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Collaboration in the Age of Individualism: Lessons and Outlook
In undergraduate Engineering education, there has been considerable emphasis on collaboration in the last couple of decades. Project-based learning (PBL) along with team work are the most common avenues for encouraging collaboration among students. At least 3 out of 11 student outcomes of ABET criterion 3 can be interpreted as involving collaborative learning. This shift in the classroom practices is expressed in terms of modern engineer's need to collaborate with diverse teams in the age of globalization.
In parallel to this, pedagogies of liberation (Friere, Banks, hooks, Giroux) also are premised upon cooperative learning by centering the student, dismantling instructor's authority, bringing student backgrounds and experiences into the classroom, and collectively setting goals, discussing methods, and formulating assessment schemes. The key concept is that those who are deprived of power and hence access to institutions of power (think students from impoverished school districts) also bring valuable experience and knowledge to the table. The ultimate goal is that of liberation of the individual (decolonization of mind) and transformation of oppressive structures (social justice).
I shall present my experiences of applying collaboration practices from liberative pedagogies to four Engineering (ThermoFluids) classrooms ranging from sophomore to senior year undergraduate students in a private liberal arts setting. I shall present the implementation challenges and student perceptions of this practice. These can be summarized in three overarching themes: (1) A sense of unfairness – The individual feels dragged behind or penalized for other students' deficit. (2) Justification for exclusion – The focus on success facilitates “star team-building”, which may result in the exclusion of students of minoritized identities. (3) A sense of being shortchanged – The paying student brings a customer mindset to the classroom, where the Professor's job is to teach, discipline, and assess.
Finally, I shall discuss how the realities of private college education in the age of neo-liberalization of education, shift the meaning of liberation for the individual. That shift also necessitates re-evaluation of commonly employed collaboration strategies. I argue that collaborative practice in a structure that is built on the principles of singular individual effort, reward, and punishment requires examining the very ideas of “merit”, “ability”, and “progress”. Drawing upon cultures that value collaborative effort, I shall share ideas for creating effective collaboration culture among students.