Today's college graduates are entering a world where much of the most dynamic and important work will not be performed in a solitary office or around a physical conference table, but in virtual teams of individuals scattered around the globe. This mode of work, once confined to high-level scientific research, is already the norm in many fields, and it is accelerating quickly in almost every area of human endeavor.
Yet we do very little in our undergraduate curriculums to prepare students for this essential aspect of their future professional lives. Yes, we are incorporating technology into the classroom, and there are also an increasing number of higher education projects that encourage online cross-cultural dialogue. It is beyond obvious that our students live comfortably in the casual give-and-take of the online social media environment.
These interactions, however, lack an important element: the conception, the development and the completion of tangible intellectual products. Our students don’t need to learn how to communicate online -- they need to learn how to work together to get something done. It's producing good work together that is the key, ideally in a way where students each contribute both according to their individual talents and interests and also according to their physical and cultural situations.
The most straightforward way to encourage virtual collaboration is for students to conduct comparative primary research on topics of international importance. Under the guidance of a virtual team of faculty members, students can gather data, share it online, and work together to analyze their findings.
There are countless opportunities for faculty and students from many disciplines to put this into practice. Environmental studies students in Boston, Amsterdam, and Mumbai can gather and combine local data on sea levels and coastal erosion to understand better the effects of global climate change. Business students in San Francisco, Haifa, and Sao Paolo can create comparative case studies of successful entrepreneurship. Theater students in Colombo, Belgrade and New Orleans can compare the use of drama in addressing issues of racial or religious conflict.
In some cases, undergraduate virtual collaborations may produce surprising contributions to scholarly knowledge. In many cases, they may not. In some cases, of course, they will make different interpretations and come to different conclusions. Confronting intellectual disagreement is an important part of the process. And what is most important is that students develop tools that they will be using for many years to come.
Beyond undertaking parallel research projects, students in virtual teams have the opportunity, under the guidance of faculty members, to undertake more complex analyses of major global issues and problems. Our students will be working in environments where they will have to confront and integrate strikingly different perspectives into their ideas and plans for action. Virtual teamwork at the undergraduate level can deepen understanding and encourage them to begin this process early.
Online virtual collaboration involves at least four crucial skills. First, there is simply the skill of working well with others in a collaborative environment. Second, making efficient and effective use of technology to increase and disseminate knowledge. Third, working respectfully and productively across borders and cultural boundaries. Fourth, students who work in virtual teams will be pushed to develop new categories of thought and analysis, made possible through the direct interchange with peers. It is true that we address each of these skills to some extent in other ways, through online coursework and efforts to internationalize our campuses. But we seldom challenge our students to put these skills to use in the service of the heart of their work.
Creating opportunities for product-driven virtual teamwork may sound simpler in theory than it is in practice. The technological tools are readily available, but the development process requires considerable faculty time.
For colleges that send significant numbers of students abroad each year, one model might be to engage those students, scattered in sites around the world, on projects that draw on the very different curricula they are studying and environments in which they are living. The advantage of this model is that faculty members have the opportunity to work face-to-face with the groups both before and after their virtual team experience.
Another model involves establishing strong relationships between faculty members in similar fields at overseas institutions. In this model, students in virtual teams may never have met one another in person, but work together via technology under the direction of the participating faculty. It is likely, however, that this model will work best when faculty members themselves have had substantial opportunities to talk and compare notes in person. After all, faculty members must must work together to develop a framework for student research so that these online interactions are genuinely productive, and not merely a gimmick.
For this reason, virtual teamwork will only become widespread at the undergraduate level if it is strongly supported, giving faculty members the time and the incentive to develop these modules, and in some cases travel resources to establish face-to-face connections that can then be built on in the online environment.
Virtual teamwork cannot and should not simply replace individual intellectual endeavor. But it is a vital component of the production and dissemination of knowledge in the professional world – including the world of faculty research. If we don’t give our students the chance to practice, our curriculums will be needlessly divorced from one of the most dynamic trends of our time.
Daniel Terris is vice president for global affairs and director of the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life at Brandeis University.