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H808 Core Activity 6-4: Reflecting on the group dimension of professional practice

In this activity we had to work in a group, chosen by our tutor, with the aim of making a presentation. The information we received was as follows :

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  1. You can organise your group in any way you choose; for example, by choosing a coordinator, identifying who has the necessary technical skills or agreeing on a division of labour […].
  2. You should first use the one or two cases you have agreed on, to come to a consensus on a small number (five to ten) of key principles of practice that you believe to be central to effective elearning, and which are illustrated by the case(s).
  3. Identify which features of the example cases (screenshots, text, description, etc.) you can use to illustrate the presentation.
  4. Agree on the type of presentation you will create. For example, it could be a standalone series of PowerPoint slides; PowerPoint slides with notes outlining the oral part of the presentation; a single slide constructed like a conference poster; a leaflet produced in Word or PDF; or a mini-website […]
  5. Construct the presentation […].
  6. Finally, nominate someone in the group to post the presentation […].

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We had two weeks to complete the task which represents in OU vocabulary about 30 hours of work. I have the habit, when working in a group, of working as much as leader as a member. I have to say I am a bit disappointed by how things happened in our group.

Working in a group

Back at the beginning someone booted up the group and for me became de facto the group’s leader, but this contribution was not followed by other guidance. Until the end of the project it remained unclear what the group really wanted to do and we did something that made, I think, most of the participants happy (though it is difficult to say due to the lack of feedback from the group members on that activity and on what we achieved).

In e-learning as in many subjects where interdisciplinarity is the keyfactor, working in a group is important. By group I mean team and I differentiate a team from a group by the following claims:

A team has a leader

A group is simply a certain amount of people in the same place (physical or virtual) not necessarily driven by the same goals and objectives. A team has a structure and usually has a leader who steers the team by organising its life, distributing the task, controlling the feasibility and the accomplishment of the different sub-tasks. The leader leads and must have the big picture in mind which he can share with the team’s members but this is not mandatory.

As Henry Mintzberg described in his “The Structuring of Organizations: A Synthesis of the Research”, first published in 1973, leadership can take different forms,  from dictatorship to democracy to adhocracy.

Maybe in our group for this task 6-3 we all believed that adhocracy would save the project and that everyone would work in the same direction, taking the same decisions at the same time, without discussing it. While this may work in a few companies in Northern Europe, it certainly could not work here because we didn’t have enough at stake in that project, and we as group members were not implicated enough in its success (= reward).

A team has clear targets

What differentiates a group from a team is the clear understanding of the target that must be reached and the means mobilised to succeed. The first thing to do is to redefine, in the group, the task, its outcomes, the process, the time and the tools to engage. All team members must have a clear view of what place they will have in the project and all the main points must have been negotiated and accepted. In sociology we call this: defining the boundary-objects (Star, 1989). Here, the activity suggested by the H808 team/tutor is not clear at all, and we should have spent time negotiating a common project. Reading forum posts in different groups it appears to me that we all had different interpretations of the task, both in our group and between the different groups’ members.

A team works together

To make people work together it is not sufficient to show them the goal and shout “go”. A preliminary phase is essential to build the team, to learn each other and trust each other before starting to work together. In a distance environment Salmon Gilly suggests a rather long period of ice-breaking and team-building at the beginning of every new project (Salmon, 2002; 2004).

Here we had no time and moreover no tutor or group leader to create that emulation. I believe, and certain other members of other groups also suggested this, that a contact with any social cues would have rendered this process obvious and quick. A quick conference with Skype, Elluminate or other tools of this kind would put all the participants together at the same time although not physically in the same place. I personally can’t consider working with a group of people without having heard their voices, seen their faces and knowing how they want to participate in a project and what they want to achieve.

For me anonymity is a limitation in group management and team building.

About the tools

Nowadays there are zillions of tools on the Web for teamworking. We worked with Google Document and we didn’t use all its potential. Collaborative tools are not necessary the easiest tool to use and need some work to understand and to delimit all their features. I just take the example of wikis: everyone knows about wikipedia but few know they can modify wikipedia content if they desire and fewer know exactly what is and how to use wikis in general.

During this activity, some other groups used Google Documents to communicate on all the different sub-tasks to be achieved by the team. In my experience it is often  simpler to adapt ourself to a known tool than trying to use new technologies promises. In our group we could have used Prezy, a web 2.0 service for presentation, instead of Google Documents – Presentation, but we preferred a more classic and limited, but relatively know tool.

Using new technologies on a so short amount of time where the target is to produce a final document is certainly too much demanding for a group, but maybe not necessarily  for a team where one person could be dedicated to discover and engage with it, in all other cases I think that the cheap and cheerful solution is certainly the best and only answer.

References

Salmon, G., 2004. E-Moderating, The Key to Online Teaching and Learning, Routledge. Available at: http://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IBf0ZqgHhP8C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=salmon+gilly&ots=7lgGY4RD1_&sig=QbG0F5vmACM_dUoBkTgYGnvvbhA [Accessed July 16, 2009].

Salmon, G., 2002. e-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, London: Kogan Page. Available at: http://books.google.com.au/books?id=ZZYyTV7MwoEC&printsec=frontcover&dq=salmon+gilly&lr=&source=gbs_similarbooks_s&cad=1 [Accessed July 15, 2009].

Star S.L. & Griesemer J.R. (1989), “Institutional Ecology, ‘Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39”. Social Studies of Science 19 (4) pp 387–420