We had multiple goals for the Virtual Teams project: to provide experience with multimodal composition, to engage students in purposeful communication with those they may not otherwise meet, to enact multiple genres of writing including professional, academic, personal, and new media, and to employ a variety of learning skills including planning, research and argumentation. We also felt it important to leave open possibilities for multiple ways of approaching the assignment so each team and team member might discover ways to create meaning for themselves and with others.
In order to apply ideas of virtual teams and multimodal composition to our active learning and teaching pedagogy (see the Literature Review andOur Experiences), we designed a task-based classroom assignment that enacted research objectives and embodied collaboration at both the student and instructor levels. In Fall 2010, this project brought together three instructors and 48 students (ranging from freshmen to seniors) from a private urban university, a mid-sized state university, and a large Hispanic-serving university. Students were tasked with choosing an organization, identifying and researching a relevant problem of global or national significance, and proposing a solution by producing a report and an outreach document, both of which were expected to be useful for the chosen organizations. Other than indicating the main goals of these documents, the genres and assignment descriptions were relatively open-ended:
The Report is a detailed document to record your work. The report is written for the organization you researched. The report should include:
- Problem background (explains what the problem is and how it is localized)
- Organization background (history, strategies, mission, accomplishments)
- Current strategies (ways to address the problem(s) and their critique)
- Suggested strategy(ies) and their rationale
- Plan of action
The Outreach document … is a supplementary document created on behalf of the organization, to help the organization get started on the action you have identified. Examples of such outreach documents could include an article or letter to a campus or local newspaper or other media, a brochure, or any other type of print or digital media presenting the action. This document should not merely introduce the organization but rather introduce the problem your group is trying to address and position “your” organization as a party involved in addressing the issue.
The students were given more than two weeks to join the wiki space and familiarize themselves with the assignment. Next, three days were officially dedicated to the social phase of the project with students asked to post and respond to personal information though the actual social phase of the project stretched well into the final production phases of both the report and outreach documents. Next, students were given a week to complete the exploratory phase of the project in which they researched and reached consensus on what issue and on behalf of what organization each group would proceed. Another week was officially dedicated to producing the report and outreach documents and a final day or two was set aside for editing and polishing the final products. In total, students had five weeks from beginning to end of the project with two weeks set aside in all our classes for researching and producing the assignments required by the Virtual Teams project.
Each of the seven teams contained at least two students from the three courses (Online Identity, Writing in the Professions, and Organizational Communication), resulting in multidisciplinary teams that blended face-to-face and virtual participation. Although we three served as primary instructors to students at our home institutions, the work of teaching and learning was distributed across all three institutions: Students worked with their virtual teams and also had side conversations and exchanges with peers sitting next to them in the face-to-face classes or enrolled in the same online section.
The project asked students to practice group work with conscious knowledge about team formation processes. In this way, the Virtual Teams project differs from many collaborative projects enacted in college classrooms. As writing and communication teachers, we celebrate collaborative learning and engagement as ways of shifting power in the classroom and in enacting social construction of knowledge, but the exact methods for transforming a group of students into a team are often only tacitly acknowledged. Marie Paretti, Lisa D. McNair, and Lissa Holloway-Attaway (2007) found in their study that students struggle not only with the logistics of group writing but also face "another challenge in negotiating distributed work as they attempt to construct viable, significant professional identities" (p. 344). Those pros and cons of collaboration at a student level have been well documented in the scholarship, but are also noted by students, such as this comment from class: “I had to just live with [[the project leader]] being bossy. I am usually the one doing all the work, but this time I let myself enjoy the backseat ride.”
As this student noted, we wanted team members to experience and experiment with multiple identities. Each virtual team member was asked to simultaneously be a student, a wiki user, a scholar, a worker, a member of a specific geographic region or community, and a member of a virtual community. Online spaces are often lauded for possibilities with identity play (Turkle, 1997) and control (Ellison, Heino, & Gibbs, 2006), so by positioning team work in virtual spaces with at least some strangers, students were invited to reinvent and write themselves into new identities. Accepting new roles in teamwork in the classroom not only challenges the ways students and faculty see themselves, but also challenges the notions of the singularity and rigidity of "the classroom," or "the assignment," or "the teacher." By engaging the multiple real subjectivities of the team members, we hoped to recast possible student identities and also the learning environment itself. As one of the students wrote in a self-reflection, “the ‘soft’ nature of the assignment prompt, coupled with the challenges of [[working in a group and mostly in virtual modes]] resulted in a challenging experience that none of us could have completed on our own or even envisioned in a traditional classroom.”
To successfully integrate virtual teaming into our class project, we created a team identity for us as faculty. Performing teacher identities is often challenging and requires adaptations in virtual spaces (Bovard, Bussmann, Parra, & Gonzales, 2007). Those teaching online must consider how much personal information to reveal, how formal or informal to be in comments, and whether or not to upload a photo. But this project also required us to shed individual teacher identities in favor of modeling a team identity that positioned us not as individual faculty but as members of a teaching unit. At the instructor level, this sort of group identity negotiation manifested in a teacher-only planning space for the project.
The decision to utilize a wiki technology for this project was fairly organic. After an initial discussion about the project over dinner, we faculty members felt that a wiki would be an easy place for us to exchange ideas and make sure everyone was working off current versions of planning documents rather than the confusion of circulating multiple drafts via email. Additionally, the wiki space allowed us to be co-equal authors of this online project rather than positioning one instructor as the originator of a document and the other two as responders.
We hoped this flattening of hierarchies, embedded in the very wiki space, would also impact our students. PBWorks was chosen as the specific wiki platform for both the student and faculty spaces for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was faculty familiarity with the site. We had all used PBWorks previously and had few complaints. The main issues for us when choosing a space for our students to work in was that the space allow for writing with multiple media – video, image, links, etc. – and also that it was free. Our student populations were quite different but we agreed that a freeware solution would best serve all those engaged in the Virtual Teams project. We also hoped it would introduce students to a free online medium and develop skills they may transfer to future classroom and professional communication projects.
Students were randomly assigned to one of seven groups by instructors with each group containing at least two students from the three schools involved. This approach to team building was taken up for both practical and theoretical reasons. Assigning students rather than allowing them to choose groups was faster and allowed team members to start projects immediately. This practice mirrored the realities of the work world where professionals are increasingly faced with the task of building working relationships with people they have not specifically chosen to work with and many of whom they may never meet other than on the screen via shared emails, purpose statements, press releases, and other corporate documents. The wiki space is ideal for simulating the realities of online, globalized teaming taking place in a variety of workplaces and educational institutions.
Social activities are a staple of online pedagogy, and Ann M. Bomberger (2008) reminded us that "although community building exercises are easier to do ftf (face-to-face) than online, they shouldn't be skipped simply because the community is a virtual one" (p. 210). While the faculty members introduced ourselves to all students involved in the project via email and all were present in comments and feedback to the student groups, we were not part of an official team and did not craft an instructor team in the same space as students. We were also mindful of the presence each of us had in student discussions as performed in wiki comments. This presence had to be carefully tempered as we wanted to allow the teams time to bond and get to know one another. For example, in one team, Jen was the 33rd of 36 comments on the group's social page as seen below.
We felt it was key that most of this interaction, unfolding between several team members, took place without direct comment by those teaching the course. We hope this allowed the students to negotiate a team-member identity rather than a student-in-opposition-to-faculty identity. This sort of team building is often done in casual banter in face-to-face settings. So, to allow virtual teams to bond, it was essential for us to foreground the social component of the course in the design of the Virtual Teams project. We encouraged students to take time to learn about one another and to become more than icons on a screen before diving into topic selection, research, and writing.
Each student was asked to “get to know each other by exchanging information about your personality and expertise.” Specifically, each group had a social page housed in their group folder on which students created and responded to social textual artifacts and prompts:
- Post a short, informal bio (major, specific knowledge you may bring to this project) about yourself.
- Ask one or two questions to each of your team members.
- Respond to questions from your team members.
We also suggested that students feel free to communicate outside of the wiki via more synchronous methods like texting, emailing, and chat. We hoped the option of additional media through which to exchange information might help students read the class wiki space as a work space and therefore to see this explicit social phase of virtual teaming as a work related product and process.
In retrospect, we could have more overtly modeled this social phase of collaboration and team-building for students. Being grad-school friends and knowing one another so well, we skipped the introductions phase, but it might have helped establish socializing rules, norms, and processes for the virtual student teams. Watching us actively compromise and solve problems as a teaching team might have encouraged more reliance on one's team and less on the teachers for conflict resolution and questions regarding assignment details. Despite this missed opportunity at modeling, we all noticed these virtual teams were more self-sufficient than many of the groups we created in our individual courses. We attribute this to the explicit inclusion of team-building strategies and activities that were embedded in the Virtual Teams project.