Nadine is a young assistant professor at an internationally recognized business school. Her special interest is change management and she has published several journal articles on that topic. While she is a well-known expert in her field, she has not much experience as a teacher yet. But she is very motivated to provide the best learning experience to her students. One day the head of her department comes to her and suggests she should run an online course on change management for small companies. The course is supposed to be a joint venture with some of the partner universities her school has. It will be open for students that are close to their exams. There should be at least five universities involved. At her own university the course will earn the students 12 ECTS. Nadine has 3 month left to prepare the course which will start in the next semester. During the semester she will have about 8-10 hours per week to provide lectures, online support, course materials and assistance. On her site there are two student assistants who will help out particularly in answering questions online and stimulate discussions in the forums. She has access to the learning management system Moodle which is in use at her university. However, from previous experience she knows that the administrators do not like to create accounts for non-university members. She could find either a new learning management system, set up her own, or struggle with the administration to create the user accounts. Nadine is aware that the course should better be a success because the university administration puts high expectations on the project. At the end a summative evaluation will be performed by the educational department.
The objectives of the course should cover the state of the art as well as new research findings. Students should be engaged and motivated to do their own investigations in teams. The learning objectives include social skills and cross-cultural team experiences as well as the concepts of change management. Nadine has to initiate the contact to the partner universities and propose the new online course. It is her job to negotiate a curriculum that meets the expectations of the different partner universities. The course materials and assessments have to fit the local standards in order to let the students earn credit points at their university. As an international expert in her field Nadine will prepare most of the materials that will be taught in the online course. However she is aware that each of the partners will have different interests and priorities. Her case studies and examples in particular need to be adapted in order to be meaningful in each of the countries of the partner universities. The examples and activities should work for all students because the teams will consist of members from different universities since cross-cultural experience is one of the learning objectives.
The task raises the following forces in the given situation:
- Nadine is an expert in her field but she has only little knowledge about cultural differences.
- The course has to meet the local standards to earn credit points.
- To make the content of a course meaningful the examples and case studies have to be localized. Yet Nadine does not have any local examples available.
- The time to create the course is limited but the quality of the course has to meet very high standards.
- The workload in preparing the course needs to be distributed.
- Students have to be engaged to learn about the domain and cultural communication.
- Students with different cultural backgrounds may find it difficult to adapt to the expectations and behaviours of other students.
- The time demanded to prepare and run the course is already intensive. Investing time to settle misunderstandings would increase Nadine’s workload even further. Moreover, her own understanding of the cultural differences is limited.
- Students should find their own ways to resolve misunderstandings because cross-cultural communication is an explicit learning objective.
- If students get frustrated too early they might drop the course or participate only on the lowest level.
- Both teachers and students need to feel comfortable with the collaboration tools in use.
The young assistant professor identifies the following patterns that could help her in implementing the online course:
Course Design As A Collaborative Learning Experience suggests that the new course is not developed in isolation by a single course director.
A Cross-Cultural Mediator will help all stakeholders to understand each other better during both phases (designing and running the course).
Local Community Meetings let students share their experiences and approaches in cross-cultural communications with peers from their own culture.
Group home re-location helps to find and maintain an appropriate virtual workspace for designing and running the course.
Watch Active Members and Group Leader Emergence stimulate the self organizing of the group.
Nadine sets up a workspace for an online community to discuss the needs and the design of the course together with all partner universities. She invites professors from each university to participate in the course design. To make this process a success, each partner is assigned to one or more roles as the pattern Course Design As A Collaborative Learning advices. While each of the roles is required to make the collaboration a success the assignment clarifies what is expected from each of the partners. Nadine is the course initiator and director envisioning the outline of the online course. She does not only provide her expert knowledge but learns a lot about cultural differences. The variation of new examples is very fruitful for her research. The extra time spent in designing an international course pays off not only as an innovative learning setting but as an interesting source for new knowledge as well.
In the beginning Nadine suggests several tools for online communication and documentation of the course design and current project state. But some project partners know other tools that better fit to the tasks at hand and in the process of designing the course new functions are required. The pattern Group home re-location tells us that the recommended tools should be based on the perceived usefulness, usability and familiarity. The group can choose a new group home as the course design progresses if the current group home does not satisfy the new requirements raised by a new situation and if the participants can find other tools that are more appropriate in this new situation. This is true for both the group of professionals who design the course and the group of students who are involved in the course eventually.
While the communication between members of different cultures is interesting and inspiring, problems can easily arise due to different expectations and misunderstandings. Such misunderstandings and differences in views are often the source for conflicts. But there are ways to escape this misery. The pattern Cross-Cultural Mediator suggests to include a person in the project who is familiar with both cultures, in order to monitor what is going on, recognise areas of confusion (potential or actual) and make appropriate interventions. For each partner university a member of the staff is found that has spend a considerable time abroad in one of the countries of the other partners. The cultural mediator is not required to be an expert of the subject but should be interested in cultural exchange. While running the course, each student team is asked whether one of the students has been in one of the countries of the partner universities. If so, s/he will get the role of the cultural mediator. However, very often students do not have this experience. A good solution is provided by the pattern Local Community Meeting. The partner universities initiate frequent but voluntary meetings with all students who participate in this international e-learning course. This is not a team meeting because teams consist of members from different locations. Rather it is a meeting of all students with the same cultural background. Hence, they will have similar feelings about the collaboration process and this allows them to communicate informally and openly about the collaboration process in their international teams. To have the same experiences illustrates that unexpected behaviour is very often of cultural and not of personal nature. A cultural mediator could further explain the customs. Usually there will not be enough cultural mediators to equip each team with one but organizing a local community meeting only requires a single cultural mediator for each location.
Since the online course runs across several cultures in virtual space there is a need to stimulate the self-organization of the group. The pattern Watch Active Members suggests to monitor the collaboration process. The contribution of active team members should be validated or commented by the facilitator. The facilitator accompanies the collaboration process as a guide who encourages the students to participate and provides suggestions for alternative directions. Over time, the directions given by the facilitator fade more and more as the group starts to self-organize. Typically, a group leader emerges over time. The Group Leader Emergence should be encouraged by the facilitator implicitly or explicitly. Once the group leader is in charge s/he will organize group activities and lead the directions backed up by the whole group.
The patterns help to overcome both distances on the map and in cultures. The patterns Cross-Cultural Mediator and Local Community Meeting are two ways that can easily be combined to better understand other cultures. The Cross-Cultural Mediator has experienced both cultures and shares his insights with students and teachers who have contact with the other culture for the first time. A Local Community Meeting focuses on sharing the experiences students encounter during their course. While it is always possible to setup a Local Community Meeting it might be difficult to find enough Cross-Cultural Mediators who have enough time to support all the different groups. However, a Cross-Cultural Mediator is likely to better explain the cultural differences. While the students of the different work groups may find that they have the same problems in the cross-cultural communication and share their ways to tackle the situation, a Cultural Mediator might point out better solutions and help to truly understand the situation.
In the solution, Nadine has chosen to setup an online community for communication. She does not use the learning management system of her own university because she knows that it is hard to enrol external students. That means she has to learn about new tools and she might choose the wrong tools. The benefit is that she can choose tools that best fit to the task as Group home re-location suggests. Also, she is not dictating her own university’s toolset to all the partner universities. Rather she chooses an open platform and invites people to propose alternatives. Because she is the administrator for the online community she can easily add and invite new members without any formal application process. A potential drawback is that the administration of the tools costs extra time and since she did not rely on her university’s IT infrastructure she does not get any technical support from the IT staff. Also, she is not an expert in evaluating tools and she patterns provided in this section do not provide any guidance how to systematically find a set of tools that can be used during the lifecycle of the course. Another concern is to move from one group home to another due to the emergence of new needs. To transfer the material from one place to another could be technically difficult, cause a lot of work or could even result in loss of previously stored information.
Yet the choice of the tools is very important in order to engage students and teachers in the online collaboration. Watch Active Members and Group Leader Emergence encourage participants of the group to self-organize and decide upon new steps. A vivid discussion about the needs and next steps will increase student engagement. There are different ways to Group Leader Emergence, i.e. the group leader can be selected implicitly or explicitly. There is no recommendation yet which way is better. There is also the danger that a group leader might be too dominant. Maybe an alternative solution would be to transfer the leadership role among the students. The facilitator can guide this process while s/he is watching active members. A facilitator should encourage the students to take responsibility and continue to actively participate. However, this increases the workload for the facilitators and students could start to expect that there will always be guidance from the facilitator. The two patterns Watch Active Members and Group Leader Emergence could either support each other or conflict each other. For example, the feedback given by a facilitator who watches active members might encourage students to self-organize and find or select their own group leader. On the other hand, if too much guidance is provided and the students get used to it they might consider the facilitator as their leader and consider it as pointless to search for their own group leader. There is a sensible interplay of the two patterns that could be further elaborated in the future.
The patterns provided in this section did emerge in different projects and some of them have been developed independently. This is very interesting because it seems that the same problems are addressed in different yet related ways. The major problem is that cultural differences are harder to understand if communication is limited to online tools. While such tools overcome long distances they provide less social contexts than real face-to-face meetings. The solution derived from the patterns provides ways to share and discuss the cultural differences. It also finds ways to distribute the workload and makes the cultural specifics not a hurdle but an interesting learning outcome. Nadine learns about new cases of change management from other cultures. The students learn about coping with different behaviours and customs and how to self-organize and solve such challenges.
This fictive scenario has shown that the patterns can be combined with each other and how one pattern could support another pattern. It is a reasonable test whether the patterns fit together in general or whether there are contradictions between the patterns. This is already an interesting insight because if the patterns would raise conflicts in theory already, their actual implementation would be even worse. This section has shown that the re-use and combination works in principle. However, a fictive scenario is just that: a thought experiment. In order to empirical test whether the patterns could actually be applied in other specific contexts, one has to use them in real world settings. It is open to the reader to run them in practice and report the success or failure.