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B. Pittman

North Carolina State University (UNITED STATES)
Team projects are challenging even under optimal conditions; anyone who has ever worked collaboratively, either as a student, an academic, or a workplace professional, will generally acknowledge that the technical task does not pose nearly as many complications as the human interactions do. Somewhat ironically, one result of an increasingly global workplace and employees who work off-site is that team projects are conducted with few if any face-to-face meetings.

One goal of the Professional Writing Program (PWP) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, is to prepare students for team projects in the workplace. Nearly every student at the university is required to take one of three professional writing courses. One is designed primarily for engineering students; one for business and a variety of other majors; one for students in the sciences. Students learn the importance of diversity within a team and the importance of building trust in order to manage productive disagreement in order to reach a common goal. We find that, even though technology is easily available that enables students to complete a team project successfully without ever meeting in person, students value face-to-face meetings. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of juggling schedules to arrange a meeting, even though none is required by the instructor. But sometimes meeting face-to-face is impossible because of geographical separation.

Designing a successful team project for an online course requires some of the most of the same considerations as would a project for a traditional course: a strong connection to a specific audience, possibly a workplace audience, thereby enhancing the value of the project to the student; a recognition of people-oriented skills that keep a team from becoming dysfunctional; and, from the instructor’s perspective, a project that permits students from a variety of majors to work together and showcase their various areas of expertise. But the online team project may also require an introduction to technology that replaces meeting in person.
Two such team projects have been adapted for an online class. One seems somewhat fanciful at first blush and the other two are very practical, but each has strengths that provide students with a strong foundation for team projects in the workplace. One project involves developing a Course of Action for a fictitious island. Students prepare a plan for economic development, building, transportation, security, and environmental and natural resources. Another involves interviewing several professionals who hold a position similar to one that a given student might be working towards and analyzing the data to see what expectations and trends emerge. A third requires students to work on a procedure that is actually mailed to a decision-maker and is currently being developed and tested.

Team projects are not going away, even with sophisticated technology. It is critical that students be offered the experience to work together on a final deliverable, even if working together does not mean being together.