Virtual Teaming: Faculty Collaboration in Online Spaces
by Jen Almjeld, Natalia Rybas, and Sergey Rybas
More than a decade ago, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps's (2000) book Virtual Teaming: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology prophesied a shift in communication and in the way businesses and organizations would get things done. "In time," they wrote, "virtual teams will become the natural way to work, nothing special" (p. xxiv). The time for virtual teams has come for many industries, agencies, and organizations, with everyone from fire departments and museums to giant conglomerates like Shell and Pfizer (profiled by Lipnack and Stamps). More than a decade later, online and geographically dispersed collaboration seems commonplace.
This approach has not, however, become commonplace for academia despite that collaboration is nothing new in classrooms and technologies encouraging multimodal communication continue to fill smart classrooms and campus computer labs. But much of this collaboration, whether taken up by students working on assignments or by faculty working together for scholarly or administrative purposes, is local. We team with those in our buildings and on our campuses, but it is less common to work virtually with those separated by regional and institutional borders and is a practice usually reserved for faculty research projects rather than the daily work of our classrooms. This article chronicles the experiences of one academic virtual team made up of three faculty members engaged in a project positioned at the intersections between collaboration, workplace writing, pedagogy, and dispersed technologically facilitated teaming and learning.
We know from watching our students that collaborative projects are often more time consuming, more challenging, and perhaps more difficult than working alone. We also know collaborative projects are worth it in that they teach students valuable skills for the worlds beyond our classrooms (Green & Duerben, 1996; Mabrito, 2006; Porter, 1990). Collaboration was much lauded in the 1990s as a pedagogical strategy intended to better prepare students for workplace writing particularly (Thralls & Blyler, 1993). Isabelle Thompson's (2001) work analyzed the use of collaboration as a term and research subject in important technical communication journals from 1990-1999, revealing collaboration as "an important disciplinary assumption in technical communication" with articles studying the effectiveness of group writing and offering advice for integrating collaborative writing into one's class. This focus on student experience in collaborative projects continues with work like Bruce Speck's (2003) practical advice on forming student groups and training students to work collaboratively. We seek to shift this nearly exclusive focus on what students may gain from collaborative writing to consider ways collaborative writing and teaching, set in a virtual, multimodal space, may inform the pedagogy and practice of faculty. This sort of collaboration taken up between faculty will inevitably shape collaborations between faculty and our students as well as in student groups and seems paramount in an age where "virtual teaming is a twenty-first century survival skill" (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000, p. 28).
This webtext considers the experiences of three faculty members at three institutions spread across the country as we attempted to transform distinct classrooms into a unified virtual teaming space. Like Marie Paretti, Lisa McNair, and Lissa Holloway-Attaway's (2007) collaborative project between Swedish and American students, this collaborative writing project reaches across geographical and disciplinary borders to transform students and teachers into virtual team members enacting collaborative writing and meaning making, active learning, and multimodal composition. Paretti, McNair, and Holloway-Attaway identified the changing nature of the work world in an era of outsourcing and globalization and so designed a project that incorporated distributed work teams made up of those from diverse, cross-cultural backgrounds and disciplines. Similarly, the Virtual Teams project brought together three faculty members and 48 undergraduate students from three different US universities and regions to first identify and then propose a solution to a workplace problem. The project incorporates explicit collaboration and team building strategies as well as more traditional composition goals including research, organization and production of a report and technical document (a tip sheet, a brochure, etc.), and multimodal composition and literacy. While write-ups of projects like ours and Paretti, McNair, and Holloway-Attaway's often focus on student experience, we consider this project from the faculty perspective. The Virtual Teams project began as three faculty friends at three schools separated by thousands of miles, discussing the merits of working together from a distance. What resulted was the transformation of three instructors and instructional sites into a fully integrated team working in a new instructional space—an online wiki—and in so doing facing the challenges and rewards of fully embracing collaboration as both a pedagogical aim and strategy. Our experiences with this project led us to ask specifically how new media spaces and literacies differently empower faculty and how faculty engagement and identities may be shaped by collaboration in such spaces.
We hope this article—a joint effort between three authors—offers a new lens for considering faculty collaboration. While co-authored articles, team-run grant and outreach work, and edited collections featuring multiple scholars' voices are common enough in rhetoric and composition, truly collaborative teaching is sometimes rare. Time constraints, competing course objectives and fear of change may be obstacles. Thus, this article seeks to explain how we used a wiki space to transform ourselves, along with our students, into virtual team members.
The article, presented in the same wiki format as the class project it describes, seeks to materialize the spirit of this faculty partnership by providing a space for collaborative authoring as well as for individual contributions and recollections of experiences from the project. In order to model divergent ways of doing collaborative writing—be it with one unified voice or with multiple single-authored linked texts converging in one fragmented but united text (Gerber, 2009)—we wrote some parts of this article together (Literature Review) while others show clear distinctions between the three authors (Our Experiences).