-of-concept work, to a pilot project with a few partnering institutions, to something that scales up to support as many institutions that want to participate.
  • As services mature, support for them also needs to scale with different types of people required for ongoing operation
  • Focus on providing value by generating real-time data on systemic activity that can be shared with everyone
  • Generate and publish measures of partnership and collaboration that quantify the benefit received by each institution

You can find the full interview at

Laptops are typically for solitary, solo use. Some years ago when I worked at the Technical University of British Columbia I had this idea for a collaborative laptop. I’m still amazed that nothing like this has been developed so let me try and map out the basic idea.

When two people sit down together for a conversation they typically sit opposite each other. The conversation is livened by eye contact, gestures, and interpretation of facial cues.

Increasingly conversation is supplemented by inclusion of a laptop for sharing of digital work being done, media, and quick searches. However when a laptop is inserted into the mix it breaks the conversation connection by diverting the attention from the interplay between two people. There is a loss of eye contact as the attention of one member in the conversation shifts to to the interaction with the computer. Further exacerbating the issue is that the second person can’t see anything that the person using the computer is doing. This is frustrating for them and the conversation can break down. At its worse it leads to people feeling devalued and less important than whatever is on that damn computer.

The idea for a collaborative laptop come from observing this pattern of behaviour in the workplace and increasingly in social settings. The idea is pretty simple. What if the laptop lid facing the person not operating the computer had a second screen that could be revealed by sliding the metal covering open like a window. That way both participants in the conversation can see what is on the screen as a shared media element rather than an exclusive element only seen by the computer operator. When not being used in a collaborative context the laptop owner can slide the lid covering closed. That, in a nutshell is the collaborative laptop in it’s most basic configuration. Here are some basic illustrations.

Of course the collaborative laptop could be further extended by having a second keyboard be available that pops out at the push of a button if the second person wants to actively operate the computer too. With a collaborative laptop two people are sharing a single laptop while sitting in the classic conversation configuration. A common shared screen and optional second keyboard create a scenario where the laptop is an aid to collaboration and conversation rather than a hindrance.

A collaborative laptop transitions the computer from a solo device for solitary interaction to a collaborative device for use in social contexts.

Apple make me one please! Oh and ummm as the inventor of the collaborative laptop can I have a slice of the revenue from sales? 🙂

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