Communication Currents

“Accomplishing Work with Classmates I Never See”: Meaningful Online Collaboration for the 21st Century

December 1, 2015
Instructional Communication

Many young adults are savvy when it comes to using technology to communicate with those in their social networks. However, as they enter professional jobs, they will likely be called upon to use technology much differently to interact with coworkers on work-related tasks. An estimated 1.3 billion employees worldwide are working virtuallyVirtual teams are increasingly becoming a part of organizational life, as they allow businesses to capitalize on the diversity and resources that exist across company locations. Research even suggests virtual teams can outperform teams that are physically located in the same place.

One way to prepare students for the expectations of their future employers is to offer them an extended opportunity to complete a meaningful project through interacting with group members who are geographically dispersed. This provides the chance to develop both communication and teamwork skills, qualities in demand by employers.

Specifically, the approach outlined below allows students to learn about the benefits, as well as the challenges, of working with others at a distance, along with understanding the capabilities and limitations of various online collaboration applications. This series of assignments has been successfully used in online group communication courses across a 16-week semester, but can be adapted or scaled based on course content and time restrictions.

Getting Acquainted: Group Discussion Board Assignment 

Once groups are assigned (approximately five students each), every student introduces himself/herself on the group discussion board and describes past group experiences, along with reflections about group work.

Determining Rules and Goals: Group Contract Assignment 

Once acquainted, the second assignment requires more discussion and preparation of a group contract. The contract provides student-generated guidelines for group interaction up front, rather than having to come up with these as problems arise. The assignment can outline general content of the contract: task-related rules, social rules, and mission statement. Students brainstorm via discussion board, prepare the formal document, and add electronic signatures. The contract provides concrete expectations and helps keep group members accountable; it serves as a reference point should a member’s work wane throughout the semester.

Accomplishing Work Together: Five-phase Group Project Assignment 

Finally, the 10-week project involves the group investigating, evaluating, and preparing a presentation on five free online collaboration applications. The project involves five phases, each lasting one to two weeks.

Phase 1: Research 

In this phase, students search for and experiment with online collaboration applications, both independently and with group members. While some applications allow groups to create and manage project plans, others enable file sharing, brainstorming, presentation creation, or chatting. It is important to recognize that online application availability/pricing changes frequently; some applications are always free while others offer only trial periods. Examples of currently available collaboration applications representing a variety of activities include Anymeeting™, Basecamp™, Dropbox™, Mural,ooVoo™, TitanPad, Trello™, twodoo, and Vyew. A simple online search reveals multiple options. Another lengthy list appears here.

Phase 2: Proposal 

Next, the group discusses its Phase 1 research and experimentation with a goal of narrowing down five collaboration applications to investigate further. The group begins writing a proposal document that shares an overview of each application of interest.

Phase 3: Evaluation Criteria 

In the third phase, groups develop evaluation criteria and an assessment strategy for each application but do not begin evaluating. Evaluation criteria might include qualities such as features, appropriate contexts for use, missing attributes/limitations, user friendliness, device availability, security, and visual appeal. Assessment strategy can range from averaging quantitative scores to qualitatively analyzing discussion transcripts.

Phase 4: Evaluation and Assessment  

Now groups test out each collaboration application, using it fully with all group members to conduct a complete and fair evaluation based on established criteria. To provide an example, a group selected the Google Docs application to develop a rubric for evaluation in Phase 4. Group members used the application to share drafts and co-edit their document, then assigned scores of one to four points on ease of use between parties, functionality, learning curve, accessibility, andcost.Missing features resulted in score deductions. Each member recorded evaluations within the Google Doc itself, and the group averaged its scores, eventually awarding Google Docs 91 percent of the points.

Phase 5: Presentation 

The final phase requires group members to collaboratively author, edit, and narrate an online presentation that summarizes the findings of their work. When the online presentations are completed, links are shared with the class to watch and provide feedback. If multiple groups have investigated the same application, the conversation can become fascinating, as students notice similarities and differences in their evaluations.

Throughout the semester, it is useful for the instructor to reiterate the importance of both process andproduct, especially when challenges arise within groups. As the assignments build on one another, students also begin to see the importance of how an individual works with a group, not simply the outcome of the group’s work.

Admittedly, there can be frustrations with the heavy reliance on technology. However, as the course progresses, students recognize they are using technology differently and for different purposes. They see how collaboration applications might be used in professional environments and frequently share their plans to incorporate applications into their personal, academic, or professional lives.

Students usually are pleasantly surprised with how much they are able to accomplish with group members despite never meeting in person. As a former student shared in a reflection exercise, “Our online group performed better than any other group in which I have ever been involved.” Another stated, “What surprised me most about working with online group work is how well it can work if everybody is actively engaged and making an effort to participate.” Many students have reported feeling closer to their online group members than to face-to-face group members in the classroom. They credit this to communicating daily rather than meeting weekly.

Students also express enjoying autonomy in the group project. While benchmarks are included in the assignment, groups have the freedom to choose where and when they communicate. The absence of close monitoring has been empowering to students rather than problematic to the instructor.

This approach can be modified for a graduate level course by requiring more sophisticated assessments of evaluation criteria and holding higher expectations for use of applications. The approach can also be adapted for other communication courses and formats. It could be used as the topic of a group presentation in an online public speaking class or to contrast face-to-face and online relational development in an interpersonal or communication technology course. An organizational communication course could incorporate the contract and portions of the group project to demonstrate how a collective structures itself.

Regardless, students have the opportunity to complete a concrete product they can point to as a unique accomplishment, as well as engage in a growth-enhancing process of developing working relationships within a virtual team.

About the author (s)

Amber S. Messersmith

University of Nebraska-Lincoln