Mathematics and Computing Dept.
The Open University
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A group or a team is a collection of people working together with an agreed purpose in mind. Although group working has a set task, individual members of the group will have their own ideas, plans and strategies regarding the set task. It is therefore important that they have good communication so that they are able to convey this information to other members of the group. Technology has developed such that it allows for communication to be conducted remotely. Remote group working often places the members of the group in distributed areas so that they will physically meet less often. The amount of communication for remote groups will not diminish but rather increase due to the loss of non-verbal communication and the increased precision with which ideas need to be expressed. Effective communication therefore becomes more vital. In order to communicate remotely, individuals of a group must use artificial media. This then means that whatever was previously expressed verbally, group members now express via the use of an artificial medium. This research project, funded by Open University UK, will examine the role of communication in group-work in the context of distance education in Computer Science. To find these clues the researcher will observe face to face tutorials, question both students and tutors via questionnaires and interviews and examine actual communication and products.
A group or a team is a collection of people working together with an agreed purpose in mind. Groups are made up of individuals who have their own ideas, goals and motivation. In order for these individuals to successfully work together as a group, they must have some form of communication with one another. Normally, this communication is verbal via face to face meetings, or phone conversations.
Although group working has a set task such as developing a word processing package, individual members of the group will have their own ideas, plans and strategies regarding the set task. It is therefore important that they have good communication so that they are able to convey this information to other members of the group. In order to accomplish the set task, there must be at least enough communication of thoughts, words, ideas, opinions, etc. to coordinate the work, discuss plans and strategies and update progress. However, communication can be easily strained when the group dynamics are intense and conflicts arise between group members. An individual may feel strongly about his/her ideas and will want to push them forward without considering or caring about the possibility of conflicting ideas with another member of the group.
Throughout the years, technology has developed such that it allows for communication to be conducted remotely. This then allows for remote group working. Remote group working often places the members of the group in distributed areas so that they will physically meet less often. In order to communicate remotely, individuals of a group must use artificial media. This then means that whatever was previously expressed verbally, group members now express via the use of an artificial medium. The amount of communication for remote groups will not diminish but rather increase due to the loss of non-verbal communication and the increased precision with which ideas need to be expressed. Effective communication, therefore becomes more vital .
It is important to recognise that when using remote communication, group members may be placing an obstacle in their communication. Individuals must be able to express their ideas and thoughts through a medium just as they did in face to face communication. They must be proficient in communication skills as well as that of the employed media. If any group member is lacking any of these skills, the communication will not be as effective.
As stated earlier, the completion of the set task is dependent on the successful communication between group members regarding strategies and plan of work. Face to face communication can be difficult as it may involve the political nature of individuals. Group members will have their own priorities and may want to voice support for their priorities. During official face to face communication, for example a meeting, people naturally fall into roles. For example, a person's role may be dominant, taking over the discussion, or passive where the actor quietly listens but doesn't contribute. The type of communication used, either face to face or via an artificial medium, may make a difference as to how they support their priorities. A group member who has a dominant and out-going personality may be able to express his/her views and priorities in a forceful way using face to face communication. Whereas a person who has a passive personality may be apprehensive about speaking out during a face to face meeting especially if his/her manager is involved in the communication. A passive group member may feel more comfortable voicing their priorities through the use of e-mail. Hiding behind an electronic medium such as e-mail can give a `voice to the voiceless' . However, the increased complexity caused by the addition of an artificial communication medium can make working in groups more difficult. Translation of an intended message across an artificial medium may not have the same desired effect . The passive group member may have spent a great deal of time formulating his e-mail message as s/he feels strongly about the matter and wants to make it clear. However, when it is received, it may not express the same passion that the dominant group member managed to express during the face to face meeting.
Face to face communication has an advantage over communication via an artificial medium in that it is enhanced with non-verbal suggestions in the form of intonations normally used but usually taken for granted. These intonations can sometimes aid in giving further explanation to spoken words. Another advantage of face to face communication is that there is a sense of immediacy and interaction can take place at that time. Using an artificial medium, a group member is given a certain amount of anonymity and depending on the medium used, can be allowed more time to respond. Whatever technology or form of communication used, it is important to realise that the communication must be both reliable and clear in what it is trying to convey.
Different types of organisations including those that provide education have successfully used the idea of remote group working. For instance, many software companies in England are working remotely with programming contractors in India due to their lower labour costs. Regardless of the type of organisation, the structure of the group and the task set to the group, the communication medium used must be appropriate to ensure effective communication which is crucial to successful group working. The right tool for the right job.
The Open University (OU) was formed with the idea that no one should be deprived of an education. The OU's mission statement reads: "The Open University is Open as to people" by "serving a large and diverse student body", "Open as to places" by "making its courses available throughout the world", "Open as to methods" by "using distance teaching methods and new learning technologies to serve home and work-based students", and "Open as to ideas" as it is "dedicated to expansion, refinement and sharing of knowledge" .
In the environment of distance learning, it is very easy for a student to feel isolated or disconnected from his/her tutor and fellow students. In order to achieve successful results for the student, the OU encourages and facilitates communication between tutors and students. Depending on the type of course this can include face to face tutorials, contact by use of media such as email, phone, internet etc. and through thorough and quick feedback given on assignments.
2.1 RESEARCH PROJECT
Some of the OU courses encompass remote group working as part of the course assignments. The OU has funded this project to research into the areas concerned with remote group working. Aims of this study are to determine best practice for group-work and teaching group working skills. The results of this study should help the tutors in their teaching and help students in their group working course assignments by encouraging better group working communication. It is hoped that this will create a healthier community of learning by improving student communication. The benefits to the students will continue after completion of their OU courses, as they will be able to take these group-working skills into their workplaces.
2.2 RESEARCH DESIGN
This research project began in October 1998 and is estimated to be complete by 2001. It will examine the role of communication in group-work in the context of distance education in Computer Science. In previous studies such as the MZX Trials , the OU researched the interactions and participation of students on some of the courses that use computing technology. This project has access to the results of these studies and other `real' teaching situations such as a current M206 course on Object Oriented Design and several other courses that encompass group working. This project will also involve the search for clues to what constitutes `effective communication'. This will enable the researcher to experimentally adjust the communication environment to see if communication has improved. To find these clues the researcher will observe face to face tutorials, question both students and tutors via questionnaires and interviews, and examine actual communication and products.
Thanks to the Open University, England for funding this research project. Thanks also to my supervisors Marian Petre and Mark Woodroffe for their invaluable guidance and to Matthew Hause for his patience and proofreading.
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