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  • 1. Building a Shared Virtual Learning Culture: An International Classroom Partnership Doreen Starke-Meyerring McGill University Deborah Andrews University of Delaware Business Communication Quarterly, Volume 69, Number 1, March 2006 25-49 (pre-print) Abstract Business professionals increasingly use digital tools to collaborate across multiple cultures, locations, and time zones. Success in this complex environment depends on a shared culture that facilitates the making of knowledge and the best contributions of all team members. To prepare managers for such communication, the authors designed and implemented a semester- long intercultural virtual team project between a management communication course in the United States and one in Canada. To prevent faultlines between subgroups on each campus, the authors set a clear outcome for students’ research, established equity between the two sites, structured assignments so that students worked interdependently across sites”, and encouraged inclusive communication. Faculty considering such a partnership should incorporate a robust collaborative workspace, incorporate preliminary exercises before a large project, provide intensive mentoring and instruction on peer review, arrange for a real visit or videoconference between locations, and expect the project to be both fun and demanding. --- Globalization, in particular the increasing global distribution of production via digital networks in the service sector, has transformed the business communication environment, changing both what we teach in business communication courses and how we teach it (Starke- Meyerring, 2005). In corporate settings, more than 80% of the workforce work across locations (Richman, Noble, & Johnson, 2002), crossing various boundaries, so that managers increasingly lead people, manage projects, and engage stakeholders in globally distributed environments. To prepare managers to succeed in such environments, business communication faculty increasingly take advantage of the Internet to build classroom partnerships that link learners to peers for collaborative projects designed to facilitate experiential learning in globally distributed environments (Herrington, 2004; Sapp, 2004; Zhu, Gareis, O’Keefe Bazzoni, & Rolland, 2005). Nevertheless, as researchers indicate, globally distributed teams face a number of challenges. As DiStefano and Maznevski (2000) observed, “In practice global teams do not often create the value expected. Instead, members clash, and the teams are either paralyzed into inaction or worse” (p. 45). These challenges exist for teams working across classrooms as well. Juggling multiple contexts across distances and using a variety of technologies to communicate, virtual teams in a classroom partnership project encounter a number of challenges that stem from three sets of sources: the structure of team interaction; the use of technologies; and the specific characteristics of a classroom environment, which can accentuate the challenges involved in virtual team work. A virtual international classroom partnership project therefore 1
  • 2. requires careful pedagogical design. In this article, we analyze our pedagogy in a semester-long classroom partnership pilot project that connected our two courses in management communication, one at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and one at the University of Delaware in the United States. Our purpose here is not to present one particular research project but rather to analyze and reflect on the challenges involved in an Internet-based classroom partnership to provide guidance for pedagogical decisions and for future research. For this purpose, we first describe the development of our classroom partnership and the project, including the learning outcomes, assignments, and technologies we used. Next, we contextualize the project in the current literature on business communication and its pedagogy in distributed environments. Drawing on this literature, we analyze and reflect on our pedagogical design and its implementation, attending in particular to three aspects of the project: team interaction, technology use, and the classroom context. For each aspect, we conclude with recommendations for faculty considering such partnerships as well as with questions for future research. DEVELOPING AN INTERNATIONAL INTERNETBASED CLASSROOM PARTNERSHIP Our partnership reflects a growing interest in pedagogical collaborations between faculty and programs at different institutions (e.g., Herrington, 2004; Herrington & Tretyakov, 2005; Sapp, 2004; Zhu et al., 2005). Like many others, ours began in a personal conversation at a professional meeting and then developed over several months as we discussed the possibilities of engaging our two similar classes in a common project. As a model for that project, we adapted an approach used by Bertha Du-Babcock at the City University of Hong Kong and Iris Varner at Illinois State University. As faculty, we met face to face once for several hours in Montreal during the summer before the course and once, also in Montreal, in the middle of the course. But we essentially designed and conducted the project virtually, experiencing in our work similar conditions to those our students were experiencing in theirs. Before the semester began, our discussions centered on the following tasks: - Determining the specific outcomes, extent, and shape of the project - Determining and scheduling the assignments—the documents students would produce - Creating a project Web site detailing goals and specifications for assignments (available at starke-meyerring/ ProjectDescription.htm) - Aligning our different grading standards and establishing the logistics of assessing student work and reporting that assessment to students (see Starke-Meyerring & Andrews, in press) - Selecting the appropriate technologies for student collaboration - Developing a way to capture our own growing knowledge about partnerships and to help students reflect on their learning in this new environment In taking these steps, we had two goals: to build a shared learning environment for the students—with shared learning outcomes, assignments, schedules, assessment procedures, and technologies; and to develop a shared team culture for ourselves as faculty that would allow us to model such a shared culture for our students. Naturally, we were both still positioned in individual, geographically distant, local classrooms, which would require on- the-spot spontaneous action to respond to the immediate needs of students in the local 2
  • 3. classroom; however, all of our actions in each local classroom would be intricately connected. What one of us did in her local classroom would have ripple effects on the classroom of the other, and it would impact the students in both classrooms as they were connected through a shared learning environment. Linked in this way, the students would compare notes, weave their local classroom experiences into their shared project, and negotiate differences that inevitably arose. A team approach was therefore critical to the success of the project. Accordingly, via e-mail, we shared to the extent possible our lesson plans; materials for classroom use; and our reflections on the day’s class at each site, discussing its implications for the next class period, all of which amounted to an intensive and rewarding collaboration. What made this intense collaboration possible for us were a shared goal—of creating an opportunity for our students to develop an important set of literacies for business communication in globally distributed environments; a similar course—a senior-level management communication course; a similar approach to such a course, specifically to teaching communication in a global business environment; relentless commitment coupled with mutual respect for each other’s individual teaching styles; and a sense of humor. DESIGNING THE SHARED PROJECT ANDLEARNINGENVIRONMENT To facilitate a shared project and learning environment, we had to make decisions about the learning outcomes we expected students to achieve; the project, assignments, and technologies we would use to create a learning environment that would help students achieve these outcomes; and the assessment strategies we would use, all of which we discuss here except for the assessment strategies, which we discuss elsewhere (Starke-Meyerring & Andrews, in press). Learning Outcomes As we specified on our project Web site, the overall goal of our partnership project was to help students learn how to use the genre system of a business reporting project, analyze the impact of cultural contexts on business communication practices, and manage project communication in a virtual team. Our goal thus included learning outcomes that are fairly common in a professional communication course as well as outcomes that were specific to our project. The common objectives included, for example, learning to deploy the genre system of project management, including various memos, a proposal, a progress report, and a written and oral final report, to organize and complete a reporting project successfully. A related set of objectives that our course shared with many professional communication courses was for students to develop proficiency in various communication processes and strategies, such as analyzing a rhetorical situation (audiences, outcomes, media, organizational constraints, timing) and developing a communication strategy appropriate to the situation; organizing and designing documents for usability and readability; editing for precision, clarity, conciseness, and other audience needs; and writing and speaking collaboratively. In addition to these outcomes, we included learning outcomes that depended more directly on our partnership project such as analyzing how various local contexts—community, industry, and business environments—impact business communication practices, and building a shared virtual space and culture across multiple boundaries that would facilitate collaborative work. This outcome, in turn, required students to critically assess how various digital communication technologies enable or constrain communication in a virtual team; to use such 3
  • 4. technologies effectively and ethically; and to inquire into and negotiate the different cultural contexts, values, expectations, and communication practices their peers brought to the team. Project Design To facilitate these learning outcomes, we developed a semester-long project that asked the students to analyze the business communication practices at enterprises with operations in both locations. For the purpose of such an analytical report, the teams could choose to recommend the transfer of practices from one context to the other to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, or they could write an informative report comparing the two businesses for a market analyst or professional association that represents that industry. To help students choose a business for this project, we provided a list of suggested industries and enterprises to examine, but the teams ultimately chose their own subjects. That choice depended on the interests and expertise of team members; on accessibility to such a business in each location, connections to people in such a business, and comparability of the businesses in both areas; on the language of operation of the business (a language that at least one team member understood and could translate into English); and on the potential of a report about such a business to serve the career interests of team members. Six teams picked U.S.-based retail brands as the target of their research: Ben and Jerry’s, Courtyard by Marriott, The Gap, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart; the other chose a Swedish company: Ikea. We also gave teams an extensive list of questions to frame their analysis of the context for the business (the industry as a whole, the local scene, and the company itself) as well as the communication practices themselves (within the staff, between the staff and the larger company hierarchy, and between the company and its customers). In addition, their main resource for the project and the course as a whole was the textbook, which we both used: Management Communication: A Guide by Andrews and Andrews (2004). The book takes a global and digital perspective on business communication, avoiding a U.S. only bias, and discusses at length strategies for teamwork, especially virtual work. Its guidelines and internationally oriented scenarios helped students develop mutual knowledge about such practices as background for their projects. During the 2nd week of class, we assigned students randomly to seven teams, each composed of three or four students from the United States and three or four from Canada. The teams chose their own leaders; we designated four teams who would have leaders from McGill and three who would choose leaders from Delaware. Each team also had an associate team leader from the other institution who could coordinate activities locally. Assignments As it conducted its research, each team composed the documents that typically accompany such an endeavor and that are commonly taught in any management communication class. In addition to blog entries posted individually to update the team and to share research resources, student teams completed five milestone communication products: a policies and procedures memo, proposal, status report, final written report, and reflection memo. Team members at each site also gave an oral presentation in their local setting. 4
  • 5. Policies and Procedures Memo Early in the semester, each team wrote a memo describing its team policies and the procedures they would use to conduct their research and communicate with each other. They talked, for example, about leadership and decision making and about assigning tasks equally. They established times for each team member to check in with the other team members and the technology for checking in, stated team values and norms, and noted actions to be taken if team members did not adhere to the guidelines. The audience for the memo was us as instructors as well as each member of the team, who signed off on the memo as a form of agreement with its content. Proposal The second milestone document was a project planning proposal. In this document, the team identified the company it had chosen (and why), the specific purpose for the research and intended audience, the research and writing tasks to be undertaken, and the schedule for them, clearly identifying who would perform which tasks. We emphasized that this document was a contract by which the team could monitor its progress and a way, too, for the team to ask us for advice. Team Status Report Third, midway through the project, the team assessed the status of its work: what had been accomplished, what remained to be accomplished, problems that had occurred and how they would be overcome, and changes in scope or approach. We also asked the teams to think of this as a way to summarize their research to date so that they could incorporate that reasearch into the final report and not leave all the writing until the end of the semester. Team Final Report The fourth written assignment was the major product of the semester’s work: a presentation with all the elements of a formal report, including appropriate front and back matter. Each team determined a specific audience and thus a specific slant for the report. One team, for example, submitted its report to the manager of a newly opened hotel on the Delaware campus. We provided detailed guidelines for this report (see the project Web site). Team Reflection Memo This final memo captured the team’s thinking at the end of the semester about their own dynamics as a team and about the technologies they used. We asked them to discuss what went well (and why), what changes they might make in their team processes if they were to work on such a project again, and what surprised them. We also asked students to give us as instructors suggestions about how to frame the project in a future semester. The main purpose of this memo, however, was for the teams to capture what they had learned about communicating in a virtual team. Project Technologies The twist in this class, of course, was that all assignments had to be developed through virtual collaboration. Given that one of our learning outcomes was for students to assess how various digital communication technologies facilitated or constrained team communication, we provided students with a number of options, including blogs and a Web-based collaborative workspace, in addition to the technologies the students chose themselves—most notably e- mail and instant messaging. Once the students had explored these technologies, they were 5
  • 6. largely free to decide which technologies to use and how, except for a requirement to post updates of their progress on individual assignments and resource summaries to the team blog. Furthermore, to facilitate the learning outcomes of the project, we also wanted the technological environment to facilitate team integration across institutions, for example, by allowing for equal access and control by all participants and by reflecting the shared partnership identity rather than that of only one institution. We began by introducing students to blogs as a collaborative team technology designed to keep members up to date on the progress of individual tasks, as well as Web links and other research resources students had identified for their projects. Although neither of us had used blogs in class, blogging presented many benefits. One is blogs that are free, given appropriate access to the Internet, which all our students had. Once a few preliminaries are in place, it is also easy to post to a blog and read postings. In addition, blogs retain an archive of messages to help team members track a project. Since blogs are gaining in popularity as a personal as well as corporate tool, students need to be exposed to them as a new channel and genre of communication. Each team’s first task was to create a shared team blog (using to foster team identity. The teams selected an appropriate color and design as well as logo, composed a joint statement about the blog’s purpose and posted it on the home page, developed a name for their team and titled the blog with that name, and then posted entries that introduced themselves to their team members. Blogs, however, were limited in their ability to facilitate posting and editing of drafts. As a secondary technology, therefore, we incorporated a Web-based workspace for collaborative writing called ACollab (Accessible Collaboration Environment). This password-protected, open-source software from the Adaptive Technology Resource Center at the University of Toronto offers excellent features, including team spaces with a suite of technologies such as file sharing spaces for large files, a chat room, discussion board, calendar, and archive. Both our universities use Web-CT as course management software, but firewalls within each university’s system made that a less appropriate technology for a two-university course. Moreover, using one university’s system would have privileged the students from that university with better access. Instead, we posted assignments on an open-access Web site on the McGill server. With regard to facilitating team collaboration, Web-CT also did not provide the same robust, integrated team space that ACollab provided. The McGill class was conducted in a regular classroom that had anytime access to a wireless laptop lab; the Delaware class met mostly in a computer lab but also in a regular classroom. For our own communication, we used e-mail exclusively. THEORETICAL CONTEXT AND PROJECT ANALYSIS: PEDAGOGY FOR A SHARED DISTRIBUTED TEAM CULTURE Researchers studying virtual teams emphasize that team performance depends greatly on a team’s ability to develop and nurture a shared team culture with which members can identify (Earley & Mosakowski, 2000; Hinds & Bailey, 2003; Mannix, Griffith, & Neale, 2002; Mortenson & Hinds, 2001). Earley and Mosakowski (2000) referred to this shared culture as a “hybrid team culture,” which “consists of an emergent and simplified set of rules and actions, work capability expectations, and member perceptions that individuals within a team develop, share, and enact after mutual interactions” (p. 27). Without such a shared culture, team members are more likely to resort to the norms and expectations governing their local 6
  • 7. contexts (Herrington, 2004; Hinds & Bailey, 2003). In discussing her global classroom pro- ject, Herrington (2004), for example, described the “chaos that results from students’ attempts to follow the rules of their own cultures as they work in collaboration with others who are doing the same with theirs” (p. 207). A shared team culture, then, is vital to team success because it facilitates communication, coordination, and the sharing of knowledge, thus increasing team members’ familiarity with each other’s expertise, work habits, and local contextual constraints. All of this is necessary for teams to produce well integrated collaborative documents that draw on the best possible contributions of all members. The extent to which virtual teams are able to build such a shared culture is greatly influenced by three factors: team interaction, team technology use, and the classroom context. Although these factors are difficult to separate, we discuss each in turn and analyze our pedagogical design and its implementation in the context of this framework. Structuring Team Interaction Perhaps the greatest challenge in developing a shared team culture consists of addressing the boundaries and subgroup dynamics within a team, especially as they emerge within each local context. Cramton and Hinds (2005), for example, noted that shared characteristics among only certain members (e.g., the shared characteristic of a location, national identity, gender identity, etc.) have the potential for boundaries, or so-called fault lines, to surface within virtual teams, which can be prompted by various events, including task difficulties, policies, or other external pressures. Such fault lines can be particularly strong if two or more characteristics overlap. Once surfaced, they can give rise to subgroups, which may end up pitted against each other, resorting to ethnocentrism, and thus stifling the development of a shared team culture. Based on a sense of superiority over the other group, ethnocentric subgroups are less likely to cooperate or to share information with the perceived “other” group (Cohen & Bailey, 1997), leading to communication problems and ultimately failure (Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). As Cramton and Hinds (2005) suggested, in geographically distributed teams, such fault lines are particularly likely to emerge between the locations of team members since those working in the same location naturally have more opportunities to communicate, including communicating face to face within and beyond the local classroom. Teams that share the same physical space and time references often bridge cultural distance through informal communication facilitated by chance encounters or so-called water-cooler conversations. These informal conversations play a key role in developing familiarity with team members and ultimately in sharing knowledge (Davenport & Prusak, 2000). They also provide informal and hence less threatening opportunities for team members to address conflict (Mortenson & Hinds, 2001). Local fault lines are particularly likely to develop and erupt if two conditions exist: The virtual team is distributed across only few locations (especially only two), and each location has sufficient team members to form a subgroup (Cramton & Hinds, 2005; O’Leary & Mortensen, 2005). Each location can thus become an equally strong competitive force with the shared virtual team culture. As a result, each local subgroup may tend to think of itself as working in parallel play rather than in an integrated process toward a shared goal. Working in parallel play, however, reduces the interaction and hence the potential for learning as well as for producing an integrated product across fault lines. To facilitate a shared team culture across fault lines, Cramton and Hinds (2005) recommend a 7
  • 8. number of strategies for structuring team interaction and for technology use. With regard to structuring team interaction, the authors emphasize the need for structured interdependence across locations to increase cross-site communication. For example, rather than dividing tasks by location, teams should divide them across locations. In addition to interdependence, equal conditions—to the extent possible—for team members in all locations also facilitate the development of a shared team culture. Structured Interdependence In our project design, therefore, we applied both strategies to help students develop a shared team culture across locations. To begin with, we built considerable task interdependence into the project, so that team members would be dependent on each other across the two sites. For this purpose, we required field work, including site visits and interviews with managers, at the specific Canadian or U.S. site the students were examining. We wanted team members to depend on each other in these very specific tasks as a way to build trust and mutual knowledge. Hart and McLeod (2003) found, for example, that team members who ranked their relationships with other team members as closest also exchanged more task-related messages and kept their messages more focused on the task than did those who had weaker relationships. The fieldwork component, therefore, helped ensure a shared interdependent task necessary for a shared team culture to emerge. Throughout the semester, we then emphasized the cross-site interdependence of team members through the various assignments. As the first formal assignment, we asked the teams to write a policies and procedures memo that outlined their combined responsibilities and behavior toward each other. The teams negotiated the content and writing of this memo, whose audience was the entire team as well as us. They assessed team expertise across sites, talked about leadership and decision making, reviewed the tasks that needed to be assigned and the guidelines for assigning them equally, established times for each team member to check in with team members and the technology for checking in, reiterated the deadlines and writing approaches for future assignments, stated team values and norms, and noted actions to be taken if team members did not adhere to the guidelines. To some extent, however, the students realized that the policies and procedures memo was most useful as a reminder of the issues they had to pay attention to throughout their work. As Earley and Mosakowski (2000) noted, a hybrid team culture is characterized by a dynamic set of practices, expectations, and norms that develop through the interactions and increasing familiarity among team members. With limited familiarity and only a very limited shared frame of reference at the beginning, students found it difficult to simply state norms and rules. Although the policies and procedures memo offered a useful way of thinking about these and about sharing expectations, some of these shared policies and procedures had to develop as the team members experienced each other’s approaches and the full extent of the tasks. Team members thus had to be aware of the role such a memo was able to play: rather than a static set of rules, the memo was most useful as a dynamic, continuous tool for negotiating and capturing emerging practices. Accordingly, we decided as the semester progressed to keep the memo “live” until the end, when students could use it for their course reflection. An assignment that became, unexpectedly, a litmus test for team culture was the oral report delivered just in advance of their submission of the final written report and billed as preparation for that report. Team members at each site presented their team’s report in their 8
  • 9. local classroom, although we suggested that the reports be prepared as a joint endeavor. Well- integrated teams used the same PowerPoint templates, included the names of all members of their team on the opening title slide and included all members in team photographs, used data from both sites in their presentation, and referred to themselves orally as one team. In addition, team names became an important indicator of a shared team culture and team success. Although some teams had chosen a name that was unrelated to their interdependence, a few of them chose a team name that reflected their shared team identity. One team, for example, created the name McDels, with the Mc in red (one McGill color) and the Del in blue (a Delaware color). They also designed a logo that combined the mascots of the two schools and used that effectively as a header in all their communications. In their final reflection, they commented on how well their two team leaders communicated, on the ease and respect with which they sent comments back and forth on drafts of their team documents, and on how they enjoyed combining their separate points of view and different expertise in one project. Other teams also achieved harmonious working relationships signaled in part by their names: The Krispy Kreme team, for example, called one side the Delkrispies and the other the McKremes; the whole team was the Lucky 7. In their final report, they included biographical sketches of each team member, each with a picture taken in a parallel pose and each sketch written in parallel style. But some teams remained firmly fixed on two sides of a fault line. In its final reflection, one team referred to itself as two teams, suggesting that a shared team cul- ture had not emerged. This particular team had not overcome an early dispute about the topic for their report: the Canadian members, all smokers, had suggested a smoking-related business for analysis; the U.S., all resolute nonsmokers, found that offensive. Equal Treatment In addition to structuring the project around task interdependence, we also ensured to the extent possible that team members in both locations received equal treatment. For example, we ensured roughly the same team leadership structure for all teams, stipulating that four teams would have leaders from McGill (with associate team leaders from Delaware) and three from Delaware (with associate team leaders from McGill). In addition, we used the same textbooks, same assignments, and shared key course materials such as handouts. We also designed equal assessment strategies (Starke-Meyerring & Andrews, in press). For example, the project counted for the same percentage of the course grade for all students in both classes. The same grading conditions are important, because, as Zhu and her colleagues (2005) noted, unequal weighting of the project will likely result in unequal student commitment (p. 94). In addition, we communicated extensively as instructors to make sure that our assessment strategies aligned with each other. We reviewed each others’ comments on each assignment and sent one set of comments to each team, which also received one grade. All students in both classes also had equal and easy access to all the course technologies, both in and outside class, and both classes met in computer labs. But early on, the Delaware students saw their lab setup as unequal to that in Canada. The Delaware lab had rectangular tables, each holding 3 desktop computers, arranged in four parallel rows divided by a central aisle, a total of 24 computers. Because teams had four members, one always had to sit without a computer or move to a different row to use one. Communication across the team was difficult because there was little 9
  • 10. room to move within the row, and they could not face each other and the screens. The Canadian students worked in a wireless laptop with tables that could be assembled so that team members, each with a laptop, could face each other as they worked. The tables also accommodated papers and other materials. It was easier for Canadian team members to jointly look at one screen as well as to work independently. Photographs of the teams exchanged during the first weeks of the semester revealed these differences, somewhat accidentally, and caused some resentment at the Delaware site. But this was not a critical issue. Facilitating Team Technology Use Overall, however, the communication technologies students used and the way they used them were critical to the success of their teams because it was through these technologies that they built a shared team culture, coordinated their projects, exchanged their drafts, and completed their projects. As virtual team researchers have pointed out, relying on digital technologies for communication presents a number of challenges for teams (Cramton & Hinds, 2005; Hinds & Bailey, 2003). Among the many factors influencing the selection of the technological environment for virtual teams, two factors require particular attention in a team project: the extent to which the technologies support team members in sharing and remembering information about each other’s local contexts and the extent to which the technologies facilitate the inclusiveness of team communication (Cramton & Hinds, 2005). Contextual Awareness One of the key challenges of distributed teams is, of course, that members are situated in different contexts, are influenced or constrained in different ways, and work most likely from assumptions and expectations that are shaped by their local contexts. In building a shared team culture, therefore, members must inquire into these local contexts to weave them into or at least accommodate them in the emerging shared team culture. As Cramton (2002b) noted, however, distributed team members often find it difficult to share sufficient context and also to remember contextual information that has been shared. Operating based on different local contextual constraints and assumptions, team members are not aware of these differences and their impact on the work of members in different locations. The need for students to develop mutual contextual awareness was one of the reasons why we had chosen blogs as one of the technologies to support their work. From the beginning, students reviewed their own interests and expertise and described local work and commuting patterns, exam and other class-related pressures at each site, and styles of instruction at each university. Although the semester schedules were roughly the same, the McGill term did end a week earlier, right after the Thanksgiving break in Delaware; the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday came earlier than the one in the United States. It was also a national election year in the United States, so students had a class day off at a time when the McGill students did not. As students reported their research and chatted on the blogs, other bits of information and language provided further hints at differences in context that their shared team culture had to accommodate. A student who interviewed a manager at IKEA in Canada noted in a blog that she had not yet translated her interview (conducted in French), but would soon. Other Canadian students, too, worked in two languages, whereas the U.S. students worked only in one. But aware of the French context of their Canadian team members, one U.S. team included French phrases on a PowerPoint slide for a team oral presentation. Students picked up on varying terminology in U.S. and Canadian English and began to watch for differences 10
  • 11. as they wrote. In addition, with their automatic archiving function, blogs provided the teams with a shared team memory. In contrast to other online genres, blogs showed more of a flow and connection between the messages of the team members, which is difficult to achieve, for example, in e-mails or in discussion postings. The blogs thus allowed team members to create more of a shared and connected team space. Finally, blogs also helped students not only to share more local contextual information but also to retain it. As the teams developed their projects, they added links to their universities, their towns, the companies they were studying, important documents they had found, and other relevant contextual information. In addition to the personal contextual information, the team purpose statement, and the list of team members, all of this contextual information was always readily available to the teams. Blogs, however, did not meet the growing need and wish of team members to communicate face to face. One of the teams in particular toyed with the idea of meeting halfway between the two locations, but such a meeting was too difficult to schedule. Even when face-to-face meetings are not feasible, videoconferencing, especially at the beginning of the course, may be an important additional technology to share contextual information and to build team relationships through which a shared culture can emerge. Inclusiveness In addition to facilitating mutual contextual awareness, technologies should also support inclusive communication, which, according to Cramton and Hinds (2005), is one of the most important factors in building a shared team culture. At the same time, maintaining inclusive communication can be a challenging task for a distributed team, especially if the team is distributed evenly across locations, so that local subgroups can communicate more easily and comfortably in face-to-face environments, as is the case in a classroom setting. Additionally, technologies support inclusive communication to different degrees. In e-mail messages, for example, members may sometimes accidentally be omitted from the address line. E-mails may also be accidentally misaddressed, deleted (especially if the subject line is misinterpreted or inaccurately reflects the content and purpose of the message), or automatically moved into the spam folder. They may also be delivered without the required attachment as a result of server settings of which neither the recipient nor the sender may be aware. As a result, team members may not have been included in important updates or discussions. Compounding this problem is Cramton’s (2002a) finding that virtual team members are particularly vulnerable to a so-called fundamental attribution error, the tendency to assume personal rather than situational reasons for people’s behaviors. Accordingly, as Cramton found, members of distributed teams tended to attribute the causes of communication and coordination problems more to the personality of their team members than to the technologies they used or to other situational factors. Even when a problem was cleared up and a technology problem was found to be the cause, team members often did not reverse their opinion about their teammate. Team members who are for one reason or another excluded from team-related communication may then be expected to be familiar with information or decisions that they did not receive or participate in. Also, as Cramton (2002b) observed, team members who were excluded from communications may perceive “the energy level of the team as a whole to be low and the pace slow” (p. 360). In response, they may reduce their own contribution to the team, which in turn 11
  • 12. may make it more likely for team members to exclude them from further communication, which again reinforces the impression that the team is inactive. As Cramton noted, the results may be unevenly distributed information, damaged trust, and loss of input from team members. Facilitating inclusion, then, was another reason why we chose blogs. The team blogs made updates visible to all team members and included all members in project decisions. In addition, we asked the teams to make sure that team members had administrative access to the blog, so that all members were able to contribute to the shaping of the shared space, for example, by adjusting the settings of the blog, choosing a template for the blog, and contributing to the blog’s purpose statement. Students found that blogging was fun as they developed rapport because it encouraged a mix of professional and personal communication. Several teams settled into a pattern in which all members contributed equally to the blog, with team leaders and associate team leaders making more postings, many of the cheerleading variety to compensate for the lack of informal encounters. However, some subgroups at each site preferred to communicate in person and did not always transfer the results of that communication to the blog to be shared by those at the other site. Moreover, team leaders sometimes communicated on e-mail and did not copy team members when there was information the whole team needed. Some teams used instant messaging but did not clear the time with all team members from both sites. Even when the teams did use the blogs, the blogs presented their own challenges. First, although blogs had unique advantages for building a shared and inclusive team culture, they were also public and thus raised concerns over privacy. We had discussed these concerns with students and encouraged them to use only their first names in posting to their team blogs. Second, blogs did not meet all of the communication needs of the teams such as posting and sharing drafts with particular visual designs or keeping track of comments, revisions, and versions. For this purpose, they used other technologies such as ACollab or e-mail. Using a number of technologies that were not yet integrated, however, the students sometimes had difficulties deciding which one to use for what purpose and where to find the most recent updates from their team members. As we reflect on our use of technology, then, to facilitate the development of a shared team culture, we envision a technological environment for learning in virtual teams with features similar to those suggested by Herrington (2004): “equality in power and access, both linguistically and technologically; synchronous communication; stable, fast connections; robust visual and audible information for interaction; equal access to information; additional actual international exchange” (pp. 207-208). Building on these criteria, we suggest that a learning environment for intercultural virtual team work should do the following: - Facilitate team integration across institutions, fostering the development of a shared culture, for example, through calendars, blogs, and other technologies that foster inclusive communication, updating, and keeping track of contextual information - Offer an integrated set of technologies with alerting features that let members know what has been added where - Provide various communication channels (e.g., voice, visual, synchronous, and asynchronous) - Provide sufficient opportunities for students to learn how to critically assess the impact of various digital technologies on communication and collaboration 12
  • 13. - Allow for student teams to control their own Web space - Facilitate the exchange and tracking of drafts and revisions to collaboratively produced and professionally designed documents - Allow for equal access by all participants - Reflect the shared partnership identity - Integrate the shared learning environment with the communication practices and the technological infrastructure available to the students and professors in each location - Protect the privacy of the students Such an environment may perhaps best be provided in a shared learning management software system that is integrated with a complete group meeting system and adjusted to the requirements above. However, such systems are still rare. Considering the Classroom Context In conducting this project, we also had to keep in mind the differences between virtual teams of professionals and those of students. In some cases, as Dias, Freedman, Medway, and Paré (1999) found, workplace writing contexts and university contexts can be “worlds apart” as they differ in exigencies, organization, activities, facilities, and more. Although professional communication courses are designed to help the students make the transition from one context to the other and thus to bridge these differences, some important differences remain and need to be considered in the design of such a classroom partnership. With regard to virtual teams, LeRouge, Blanton, and Kittner (2002), for example, pointed out such differences as the duration of project teams, the rationale for selecting members with particular qualifications from particular locations, the level of familiarity and shared history members have with each other, the exigence for team assignments, and their audiences and uses (p. 166). In an intercultural virtual team project, such differences raise a number of questions about pedagogy, including the workload and focus, instruction in peer feedback, the need for mentoring, and the newness of this kind of experiential approach to distributed learning. Workload and Focus A semester-long virtual team project in which the students collaborate on all their drafts with distant peers generates a large amount of writing. These peer interactions became the focus of the class and provided the real-life audiences for student writing. This real-life interaction provided a valuable learning context for students as they wrote to maintain constructive working relationships with their peers throughout the semester. However, this aspect of virtual team work can also turn such a project into what we like to refer to as “the project that swallowed the class.” A semester-long classroom partnership project becomes the center of the class—an immersion experience; it cannot be conducted as an add-on project for the students. To support the students, we allowed them to complete much of their work in the classrooms. For the most part, we began a class period with a few comments and then they went to work —some of them having come to the lab before the official start time, some of them staying after that time. Under such circumstances, it may be harder to cover other topics necessary to the class. In this way, the project also raised questions about how to best negotiate instruction and collaboration in the local classroom with that of the shared virtual experience. In some ways, 13
  • 14. collaboration in the local setting may emphasize local subgroup communication and make cross-site task interdependence difficult. Like us, students therefore needed to keep each other up to date on their local learning experience and determine how they would weave it into their shared virtual experience. Peer Feedback Instruction and Mentoring Although we had anticipated that teams would brainstorm or outline their work jointly in the blogs and then assign components to be researched or written by members from both sites, that pattern did not always take hold. Instead, team members at one site would often draft a full document, then send it to their team members at the other site for revision and completion. As one student noted, however, this approach favored local subgroup communication. Moreover, it also led at times to a mere competition among drafts rather than an integrated approach to writing. Under the stress of meeting deadlines, students sometimes wrote their editing comments quickly and without appropriately acknowledging their team members’ work. On several teams, interdependence broke down completely members at one site simply took over responsibility for an assigned document, ignoring or deleting what those at the other site. Instruction in the art of suggesting, making, acknowledging, explaining, and negotiating revisions thus became particularly important. Overall, students tended to need more iterations of submitted documents than we had anticipated—our reviewing of drafts in the local classrooms did not have the same authority and, of course, reflected the thinking of only one of us. Accordingly, we reviewed drafts together, with each of us providing comments to help the students take the next step in revising their drafts. This type of more intensive mentoring was necessary to help students work through the complexity of their virtual team project. The Newness of the Learning Experience None of our students had previously experienced learning in a virtual partnership project. Given the amount of writing that can be involved in such a project, some students had an eye out for students who were doing less, or less demanding (read, in part, less intercultural and less technological) work in other sections of these multisection courses. That caused some resistance toward full engagement in the task, perhaps especially at the Delaware site. Herrington (2004) also added the risk such Internet-based partnership courses may present for all participants, as not only students but also institutions and administrations are unfamiliar with these types of partnered learning environments. As Herrington noted, The experiential nature of Internet very difficult for students whose concern over grades is high throughout the semester. Often, even when they understand and appreciate the benefits of a nontraditional teaching and learning style, standard course evaluations do not often allow for reflection of the different nature of an online course and may resonate negatively, even where students may not intend a negative result. This may, in turn, generate an unsupportive administrative response to the course. Where teaching a land-sited course is a relatively secure prospect for both students and instructors, a course sited in cyberspace carries some level of risk. (p. 202) As more of these partnerships emerge, students will become more familiar with Internet-based collaborative learning across multiple boundaries, and institutional contexts will increasingly account for these kinds of learning experiences. 14
  • 15. CONCLUSION: CONSIDERATIONS FOR FUTURE CLASSROOM PARTNERSHIPS AND RESEARCH Our analysis and reflections on our classroom partnership project suggest a number of considerations for others embarking on such a classroom partnership as well as questions for research designed to further develop pedagogy for such partnership projects. Considerations for Future Partnership Projects Student success in an intercultural virtual team project very much depends on the extent to which students are able to build a shared learning culture that facilitates the sharing of knowledge, the discussion of alternative views, and the deliberation of decisions. To facilitate the development of such a shared learning culture among students, faculty first must develop a shared teaching culture themselves and then attend to three aspects in designing such a project in particular: structuring team interaction, facilitating team technology use, and considering the specifics of the local classroom context. A. To structure team interaction, design interdependence across locations into the project in multiple ways—through tasks, assignments, team naming, and other strategies. In addition, treat all members of the team equally across locations to the extent possible, including equal access to and control over technology, equal leadership structures, and equal assessment procedures. B. To facilitate team technology use, provide technologies that support your learning objectives, facilitate mutual awareness of local contexts, and support inclusive team communication. The technologies should also be well integrated, allow for equal access by all participants, and reflect the shared partnership identity. If possible, we also strongly recommend bringing the teams together. In a future iteration of our work, we might seek support for Delaware students to travel to Canada, in itself a good experience in international travel (only one student in the class had been to Canada). Short of an actual visit, videoconferencing might work well, probably early in the semester to help build team solidarity. C. To accommodate the classroom context of such a project, be prepared that such a nontraditional experiential distributed learning project will be new not only to you, but also to your department and to your students. Specifically in your class, such a semester-long virtual team project will likely shift the focus onto the communication among team members across sites. Depending on the learning objectives of your course, you may therefore wish to begin with a smaller, shorter term project and gradually build the project semester by semester. In any case, you may support your students in a number of ways throughout such a project: From the beginning, embed the project in a discussion of business communication in globally distributed environments, the challenges such communication involves, and the value an experiential learning environment has for developing communication expertise in such changed workplace environments. - Motivate students at the outset to adjust to and even welcome the project’s complexity and ambiguity. Giving a more explicit explanation about virtual work and its potential discontents in the first weeks of class might help to brace students for what is to come. 15
  • 16. A video demonstrating virtual team work or a guest speaker (or “online visitor”) may provide important insights to students. - Provide more intensive mentoring for students than you normally might as students work through the complexity of such a project. Assure the students of your support and mentoring throughout the process. - Provide the students with more in-depth instruction than you normally might in the art of suggesting, making, explaining, negotiating, acknowledging, and appreciating revisions in writing. Such metadiscussions about language are difficult, especially when they must occur in writing without the benefit of a face-to-face environment. - Allow students adequate time in class to work on their projects, while also encouraging task interdependence and inclusive communication and updating across locations. Perhaps the main recommendation, which was also a consistent theme in our correspondence, is to have fun. That attitude goes a long ways toward overcoming all the challenges that arise in virtual work. It is indeed fun to participate with students and with colleagues in a virtual learning adventure across borders. Questions for Future Research Given the complexity of virtual team work, there is no shortage of research questions that arise from such a project. To provide only a few examples, business communication faculty interested in developing such experiential learning partnership projects would benefit in particular from research examining specifically how students develop a shared learning culture across various boundaries and how instructors can support the development of such a culture. For example, how does the pedagogical design of the project, such as the amount of local in-class work, influence the extent to which students build a shared team culture across sites? Similarly, what impact do various technological learning environments have on the extent to which students build a shared team culture across sites? These questions also hint at the differences between distributed teams in the workplace and in the classroom, as workplace teams have access to different technologies as well as opportunities for mutual site visits. Research studying the activities, motivations, genres, and exigencies involved in both contexts may provide important insights into designing such learning environments. The differences between distributed workplace and classroom contexts also raise questions about the impact these learning environments have on students in the workplace. Although studies have followed business communication students into the workplace (e.g., Schneider & Andre, 2005), little research currently examines how students draw on such an experiential distributed learning experience in a distributed workplace. In a globally distributed business environment, however, there is no question that students will need to develop specific expertise to communicate successfully in such environments, to build shared virtual team cultures with colleagues and stakeholders across multiple boundaries. With careful attention to pedagogical design and learner support, Internet-based classroom partnerships can provide a rewarding, rich, and fun experiential learning environment to prepare students for global workplace communication. REFERENCES Andrews, D. C., & Andrews, W. D. (2004). Management communication: A guide. Boston: 16
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