Saturday, August 20, 2011

Control Freaks in (Cyber)Spaaaaaaace!

I picked an online program rather than a face-to-face program for a few important reasons. First, simple logistics prevent me from attending daytime classes because of my full-time day job. Similarly, because I don't drive, many night classes are out of range or wouldn't fit into a tight schedule. I'd be tied to my geographical location and might not be able to take vacations, participate in regular rehearsals or performances, or visit family, if I had to attend classes at prescheduled times and places. I also considered my personal working and studying style, which involves several intense, head-down sprints over the course of a project. Ideally I'd be able to work on school assignments when I felt like working -- whether that be 7 PM or 3 AM -- and not inconvenience others. My score on the Online Learning Readiness Assessment was "over 45", so it appears that an online program was the right choice. For something as important as a postgraduate degree, I wished to begin with an environment advantageous to myself.

I didn't, however, consider the factor of teamwork in graduate classes! I'm very glad to realize that -- according to the two presentations assigned to the 203 class -- many others in the program are leery about teamwork, too. I'm also surprised to hear my own prejudices and objections expressed so freely. It seems like all of the folks who were used to doing all the work in their undergraduate groups ended up here!

I'll admit it: I'm a control freak. A focus on efficiency and consistency combined with the drive to seek exceptional results has certainly served me well in the workplace on many occasions, so I don't see it as an altogether bad designation. As a control freak, my initial reaction to teamwork is, as Dr. Haycock mentions, "I can do it better myself!" And if I do all the work myself, it's comfortable. I'm accountable to myself and then eventually to the instructor (or my boss), and I receive all of the credit for the project. If I procrastinate, then it affects only me; when I have to buckle down and work harder or longer to make up for my delay, then I'm the one it inconveniences. As long as I turn in good work by the deadline, in most cases no one else really cares.

Working in a team is not that simple. I have to plan more; I have to set shorter deadlines so that if one person slips up, we don't all lose out. I have to be accountable to the other members of my team, and I can't do everything early, or at the last minute, because my work style and my schedule may not match theirs. I have to take other people into account and make compromises. It takes longer. I can't make them do what I want. I might even have to delegate work that I want done correctly, or give up responsibility in an area that I know I can succeed in. I have to trust that someone else will do the work in a way that meets my standards. For a control freak, that's tough! Without knowing the other group members, thrown together over the length of a semester at most, how can I trust them? The stakes are awfully high.

I think I can assume, however, that the students in my SLIS courses will have certain high standards in common. We all are graded by the standards of our program, and that means we need to earn grades of B or higher in each core class in order to pass. By SLIS standards, that's an 88% or higher. If you add in the requirement of 3.0 minimum overall GPA to remain in the SLIS program (and the 3.5 minimum GPA to receive a scholarship), it seems clear that we're all invested in earning a maximum grade on any group project. We're all starting out on the same side, with one basic goal in common.

I find it unlikely that a group assigned at random, or by a professor or supervisor, or brought together by necessity and/or convenience, can perform well unless we choose to focus a lot of effort on team process. One thing I took away from Dr. Haycock's presentation was that process needs to be out in the open. There are things we can't take for granted or let pass unspoken: we have to discuss goals, expectations, and consequences openly, to keep everyone on the same page. With the extra attention to tone required in virtual communication, it seems like discussion of process could account for most of the additional necessary time projected for online assignments.

I've seen already that the other students in my 203 class are smart people with varied interests and experiences. I'm sure that there are some tasks in any group project that they can do as well as I, or better. In order to make that work for the good of the group, we need to get to know each other's skills and then use them efficiently. If we discuss our goals explicitly at the beginning of the project, then we can divide and delegate work as necessary, and achieve the key function of a team: drawing from the strengths of all members for a result that is better than any one member could accomplish alone.

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