Virtual Teaming: Our Experiences
The wiki space, whether open to the full class or for faculty only, was a place to transform ourselves into team members. One strategy we adopted to foster team building for us as faculty and for our students was the deliberate openness of assignments. We encouraged the use of a variety of modes, means, and formats in the hopes that students could then tailor their assignment to the strengths and interests of their particular groups. Although the description of the final written products (i.e., final report and outreach document) suggested a traditional (written) format, we purposely kept the specific requirements of the documents open to the teams’ interpretations, their desires and readiness to be creative, their technological preparedness, and their abilities to look beyond alphabetic textual production. With such open guidelines from teachers, students were forced to turn to those in their teams to define the problem, formulate an approach to the project, divide labor, and take into account team strengths and weaknesses. For instructors, this meant a recalibration of what we each considered a successful assignment and a willingness to negotiate with our teaching team members about how to value and assess student work.
Active Teaming, Active Teaching
This intentional openness of the assignments was difficult for some students and was equally challenging for the instructors. Each faculty member brought with them unique experiences, expectations for classroom performance, and theoretical frameworks for pedagogy, and a less-defined assignment can be tricky in satisfying those personal preferences. It would be untrue to claim that any of the three of us could name the exact qualities we hoped for in the final group documents or that all of us were experts in the types of problem-solving, writing, or communicating that occurred during the project. In fact, our own discussion of what was the best way to help our students construct their teams, divide responsibilities, and understand and complete the assignments on time, stretched well beyond planning the assignment and into the three weeks of the project. This way, we continued to learn what we, individually and collectively, did not know prior to this project and to grow along with our students as learners, thinkers, multitaskers, and team members.
In her bestselling book Teaching What You Don’t Know, Therese Huston (2009) discussed the growing need for educators to go beyond their areas of expertise and thus to actively participate in the formation of interdisciplinary discourses. While not preoccupied with the technology or multimodality of communication and education, the book could not help but inform our Virtual Teams project and this article alike. As Huston aimed to erase the strict division between those who educate and those who are educated, she shared simple advice. She argued for thinking in class, teaching what is outside one’s specialty, learning from students, and using the multiple teachable moments abundant in most modern classrooms—technology rich or not—to continue faculty members' own development as educators. Our reliance on multimodality as one of the principle means and goals of the Virtual Teams project and our use of multiple modes of composition and communication in the writing of this essay are an active and symbolic attempt to reaffirm, perform, and analyze our belief in interdisciplinary, multimodal, active teaching and learning (see Active Learning Defined), which is possible via virtual teaming.
Our own experiences leading the Virtual Teams project made us change the initial design of the assignments. When we ran the project for the first time in Spring 2009, we asked students to develop a representation of their generation. In Fall 2010, a search for a problem rather than a descriptive assignment took us in the direction of workplace writing. Even though the project assumed collaborative efforts between three courses—Organizational Communication, Writing in the Professions, and Online Identity—each professor had course-specific objectives and assignments. For example, the students in the Organizational Communication course were asked to complete this project in order to participate and observe collaborative dynamics in virtual groups and to apply the concepts and theories of collaborative work to a particular group experience, while students in the Online Identity section were most interested in ways team members performed identity in fully virtual settings. Additionally, Writing in the Professions' students approached the project as a means to learn more about multimodal approaches to writing at work. A group project in a communication or writing course may not be an innovative assignment then, but the addition of a teaming approach with other universities and other courses definitely added a challenge.
Another layer of activities intended to foster active learning encouraged students to articulate ways they were engaging in interdisciplinary and, therefore, occasionally uncomfortable learning. For example, in the final week of the project, the reflective essay assignment suggested this prompt:
- Examine the communication process that you were involved in, and formulate two lessons that you have learned ... Consider all experiences as learnable moments: even if you failed to do something, what does it teach you? What does it suggest that you do in the future?
The assignment sought not only to encourage the “application of theories ... introduced in readings” (Gajjala, Rybas, & Zhang, 2010, p. 432), but also to invite students to see ways they were stretching as team members. Specifically, students didn’t simply study group formation theory; they also enacted it.
As faculty, we worked through the same team-building phases as our students though in a much more informal and, perhaps unfortunately, less transparent way. This project began during a holiday visit with the three of us gathering as friends and casually discussing upcoming course assignments. This very social stage moved quickly into an exploratory phase in which we soon had a rough plan for a project that encouraged multimodal composition in a space allowing active collaboration with students from our three schools. Later, in our production phase, we set up a teachers-only wiki space where we would discuss schedules, identify overlaps in our course objectives, and share existing assignments we felt could be recast for this new project. This engagement in collaboration among three professors called for overt discussions of our various disciplines, institutions, habitual pedagogical practices, and established comfort zones. While forming a cohesive teaching team was clearly a goal for us as faculty, like our students, we found we remained individuals experiencing assignments, and challenges born of those assignments, very differently. Below are our three, individual perspectives on the Virtual Teams project.
Why Virtual Teaming is Tough ... and Worth It
I have had the opportunity to team-teach pretty often in my career, including a journalism course with a broadcasting faculty member, in which I took lead on print work and he taught camera operations. I have also taught a Representations in Girlhood class with a literature colleague and team-teach an Online Publishing course each spring with a faculty poet. But this wiki project was different. Being physically separated from your teaching team is a real challenge, but one I am glad we took up and one that I would encourage others to try. For more, see Jen's Experience.
Rhetorical Situation Replaces Traditional Classroom Goals
For the three professors administering this project, the tasks of explaining, negotiating, sustaining, and replicating the concrete goals of the group project, and commenting on the often-changing directions of them—all while trying to allow for a healthy amount of student initiative, interpretation, and chance taking—resulted in the creation of a unique mix of authority, subordination, and dependence on each other, which was most visible in the shared (public) space of the wiki. For more, see Sergey's Experience.
Observing and Performing an Emerging Team Culture
The rhetorical situation of the virtual team class project, discussed in Sergey's Experience, is heavily dependent on the malleable yet invasive team identity that, though welcoming of individual initiative, dictates collaboration, negotiation, and agreement. Henry Jenkins et. al (2006) uses the term participatory culture to define the mechanism by which social interaction succeeds among young people communicating in mediated environments, such as social media, Web 2.0 tools, and metagaming. For more, see Natalia's Experience.