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Aug 13 2015 - 12:00am
Collaborating Computer Scientists

Computer science is not often characterized as a collaborative field, but the production of technology in the real world requires developers to be adept at asking the right questions, cooperating with colleagues from many disciplines, and managing their own work and the work of others. The authors of a recent study hoped to address this issue in their own undergraduate usability engineering classrooms through teaching an explicit collaboration model and then engaging students in a series of collaborative homework assignments.

The usability course that served as a testing ground for this experiment emphasized striking a balance between the desires of users and the development of a product through a testing cycle. The course was highly problem-based, with both in-class and homework assignments forming the foundation of a philosophical and practical approach to engineering for usability. The collaborative assignments in the experiment also followed this model and were meant to simulate real-world usability engineering challenges with varying levels of direction and information from other departments in the mock technology company.

The course was in-person, but students were instructed to collaborate and submit their work online. The researchers video taped the student groups working together in the second week of class and used it as a teaching tool for the collaboration model that students were supposed to use in class. After teaching the model, the researchers videotaped the groups working together again in week twelve of class. They scored these videos on an evaluation rubric, which revealed that students improved by 16% in communication, planning, productivity, and negotiation skills.

Students also thought critically about how they used the online collaboration tools through a series of surveys. There was evidence that students were collaborating frequently online and using many different avenues to communicate with one another. Use of these communication tools seemed to expand over the course of the semester and frequent collaboration, especially synchronous collaboration in the chat forums, was associated with better scores on the final projects.

This study demonstrated a potentially successful approach to teaching collaboration in an undergraduate computer science classroom. As technology companies expand across the globe, online collaboration will be an increasingly important skill for developers. Further research is needed to ensure that digital and personal collaboration methods are integrated into the computer science curriculum at every level.

Carroll, J. M., Jiang, H., & Borge, M. (2014). Distributed collaborative homework activities in a problem-based usability engineering course. Education and Information Technologies, 20(3), 589-617.

Image: Data Diner Group Study Booth by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries and adapted for the New Learning Times via Flickr