6. Skills for online collaboration

This section looks at the skills the students learnt to apply when moving to an online environment. Many of these appear to be general skills that would need to be used in any collaborative activity. However, it emerged that students, although all had worked in teams before, had not acquired these skills. None had experience of virtual teamworking before beginning the project.

This was because of the degree of contact they had with other members of their teams when working face-to-face. This meant that these previous collaborations could be effected easily on an ad hoc basis. It therefore needs to be noted that, even if your students are familiar with offline collaboration, many of these skills will need to be acquired when they move to an online environment.

Also in reality, most of the challenges that come with inter-institutional and international collaboration are introduced at this point, as the face-to-face collaborations our students were exposed to will be intra-organisational only.

6.1 Encourage students to develop a positive attitude towards communication

Fast and full communication is the most important of the collaborative skills students displayed. This is actually a newly required skill for them all as it only became vital for them on this project due to the online nature of the collaboration. In their previous (face-to-face) projects communication happened ad hoc and regularly. When emails and Facebook posts were responded to quickly students developed a good working relationship and stronger mutual respect and social commitment to each other. As with the tip #4.1 it’s recommended that staff intervene quickly where students are failing to respond to communications, as this was the biggest source of frustration, particularly failures to respond to emails. Failure to provide work was also cited as a cause of annoyance, though if communication was in place to warn of impending difficulties and find solutions, the annoyance was mitigated. Claiming work was done when it wasn’t was a particular source of contention. Once team-members failed to communicate, then there was an absence of trust which was very difficult to overcome. There were perceived differences between the likelihood of teams from the three universities failing at this, as teams from one of the three institutions were volunteers (the alternative was to engage in purely face-to-face collaborations); for the other two it was mandatory. The volunteers were seen as more likely to engage with the collaborative exercise.

6.2 Encourage students to develop schedules for completing tasks and ensure enough time within them

Although many collaborations managed successfully without planning interim deadlines and workflow timings, the absence of these did present difficulties for some students. Very few incorporated these into their project planning however, often because this left them exposed to competing demands at all of the collaborating institutions since these were consequently unexpected. When asked if they would prefer the project briefs to include interim stages to help them with planning, all the students resisted the idea. They felt learning to do this themselves was an important technique to learn, and this should remain their responsibility.

6.3 Prepare students for cultural differences when working outside of institution

As with the interdisciplinary cultural differences, cultural differences due to working across institutions or internationally presented few problems for the students and even became a source of humour and camaraderie between them as they jointly developed an understanding and appreciation of differences.  If the timeframe for collaborating is short enough to requires  the  process of team-building to be fast-tracked, however, this is one aspect that can be shortened by preparing students. Cultural differences can be due to:

  • The different ways of working at different institutions
  • Different ways of being taught at different institutions which can influence knowledge and practice
  • Different terminology in different countries. For example, getting into the habit of specifying whose definition of “first floor”, “second floor” is being referred to.

6.4 Tell students to be flexible about the platforms used for communication

The students in our cases were all adept at moving from platform to platform, particularly in eliciting responses when students failed to exhibit the skill listed at 6.1 above. When team-mates did not respond to email, students would switch to Facebook and other forms of communication to try and get a response. The main technologies used were DropBox, for collating files, Facebook for asynchronous communication and GoToMeeting for the synchronous meetings.

6.5 Explain to students how to delineate usage of different platforms for different uses

Most students also displayed high digital literacy in identifying particular platforms for particular usage. For example, using Dropbox for storing and sharing information, emails for lengthy communication, Facebook for rapid communication, such as arranging meetings, GoToMeeting for synchronous meetings. One or two groups tried using Facebook for storing information and ran into difficulties. Identifying the best technologies for different functions and maintaining divisions between the different uses was a skill that effectively supported collaborations and which nearly all the students displayed from the start.

6.6 Inform students that collaboration is more effective if social media are used to build up group cohesion

Facebook was used by the students to facilitate constant communication between the students. It leads to fast turnaround time for messages, and also, if personal information is also exchanged, help build up camaraderie between the participants, which the literature shows, also develops trust.

6.7 Explain to students that online storage of files, using a platform such as DropBox, also requires attention to curating and version control

The students will probably generate a large number of documents. This can quickly become overwhelming unless time is spent organising the documents into folders and jointly developing a filing system. A jointly understood file naming system is also important. Making sure all the most recent content is the form that team-members access, and older versions are archived is also vital. It helps if a shared dating system is also used and adhered to by all, and dates are added to filenames in the correct format. The international metadata standard for dates is YYYY-MM-DD.

6.8 Warn students to be aware that students in other institutions will use different applications for creating content, and even different versions of the same application

These issues will occur even nationally across different institutions. International working introduces additional challenges, since in some instances, even the same version of the same application will be different in different countries (for example Excel files may need to have data imported, rather than simply opening the file). Solutions to this adopted by students were to default to the lowest common denominator i.e. simpler packages were often used at all locations, or files were saved in the earliest used version (since in our case, all applications used were backwardly compatible). On occasion, students recreated the same content in the different packages, which was highly time-consuming. Ideally, this could be addressed at the level of support for collaboration (i.e. level 3 of our guidance model), as you and your colleagues identify a set of shared applications to be used across the institutions. If this is not possible, encourage students to see this challenge as an opportunity to learn from each other about the software they use, which was the position taken by some of the students in the BIM-Hub project.