Meitheal – a note on collaboration in postdigital times

In times past, for hard cultivation work – planting, growing, ploughing and harvesting- you needed your neighbours. Saving hay, turf cutting, crops or any complex labour-intensive farming work relied on a community response to be successfully completed. This collective response is known in Irish as a meitheal. Neighbours reciprocated to one other’s social need, and in this way survived over seasons ar scath a chéile (in each others shadow). If you helped your neighbour, you could count on support with it came time for the heavy lifting and seasonal labour associated with your own farm. This cooperative labour system represented the coming together of individuals in a community to help each other when in need.

In formal educational contexts, we attempt to reconstruct or design for social learning in various ways. Group work is widely employed to higher education for project based or problem based tasks. We set up an assignment, and expect a meitheal of learners to spring together to each other’s aid to solve it through reciprocated actions. We complain about how unsuccessful we are at collaborating with one another as educators, due in no small part due to the structure of our systems- our job titles, promotional structure and workload divisions. Similarly with our students, our task design results in practices very far from the traditional meitheal response of the band of workers who would lend their hands towards intensive, back-breaking work to store up fuel for the winter. We optimise with group sizes, denote roles, and deliberate on grading through individual or group mark allocations to buffer against social loafing, and deal with socio-emotional conversations where groups where working relationships have become untenable. Nor is this too far from our own work contexts where similar challenges can arise, often for similar structural reasons.  

Advice abounds to encourage us to make groups work through consideration of pedagogic approach and technological supports (Brindley, Blaschke, & Walti, 2009; Dron & Anderson, 2014; Linnaeus University, n.d.; University of Waterloo, n.d.; Zanuttini, 2021). Technology in particular is often touted as a panacea. Others warn against this naïve understanding of the role of online spaces, arguing that these replicate traditional offline structures and networks of social capital (Sajuria, 2015). Others caution that for online learners, frustrations in collaborative work may even be exacerbated (Capdeferro & Romero, 2012).

Research by Hernández-Sellés, Muñoz-Carril, and González-Sanmamed (2020) has further explored where problems arise by breaking it down into the design, implementation and assessment phases of work, through their research of five online modules at a Spanish university. Their findings that well-structured collaboration implies recognising cognitive, social and organisational interactions and supporting these throughout. So it is insufficient only to focus on supporting the cognitive aspects of the task, as we sometimes assume.

How we define the success of a group also can further aggravate matters. Some research suggests grading itself can work against collaboration in very destructive ways (DeFeo, Tran, & Gerken, 2021). “Grades encourage competitiveness over collaboration. And supposed kindnesses, like grading on a curve or norming, actually increase competitiveness by pitting students (and sometimes teachers) against one another” (Stommel, 2020). Alternatives are advocated by others such contract or peer review (Davidson, 2010; Katopodis & Davidson, 2020).

Faced with complex and heavy global challenges such as climate change, and the COVID pandemic, a meitheal response is needed more than ever. Are we and our education systems ready? Have we done all we can to give students opportunities to work together in collaborative ways, and show them the benefits? One exemplar lies in plain sight- open networked learning approaches, and ONL212. Voices such as Kay Oddone (2016) give testimony. Here we see publicly funded, non-commercial, institutionally- supported collaboratories of learners and facilitators. It illustrates how, when that we as learners are given autonomy, balanced with careful problem setting and facilitation that collaboration accrues; from our diverse participant origins, we can share yields trust and respect; from ungraded outputs, we can gain outcomes of mastery, renewed self-direction and purpose. To all involved and participating – take a bow. Let’s carry the corn, and enjoy the harvest.


Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3). doi:10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.675

Capdeferro, N., & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(2), 26. doi:10.19173/irrodl.v13i2.1127

Davidson, C. N. (2010). Twenty-First Century Literacies: Course Description.  Retrieved from

DeFeo, D. J., Tran, T. C., & Gerken, S. (2021). Mediating Students’ Fixation with Grades in an Inquiry-Based Undergraduate Biology Course. Science & Education, 30(1), 81-102. doi:10.1007/s11191-020-00161-3

Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: Learning and social media: Athabasca University Press.

Hernández-Sellés, N., Muñoz-Carril, P.-C., & González-Sanmamed, M. (2020). Interaction in computer supported collaborative learning: an analysis of the implementation phase. International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education, 17(1). doi:10.1186/s41239-020-00202-5

Katopodis, C., & Davidson, C. N. (2020). Contract Grading and Peer Review. In S. D. Blum & A. Kohn (Eds.), Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (pp. 105-122): West Virginia University Press.

Linnaeus University. (n.d.). Smarter collaboration. Retrieved from

Oddone, K. (2016). PLE or PLN or LMS or OLN? .  Retrieved from

Sajuria, J. (2015). The online world replicates traditional offline structures and networks of social capital.  Retrieved from

Stommel, J. (2020). How to Ungrade. In S. D. Blum & A. Kohn (Eds.), Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (pp. 25-41): West Virginia University Press.

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Methods for assessing groupwork. Retrieved from

Zanuttini, J. Z. (2021). Supporting Online Group Work.  Retrieved from

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1 Comment

  1. Another thoughtful and enjoyable post and I love the metaphor (similar concepts also exist over here in Sweden and Finland). In a world that more than ever needs collaboration and openness to solve global issues we continue to reward individualism, competition and status. In education we reward the individual rather than the group and this is so ingrained in our structures and traditions that it is very difficult to change from the bottom up.

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