Featured,  Research

A collaboration like no other, reflections by the team as the GO-GN picture book project is coming to an end #gognpb

We have come together during very challenging times for the whole world to create a picture book about open education but on our journey we discovered that what we were really doing is a picture book about the values of open education. The community itself has helped us see this more clearly. Our project was launched on the 14th of October thanks to a GO-GN Fellowship and is now coming to an end (31 March 21). We have captured our journey and milestones through further GO-GN blog posts that have been included at the end of this contribution if you wish to read them all.

We are adding below our original and adjusted timeline. As you can see changes are minimal.

Original timeline (at the beginning)Adjusted timeline
Oct 20 Project Launch and Story Seed Survey Nov 20 Story writing Dec 20 Thumbnails, critical reading Jan-Feb 21 Illustrations, translations x 3 min March 21 Book design April 21 Launch open picture bookOct 20 Project Launch and Story Seed Survey Nov – Dec 20 Analysis, Story writing Dec 20 Critical reading, Discussion with mentor Jan-Feb 21 storyboard, Illustrations March 21 Book design, translations x 3 min April 21 Launch open picture book

Below you can see how we worked together, asynchronously and synchronously and the platforms we used during our collaboration:

•Ongoing asynchronous communication/collaboration: Email, Twitter DM, Skype, Google Drive

•Synchronous communication/collaboration: Skype, Zoom, Teams (7 meetings)

  • 5 Nov Team A
  • 9 Nov Team A
  • 12 Dec Team B
  • 17 Dec Bryan
  • 8 Jan Bryan
  • 15 Jan Bryan
  • 5 March Bryan, Ody

In our 4th blog post we reported that we had written the following about of words

  • 1472 (GO-GN post 1)
  • 3202 (GO-GN post 2)
  • 1664 (GO-GN post 3)
  • 4705  (GO-GN post 4)
  • 5437 (GO-GN post 5, this one)

A lot of words! Which brings our total in all 5 GO-GN blog posts to 11,043 + 16,480.

While you can see that we have written a lot about the story and our book, the text of our story has been shrinking as time passed and from 217 words mentioned in blog post 4 we are now at 154. But a picture book also has pictures and ours has 13 illustrations plus the cover.

We are using this final GO-GN blog post as an opportunity to reflect on our collaboration, our experiences during this project, what we enjoyed, what we found challenging and what we are taking away. Our individual reflective narratives will help us to synthesise our collective experience, make sense of it and share our lessons learnt that may be of value to others who are considering working in distributed open teams on creative projects.

Individual accounts by team members follow.

Paola: The freedom we felt

The collaboration within the GO-GN picture book team was great and stimulating. We all had to manage this activity in between the folds of the other projects we have, our private lives, the struggles of the pandemic, and we always succeeded in keeping our smiles on, can you imagine? We also supported each other when necessary, and we tried to surf the waves of the last few months with this fil rouge linking us.

The easiest aspect was certainly the passion we share: nobody had to push nobody, we embraced our parts. Which is never to be taken for granted. The most difficult for me was maybe squeezing into the Twitter instant messaging tool because I almost never use it except with this group and I had to remind myself from time to time to open and check it, and almost always I discovered a lot of messages were there and my answers were missing!

The most enjoyable aspect of our collaboration is the freedom we felt in being allowed to openly share our ideas, our suggestions, our critics. We all welcomed them and took them into account before making choices. On the other side, the least enjoyable aspect for me was not to be able to contribute also to the pictures themselves, maybe? I’m not sure, because I didn’t even ask for it! And since I didn’t, and I am sure that if I had asked I would have been invited to join that part too, it’s totally up to me. So, no least enjoyable aspects.

Actually, maybe this is what I learned: our potential has no boundaries except those we ourselves put in front of us, and together we go further also in embracing new adventures in real life, not only in picture books 🙂 The idea, and then the experience, of working collaboratively through the entire picture book journey is what I appreciated most and what gave me the opportunity to see how shared efforts can take us to places we wouldn’t reach by ourselves.

I’ve already been working with this approach in other projects with the people I work with, but maybe less creative and more goal-oriented. I love the collaborative approach and even if I recognise the difficulties, I still believe they are worth facing.

I believe that sharing a goal, also an ambitious one, with a smiling attitude, tolerance, readiness to support each other in difficult moments and flexibility could be key in many higher education  projects.

Hélène: ‘A new experience in a unique project’

The picture book is now ready and it is time to reflect on the ways we have worked collaboratively to make this unique project come to live. This post is a reflection on my take of the collaborative journey we have just gone through. It also shares some tips and, in that sense, will hopefully, be of benefit for colleagues and friends who might find themselves working in a collaborative project of a similar nature in the future.

First of all, it is important to define what working collaboratively means and also what it means in the context of the picture book. My understanding of collaboration is working together with a group of people in order to complete a project, or a task, while developing ideas, sharing knowledge and making decisions together, along the way. Working collaboratively requires good interpersonal and communication skills while working towards a common goal. In my experience, collaborative projects can be challenging (each person on the team has their strengths and weaknesses, communication preferences, and personal goals) but such projects are always rewarding as they provide an opportunity for learning and reflecting. This picture book project was no different.

The open education picture book project was put together by Chrissi Nerantzi who successfully gained a fellowship from GO-GN. The ‘dream team’ (as she called it) was formed by Chrissi and consisted of a group of five GO-GN fellows to start with. Her ‘dream team’ included five open educators with good interpersonal and communication skills at the outset, who were willing to develop ideas together, share knowledge and work together. From different nationalities and cultures, we were also all self-managed, motivated to engage and deliver on the project. Most importantly, we all shared the same goal and aimed to promote the values of open education through the project. Later on, the team benefited from two great additions with the participation of Ody and Bryan who worked (and did an amazing job!) on the illustrations and therefore brought additional skills to the team.

This collaboration experience was new for me because it was the first time that I worked with a group of people who:

  • were dispatched all around the world
  • did not belong to my regular work environment
  • worked entirely virtually

Due to the set up, we essentially communicated through a Twitter group and Google Docs. For me, the reliance on asynchronous communication was challenging for several reasons. First, I find that asynchronous communication works best for information sharing and gathering but it is not ideal for brainstorming, developing ideas together and reaching compromises, which are all such important parts of working collaboratively. For me, bouncing ideas against each other work better in live meetings where everybody can exchange ideas and reflect together at the same time, on the spot. Of course, working with people located around the globe means that such meetings were practically impossible. However, thanks to everyone’s flexibility and willingness, we did manage to organise a first brainstorming meeting which was attended by almost everybody and this proved to be a fantastic way to kick-start the project. Subsequently, team A met a couple of times on Skype and I found these live meetings to be the best parts of the project. Secondly, in general, I am not a fan of posting in public spaces, partly because of lack of confidence in my posts and partly because I much prefer to share my ideas in a live conversation. I also find that reading posts and messages is never ending and infringe on my time. Lastly, I am not an educational technologist. I do not like working with the technology very much. This is most probably because I don’t feel confident using it and partly because I am not interested in exploring it. So, the communication channels have been a challenge for me. However, thanks to the good spirit and non-judgemental attitude of the group and the support from Chrissi, the working environment became gradually more and more familiar and easy and enjoyable to work with.

Through working collaboratively on the picture book project, I was able to learn from various people’s different expertise, and to reflect on my ways of working. For example, I learnt a lot about story writing and creative writing techniques and I also now understand much better the aim of a picture book and what it is trying to achieve. I also gained some confidence in writing blog posts – would you believe! Finally, I was able to self-reflect on my ways of working and the reasons why I don’t particularly enjoy working or learning asynchronously, which to me was a great gain for my professional development.

How to work collaboratively?

Here, I will outline the strengths of our project. Hopefully, this will be of some use for people who want to undertake collaborative projects and don’t know where to start.

Strong leadership – it is absolutely vital to have a strong leader who can set clear goals and objectives as everyone must understand the purpose and vision behind the project. At all times, Chrissi inspired us by setting realistic goals and timelines, informing us about changes (for example the illustrator), pushing us to contribute our feedback and encouraging us to lead on sub-tasks. She listened closely to feedback, advice and constructive criticism, and responded to it respectfully. While she had her own ideas about the project and how we should operate, group members’ opinions were taken into account and compromise was always reached. Chrissi has been an incredible orchestrator in this project, taking on the role of a writer, an illustrator, a leader, a mother, a colleague, a friend and much more…

Open minds – the whole team was always open to new ideas and different approaches to the story. We had open discussions during which team members could contribute any ideas.  Contributions were always acknowledged and considered without judgement. Our contributions were valued and respected.

Can-do attitude – at the times when there was doubt about where the story was going or how it was going to be put together, members of the teams supported and encouraged each other through our Twitter group or one-to-one meetings by Skype and emails. We were always able to bounce back, think positive and start again whatever the obstacle was. The team was ready to overcome challenges and solve problems together. When we lost the initial illustrator, Chrissi calmly analysed the issue with the group without blaming anyone, focusing the energy on working together to find solutions.

 Respect of different cultures and different ways of working – collaboration just happened naturally on this project because although we were all from different academic backgrounds and cultures, there was an implicit and common understanding that we are all different, we all have our working preferences and various work and life pressures. We were all working together to reach a consensus to achieve our goal.

Celebration of success – at every milestone and everytime we were making progress, there were a lot of positive vibes sent through our Twitter group and this was essential in keeping us all going.

It was a real pleasure for me to participate in this project. This was a very successful collaboration and a great learning journey. I would like to thank Paola, Verena, Penny, Gino, Ody and Bryan for all your work and collegiality. We should all be very proud of what we have achieved. It was a great collaborative experience and we reached a fantastic outcome. And last, but not least, thank you Chrissi for this extraordinary opportunity and for her incredible drive and determination in producing ‘Together’!

Gino: Asking questions is actually good!

The collaboration on the GO-GN Picture Book team was indeed a change from the normal onlining many of us have become accustomed to. Thank you Chrissi for being the driver, conductor and more! The professional diversity and sheer energy coming from team members certainly fed the process, it was rarely, if ever dormant. Perhaps that was both a good and bad thing, using social media as a primary communication mechanism became a constant reminder that things were afoot. Being part of a collective of champions for Open was the easiest part of the journey, but staying tuned to all the activities generated by the group was somewhat of a challenge at times.

I found the creativity embraced through the journey to be the most enjoyable aspect of being part of the project, the opportunity to participate was welcome, if compromised at times by too many ‘distractions’ from work.

From my experience, collaboration for me is easiest when a time of action is clearly visible. Instead of many smaller bits of chat, I do best with a digest format communication for setting up a task, and with iterative feedback after. Yet, that is likely due to some of the online fatigue after a year of lockdown.

Working collaboratively was an interesting and enriching journey. What is clear is that after COVID, new ways of doing need to be explored, and tried. We did.

It is definitely possible to work with others in this way, if with a few tweaks and dabs of oil in some places where required. The machine runs differently in different environments, so being open to reuse and remixing is probably important. The OpenEdInfluencers project at MandelaUni has collaborated widely in another Open endeavour, and it seems we’ve embraced collaborating from our side already.

Right now, I am most excited at the chance to use the picture book to advocate for Open, to share possibilities and adventures of Open, and to Open up to other translations, for me, especially to get it translated into all the official 11 languages of South Africa!

What I have learnt

  • There is no need to be ‘on’ all the time. The group has impetus, and it is ok to rely on the collective when collaborating.
  • You don’t need to do everything, and asking questions is actually good!
  • Creativity is good. Take time to throw out the framework and to create a new path.
  • People are going through tough times in their respective experiences of lockdown and the pandemic, amidst real-world losses, expectations and requirements in an unreal world. Be kind.

Penny: Collaboration requires less talk, and more listening

My experience of working with people from around the globe, to write a picture book about Open Education was both meaningful and challenging.  It was a joy to connect with GO-GN friends again, and to work on a creative project in the area of Open Education.  What didn’t work well for me was the timing of this project, as it coincided with the final months of polishing my PhD thesis for submission. Participating in a collaborative project requires commitment, and I would have enjoyed giving so much more.

Collaboration takes organisation, commitment, and time. Through Skype meetings, tweets, direct messages, blog posts, and emails Chrissi was effective in driving our collaboration towards the shared purpose of creating a picture book. However, our ideas about Open Education, and how to communicate these ideas in the form of a picture book, varied considerably. This was a challenge and tested our ability to bring this project to fruition.  What worked was being open to, and respectful of, each other’s ideas, along with the different skills and perspectives we all contributed. 

Another challenge for me was communication, across space and time, from the Southern Hemisphere. Once the time zones were sorted, I found synchronous Skype meetings to be the easiest, and most enjoyable way to work collaboratively. What I did learn about myself is that collaboration requires less talk, and more listening. When excited about a project it’s easy to get carried away in a flood of ideas.  I enjoyed this project very much, and although I am not currently employed, I would participate in other collaborative projects in the name of Open Education.  It’s a way of learning new things, maintaining connections, and giving back to the Open Education community.

Verena: The importance of friendships, connections, interactions and collaborations

As alluded to in my previous blog posts, the collaboration for this project provided a sense of balance for me. Completing a collaborative global project in the time of Covid-19 helped me better understand what was going on beyond the four walls of my house. Now usually that would mean outside in my community, bit in this case, it provided an opportunity to connect with others in their four walls in Italy, in the UK, in South Africa and and Australia. This collaboration provided me with well needed human interaction and connections in a difficult time.

In addition, as a result of connecting with others, I was able to hear about their current projects and expand upon my own professional projects. For example, I have learned all about Mandela University’s Open Education Influencers Project. I had originally heard about the project when I was a participant with the Open Educational for a Better World #OE4BW UNESCO project with Gino Fransman in Slovenia in 2019. Having the opportunity to reconnect and collaborate with Gino about this project, encouraged me to learn more about the Open learning moodle course his team has developed and I am hoping to remix at my own institution.  As the new #GO-GN fellowship applications come out, I am thinking about how I can apply and expand upon the open learning networks that are beginning to form within my more formal academic networks using collaboration as a central theme.

Finally, the type of collaboration we emphasized throughout this project helped me with my confidence as an open learning designer, open researcher and open learning advocate. Throughout our story we emphasize the importance of friendships, connections, interactions and collaborations. As many participants suggested in the original picture book online surveys and as I have heard many time by #GO-GN colleagues, it is often difficult to be a lonely open learning advocate in your institution. As this project progressed, I had the opportunity to interview then start a new position with Thompson Rivers University, Open Learning. My role is to support the Zero Textbook Cost (ZTC) project and help develop the ZTC courses to provide students with a university undergraduate degree with no or low costs for textbooks, course content. Participating in projects like the “Open Picture Book Project” ensures that I continue to foster my #GO-GN relationships and expand upon and build new ones within my professional open learning network. It also ensures that I can demonstrate to others the power and potential of open collaborative projects. Projects like this one, provide the provocation, catalyst or seed for future projects to get everyone to the open learning playground.

Ody: An environment where ideas can flow

I found that my favourite part of the collaboration was being able to learn and develop my skills on Adobe Illustrator. Whilst this may seem like something not affected by collaboration, it was the wealth of ideas given by different contributors that pushed my skills and helped me to learn new ways to creatively develop many of the various ideas brought forward by people other than myself, and add them to this project. The part I found least enjoyable was getting feedback and points of possible “improvements”. This was because initially, it can make you feel protective about your work as you don’t want to point out the imperfections. But it is important to learn that feedback is key to developing a great end product. So even though it was my least enjoyable part, gaining feedback is the only reason that the project is in the amazing state that it is now.

Working collaboratively through this project was refreshing since I normally carry out my college work by myself for the most part. It was great to have additional people who could give their opinions about the book project and how various elements within it could be further improved upon. This sort of peer review within collaboration surely drives amazing creative development and leads to an end result that is far greater than could be accomplished alone.

Working collaboratively is great for fostering an environment where ideas can flow free and they can be used for peer review and development of an initial concept to the end result. It is important to learn that anything can always be improved upon and that people will always have a different opinion on some things than you. It is important to note, however, that whilst people may have differing points of view, you need not conform to everybody’s wants and desires as in the end it is your own project and the feedback from peers should be used to develop it and not change it.

Bryan: Collaboration also requires an ongoing bravery

You don’t realise how much you’ve learned until someone asks you for help. They show you something and you immediately see where it could go, the paths it could be carried down. “If it were me…” I’d say to Chrissi, but it’s not me illustrating this book. My primary objective was clear: to help and encourage Chrissi and Ody to run with their creations in a way that feels natural to them.

And sitting on the other side of the fence for a change, one thing tickled me. It’s a lot easier to help someone else digest, understand and triage feedback than it is when it’s your own work under scrutiny. It’s personal. It’s ALWAYS personal. And words strung together in an email sentence can be meant as a garland, but feel like a whip. I know this well. Yet I was impressed by how objectively feedback was received, and acted upon by Chrissi and Ody.

Most things I create are as part of a collaborative process. I may be the hand that draws, but the conversation that I tune in to is fundamentally where the ideas lie. I’m reminded that collaboration is as much about listening as it is about anything. Collaboration also requires an ongoing bravery: to trust in the thoughts of others, and to make yourself vulnerable – to be open.

Lastly, it’s always worth doing something new just to see what there is to be learned along the way – so I’m grateful to Chrissi for asking if I could help. 🙂

Chrissi: The fruits of suspending judgement

Wow! We are near the end of the project. It is an amazing feeling to travel back to the days when the picture book was nothing more than an idea. I never thought my idea would be supported. But it was! I am grateful to the GO-GN Fellowship and the whole GO-GN picture team for bringing it to fruition within the original timeframe and even a bit earlier…

So much has happened, and all this during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I am pleased we are indeed near completion despite some real challenges we sustained our positive relationships and co-created a picture book. We did it! The strategy I applied to select individuals I knew well, felt already connected to and somehow knew that I could work with and have some fun too paid off. I was looking for the humane connections as the most important criterion to invite individuals to join the team. I was also looking for diverse individuals from different parts of the world. I am grateful to everybody who joined me on this journey despite the fact that nobody had done anything like this before. I really appreciated the trust of these individuals and the belief that we could do this! Together.

It was hard when we started working closer together, but then every beginning is hard. I won’t deny that there were days I could not sleep and felt that it was not leading to anything. But we did not give up, none of us gave up and this was our strength, we were determined to make this work. We did overcome the freeze we felt initially. The hardest for me probably was to overcome my fear to do the illustrations when there was no other option… I needed to find strength in my abilities, skills and believe that I can do this and do it well. Bryan, my mentor really helped me. After taking it more seriously and developing a daily drawing routine and filling pages and pages with doodles in my notebook, I saw the illustration of our story as an opportunity and embraced it. I felt well supported by Bryan and the team who seemed to be very appreciative of my doodles. This helped hugely. And working closely with Ody, my youngest on the illustrations and the design was the icing on the cake. It was also the only co-located collaboration of the whole project, everything else happened remotely. I am looking forward to hearing from Ody how he found it working with Mummy on this project and how he feels about the illustrations and the design of the book and what he learnt.

I definitely feel that the picture book, the story and the illustrations are better thanks to our collaboration. We wrote together and we illustrated together. Thanks to our frank conversations, the fact that we suspended judgement and appreciated each other made a huge difference, I feel. This did by no means mean that we were not critical, but the criticality was focused towards  what we were doing, not the other person! Engaging from the outset in external multiple peer reviews seemed to strengthen our work further. They say, a problem shared, is a problem halved and a joy shared becomes a double joy. It did feel like this to me in this project.

It was really easy, I felt, to have open and critical conversations and share our real feelings. It was ok to be frustrated and say so, it was also ok to have some fun and appreciate what each of us brought to the collaboration. The way I had envisaged our collaboration, the sub-teams and the timeframe allocated to specific tasks, seemed to be realistic and enabled us to make good progress from the outset. Using self-paced and some live remote get togethers, just a few, provided a healthy balance, flexibility and made the process manageable.

As the project lead, I was fully immersed into the project and listened carefully to find ways to help everybody to feel supported but also empowered to contribute and lead specific activities as well as feel appreciated. I knew that I would have to write three GOGN posts about the project. While this would have been easy and I could have written these on my own, I saw these posts as an opportunity for the whole team to participate and different members to lead each time. It is a strategy I have used in different projects and initiatives. It can hugely influence commitment and motivation to contribute and create a shared sense of ownership of a project.

I have always enjoyed working and learning with others. I still do and I feel that I have learnt through good and bad not so good past experiences and I got better at it. I can see that I am appreciative of what individuals bring and I like caring for them and protecting them. But also empowering them. This is the Greek mama in me. I am flexible and resourceful in working things out, trouble-shoot to find a solution that works for everybody and achieve the collective goal. It doesn’t always work but if there is trust so much can be achieved and we did. I may seem laid back and invisible as a leader but I am there to support and provide direction, protection and enable others grow and shine. I am looking forward to reading what other team members think about me as a leader.

Selecting your own team is often a luxury that we seldom have. In this project I selected the team. I have had similar opportunities on other projects. What I have learnt is that connecting with individuals on a personal level is the foundation to making team work, work. To be honest and open. Often, we work with others without knowing the real person and that is when misunderstandings and mistrust can bloom and lead to friction. Key is to be respectful and have the common goal in mind and guide our actions and behaviours to achieve this in the best possible way. Listening carefully is really important and observing. Seeing the first signs of a potential storm and finding respectful ways to problem-solve and fix things in time is important so that a project does not derail. It will not always work out. There may be personality clashes, conflicting and changing priorities… things that happen in our lives that are beyond our control.

I would happily work in a similar way on other projects, with the same team, including  my youngest, Ody. We have been understanding, kind, supportive of each other and productive too. There has been flexibility and openness of mind and working practices and approaches. This was about inclusion of voices, perspective and practices. The flexible structure or scaffold that some may not even recognise as organised working, allowed us to bend, stretch and condense, adjust our plans when needed and be agile, responsive and quick in trouble-shooting, ideas generation and decision making. This way of working, I feel gave everybody the ability to contribute in different ways that was manageable. We appreciated all contributions that were possible during a very challenging time for all of us. Despite all the challenges we managed to complete the project ahead of time. How often does this happen?

Key learning points for me…

  • When the right individuals come together and there is a deep appreciation and trust for each other, and judgement has been suspended, this can be empowering and can lead to true success, enjoyment and growth but also increase commitment to a project.
  •  Flexible collaborative working practices provide a valuable breathing space, enable diverse voices to be heard and create room for inclusion, invention and imaginative thinking, problem-solving and expression.
  •  It is important in higher education to maintain the freedom to seek diverse collaborations as these will enrich our ideas, processes, practices and outputs and open our minds to new possibilities.

The writing team of this project is directly or indirectly linked to GOGN. We all met for the first time in Delft during the OE Global Conference 2018 and some of us also participated in the GOGN seminar that took place then. We managed to get our omphalos, or our physical meeting point, if you like, into our picture book. Can you see how we did this?

View/download Together from Zenodo

The GO-GN picture book project is coming to an end but it is also a new beginning. This collaboration will create further opportunities to work together and explore our creative ideas, activities and lives.

The book is a reflection of who we are as individuals and open practitioners and researchers and illustrates our collective values and beliefs. Working with everybody on this project has been a joy and a truly enlightening experience. Thank you Helene, Paola, Penny, Verena, Gino, Ody and Bryan, all those contributing to our seed survey, our critical readers, peer reviewers, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the GOGN team for making this possible and their ongoing support.

The GOGN picture book team

If you would like to read more about our project, please feel free to read our previous GOGN blog posts:

Corti, P., Pulker, H., Nerantzi, C., Bentley, P., Fransman, G. and Roberts, V. (2021) Our story and our connection to it… #gognbp, GO-GN blog, 12 February 2021. GO-GN blog

Nerantzi, C. and Mathers, B. (2021) To illustrate or not to illustrate?
Bryan mentoring Chrissi for the open picture book, a GOGN Fellowship project
#gognpb, 21 January 2021. GO-GN blog  

Nerantzi, C. (2020) GOGN Fellowship project: Co-creating an open picture book about open education, 22 October. GO-GN blog

Pulker, H., Bentley, P., Corti, P. Fransman, G. Roberts, V. and Nerantzi, C. (2020) Why on earth did I join this project? 18 November 2020, GO-GN blog

Roberts, V. Nerantzi, C., Corti, P., Pulker, H., Bentley, P. and Fransman, G. (2020) The seeds in our data basket, reporting findings, no penguins found…, 10 December 2020, GO-GN blog

Pulker, H., Bentley, P., Fransman, G., Roberts, V., Nerantzi, C., Corti, P., Frank, O. and Mathers, B.  (2021) A collaboration like no other, reflections by the team as the GOGN picture book project is coming to an end #GOGNpb, 7 April 2021, GO-GN blog