7. Skills for synchronous collaboration

These skills are those needed in addition to those for offline collaboration and synchronous online collaboration. In the BIM-Hub project students used GoToMeeting, but these skills are independent of the platform used. The following guidance notes concern making the students aware of the basic norms of behaviour in online meetings. Some may be thought to be self-evident, but the experience of the BIM-Hub project is that students are often not aware of them at the start of the collaboration, and sometimes do not acquire these skills by the end.

As stated in the introduction to the guidance notes, whether you choose to instruct students at the start, or allow them, as we did, to develop them for themselves, by trial and error is a matter of judgment. Learning from experience is more effective, however if you are working on a shorter timescale than we did, you may need to fast track the learning process. Also we have provided training materials to help with this learning process.

However, some of these behaviours should be seen as essential as they are necessary for meeting the inclusivity and equality agendas of institutions, and it is appropriate to inform the students that they must be used when interacting. The essential behaviours are indicated.

As the students used the software more, several changes in behaviour were noticed; they adopted better meeting management techniques, they became more fluent in using the technology, their interactions were faster and clearer and they portrayed more online presence. In part this was because tasks and roles become clearer as a project progresses, but in part this was because the students became more experienced with how to conduct themselves online.

7.1 Tell students how to communicate clearly in meetings, i.e. to reflect on other’s comments to clarify meaning and specify when action points have been established

Although students learnt this technique and employed it effectively in semester two, this is one of the basic skills that they reported that led to difficulties at the start of their collaborations. In the early stages, students stated they were often were not aware of action points they had been set, or where to find information, even though these had been discussed in meetings.

7.2 Tell students to keep minutes of items discussed, particularly action points, and share these

As with #7.1 above, this was a skill students developed, but reported they had had to learn as a result of difficulties they had faced in the initial meetings. They realised quickly that this could have been pre-empted by taking minutes and recording action points, and these activities became standard practice by the semester two meetings. In these first meetings, students often forgot actions they had been set, or were not aware what was expected of them by others.

7.3 Explain to students about timezone differences and how to develop experience at working these out

As with the points above, students became adept at working out timezone differences but this presented them with difficulties at first. However, this became a problem again when daylight saving ended and then started again as the students were not aware that North America and Europe do this on different dates.

7.4 Make students aware of the necessity for punctuality and attendance

Most students had no problems with the attendance and punctuality of others, but where this did become a problem it became a major source of resentment and breakdown of trust. Ensure students are aware of the importance of attending and being on time for meetings, even when they are virtual ones. Those students who identified this as a problem suggested that it was the virtual nature of the meeting that underlay the problem, as some students did not give the same value to virtual meetings as they did to face-to-face ones.

7.5 Encourage students to identify a schedule of meetings that take all of the competing demands and timezone differences into account

Students found that the biggest problem with holding meetings was scheduling them. They found this very hard to co-ordinate due to crowded schedules and timezone differences. This was made more difficult by the size of the timezone difference (usually five hours though this varied for a few weeks in October and March). Meeting scheduling tools can help here, though the BIM Hub students that had less of a problem with meeting were those who chose to meet either late for the UK or early for Canada and making students aware at an early stage that this will be demanded of them will more quickly make them aware of this.

7.6 Indicate to students that the use of asynchronous and synchronous communication should be used in conjunction, with the different media being used for the appropriate purpose

Different forms of communication are better suited to the different modes, and the students in the BIM-Hub project developed the techniques to assign different roles to each. So frequent updates and passing on information was done asynchronously, but with frequent meetings to present work, clarify points of confusion and come to shared understanding of tasks. These meetings decreased in frequency and length as tasks and roles became clearer. Semester one meetings averaged 60 minutes, semester two meetings 28 minutes.

7.7 Tell students not to break off for private conversations during a videoconference

In some cases, students report the participants at other sites muting their microphones in order to have private conversations. This would not be acceptable in a face-to-face meeting and yet the lower presence that some students experience in online meetings leads some to do it in a videoconferencing situation. Some students even felt that this was acceptable behaviour and saw it as a benefit of using videoconferencing.

7.8 Inform students about the skills for synchronous communication that supplement face-to-face behaviours in order to compensate for less physical presence

As noted in the section on the communication platforms (Guidance note 5.7) videoconferencing is a more limited form of interaction than face-to-face situations, exacerbated by the internet connections in some cases not being effective. Students struggled with adapting to this in some cases, particularly when questioning each other. These techniques include alerting a person that they are being addressed by using their name, since one cannot indicate this through directing one’s gaze at an individual.

7.9 Tell students to chair meetings so that only one person speaks at the same time and all get a chance to speak (essential)

As noted above, a difficulty with videoconferencing is that body language, gestures and faces are not so easily seen, and so seeing cues and knowing who is to speak next becomes more difficult. Some groups reported lapses in inclusivity, caused by their tendency for some people to dominate the videoconference. Participation needs to be more formally structured so that only one person speaks at once, and all people get a chance to speak. This is done by one person (preferably this role is rotated) chairing the meeting and employing techniques to include those who are finding it difficult to engage.  Chairs should pause the meeting occasionally and check if anyone wants to ask questions, addressing each person by name and inviting them to speak if they have not had an opportunity to do so. Students speculated on whether there were specific cultural reasons that meant that some students were less likely to participate in videoconferencing sessions, but did not alter their behaviour to ensure that these barriers were reduced.

7.10 Tell students to plan and structure meetings

Some meetings took much longer than necessary because they were used as a means to transfer information rather than discuss concepts. An example that one student referred to was of asking for information at the meeting rather than in advance so that it could be properly prepared for. Circulating agendas before a meeting was still not common practice with all the groups by the end of the first semester.

7.11 Tell students to set up their equipment so that there is no echo (essential)

In the observations of the recorded videoconferences it has been observed that there is an echo in many of the meetings. The echo in videoconferences is caused by sound from a speaker being picked up by the microphone and relayed back. Usually this makes communication very difficult, and the usual procedure when this arises in professional videoconferences is to halt the meeting until whoever is responsible for the echo stops it and, if they do not, muting their microphone even though this means they are then blocked from contributing to the meeting. This is easily fixed by either a) using a headset or b) turning off the microphone when not in use. The students seemed prepared to put up with the echo rather than insisting on it being stopped. Some students seemed unaware that these simple remedies would prevent the echo from occurring.

7.12 Inform the students that they must take into account students with disabilities (essential)

One student amongst the participants was deaf and despite this, the team still used sound for their meetings. This meant that he could not participate in the meetings, as the webcam quality was also too limited for him to lipread, unless he was addressed directly, in which case his colleagues at his end could interpret for him; a task they could not do the rest of the time as their attention was taken up with participating in the meeting. The students should be made aware that it is perfectly acceptable to switch to text chat and use this if any of the participants have issues with audio, either because of technological or disability barriers.

7.13 Tell students not to hold the meeting in unsuitable areas (essential)

Some students reported problems with connectivity, due to working in places with poor wifi, and background noise making communication difficult.

7.14 Ensure the students have appropriate laptops

In early stages, some students used laptops that were too low spec to run GoToMeeting and CAD software simultaneously.

7.15 Ask the students to reflect on developing fluency in using the software

The more experienced the students became, the more able they were to switch between applications, zoom in on the parts they needed to zoom in on to illustrate a point, and overall communicated fluently, with the technology being transparent to their communication. Showing examples of more fluent working, or providing them with opportunities to practise using the platform before they need to use it for an actual meeting (referred to as “try before you buy” by one student) can help prepare them.

7.16 Inform the students that they need to be conscious of other’s lack of awareness of their presence

Online it can be difficult to know what the other person is doing, or even if they are there or not. Occasionally students needed to be preoccupied with some other task, such as searching on the Internet, looking for information on plans, opening files. In early stages some students would simply withdraw from conversations, not answering questions until they had information, and leaving other participants confused as to whether they were hearing them or were still present. As they became more familiar with the interactions, the students would explain what they were about to do, before undertaking it, so others would be aware of what was going on.

7.17 Tell students to have visual information to back up their statements

In the early stages, students would describe parts of the building under discussion, or discuss work they had undertaken, but have no visual representation of this. When they became more experienced students always backed up their communications with documents, for example demonstrating work they had undertaken, such as scans of written calculations, or Excel spreadsheets.

7.18 Tell students that this visual information needs to be placed on screen

Occasionally plans were discussed and parties at all the ends would have access to the same information, but they would look at paper plans, separately offline while exchanging some conversation.  This tended to create confusion with the other delegates. In later meetings, students immediately showed the plans and zoomed in on the part they were talking about. The others’ attention could be drawn to the part of the diagram they were talking about using the cursor, or even circling the specific part. All present at the meeting were then aware of the same part of the plan at the same time. In later stages all the work discussed was put on screen so all would be looking at the same thing at the same time, and have a shared experience of the matter being discussed.

7.19 Suggest that they use webcameras to support their online interactions

Students were very reluctant to create a presence on-screen, at best all that existed of the student was the cursor moving on the screen, with the occasional flash of the webcamera image. The students that communicated with off-topic elements, such as small talk such as the weather, or other things in their lives, formed stronger bonds and tended to collaborate more effectively. Students communicated with each other using Facebook, which also enabled them to engage socially. However, with some groups in semester 1, there was little or no socialising in meetings and, for example, in some meetings participants tended to refer to the members of the team at a distance by the institution at which they worked rather than by name and their Facebook posts were used solely to arrange meetings or exchange on-topic communication rather than socialise. However, for all the groups some signs of social connection emerged by the end of semester 2. Having webcameras on view constantly (perhaps on a separate monitor, e.g. one for holding webcamera images to support online presence, another for the applications being observed) would enhance this aspect of collaboration. Using webcameras may make some students more self-conscious however. Students also had a misperception that engaging socially was not appropriate for what they saw as a simulation of a professional working scenario. It is useful to explain the role of socialising in forming collaborations.

7.20 Tell the students to doodle

Scribbling on diagrams, providing a quick diagram in sketch-up to explain a shape, were all ways to express ideas and back up speech, but in a less formal manner. Having a whiteboard to hand to add an extra component is useful.

7.21 Let the students know it’s OK to modify each other’s work

The students did collaborate effectively in terms of creating separate work and pooling it, and genuine and full co-creation did take place, by commenting and requesting advice. However, others’ input was always added offline and outside of the synchronous sessions, by the owners of the documents and there were no examples of taking each other’s’ documents and altering them directly. This could be because of altering someone else’s work as being seen as intrusive, or (because of the nature of the assessment) each wanting to keep their own contributions separate to some extent. Participants need to give each other permission to alter each other’s’ work before they will feel comfortable with doing so and it should be clarified that this is expected as part of an authentic simulation of a professional collaborative environment.