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Online Team-based Projects

Notes and sample student materials for fostering and supporting good, healthy, productive, and positive team-based projects in Technical Communication courses:

Students begin the term by reading and reflecting on,

Chandler, H. E. (2001). “The complexity of online groups: A case study of asynchronous distributed collaboration.” ACM Journal of Computer Documentation, 25(1), 17-24. 

Graveline, A., Geisler, C., and Danchak, M. “Teaming Together Apart: Emergent Patterns of Media Use in Collaboration at a Distance.” Proceedings of the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference, 2000.

The 2000 and 2001 dates may suggest a dated aspect to the readings, but they are not. The two articles are fundamental to understanding why some team projects flourish and many do not.

Possible project: ask students to update the articles in white-paper format by integrating newer technologies since 2000/2001: what has changed? What has not?

Project teams then move through a scaffolded process:

  • Team memo where they develop and agree to team-specific protocols
  • Role definitions
  • Team-based writing plans
  • Accelerating Team Development, where students can see, often for the very first time, why their previous team projects failed, and how to create successful ones in the future. This can be an easy sell if we link these strategies to highly valued workplace skills: leadership; the ability to function on a multi-disciplinary teams; the ability to function in diverse and technology-rich environments. Students deserve to know why their previous groups have failed and how to fix it.
  • End-of-term Team Member Evaluations

Team Protocol Memo

Your first team-based project is to use the course Blackboard-site Team Discussion Area to share introductions, contact information, to practice sharing files and collaborating via the discussion board, and to appoint a Team Coordinator.

After introductions and info-sharing, post examples and discuss with each other both productive and non-productive team-based collaborations that you’ve encountered in the past — in either academic or in professional contexts. Your project is then to create a Team Collaborative Protocol Memo.

To plan and compose your memo:

  • Discuss individual productive and non-productive team-based collaborations that you’ve encountered in the past — successes & nightmares — in either academic or in professional contexts
  • Synthesize details from each team member, looking for notable trends
  • Negotiate collaborative strategies that will ensure positive, productive teamwork
  • Compose your collaborative memo: you can assign one person to write it for the group, giving others time to offer revising, editing, and proofreading feedback, or you can each write a section, giving one person time to complete any necessary revising, editing, and proofreading before submitting the memo

Assignment Background
This is a low-stakes project that will help you to practice (and to predict) your success in the upcoming higher-stakes projects in this course.  You can practically guarantee your success by deciding right away what your internal, discussion-forum deadlines will be and how you’ll stick to them; by deciding who will draft, revise, edit, proofread, and submit your memo; and by including in your memo specific and agreed-upon protocols that your team will follow this term. For now you can think of a “protocol” as the team-based procedures that your team members agree to.

I recommend that you include some good, practical rules for your team to follow, and that you all agree to them together, and in your memo:

  • Response times to email and forum posts (24 hours? 36 hours?), and attendance at any planned F2F or instant-messaging meetings.
  • The “Plan B” problem: what if a teammate’s laptop is stolen or broken? How will she or he be in touch? A computer lab? Phone? FAX? Something else?
  • Unplanned absences: what to do if there’s a death in the family or a free trip to Vegas, or an unplanned business trip? How will she or he be in touch?

Make some rules. Agree to them. It’ll help later, I promise.

Comments? Questions? Concerns? Feel free to post them on the Week 2 Forum. Don’t be shy.

Roles You Play

Project Manager, Team Leader, and Team Coordinator Roles

You visualize the project in its ideal end form. While others may view the project from the limited perspective of their particular contribution and function, the PM Team must transcend a narrow focus and view the project as a whole.

Expert Estimator
You have to estimate the scope of the project and develop a realistic sense of what we can get done, and when. PM Teams set the expectations for the client and for the Design Teams — expectations that are the basis for resource allocation and planning. Poor estimations guarantee frustration; good estimations guarantee happy Clients and Design Teams.

You have to be able to communicate not only with your PM Team, but the other teams, as well. In professional contexts, there are also senior management stakeholders to consider.

You are the leader who must be enthusiastically engaged in the project and be able to help foster enthusiasm and confidence in others.

You have to let your team and other teams know that you’ll go to bat for them in tough times.

Project Team-Member Roles & Collaboration

When we discuss your roles as writers, we usually talk about them in relation to your audience: you write as a student, as a member of a community (or outside of a community), as a freelance writer, as a colleague, etc. On your Project Teams, you’ll have a role — or multiple roles — within your team that defines your participation in the larger project: writer, designer, editor, proofreader, coder, tester, presenter, researcher, or image manipulator. In each case, your roles are defined in the context of professional, collaborative protocols.

Professional & Collaborative Protocols for Project Team Individual Members
Projects are only as strong as their weakest member. Therefore, it is important for every person working on the team to feel ownership of the whole project and to feel the value of contributing to its ultimate success.

Maintain & Express Professional Enthusiasm
One of your main responsibilities as a Project Team member is to develop and sustain a tone of professional enthusiasm for your colleagues’ work, for our materials, and for our project. This can be difficult when juggling competing demands and working on a project that evolves in different directions; difficult, but necessary.

Be Actively Involved
Avoid the temptation to sit back and let the rest of the team carry you through the project. You have a professional obligation to be enthusiastic about the project and its materials, and your active participation will benefit both you and the project.

Ask questions & express opinions
If you don’t understand an issue or have reservations about an aspect of the project, speak up. For a team to work well, every member must understand and agree with the project’s goals and methodology. During the planning stages and every step along the way after that, make it your responsibility to listen carefully, respect other opinions, and offer your own suggestions.

Remain open to other ideas
Everyone has different ideas about how a project should look and how it should get done. The beauty of collaboration is that these ideas encourage people to see various approaches and allow us to find creative solutions to problems.

Help to defer “premature consensus”
Practice deferring premature consensus (“groupthink”). Collaborators need the opportunity to pose alternatives and voice explicit disagreements about the both content and rhetorical elements of the project.

Be patient & practice empathy
As in any project where more than one person is involved, the frustration level can get high. Remember that people move at different speeds and think differently — practice empathy and care in your collaborations.

Articulate problems
If you find you have a problem related to the schedule, information flow, or personalities, speak up and let your Team Leader know before the problems become unmanageable.

Adapted from: Woolever, Kristin. Writing for the Technical Professions. 3rd ed. Longman: New York, 2004.

Team-based writing

We will discuss team-specific strategies as your project teams form, but here are some professional, team-based models of collaborative writing & editing that you might consider as you begin your low-stakes documents and work toward a more complex project:

•    Entire team plans, brainstorms, and outlines together, after which each team member drafts a part. Team then compiles the parts and revises the whole together. This one is time-consuming but is good for new teams where trust is still being established. Doesn’t always result in the highest quality documents.

•    Team leader (or coordinator) assigns writing tasks. Each member carries out individual writing tasks. Coordinator or editor compiles the parts and revises the whole. Doesn’t require too much trust, and doesn’t always result in the highest-quality documents.

•    Entire team plans, brainstorms, and outlines together, after which an assigned writer #1 composes a draft. The draft is submitted to writer #2 who revises the draft without consulting the writer of the first draft. Writer #2 passes along the draft to writer #3 who edits without consulting writer #1 or writer #2. Requires some measure of trust between teammates, but usually results in a high-quality document.

•    Team plans and writes draft together. This draft is submitted to one or more editors who revise the draft without consulting the writers of the first draft.