Discovering hidden depths in digital collaboration

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Diem (2)In the last week, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the MaWSIG conference with the theme of New Ways of Working and a webinar delivered by Nick Robinson of ELTjam about LX Design.  At MaWSIG, Antonia Clare talked about the potential threat that working in a digital space posed to the development of good relationships, and the negative affect that this might have on collaboration.  Nick also spoke about collaboration, identifying a need for interaction for learning to be facilitated.   

Ten years ago, when I was working in-house as a publisher at Pearson, it was commonplace to hold two-day-long author and editor meetings in the London offices to go through each draft of the manuscript, and then to work through the early proof stages.  I remember these meetings as being fruitful, but also exhausting.  Not only did everyone involved have to come up with solutions to content issues on the spot, but they also had to employ negotiation skills which hopefully persuaded other parties to ‘buy in’ to their suggestions.  Then there was another layer of difficulty introduced by the need to read my colleagues’ body language, pay attention to their tone of voice and to decide how to react.  As any editor or author who has attended this sort of meeting will attest, the stamina needed to process all of the information at these meetings and to ensure that one’s language and behaviour remains calm and measured for eight hours is considerable.

Fast-forward a decade to freelance life and I now very rarely need to attend such meetings; most of the ‘discussions’ I have about content change is done via email, track changes in word and sometimes on Skype.  This has many benefits; I have the luxury of time to mull over a content issue and to come back to it if I’m stuck.  I can also avoid wasting time travelling to and from meetings.  However, virtual collaboration comes with its own set of challenges.  There have been a couple of memorable occasions when I’ve been forced to question whether working purely in a digital space  really allows for the sort of understanding and trust required for real collaboration to take place.

For instance, recently an author I had worked with expressed relief that we had worked well together and produced material he was happy with despite the fact that our working relationship had taken place entirely online and in writing.  Up until then, I hadn’t really questioned our way of working –it was just our modus operandi – but his comment made me wonder whether he might have preferred more real discussion.

These small, but significant exchanges came to the forefront of my mind last weekend, while I listened to Antonia Clare speaking about ‘Working in a digital space’ at the excellent MaWSIG conference.

Working in a digital space

Antonia quoted from an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled The Subtle Ways Our Screens are Pushing us Apart in order to explain that working in a digital space can drive a wedge between would-be collaborators.  Digital working threatens to create ‘Affinity distance’- it only allows for a shallow understanding of our co-workers; their emotional depths are hidden from us:

‘Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them.

This, in turn, creates a culture in which data is merely passed back and forth in order to create ‘a non-descript deliverable that can be as forgettable as the interactions themselves’.  Not only this, but a lack of meaningful exchange and true emotional understanding of what makes one another tick can ‘create distorted perceptions about other people’s values and beliefs, causing collaboration conundrums.’

So, in other words, working in a digital space can have a detrimental effect on relationships and inevitably, on the end product itself.

Antonia’s talk expressed concern at the distance that digital working threatens to create, but also acknowledged that there were exciting opportunities available to co-workers who managed to close the affinity distance and therefore collaborate in a meaningful way.

The editorial-author digital relationship

But how do editors uncover their author’s emotional depths when they’re both working in a digital space?  It’s often a case of choosing the mode of communication that suits the message.  If, for example, there’s a difficult negotiation to be done regarding schedules, a Skype call tends to work better than an email missive.  A follow-up email detailing the dates can provide a written record of the conversation.   Also, I find that feedback is written with more empathy and received with more understanding if I set up a call with the author at the very start of the project.  Just hearing someone’s voice and giving a person the opportunity to express their preferences for working together makes them seem so much more human and hopefully decreases potential misgivings about their work being edited.

Paradoxically, in order to avoid the aforementioned collaboration conundrums that result from a lack of true emotional understanding, it can be helpful to remove personal emotion from email exchanges.   As editors, we can diffuse potentially difficult situations by avoiding the use of ‘I’, opting instead for ‘we’ and trying to use the passive whenever possible.  On the other hand, there are also very skilled editors who can imbue their emails with real warmth, whilst avoiding coming across as too familiar or patronising.  Working with them has been a real education.

The learner-product digital relationship

Until I attended ELTjam’s webinar yesterday, I hadn’t considered the distance of affinity that can happen between a learner and a digital product, when there is a ‘disconnect’ between what we believe to constitute effective teaching and learning and what the learner experiences when using the technology: a unfortunate phenomenon that Nick calls the ed-tech disconnect.  Nick Robinson revealed that there were three qualities that a digital product needed to have: it needed to be a) usable b) useful and c) delightful.  He went on to explain that while some digital products have achieved the first two qualities, they have, so far, failed to delight the learners and are therefore unlikely to endure.  A product, he explained, needs to solve a learner problem, or ‘pain point’ in order to delight, but this problem also needs to be defined carefully.  It is not enough, he argued, to make generalisations about a particular nationality or age group of learners, instead publishers need to carry out ‘narrow and deep’ market research, which uncovers a learner’s emotional needs.  Once these needs are established, the product needs to answer these needs in as palatable way as possible – the solution needs to be more akin to a vitamin (good for you, life-enhancing) than to a pain killer (dulling, having possible side-effects, negative).

When a digital product is usable, useful and delightful, it occupies a sweet spot: a place where good pedagogical, content and social strategy, as well as positive user experience intersect.

In talking about sound pedagogical strategy, Nick made reference to Scott Thornbury’s blog post for ELTjam which cited 10 observations about second language acquisition and used them to predict the potential that educational technology might have to facilitate learning.  One observation cited was:

Learners can learn from each other during communicative interaction (Swain et al. 2003).

In evaluating a digital product, Thornbury explained, we need to ask ourselves whether it makes provision for the learner to collaborate and interact with other users in the target language.

But what does ‘collaborate’ mean?  Going by Antonia Clare’s MaWSIG talk, it means far more than exchanging ideas in a digital space.  It means communicating in ways that really help us to appreciate the qualities that drive a person forward (and conversely those that drive them away) and in doing so, working together in an empathetic way.  Only by achieving this level of understanding, does true innovation come about.  In the same way, perhaps, digital products need to evolve in order to allow for meaningful interaction between learners to occur, so that each learner feels emotionally, as well as intellectually engaged.










  1. Brilliant post Verity reflecting on what has been a very thought provoking week of learning.

  2. Thanks for this, Verity. I did just want to add my experience – in 14 years of editing, 11 of them freelance, I have only met about ten per cent of the authors I’ve worked with (many were based overseas) and then only after publication (for example, at IATEFL). So for me it’s not so different, and I sometimes think that the distance encourages us to be thoughtful and respectful in our communications – no bad thing. But I agree with you on needing time to mull over content, and I do like to have things recorded – so for me, email is the best!

    • Hi Lyn, thanks for your comments. Like you, I very rarely meet authors nowadays, and I agree that the distance does encourage some editors to be thoughtful and respectful. I also think email is a useful tool, but I do think it sometimes needs to be mitigated by a conversation over the phone. This ‘real’ conversation, in my experience only serves to improve relationships. As an author, I’ve been on the receiving end of rather impersonal, quite ‘ruthless’ feedback, (bright red capital letters all over the manuscript on one occasion) which I can’t help thinking might have been softened had the editor and I had an initial chat. It would be interesting to hear from anyone (author or editor) who prefers not to talk on the phone / via Skype.

  3. Great post, Verity. Thanks for the mention. I think the skype/phone call at the beginning of the process is a really good idea. What I have done recently is organise regular Skype calls with the editor once we’ve received each batch of feedback. This allows us to talk through the feedback, iron out any misunderstandings and also discuss the way forward / how we plan to approach the rewrite. This has worked well and I think the fact that it was Skype (which is almost F2F) made a real difference to the success of the collaboration.


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