Online Learning and Dispersed Teams

I recently started taking my first online course. In the course, one must work on projects with other students. Members of our work group are not always online at the same time. The level of communication and coordination needed is vastly greater than would be if a group gathered to work together in person.

The similarities between working on a software project with a geographically dispersed team are obvious.

Ken Haycock’s talk on working in teams is a tour de force. It includes strategies for clarifying goals, dealing with the stages of team growth, and navigating dysfunctions.

It takes a great deal of tact and care to deal with conflict in person.  It takes much more tact and care to navigate troubled waters in a project online.

For me, Haycock pulled together everything I had learned about teams and more into one 50 minute talk.  The most salient point for me was when he described the student in the team who did all the work, and, as it was being turned in, said “… and of course, I did all the work”.

Haycock describes how one might almost want to say in reply “Well, more fool you!”  The importance of negotiating standards at the start was the point he was making.  Unstated performance expectations must be brought to the fore.  If someone wants to get an A+, someone else is ok with a B-, and they make it clear from the start, then a source of tension is resolved before it gets too late to do anything about it.  To work in a team is to have everyone contribute fairly, and to get the benefit of the combined wisdom and experience of the group.

Haycock also talks about conflict in teams.  Conflict, unfortunately, seems to be an integral part of becoming a team that performs well. It’s the storming of the forming, storming, norming and performing stages of team development.  Yet conflict is all the more difficult to deal with when you can’t see the non-verbal cues of the participants.

In her talk, The Monster Inside Library School: Student Teams, Enid Irwin talks about her survey on the worries that online students have.  These worries include having nothing to offer, getting things wrong, others taking control, and others not contributing fairly.

Such worries can stem from a perceived lack of control of time and grades, and a lack of enthusiasm or trust for teamwork.  Such feelings on the part of everyone can have a negative feedback effect.  The antidote?  Enthusiasm!

The point is to gain experience working in teams in a world where cross-functional geographically-dispersed teamwork is more important than ever. Irwin talks about how a good attitude can make a team a success.  Staying silent or stubborn, on the other hand, can be disastrous.

Irwin’s talk highlights the importance of engaged participation. She discusses the different types of teamwork and characterizes what success would look like for each:

  • teams that solve problems present a consensus if successful
  • teams that set policies will be a success if the policies stand on their own after the team has dispersed
  • teams that build a product will be successful if the product that is built is tested and meets requirements

To perform well and achieve success for their team, team members must first of all bring a positive attitude and participate!

It won’t be easy to put in practice all the good advice distilled in the resources above, but a dedication to participation and an eagerness to meet the challenge will go a long way toward doing so.  I look forward to learning more in practice, for that is what it takes: practice.