COIL methodology and virtual teams

Many students will likely have careers in which they must work with other nationalities or with clients or partners in other countries, often at a distance or as part of virtual teams. Esbin (2017) projects that “by 2020, more than 1.3 billion people will work remotely. Many will find themselves on virtual project teams, which will generally be cross-functional, cross-cultural and cross-generational in makeup.” Jones (2008) offers a further definition of a virtual team: "An interdependent group of individuals who predominantly use technology to communicate, collaborate, share information and coordinate their efforts in order to accomplish a common work-related objective.” The problem is that very few institutions teach the skills needed to be successful as a member or leader of a virtual team. This is in part because few institutions practice COIL or any form of networked education.

While the COIL model was not designed specifically to meet this demand, there are many parallels between the activities, processes, and potential pitfalls of COIL course implementation, and the typical dynamics and activities of virtual teams, such that almost any COIL course could be utilised as appropriate training for participating in or leading a successful virtual team. However, an academic COIL course does not have the same drivers as do most virtual teams, which are usually set in corporate contexts, so we must also acknowledge where the two models sometimes diverge.

More broadly, in most traditional university classes, students respond to the content and issues put forward to them, but their local knowledge is often not sought out, nor can they easily discuss their cultural perspective regarding the topics at hand, because few courses see intercultural exchange or team building as a goal or learning objective. Therefore, most courses, even those that are online and reach beyond national borders, do not serve to deeply connect the world, any more than does television, even when students from many countries are enrolled. The COIL model is all about understanding the perspective of those with whom one studies and works collaboratively, so it can also set the stage for working in international virtual teams.

Convergences

Designing and implementing a COIL course and constructing and managing a virtual team present many of the same opportunities and challenges. The following section examines a few salient and shared issues in order to understand how participating in a COIL course can provide preparation for working in virtual teams.

Collaboration and group work

Ferrazzi (2012), writing in the Harvard Business Review observes, “There’s a world of difference between merely working together and truly collaborating with one another. Collaborative activity is the 'secret sauce’ that enables teams to come up with innovative new products or creative, buzz-worthy marketing campaigns.”

The “C” in COIL stands for collaboration. To develop meaningful intercultural experiences for groups of students physically far apart, it is critical that they engage each other at a deep level. Simply being in the same online classroom sharing common course material is not enough. One way to develop insight and community with others is to work collaboratively on projects. In COIL-enhanced modules this is most often done through group teamwork, where, for example, two students from each classroom join with their peers far away to undertake a research project, culminating in the submission of a co-written paper. Alternatively, two teams may co-produce a photo essay on a common topic, reflecting on each other’s choices as the project develops, and later presenting their final project to students in both classrooms.

For many students and professionals, working in groups poses challenges. In order to be successful, there needs to be adequate structure and a commitment to shared responsibility so that all participants have a designated role, while providing room for innovation and creative process to take place. And while virtual teams typically construct their working groups somewhat differently from a COIL course where bi-lateral intercultural exchanges are foundational, both demand the production of an actual collaborative result which can be assessed. This makes participation in COIL an excellent rehearsal for virtual team collaboration.

Developing rapport and trust

One of the potentially painful deficits of working online can be the lack of informal, casual, and chance social interactions that are so typical of face-to-face environments. According to Esbin (2016), this creates a major challenge which “stems from lack of trust between employees who are essentially ‘virtual strangers’. This is despite the fact they may work for the same organisation, share common goals, and be members of the same virtual team” (p. 314). Face-to-face environments and water-cooler, elevator/hallway, and lunchroom encounters, allow student and workplace colleagues to get to know each and to gradually develop rapport. Here the conversation may be more personal than would be appropriate in the office or classroom, or it may provide a chance to let off steam or complain on neutral ground about what is going down in those same environments. Through these social interchanges, one lays the groundwork for developing trust in others, or alternatively deciding from whom one may want to keep some distance.

In a project that included both local and remote participants, Armstrong and Cole (2002) give an example of how a lack of personal contact can yield a negative result:

A post-mortem analysis of one cancelled international project zeroed in on the lack of casual connections: “There was no day-to-day coffee machine conversation, which was needed to make it succeed.” Remote group members felt cut off from the key conversations, over lunch or in the hall, that often-followed videoconferences, (p. 170)

For teachers developing a COIL course and for virtual team leaders laying out a project, there is the same tendency to expect that their students or team members should get right down to work as soon as they have been onboarded. When first introduced, these individuals often know little or nothing about each other, and typical formal introductions, such as providing their names, positions, classes or home locations, is only a minimal starting point. It is critical that space be provided for the students or team members to get to know each other before they are expected to work together productively.

This can be accomplished through many techniques, each of which must be tweaked to fit the specific cultural and course or work environment. First, it is often a good idea for all students or virtual team members to create profiles visible to all, where they are asked to include some of their personal interests, something about their family and home, and possibly their thoughts about being part of the project/class. Not all of these are appropriate in every case. Often it makes sense to request a photo, but this need not be a head shot. It can simply be an image that each prefers, or which each feels represents them.

An “ice breaker” is the general term for the introductory techniques which may follow. These can be structured as large group activities but are more often undertaken by pairs or in small groups. For example, each student/team member can be asked to contact another by Skype (or with a similar online tool) to introduce themselves and interview their colleague. They then share with the group what they learned about the person they interviewed. In this way they all have a chance to interact outside of the larger group environment and to share some information with all. It is also important for the teacher or leader to suggest norms or limits so that the discussion not become too personal too quickly.

Getting to know someone from another culture, whom one has never met, and with whom one typically shares no prior friends, may be a new experience for many. While this struggle to connect personally may seem far away from the technology that links participants, it is of the essence of both a successful COIL class engagement and of becoming comfortable working in a virtual team environment.

Engaging technology

There is a tendency to assume that everyone under 30 or even 40 years old is a “digital native” and will almost instantaneously become comfortable with whatever online technology they are provided. This is rarely the case, and when launching a COIL course or initiating a virtual team project it is critical to provide time for all participants to become familiar with the tools they will use. Furthermore, because these tools will often be used in group work, without the concurrent presence of the teacher or leader, they need to be explored in the context of group work - not simply by asking everyone to open the software and look around.

One way to do this is to begin using a new technology for the ice breaker activity, perhaps followed by another small project, which takes advantage of a second tool in the course/project toolbox. As new tools are emerging all the time, it may be interesting to ask class/team members to suggest software they think would aid them in their project work, as this active participation will engage them further into the project. Of course, opening the toolbox has some risks, as it raises the question of who will support a new tool proposed from the group should that tool become troublesome if adopted?

No matter how one manages the technology, it is critical to give everyone time to become comfortable with the tools. The assumption that all are “good to go” from day one may sink a COIL course or a virtual team project. Going through such exploratory processes in the networked classroom prepares those students for similar challenges in virtual teams.

Time zones and communication modalities

There are many communication modalities that can be utilised in COIL- enhanced modules and virtual team projects. The content and learning objectives of the course/project may partially determine which of these modalities are most propitious, but the geographical location of the participants may also drive these decisions. For example, if a COIL course is offered between a university in Western Europe and one in South Africa, despite their great physical distance, both are in the same time zone, making synchronous communication (audio and video conferencing, texting, etc.) logistically comfortable. However, if a virtual team includes team members from New York, London, and Shanghai, synchronous communication will need to be scheduled for participants living in three disparate time zones. To have a group meeting may mean the New Yorker will need to be available at 7 a.m., the Londoner at 2 p.m. and the team member in Shanghai at 7 p.m. Such potentially complex scheduling similarly influences group dynamics in COIL courses and virtual teams, so navigating this in the networked classroom is direct training for the complexities of the online workplace.

The choice of communication modality extends beyond the scheduling of synchronous meetings to the comfort level of all participants conversing in the chosen lingua franca of the course/project. While most virtual team projects and many COIL courses are managed in English, the level of English spoken may vary widely among individual team members. In the case of some COIL class groups, English may be the second or third language of all students, so great care must be taken that their level of fluency is respected. For that reason, it may in some cases, be best to avoid face-to-face videoconferencing between classes, as this modality may be stressful to some members of the group. In this situation it may be preferable to shift much of the exchange and project work to an asynchronous mode, where the participants less fluent in English have more time to translate and interpret complex information.

While such a situation is somewhat less likely in a virtual team, where a level of lingua franca fluency is more likely a prerequisite, there will still almost certainly be different “Englishes” spoken by different team members. These variants can occasionally be misunderstood by some team members who are not familiar with a specific usage or accent. Such unfamiliar or less fluent speech can also sometimes lead to a fundamental attribution error, where fluent speakers falsely assume that others are less competent or capable, simply because their use of English is different than theirs. Garton and Wegryn (2006) make a similar observation:

The extent to which your associates understand English might vary widely. Some might be able to read and write in English exceptionally well but might not have mastered the spoken word. Do not assume that because you understand each other well in email, you will also do so in person. Some people might be shy about speaking, as they are nervous about making a mistake. You might find that the quietest person in a group understands and can speak English better than the others. That person is just embarrassed and afraid to speak, (p. 123)

Needing to get past this type of misjudgment is also an important aspect of COIL courses, thereby readying such students for work in linguistically complex virtual teams.

Flexibility and adaptability

It has been remarked that Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” In traditional face-to-face team meetings and university classes, stable physical surroundings provide a consistent technological and work environment. At the same time, the relatively easy scheduling of solely local participants supports group concurrence in time; when requested, everyone can generally be expected to be in the same place at the same time. Bad weather or the illness of a team member may occasionally disrupt that continuity, but this is the exception, not the rule. Additionally, local meetings may or may not bring together a relatively homogeneous group of participants, but even when the class or team is more diverse, they are likely to have acquired a strong sense of common cultural norms by residing in or near their university or business setting.

In contrast, COIL classrooms and virtual teams are composed of students and team members from different cultures, who are physically dispersed, and who are also based in different institutional settings. This means their expectations when beginning their course or project are likely to be very different, so misunderstandings are more likely. In addition, participants must communicate with each other through technology that provides fewer interpersonal cues than does a face-to-face setting, and all too often that technology does not function as expected. In some COIL courses the internet connectivity at partner institutions is intermittent, requiring the regular scheduling of back-up plans and meetings.

This means that as one gains greater cultural diversity through networked education and virtual teams, one must at the same time be clear to everyone involved that they must be flexible and adaptable, so they can respond to the unexpected - whether it be technological bumps or unexpected responses to requests and communications. It is through navigating these variables that participants gain greater understanding of each other, of themselves, and of the online work environment, preparing COIL experienced students for virtual teams.

Education and the workplace: different drivers for different outcomes

This chapter examines some of the areas where COIL courses tread similar ground to virtual teams, thereby providing informal training for emerging online career opportunities. In some cases, COIL courses have been formally organised to perform as actual virtual teams, so the congruence and training model is then even more closely aligned.1 However, COIL courses exist within a higher education context, and are usually designed and managed by two professors from different cultures who have worked together to create a joint curriculum that must be gradable, and which provides college credit to their enrolled students. Because the participants are students, the work they are assigned must be somewhat process oriented, allowing different students to learn what they can from the class projects and intercultural interactions. And because COIL modules usually run between five and seven weeks, their lifespans are shorter than those of many virtual teams.

On the other hand, virtual teams are usually managed by a single project leader, within a corporate context, where the desired outcome is defined from the outset and is not determined based on its benefit to participants. Furthermore, because virtual team members are employees, they can be expected to follow directions in ways that may not be appropriate with university students. So, while many of the developmental pathways of the two practices align remarkably well, their contexts are not identical. For this reason, while COIL-enhanced modules are a good introduction to online group work in virtual teams, their broader manifestations and anticipated outcomes must also be contextual to the educational institutions which support them.

Note

1. The course “Experience International Teamwork,” was designed by instructor Eva Haug at Amsterdam University of the Applied Sciences. Summarised course description: “students work in COIL projects, organised into virtual teams, coached by their respective lecturers, thereby getting hands-on experience in virtual collaboration. The focus of the course and the learning outcomes is on developing the skills necessary to work in diverse (as in international) and remote teams. Her class COILed with Drexel University and Ulster Community College in the U.S. (2017-18).

 
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