Virtual Teamwork in the Online Classroom: Guidelines for Instructor and Student Success - Part II
Part 1 of this series discussed influences and challenges for virtual teams. Survey results from 45 California Public University System (CPUS) online graduate students were analyzed. These students were asked questions about what affected their virtual team experience. The survey results suggested that, even with the use of virtual collaborative tools in a faceless online environment, the same traditional social and cultural face-to-face influences affect online virtual teamwork and online classroom interactions.
In Part 2 below, practical instructor and student frameworks for successful virtual teamwork and online classroom interactions are presented, based on student comments and suggestions in the previously reported survey plus additional survey results from 85 online graduate students from the same CPUS. The guidelines presented here, stemming from a total of 130 student responses, will help online faculty and students work together to create a collaborative culture in the online classroom.
During virtual, inter-dependent and multicultural global team settings, technology, culture, identity, and community traverse in an asynchronous interface. Advantages to 24/7 online learning include opportunities for a "dynamic mix of national, geographic, organizational, and professional or disciplinary variables in constant interaction with one another, [changing] according to the context" (Heaton, 2001, p. 220). However, such a mixture of backgrounds and influences can create challenges for communications and interactive opportunities. Since many of the challenges have a root in social and cultural history, they are often related to time, space, relationships, and materials (Hall, 1977; Hall & Hall, 1990; Hofstede, 1997, 2001; Storti, 1990, 1998). If students are aware of these influences and instructors subsequently adjust course plans towards a base of understanding, sensitivity, and support, then effective virtual interaction and team success is more likely to occur.
As reported in Part 1 of this series, 45 graduate students who were experienced in online virtual teamwork noted eight socio-cultural dimensions—team support, time and flexibility, rules and regulations, recognition, power and status, leadership, assertiveness and competition, and gender bias—that they found to impact group identity and group harmony during online classroom interactions (Khalsa, 2010b). When student survey responses from 85 additional online graduate students were compared to the original survey findings, similar results appeared. Both student groups proved that we continue to be affected by traditions even when decisions and actions are from people whose faces we do not see (Gerzon, 2010).
Student responses to a number of survey questions determined an answer to the question, "How can we successfully work together when so many socio-cultural influences and perspectives merge in a virtual setting?" The student responses included notes on team support, "doing your part," building trust and respect, acculturation to the group identity, assertiveness, and gender sensitivity—all of which helped inform how faculty and students can work together to develop successful virtual team environments.
Working Together in a Virtual Team Setting
The student survey comments from the comparative study spoke to instructor participation, planning, and guidelines to help prepare students for a collaborative online classroom atmosphere. Preparing students for collaborative work in these ways can help minimize dysfunctional communication and spark motivation and effective interaction—which could result in valuable teamwork and group project development. Clear, continual, responsive instructor communication can serve as a model for team interaction and provide an example of what is expected of the students. More distinct guidelines for students can be offered by the instructor, and if these guidelines recognize the value of student perspectives and request student input, then a democratic, respectful, collaborative online classroom environment can be born.
Building a Premise for Success
It is best if online instructors not assume that students understand the importance of collaboration or interacting in a virtual learning community—or that they understand how to do either one well. Students who have not had a previous positive experience in such a setting may decide that there are no learning advantages and that it is easier to do a project individually. They may even sabotage best practices by announcing to fellow students that they hate team projects—which can weaken everyone’s trust in the process and outcomes. To combat these potential issues before they arise, instructors can set the stage for success by acknowledging upfront student concerns about time and workload and emphasize positive aspects of group assignments. Instructors can emphasize that group projects provide a learning advantage in that they mirror authentic interaction and skills needed in many educational and organizational settings and practices (Kellison, 2008; Khalsa, 2007, 2010a). Positive testimonials from past students can also be shared.
E-learning team interactions require intellectual, emotional, and social support. Instructors need to help students gain an appreciation for the innovative process and what it will provide team members. An instructor’s educational philosophy and "voice" can do much toward initial modeling of attitudes and communication skills. An egalitarian atmosphere and tone can go far in building a base of trust with the instructor and among class members. Student anxiety can lessen, and a climate of mutual respect and acceptance can fuel increased interaction and a new sense of learning possibilities.
To create a strong learning community from Day One, instructors can:
- Communicate benefits of collaborative work.
- Provide a warm, personal bio prior to the course start date.
- Provide an assignment graphic and overview video, noting collaborative assignments in a certain color code and emphasizing where students can find assignment descriptions.
- Begin building the learning community from the first week of the course by requiring student-to-student interviews to be posted in the Week 1 “Getting to know you” discussion.
- Display a welcoming and attentive manner and an open and responsive tone in the Week 1 introductory discussions.
- Offer an instructor audio or video so that students can begin to create an expansive, more personable image of who is leading the class.
- Create a netiquette wiki that offers general guidelines and reflects socio-cultural sensitivity and awareness. Invite students to add to the wiki based on their own sensitivities and experiences.
- Provide a table of cultural and social influences that can make or break virtual teamwork.
Shaping Collaborative Best Practices
Knowing what students have to say about their team encounters may help define what instructors can do to create a more positive experience. Often, students already have a bad taste for group work and may hold onto opinions and descriptions of group work from their past, described with words such as "surviving the group project." However, since most organizations now find groups central to their company or institutional success, it is likely that students will be career participants in such teamwork. Therefore, students will benefit from practice, understanding, and guidance toward skillful and effective team communication, planning, and production—no matter what their career choice.
Very short pre-course and post-course surveys that ask students about their past and present team experiences can help instructors focus on current student needs and see where they can improve for the next time. The graduate students in this research study spoke often about the need for team support. They defined team support as sharing ideas, communicating positively and frequently with constructive criticism, providing alternate viewpoints, and displaying professionalism. Lack of team support included workload inequality, lack of communication, and generally "not doing their part." Students recommended moving a team project forward in a way that builds trust and effectiveness through timeliness and frequent communication. To help support these ideals, instructors can share effective elements of team support with their students, invite students to define those elements, and add suggestions for student interaction.
Students also noted that recognition and respect were keys for communication, with the understanding that perception of these qualities varied from person to person. When someone on a team lacks respect for others, it is easy to disregard others' opinions. Likewise, those who do show respect for others will naturally give their ideas and opinions due consideration. Remedies to increase respectful interaction included an awareness and acceptance of diversity, tolerance of time zones differences, and a willingness to put forth extra personal effort. Timeliness is always important because it is part of respecting the time of others. Enthusiastic team members, who experienced effective teamwork, described the "joy of working with others" because their teammates were helpful, considerate, and indulged in focused work together.
The following guidelines are suggested communication pointers for helping students work collaboratively with each other:
- Openly and gently share personal interests and ideals.
- If you have the option, choose your teammates based on similar topic interests.
- Collaboratively set team goals based on instructor guidelines with respect for individual perspectives.
- Stay positive, understanding, helpful, considerate, and focused.
- Communicate clearly and often—help the team define what "often" means.
- Respect and recognize varied opinions, individual contributions, and what each person can offer to the team process.
- Trust in yourself, your teammates, the technology, and the power of collaboration.
- Be aware of self-bias and adjust your comments accordingly.
Building a base for successful online discussions and team interactions requires that the online instructor be aware of the challenges facing the online student. These challenges may stem from a student’s social and cultural interactions and past team experiences. Knowing these issues, online instructors can help themselves and their students by building a strong base for collaboration—a well-organized first week of the class; an online voice that portrays democratic, open, and frequent communication; and a tolerance for varied perspectives and team guidelines for what works. All of these practices can go far in building a foundation of trust and support.
Online students, who are required to engage interactively in online discussions and virtual teamwork, must also build and display trust—trust in themselves, in others, in the technology, and in the team process. They need to recognize their own voice and bias and choose words that portray a personable, respectful self. By committing to virtual team support and helping each other define what that means, a virtual team can experience how working together can add to their own learning and create projects, which are more expansive than what might otherwise be offered.
In being aware of the social and cultural factors, which affect online discussion and virtual teamwork, online instructors and students can work together to build mutual trust and respectful recognition of each participant’s role in the process. Following the guidelines presented here can help build an effective, collaborative online classroom environment resulting in unique insight into the power of virtual teamwork and needed practice of skills for a student’s future career.
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