Building a Shared Virtual Learning Culture: An International Classroom Partnership
University of Delaware
Business Communication Quarterly, Volume 69, Number 1, March 2006 25-49 (pre-print)
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
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
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 http://www.education.mcgill.ca/profs/ starke-meyerring/
- 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
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).
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
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 blogger.com)
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
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 &
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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.
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
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
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
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
- Provide sufficient opportunities for students to learn how to critically assess the
impact of various digital technologies on communication and collaboration
- 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
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
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,
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 courses...is 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.
CONCLUSION: CONSIDERATIONS FOR FUTURE CLASSROOM PARTNERSHIPS
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.
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
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.
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