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Using social media to support online collaboration

Today I presented a session at Teresa MacKinnon’s seminar “Realities of social media in learning and teaching” part of the HE Academy’s Changing the Learning Landscape seminar series – more details at http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/events/detail/2014/24_April_SocialMedia_CLL

Most of my research at the moment is in online collaboration for design, but I wanted to support the seminar, so looked for an overlap between what I’m doing and social media. Online collaboration involves social media, but on reflection I realised the link is closer than that. Social media really forms the safety net for collaborative design.

The argument I was putting forward is that online collaboration can be as effective as offline collaboration as long as trust is maintained in the team. When trust diminishes (usually because one part of the team fails to fulfil allocated tasks) then the difference between online and offline collaborations becomes apparent. If you’re working in an offline team, then you can collar the weaker links in the corridor, or drag them off for lunch, and re-establish the sense of social commitment that underlies most effective collaborations. If you’re working online there are no real ways to do this.

However, research going back to the 1990s shows that trust is developed in online computer mediated communication by socialising, disclosure, joking around. By encouraging usage of social media, then the online teams would have a social recourse to re-establishing trust. However, the students we’ve worked with in online collaboration don’t actually socialise within the groups online. One of the reasons raised by the participants in the workshop was that maybe they don’t want to – which is true – if you’re falling out with someone over work, the last thing you want to do is swap funny cat pictures. However, doing this is (according to the literature) the way to re-establish rapport.

It might seem odd that digitally literate students (and they are) don’t use the communication platforms to socialise. They do create Facebook groups, but these are nearly always purely functional, they are just there to arrange meetings or discuss work. Partly this is because they felt the necessity to maintain a professional demeanour online, since their perception was that this is what you’re supposed to do. With more experience of the world of work, I think it becomes evident that being too professional is counter-productive – peers want to see an authentic online personality. I think another reason, and this was confirmed by the students in the room at the seminar, is that there is a generational difference between people of our generation and those who are younger, one that we see particularly in evidence in virtual worlds. For the middle-aged, we conduct a lot of our relationships online, we have jobs, families, employment patterns mean we’ve moved apart from our peer groups, and so we are comfortable with having online relationships that are solely online. For students who are usually of a younger generation, online relationships are almost exclusively extensions of their face-to-face ones. They usually don’t get to know people only online. They’re not seen as “real friends”. Encouraging students in online collaborations to form these social bonds online therefore can’t be left to chance – the process needs to be scaffolded with activities to facilitate the online socialising process.

There is a link to my presentation on slideshare following. At the moment it won’t let me in because it doesn’t seem to recognise the password that my browser has stored. So either Firefox has let me down on remembering the password, or Slideshare has screwed up my login details. Either way, this technology is not as easy to use as it should be. If I get the reset email (which hasn’t arrived yet, so either my email account is playing sillybuggers or Slideshare is way too slow at sending out my password reset link) then it will appear in my next post.



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