THE BLOG
11/05/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Why Higher Education Should Not Compromise About Collaboration

When I first began working with universities to develop project management solutions I was stunned. Given that the internet is full of collaboration-friendly tools, indeed the internet itself might be considered one, I assumed it should be easy to find a perfect fit for any organization. It's not. In fact, mature options reflect extremely narrow business or consumer use cases.

Certainly, schools and universities employ many technologies. Learning management systems and dedicated intranets are widespread. Most of these tools, however, are limited. This is by design. As much as the idea of developing learning-focused alternatives to every commercial platform is appealing, it is not practical. Most schools opt for a basic intranet and leverage popular consumer technologies whenever they can. There is nothing wrong with this strategy. It first glance, it makes a lot of sense. Why develop or license an inferior tool commercial providers have already spent millions building? Isn't it the most expedient to leverage a student's facility with popular, existing technologies?

Unfortunately, as Google docs, YouTube videos, and even Facebook groups are popping up in the classroom other problems are emerging. Although technologies, like Facebook, had their start in the university, the relentless drive to productization is proving antagonist to scholastic culture. Collaborative tools honed for business plans are not always a good match for lesson plans. Advertising and preroll video p!lacements are simply not welcome.

Colleagues and myself faced this problem for the first time when working on an improvement project in Haiti. The project, known as CASCAF, centered around a sustainable solid waste management facility in Carrefour Feuilles. Initiated by the UNDP in 2006, the program was one of the few infrastructure projects to survive the 2010 earthquake. It's success converting solid waste into safe, environmentally friendly fuel for burning is a model for other poor communities. Given its success, interest emerged around the expansion of the program following the earthquake.

Building infrastructure requires the input from many groups. In normal circumstances this might take years of dialogue between NGOs, governmental, universities, communities and the general public. To facilitate such an exchange in a developing economy after a natural disaster adds an extra level of challenge. Nothing we found provided a very good fit for the kind of openness and structure we needed. Professional project management tools might be excellent in bolstering productivity, but they were poor in the accumulation and transfer of knowledge. Social networks, on the other hand, are a mess of unstructured information. Wikis are better in organizing data into useable references, but are lacking as open, real time communities. Working with the university, which was playing a key role in the project, we soon realized a new model was needed.

Our initial prototype took many cues from social networking and, for that reason, users embraced it quickly. The trick was structuring engagement in a manner so that useful or important information surrounding the improvement project would rise. This structure provided momentum by encouraging dialogue which actually accelerated the project, built consensus, and streamlined the process. It is ironic that academia is often criticized for being inefficient or impractical when our finding was that, by embracing scholarly dialog existing tools neglect or resist, we achieved a more efficient, albeit robust, result. The key was collaboration. We were building a social platform that "rewarded" experts for being experts, for applying their knowledge as they engaged many communities, businesses, and even governments around worthy goals. We felt, by considering academic application, we rediscovered the DNA of the Internet and unleashed what it originally was meant to be.

Revisiting this question is especially pertinent as more and more of the world is coming online. Not only can social networking be purposeful, it is more compelling when it is. Our platform proved so successful, many universities expressed immediate interest. Currently in private beta in anticipation of a public January launch, we are already working with active development projects in Africa and Haiti.

While there isn't always an easy path forward for educators negotiating technical options, it is important not to loose site of your unique needs as educators. It is important to recognize exactly how existing services fall short and value what your perspective brings. Too often, academia is portrayed as out of touch, unrealistic or impractical. Despite laying the groundwork of much of our world academic institutions are pushed to make due with hand-me-downs from other sectors. This is not only odd, but reflects a misunderstanding the broader culture entertains about these technologies. In any event, I believe meaningful collaboration is at the heart of all of value. If you and your students cannot participate in a manner which reflects who and what they are, it isn't collaboration.