by Laresa Trusty, Coordinator of Technology – Enhanced Learning, Texas A&M Central Texas
In the process of rapidly moving courses online during the COVID 19 pandemic, one thing that was crucial for success was effective communication. In a study that was written in 2000 but still holds true today, “Regular and effective communication is the necessary prerequisite for the functioning of virtual teams.” (Kayworth and Leidner, 2000) In this study, all of the virtual teams relied heavily on different forms of communication that ranged from email alone, email combined with web-based collaborative technology, and team web pages.
In the book, Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers, the author noted that,
Virtual team members face many communication challenges, including:
- the need to establish trust early in the lifecycle of the project,
- the need to establish clear guidelines for communication and knowledge sharing among all team members,
- the need to select tools that support communication, and
- the need to sustain effective communication throughout the project. (Flammia, M., Cleary, Y., Slattery, D., 2016)
In 2020, we have many more choices on how to communicate, which is great, but that can sometimes create problems as well. Someone must make decisions concerning tools and processes going forward!
The decision on how we were going to communicate proved to cause the most confusion early on. At the time, Technology Enhanced Learning and Information Technology had been in the process of testing new collaboration/communication tools. Within the span of a week, we used WebEx, GoToMeeting, and Microsoft Teams. After we settled on Microsoft Teams being our communication tool of choice, the decisions had to be made on procedures for when and how to use the technology. It was crucial that the process was decided quickly, and it was!
The communication challenges that we focused on in chronological order were communication between leadership and staff, communication within our own teams, and communication with faculty and students.
Communication between Leadership and Staff
Early communication and planning occurred through email and web conferencing. While we waited for guidance from the State and System, we continued planning the training sessions we knew would be needed. Within the week, we had directives on a list of things that needed to be accomplished. We held training for those few faculty members who had little experience in delivering their course online, and specialized training to those faculty members who would be using WebEx for synchronous remote instruction.
Communication within our Teams
In a study conducted on multinational team performance, the author’s noted that it is very important for virtual team members to build strong relationships in order to be successful in a virtual team. That is one thing we had going for us. We already had the strong relationship built on trust. (Zellmer-Bruhn & Gibson, 2006)
Even though we had strong relationships, there were obvious issue of the absence of non-verbal communication! I have learned how much this affects understanding. We all had to explain things to each other several times, before we fully understood. On occasion we would meet face-to-face (camera) on Microsoft teams just to make sure we understood each other before we proceeded with a project.
Communication with Faculty
When we started realizing what COVID19 was and how it was going to affect all of us, we like most people, were scrambling and using every type of communication available. Decisions were made that had to come from the top down. While we were waiting for top down instructions, we surmised on our own what would be needed for those faculty members that had resisted using online tools and technology. Our main focus was, “What can we do to make this as painless as possible for those individuals?” It had not been too many years since I have felt the angst associated with that type of endeavor. I was on the receiving end of maneuvering through an online course to get my graduate degree. So, my personal goal was to provide the clearest guidance possible. We provided training on the tools we use which are WebEx, Canvas, and Studio. We made ourselves available in a one-on-one situation if needed. We had email announcements from AVP of Technology Enhanced Learning, President of the University, Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Enrollment Management, Student Success, etc. And people actually read them!
Communication with Students
We created extra student resources to help students learn how to use the tools as well, but, a large part of the communication with the students was left up to the instructors. Our role in that was to make the faculty aware of what resources were available for the students, recommending that they link to it from their class, and being available to the faculty if they were unsure of what to tell the students.
In conclusion, communication has been very important in this unsure time. It did not come totally natural and we did flounder for a little while. But, it was an amazing turn around in my opinion and not just for us. I am in awe of how quickly the education community got their act together and got to work making the transition to 100 percent online! I really think this experience will have a positive influence on education. I am excited to see how this will mold and shape change in education as we know it for faculty, staff, and students.
Kayworth, T., & Leidner, D. (2000). The Global Virtual Manager: A Prescription for Success. European Management Journal, 18(2), 183–194.
Zellmer-Bruhn, M., & Gibson, C. (2006). Multinational Organization Context: Implications for Team Learning and Performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(3), 501-518.
Flammia, M. Cleary, Y., Slattery, D. (2016). Virtual Teams in Higher Education: A Handbook for Students and Teachers. Information Age Publishing