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Inclusion Criteria

When deciding what tools to include in a web-course, there are a few features of collaboration that each tool should ideally support and promote:

Awareness

Awareness of others is an aspect of usability of real-time distributed groupware (Gutwin, Greenberg, Roseman, n.d).  It has received increased attention in CSCW and groupware research, as it is important in cooperation but is difficult to maintain in computer distributed cooperative work.  Awareness concerns aspects such as who is present, what body language do the others have, what are they doing right now, etc.  Generally speaking, awareness is knowing something about the activities of the other people that you are cooperating with.  Although awareness is becoming an increasingly popular topic in research around distributed cooperative work, there are still somewhat opposing definitions to be found in the CSCW literature (Papadopoulos, n.d).  

Among other things, awareness can be divided into presence awareness, regarding knowledge of who is around, versus workspace awareness, covering what information people have about the other’s activities in cooperative work (Ibid).  Workspace awareness is probably the most relevant type of awareness to focus on in cooperation, as managing presence awareness is a much simpler task.  

Gutwin et al present the following summary of characteristics of awareness that previous research has resulted in:

1. Awareness is knowledge about the state of an environment bounded in time and space.

2. Environments change over time, so awareness is knowledge that must be maintained and kept up to date.

3. People interact with and explore the environment, and the maintenance of awareness is accomplished through this interaction.

4. Awareness is a secondary goal in the task – that is, the overall goal is not simply to maintain awareness but to complete some task in the environment.

The reason awareness is important to take into account in regards to cultural differences in online international courses is much the same as with any type of cooperative work. Knowing what others are doing and how they are reacting to what you are doing is essential in cooperation. In international collaboration the importance of knowing how the others reach might be especially important, as you can not as easily predict how other cultures will react to your actions as you can your own.  

Social Interaction

Social interaction refers to particular forms of externalities, in which the actions of a reference group affect an individual’s preferences. The reference group depends on the context and is typically an individual’s family, neighbors, friends or peers. Social interactions are sometimes called non-market interactions to emphasize the fact that these interactions are not regulated by the price mechanism.
 

Models of social interactions seem particularly adept for solving a pervasive problem in the social sciences, namely the observation of large differences in outcomes in the absence of commensurate differences in fundamentals. Many models of social interactions exhibit strategic complementarities, which occur when the marginal utility to one person of undertaking an action is increasing with the average amount of the action taken by his peers. Consequently, a change in fundamentals has a direct effect on behavior and an indirect effect of the same sign. Each person’s actions change not only because of the direct change in fundamentals, but also because of the change in the behavior of their peers. The result of all these indirect effects is the social multiplier (Scheinkman, n.d).

A variety of tools are commonly used for social interaction. Although there is plenty of overlap and it is difficult to neatly categorize the tools, the following categorization system may be useful for making distinctions between them:

  • Web or computer conferencing (asynchronous discussion groups/forums): Topic based conversations using mailing lists, web-based discussion tools, or groupware.

 

  • Data collection/sharing/organization: Repositories of resources, projects using databases, groupware, and search engines.

 

  • Document Sharing: Tools that allow users to display, discuss and collaborate on documents or artifacts using websites, annotation systems, word processing systems, electronic whiteboards.

Communication

Communication technology is an important aspect to consider in order to participate in a collaborative environment. Both formal and informal communication is considered necessary to support an international web course. The formal communication is important during lectures, planning of tasks and group meetings. In this environment, a preset agenda, invited participants and accountability of the outcome is expected. This is an area of great advantage for students to understand the structure of the course and what is expected of them. During the work with group projects and tasks, informal communication should be supported by the tools and technology available.

Informal communication does not need any agenda or set scheduling, but is rather a helpful way to communicate in order to ask simple questions in a discussion forum and, most importantly, for a web course. Informal communication maintains the social setting of a group. By maintaining good communication, both formal and informal, participants of an international web course get an overview of who is present, securing some sort of awareness (Hoffman, n.d).

Different technologies that support communication, and that can prove useful in an international web course, are video meetings, text and communication through voice channels. With video sharing, participants are able to communicate directly one on one, or in a bigger group, and at the same time see who they are talking to. This supports awareness as everyone is able to see who they are talking to, and how they react to different information. Text-based communication is a useful communication technology to support both synchronous and asynchronous communication.

With asynchronous communication, members are allowed to enter questions, answers or comments at any time, and a response might be available later. Asynchronous communication via text makes it possible for everyone to go back in the log and re-read discussions for answers which might have been posted earlier in a web course. Synchronous communication is communication between two or more participants who are present at the same time. This gives a higher sense of awareness of who one is speaking to.

The third communication technology, voice, makes it possible to speak to each other over the internet. This technology should be considered when designing a web course, as the spoken word often is more precise and easier to understand than the written. When using an environment in a web course, a combination of these technologies should be prioritized, as the combination creates a stronger form of communication than a single one.

Information Sharing

Information sharing describes the exchange of data between various organizations, people and technologies. There are two main types of information sharing tool. News feeds (most commonly using RSS or really simple syndication) facilitate the automatic notification of new content to your site. Social media tags make it easy for people to share your website information with friends and family on social media sites.

  • NEWS FEEDS (RSS)

For those parts of your online presence that are regularly updated, such as your media centre, events page or blog, tools exist to allow people to sign up for automatic notifications of new content posted to these sections.

The more traditional method of doing this is to ask people to enter their email address and contact details into an online form to receive news alerts. These details can be added to your database for mass mailings of new items. Remember, whenever you deal with personal information, to consider your privacy obligations.

 

  • SOCIAL MEDIA SHARING BUTTONS

Social media tags enable visitors to your site to easily let other people know about your site and its content via their social media platform of choice.

Word-of-mouth is a powerful promotional tool, particularly when it comes from friends and family. By including buttons on your site that make it easy for people to post information about your site content to their social media networks, you are inviting people to promote your organisation by word of mouth. These buttons remove several of the steps involved in a site’s visitor manually copying your site’s link, opening their social media profile page and then posting it to their profile. By removing these manual steps and reminding people that they can share your information, you increase the chances of them doing it.

Coordination

It is important that the tools and technologies chosen for the web-course contribute to an increase of coordination. Coordination is, in short terms, the management of all the various tasks that are somehow dependent on each other. A high level of coordination supports group activities and collaborative work through facilitating:

  • the identification of the goals one wants to achieve and the tasks that are associated with those goals.
  • the splitting of complex tasks and goals into smaller, simpler ones.
  • the distribution of workload to different entities, sub-groups or individuals that may be spread in different locations and have varying backgrounds and competencies.
  • the allocation of resources.
  • the spreading of tasks in the time and order that they need to be solved, and keeping track of deadlines.
  • keeping track of the status of the work.


All of these aspects can certainly be valuable aids to students from different backgrounds and cultures when they are attempting to navigate their path through the web course and gain a clearer and more unified perception of what the course is trying to teach them, what efforts are required from them and how they should relate to their teachers and fellow students.

There are many project management tools that can be particularly helpful with coordination, for example with task- and resource-assignment and keeping track of statuses and deadlines. Tools that promote clear and concise communication are also helpful, and so are tools that organize the sharing of information in an easy fashion.

References

Gutwin, C., Greenberg, S., Roseman, M.  (n.d). Workspace Awareness in Real-Time Distributed Groupware: Framework, Widgets, and Evaluation. University of Calgary. Retrieved from http://www.markroseman.com/pubs/wahci96.pdf
Harrison M.T, Barthel B. (2009) Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products. SAGE Publications.
Hoffman, D.M. (n.d.) Formal vs Informal Communication - How They Differ. Hoffman-Rondeau Communications
Malone, T.W., Crowston, K. (1990). What is Coordination Theory and How Can It Help Design Cooperative Work Systems. Proceedings of the Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work. Retrieved from http://crowston.syr.edu/system/files/10.1.1.92.4445.pdf
Papadopoulos, C. (n.d). Improving Awareness in Mobile CSCW. The University of Manchester. Retrieved from http://scgroup.hpclab.ceid.upatras.gr/scgroup/Various/IEEE-TMC-Manuscript.pdf
Scheinkman, J.A. (n.d). Social Interactions. Princeton University and NBER
 
 
 
 
 

 

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