Online collaboration tools allow communication and cooperation without the traditional boundaries of time and space. Work groups can involve participants from different locations, other countries and continents. Asynchronous communication overcomes time zones and allows people to work at hours that fit their personal circumstances. People with very different backgrounds come together online. In online collaborations there is very often a stronger degree of diversity. Even two organizations at different locations within the same country usually have different cultures, expectations and standards. On a larger scale this difference of culture can be observed in international projects. While the interplay of cultures is beneficial and offers many learning opportunities it comes with some challenges as well. Particularly in online collaboration where social presence is experienced less intensively there is a need to find solutions to engage students in learning activities, self-organize their team work and overcome cultural misunderstandings.
Collaboration-centred education considers the interaction between students, teachers, and other stakeholders in the centre of learning activities. Collaboration typically takes place in distance learning, blended learning or classroom settings with a wide range of technology support. Designers of educational settings have to consider processes, roles, materials
used in the processes, and the tools that support the collaboration and production processes. There are many forms of collaboration between teams and this calls for different tools and methods each fitting to the tasks at hand. Important design questions include: How to use existing technologies effectively in collaborative settings? Which interests of stakeholders have to be taken into account when new materials and tools are designed? What are beneficial interplays of co-located and distributed learning, individual and collaborative learning, content creation and content reception?
Collaboration tools can only show the immediate activities of team members but hardly show what happens behind the curtains. Feelings and the reasons for inappropriate behaviour are very often not obvious. A lack of understanding, disinterest in the topic, problems in communication or expectations are more difficult to recognize from a distance without having personal contact locally. Establishing trust and honest communication is harder to achieve without face-to-face meetings. We are in need to understand and translate different cultural expectations and behaviours.
At the very beginning of an online collaboration process there is little community spirit between the team members if they have never met before. Without strong social ties the motivation to contribute frequently to the work tasks may be low. Facilitators are required to foster team building and encourage members to actively participate in the work. The challenge is to balance the inputs and comments of the facilitator between stimulation and domination. In the end teams are supposed to work independently and self-directed.
The patterns in this section draw from two case studies, (1) “Design and Presenting Teachers Talking”, and (2) “iCamp international collaboration”. Both cases are independent but each of them reports about the design of a course using online collaboration tools in an international setting. Yet the two cases take different perspectives. The case “Design and Presenting Teachers Talking” is about a course that is designed online but delivered in the classroom. Planning, setting the course objectives and collecting interesting materials are performed online between a team of international collaborators. The motivation is to share the expertise of one organization with another, in the present case between a university in the UK and the Fantsuan Foundation (FF) in North Central Nigeria. A wiki was installed as a repository for ideas and resources. The case reports that not only the designed course has been a success when delivered locally but that the team members had also experienced collaborative learning in the process of designing the course. In fact, the members continued to contribute in their newly created online community even when the design task was finished and the course was delivered.
That the design process of a course is a promising learning experience in itself has been one of the premises of the second case, “iCamp international collaboration”. In that case a virtual learning space for Higher Education Institutions in Europe was created. The students involved in the course had the task to design a prototype of an e-learning course on a topic of their choice. In this case both the course design process and the designed course are online activities. The goal was to advance the learner’s competence in self-directed learning, social networking and cross-cultural collaboration through individual as well as groupwork activities. Students from eight different European countries participated in the course and each team was a mix of members with various cultural backgrounds.
It is noticeable that in the independent cases related if not similar patterns emerged. The collaborative design of a course occurs in both cases and has been documented in the pattern Course Design As A Collaborative Learning based on the “Design and Presenting Teachers Talking” case. The pattern analyzes the needs and different roles to make the online collaboration for designing a course a success. In its solution part the different roles and stakeholders are described.
The collaboration process involves many different types of communication. Hence, there is a need for various collaboration tools. Since each type calls for different features and functions it is imperative to select the tools that fit best to the needs and preferences of the team members. This has been recognized in both reports of the two cases. The pattern Group home re-location describes the forces that need to be considered to select the right tools. While the course facilitators may suggest tools or even set-up tools in advance, it is very important that the team members can still choose the tools they prefer. They should be allowed to replace the collaboration tools if new requirements show up or the first choice of tools turns out to be inadequate for the tasks.
Both cases highlight the benefits and challenges of cross-cultural communication. From each of the cases a different solution to overcome cultural misunderstandings is induced. Cross-Cultural Mediator introduces a new role for a person who is familiar with the different cultures involved. Based on this experience the cultural differences in communication and behaviour can be explained and translated by the mediator. As he understands both cultures he is capable of empathize the feelings of the different team members. Another approach is to organize Local Community Meeting where students of one location but of different teams meet. The students of one location share the same cultural background and may have experienced the same challenges and surprises in their different cross-cultural teams. To discuss their feelings and experiences can help to understand the behaviours and meanings of the other cultures. Incidents within cross-cultural teams are no longer considered as a problem of the team work but rather as an opportunity to learn something about the other culture. Local community meetings can also help to share ideas and solutions by considering how other groups collaborate.
Cross-Cultural Mediator and Local Community Meetings might be alternative solutions depending on the actual setup and persons involved. But it is also very likely that both patterns can be applied in combination as the scenario at the end of this section suggests. Cross-Cultural Mediators can strengthen the success of local community meetings.
Besides the cultural mediator there are many more roles that make cross-cultural online communication a success as Course Design As A Collaborative Learning Experience discusses. There is one more important role that has been explicitly described based on the “iCamp international collaboration” case: the group leader. Group Leader Emergence describes that there is a need for leadership and directions in order to carry out the group work. Since the group should self-organize there is a special need for an authorized leader who orchestras the group activity. The group leader might be elected explicitly or inhabit the role implicitly. He acts as a catalyst and motor for the group and helps to self-organize the group from within. Of course at the beginning there will not be a leader yet. Therefore it is important for the tutor or facilitator to stimulate the participants and provide meaningful suggestions and comments on the contributions of team members. This approach is described in Watch Active Members. The pattern proposes that team facilitators should validate active team member’s contribution to online discussions using the contents of the teaching material of the course as well as their own professional and academic knowledge. The pattern is about giving meaningful feedback to encourage and direct the discussion and problem solving of the students.
The interplay of the patterns is reasoned about in a new hypothetical scenario at the end of the section. The question is whether the patterns can help a person who has no or only little experience in cross-cultural online collaboration to set-up a new course. The scenario introduces a fictive university professor who is asked by her head of department to plan and run an online course about change management. Each of the patterns derived from the two cases can be found applied in the scenario.