Working on training projects with teams members across the US and Canada gave me a taste of the difficulty that occurs with on-line collaboration. At first, I was reluctant to bother other team members except as required. However I soon found regular verbal communication essential for me and appreciated by the others. I felt I knew one member so well from constant phone conversations, that I was shocked to see what he actually looked like. E-learning classes are an excellent place to learn the skills that make remote teams click. Instructors have an additional challenge designing collaborative course work, because companies have a more established structure for remote teams.
Start by selecting software that enables student communication. A well designed Learning Management System (LMS) makes a huge difference. Students should be able to create “profiles” for the course in the same manner that they might do on a social networking sight like Facebook or LinkedIn. In addition to employment or educational goals and interests this should contain a personal statement about why they are taking the course. This kind of profile helps the instructor chose groups that are diverse, splitting up those that work together, live near each other or having similar interests, so all students will have to make an effort to collaborate. Student groups should ideally be between 4 and 6 people: groups smaller than 4 will struggle if anyone doesn’t participate; groups larger than 6 will splinter into smaller groups, or fail to bond.
Courses should provide access to chat rooms and ideally telephone conferencing in addition to boards or wikis. As part of the requirements for collaborative work students need to set up and document the role of each member. They also need to coordinate and conduct synchronous on-line meetings, keeping a record of what has been accomplished in each. Students are more responsible to others in their group if they have a chance to give and receive immediate feedback from other members.
Don’t assume students know professional behavior for internet communication. Course documents should describe briefly describe standards for appropriate on-line behavior. You can have students cc all e-mails between group members to instructor (this is done by management in some businesses). You also need to develop a subject line indication to for e-mails that require a response from you. (You might need to remind them that it is proper netiquette to include a subject line in all e-mails.)
The last and stickiest subject is how to allow team members to rate their fellow classmates. If this is not part of the grade, some students will be working much harder than others on the collaborative projects without any additional benefit. Students should not grade the work produced by others, but rate the amount of effort for each member and how well that person worked with group. They also shouldn’t be able to affect another student negatively without a legitimate supporting argument.