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A cyber-icebreaker for an effective virtual group?

Authors:

Abstract

This paper reports selected results from the most recent of a series of international collaborative trials between students at Auckland University of Technology and Uppsala University. The trials require students to work together in virtual groups, comprising students from each institution, to perform a common task. The topic of this paper is how to form and sustain more effective virtual groups. In this trial a cyber-icebreaker task has been introduced and its contribution to group effectiveness is explored. Some conclusions are drawn pinpointing the strengths and weaknesses of this trial design, and some insights into effective design of electronic collaborative learning groups are gained.
A Cyber-Icebreaker For An Effective Virtual Group?
Tony Clear
Computing Systems & Technology
Auckland University of Technology
Mats Daniels
Dept of Computing Systems
Uppsala University
Auckland
New Zealand
Tony.clear@aut.ac.uk
Abstract
This paper reports selected results from the most recent of a
series of international collaborative trials between students
at Auckland University of Technology and Uppsala
University. The trials require students to work together in
virtual groups, comprising students from each institution, to
perform a common task. The topic of this paper is how to
form and sustain more effective virtual groups. In this trial
a cyber-icebreaker task has been introduced and its
contribution to group effectiveness is explored. Some
conclusions are drawn pinpointing the strengths and
weaknesses of this trial design, and some insights into
effective design of electronic collaborative learning groups
are gained.
1 Introduction
Teaching using electronic collaborative learning groups [1]
is a complex area for research, and many aspects of
effective teaching and learning in such environments are
poorly understood. In this trial a prototype web-based
groupware product [2,3] was used to support teams of
students from two different Universities to jointly perform
a common task. The task required students, who had never
met one another, to collaborate across different time zones,
institutions and country boundaries. In this trial the design
incorporated a cyber-icebreaker task to assist students to
become acquainted with their collaborating partners. This
intervention was intended to improve group effectiveness
and the overall results of the trial.
Uppsala
Sweden
Matsd@docs.uu.se
2 Description of the Trial
The trial described here occurs as the most recent in a
series of international collaborative trials [3,5] using a
custom developed web-based groupware application based
upon Lotus Notes and Domino. Motivations for the
trials include the following:
Authors interest in international collaboration
Enhancing the student learning experience
Developing cross cultural communication capabilities
Transformation of the education process using IT and
collaborative pedagogy
Exploring issues related to groupware
In this trial two sections of students studying an Intelligent
Business Systems course at Auckland University of
Technology were matched with a larger section of
Computer Science students studying Information
Technology at Uppsala University. This involved some 40
NZ and 80 Swedish students collaborating to complete a
common task over a period of some six weeks. Because of
the unbalanced numbers, and the desire to keep group size
small, typically one Auckland subgroup would be matched
with two Uppsala subgroups to create an overall group of
some 12 students. The trial required students to rank three
design proposals posted to a collaborative database by
students from a prior trial, and work together to achieve a
consensus on their rankings at overall group level.
The process consisted of a largely sequential series of steps
supported by online forms and views in the collaborative
application. Students were also free to use the
collaborative software or use standard email to assist them
in this process. The two tasks requiring students to
cooperate to come to a decision were: 1) the process of
selecting an overall group leader and 2) the process of
determining a consensus on their rankings. The table
below excerpted from the instructions given to students
indicates some of the steps and timings involved in the
collaboration.
Session
Date
Time (NZST)
Two Classes
Task
Tuesday
12/09/00
12:00 - 1:00 pm
6:00 - 7:00pm
Individually within your allocated group
enter:
your introductory statement then
your clues
Thursday
14/09/00
6:40 7:00 pm
12:40 - 1:00 pm
Enter your guesses about the
identities of your other group
members based upon their clues
Report week1y progress
(individually)
Tuesday
19/09/00
12:40 - 1:00 pm
6:40-7:00 pm
Complete any further guesses about
the identities of your other group
members
Thursday
21/09/00
6:45 - 7:00 pm
12:45 - 1:00 pm
View team members guesses for
your own statement and score them
Individually score the three design
proposals
Individually rank the proposals
Select a leader for your group
25/09/00
06/10/00
N/A
Mid Semester Break in New Zealand
Tuesday
17/10/00
12:45 - 1:00 pm
6:45 7:00 pm
Achieve final group consensus on
rankings
Conclude and enter final group
rankings
Thursday
19/10/00
12:30 - 1:00 pm
6:30 7:00 pm
complete evaluation forms
Table 1. Key steps in the collaborative trial
Table 1 indicates the steps in the trial, the first key phase
involving the icebreaker task, and the second involving the
ranking task. The purpose of the icebreaker task was to
help students get to know one another, prior to conducting
the main task of the trial.
2.1 The Cyber-icebreaker Task
The steps in the icebreaker task involved students in: 1)
posting an introductory statement, the contents of which
were hidden in a virtual envelope, 2) posting clues to the
content of their own envelopes - as phrases and images, 3)
posting guesses for each of their team members based upon
their clues, 4) scoring the guesses against your own clues,
with these scores being ranked and an overall winner
identified. The steps in this activity occurred serially,
interdependently and asynchronously.
3 Theoretical Frameworks
Several theoretical frameworks inform this analysis, and
they are briefly outlined here.
3.1 Global Virtual Teams
A global virtual team has been defined as a "temporary,
culturally diverse, geographically dispersed, electronically
communicating work group," and comprises teams "[4]
where members may never have worked together before
and may never expect to work together again as a
group."[4] Internationally collaborating groups of students
from different countries as reported in this trial, meet this
definition. The study in [4] addressed the issues related to
developing trust in virtual teams. Communication that
rallies around the project and tasks appears to be necessary
to maintain trust. Social communication that complements
rather than substitutes for task communication may
strengthen trust." [4]
The trust facilitating behaviours and actions are depicted in
the table below.
Communication
Behaviors that
facilitated trust early
in a group's life
Communication Behaviors that helped
maintain trust later in a group's life
Social communication
Predictable communication
Communication of
enthusiasm
Substantial and timely responses
Member actions that
facilitated trust
early in a group's life
Member actions that helped maintain
trust later in a group's life
Coping with technical
uncertainty
Successful transition from social to
Procedural to task focus
Individual initiative
Positive leadership
Phlegmatic response to crises
Table 2: Trust Facilitating Communication Behaviours and Member
Actions (from [4])
The cyber-icebreaker task was seen as a mechanism to
support several of these actions, cf. 4 below.
3.2 Extended Adaptive Structuration Theory (EAST)
This theoretical framework for group decision making in
electronic tele-projects such as these cf. [3,5] proposes a
form of input-process-output model. Output elements from
the EAST model are used as constructs by which to
determine and measure the effectiveness of group and trial
outcomes.
3.3 Activity Theory
A number of factors are suggested in [6] to promote
computer mediated communication (CMC) by helping
users establish a "shared purpose". The rationale for this
account is given by activity theory, which "situates
behaviour within social contexts, via three levels of
description: activity system, action, and operation. The
activity system is the basic unit of analysis of group and
individual behaviour, and comprises a subject (the group or
individual) using tools (including writing and speech) to
pursue an object (a global intention or purpose)".[6] It is
argued that "From an activity theory standpoint shared
purpose is critical to student usage of CMC in a number of
ways."[6] For instance "lack of shared purpose would
indicate the absence of any agreed activity system to
organise and give meaning to joint action" and "shared
perception of the task is at the core of any mechanism for
construing the communications of others and anticipating
their needs".[6]
3.4 Factors Influencing the Success of CMC
Environments in University Teaching
A review of the use of CMC environments in university
teaching [6] concluded that there were eight key factors to
consider. These are depicted in the table below, and the
ideal conditions proposed are contrasted with those actually
in operation in this trial.
Factor
Ideal Condition
1. Size of group
Smaller is better e.g. 6
Approx 12 per group (4
per subgroup)
2. Knowledge of
other participants
Better if participants
know each other
Students unknown to
each other
3. student
experience
Better if students
experienced
communicators under
task conditions involved
Uppsala students novices
Auckland students
novices to specific
database
4. clarity about
task
Better if students
understand how to go
about task, esp. if
understanding is shared
Considerable confusion
about task evident
Need for some facilitator
intervention
5. ownership of
task
Better if students have
the chance to negotiate
what task is to involve
Task predetermined, but
scope to negotiate
aspects of group process
6. Need for
system
Better if there is a clear
function for CMC
which cannot be served
more easily in another
way
Asynchronous
collaboration across time
zones and country
borders required to
complete task
7. Type of
System
System configuration a
critical influence
Prototype system
Group presentation
features[2] need
improvement
8. prior
experience of
CMC
Technical preparation
important
Uppsala students novices
to web based groupware
Auckland students prior
exposure to similar
groupware databases
Table 3: Factors Associated with Successful CMC Use in Higher
Education - Contrasts with this Trial
As can be observed from the table above, there were many
elements inherent in this trial that diverged from the ideal
conditions.
3.5 Activity Theory
A further theory advanced in [6] suggests that the identified
factors above promote CMC by helping users establish a
"shared purpose". The rationale for this account is given
by activity theory, which "situates behaviour within social
contexts, via three levels of description: activity system,
action, and operation. The activity system is the basic unit
of analysis of group and individual behaviour, and
comprises a subject (the group or individual) using tools
(including writing and speech) to pursue an object (a global
intention or purpose)".[6] It is argued that "From an
activity theory standpoint shared purpose is critical to
student usage of CMC in a number of ways."[6] For
instance "lack of shared purpose would indicate the
absence of any agreed activity system to organise and give
meaning to joint action" and "shared perception of the task
is at the core of any mechanism for construing the
communications of others and anticipating their needs".[6]
4 Analysis
The role then of the cyber-icebreaker task was to improve
the performance of the groups, by addressing several
recommendations from the literature above. From 3.1
developing trust by addressing 1) the need for initial "social
communication", and 2) the need to support a "successful
transition from a social to procedural to task focus". From
3.2 by using specific constructs (e.g. task completions and
consensus about decision outcomes) to measure outcome
effectiveness in the analysis which follows below. From
3.3 as groups progress from "social to procedural to task
focus", by attempting to develop a sense of "shared
purpose" within the groups. From 3.4 by addressing the
requirement (table 3 point 2) "Better if participants know
each other".
The following analysis assesses the extent to which the
cyber-icebreaker task has achieved its aims. This has
resulted in the hypothesis that
H1: Successful performance on the cyber icebreaker task
will enhance performance in the overall group ranking task.
The nature of the group/subgroup design generated some
confusion amongst students, so the unit of analysis is
problematic. At times results have been achieved at
individual or subgroup level only, while the goal was for a
consensus on rankings to be achieved at the overall group
level. In the terms of 3.3 above three different "activity
systems" can be seen in operation - at individual, subgroup
and group level.
Overall group outcomes showed mixed degrees of success.
Some groups achieved consensus only at the single
subgroup level and thus their outcomes were scored at 33
percent whereas full group consensus was scored at 100
percent. Outcomes are tabulated below:
Group Number
Group Proposal Ranked
%
Group001
100
Group002
100
Group003
33
Group004
33
Group005
100
Group006
66
Group007
66
Group008
33
Group009
100
Table 4: Group Level Performance on Proposal Ranking Task
(Consensus about Decision Outcomes)
Factors such as student motivation, not covered in this
paper, have also contributed to these variable success rates.
4.1 Regression Analysis
A series of single regression analyses have been run to
indicate to what extent success in steps of the cyber-
icebreaker task are correlated with success in achieving
group rankings.
The constructs defined for the analysis represent a measure
of the outcome of a key step in the trial. For the icebreaker
task these are: Icebreaker statement postings; Icebreaker
clue postings; Icebreaker guesses made; Icebreaker guesses
scored (a measure of the percentage of guesses made
actually scored for each group). For the ranking task,
constructs are: Individual proposals scored; Individual
proposals ranked; Group Leaders assigned (a measure of
the degree to which groups have confirmed their group
leaders); Group proposals ranked (a measure of the degree
of completion and consensus about decision outcomes
achieved by each group) - the dependent variable.
While the regression analysis indicated increasing degrees
of correlation between success in subsequent steps in the
icebreaker and ranking processes and the eventual outcome
(Group Proposals Ranked), for most steps these
correlations were not statistically significant. Probable
causes for this initial lack of correlation are mixed degrees
of completion of different stages, and the confusion
between individual and group level entries. For instance in
the group ranking task sequence the R2 value for individual
proposals scored is higher (.366) than that for the
subsequent individual proposals ranked (.194), although
not statistically significant. In some cases students had
been observed during the in-class sessions making joint
entries on behalf of the subgroup, instead of individual
entries as required by the task.
Two constructs however did correlate highly with
successful overall performance. These came from single
regression analyses between
1) Icebreaker guesses scored and Group proposals
ranked resulting in a standardised beta coefficient of
.767 at a .016 significance level
2) Group Leaders assigned and Group proposals ranked
resulting in a standardised beta coefficient of .721 at a
.028 significance level
The first of these correlations does lend support to our
hypothesis:
H1: Successful performance on the cyber icebreaker task
will enhance performance in the overall group ranking task.
This encouraging result does indicate that there is value in
using a cyber-icebreaker task. The sheer number of student
postings (approx 100% completion rates on statement and
clue postings, dropping to approx 25% for guesses) further
supports this. Nonetheless the design of the icebreaker task
had several flaws, which detracted from its value. Initially
there was a flurry of postings from students and a real sense
of excitement and engagement in the task, but the need to
refer to statements and clues by codes rather than author
names caused confusion at the guessing and scoring stages
of the task. The response delays inherent in the
asynchronous trial situation also seemed to cause a loss of
momentum in the trial. A further weakness in the
icebreaker design related to group size, and the sheer
number of postings that needed to be made when entering
guesses (in a group of 12 there would be 11 guesses to
enter if all students had entered clues). This would need
reconsidering in a future iteration, as the effort involved in
the icebreaker task could swamp the main purpose of the
trial.
Responses from student evaluations were mixed:
"The initial enthusiasm generated by chatting up strangers went
well. The icebreaker was a good ploy to get people talking about
things other than the trial itself. The tone of conversations set by this
relaxed and informal manner made it easy to work with the assigned
group."
"the Ice-Breaker Game, I believe was a fuzzy part of the whole
assignment…was a mess, I didn't like it"
What went well: "Maybe the cybericebreaking game, when we at last
realized how it worked, but I don't think we got to know each other
by doing that"
5 Conclusion
In the complex areas of international collaborative learning
and web based groupware, the questions related to forging
effective virtual groups are still being asked let alone
answered. This trial with a cybericebreaker task has shown
that an introductory exercise such as this, can improve the
effectiveness of virtual groups. Determining how best to
incorporate an icebreaker task in virtual group formation,
and key elements of cyber-icebreaker design are questions
for further study.
Acknowledgments
The cyber-icebreaker task was developed based upon a
concept originally suggested by Elyssebeth Leigh from the
University of Technology at Sydney.
References
[1] Fåhræus E, Chamberlain B., Bridgeman N., Fuller U.,
Rugelj J., (1999), Teaching with Electronic
Collaborative Learning Groups in ITiCSE Working
Group Reports, SIGCSE Bulletin, ACM Press New
York pp 121 - 128
[2] Wheeler B., Dennis A., Press I., (1999), Groupware
Comes To The Internet: Charting A New World, The
DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems,
30;3&4 Summer - Fall, pp. 8 -21
[3] Clear T., Daniels M., (2000), Using Groupware For
International Collaborative Learning, Proceedings of
the 30th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education
Conference 2000, IEEE, October 18-21, Kansas,
Missouri, pp. FIC 18 - 23
[4] Jarvenpaa S., Leidner D., (1998), Communication and
Trust in Global Virtual Teams, Journal of Computer
Mediated Communication, 3; 4
[5] Clear, A., (1999), International Collaborative Learning
The Facilitation Process, ED-MEDIA Conference
Proceedings - Addendum, June 19 -24, 1999, pp. 1759
- 1764, Seattle, Washington
[6] Tolmie A., Boyle J., (2000), Factors Influencing the
success of computer mediated communication (CMC)
environments in university teaching: a review and case
study, Computers & Education, 34, pp 119-140
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International collaborative learning is becoming more viable through a variety of Internet enabled software products. Group Support Systems appear to offer promise. But it is not well understood how to facilitate the teaching and learning process in electronic environments. If education is to involve an interactive process of collaborative inquiry and dialogue between remote groups of learners, then designing meaningful learning experiences presents challenges in logistics, technology support, software design, and pedagogy. To better model the facilitation process in such environments, a theoretical framework based on an extension of Adaptive Structuration Theory is suggested. This framework is then related to experiences with custom application software development using Lotus Notes Domino(TM), internal trials and a limited scale collaborative learning exercise between students at Auckland Institute of Technology and Uppsala University. The paper concludes by providing some recommendations for the redesign of the application, suggesting revisions to the collaborative process based on the framework presented, and discussing further extensions to the trials.
Groupware Comes To The Internet: Charting A New World, The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems
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Groupware Comes To The Internet: Charting A New World, The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems, 30;3&4 Summer -Fall
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Wheeler B., Dennis A., Press I., (1999), Groupware Comes To The Internet: Charting A New World, The DATABASE for Advances in Information Systems, 30;3&4 Summer -Fall, pp. 8 -21
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Clear T., Daniels M., (2000), Using Groupware For International Collaborative Learning, Proceedings of the 30 th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference 2000, IEEE, October 18-21, Kansas, Missouri, pp. FIC 18 -23