Crash and learn

May 23, 2003

To improve their team skills, a group of Sussex University students was asked to design an online prospectus. The task proved to be a painful if informative experience, writes Ann Light

During most of our schooling, and even through undergraduate study, we are praised individually, marked on originality and encouraged to think for ourselves. As a result, group work tends to be viewed as alien, with many students expressing a positive dislike for it.

Yet for most graduates, the ability to function as part of a multidisciplinary team will be an essential skill when they enter the workplace. What has worried us, teaching software design, human-computer interaction and usability at Sussex University, is how to teach that ability. Collaborative skills that students pick up as they rub shoulders are incidental to getting the task done. What is important is the analysis of process.

We decided to run a ten-week compulsory course on working across disciplines and communicating in formal and informal groups. The response was fantastic. Participants included psychologists and computer scientists, plus a few general humanities types. Their course goal was to build a website as an alternative prospectus for potential students. Marks were given for an essay on interdisciplinarity, a diary about each person’s involvement and a short individual presentation.

The first meeting was devoted to how individuals best liked to learn. Students divided themselves into “doers” and “thinkers” before breaking into small discipline-based groups to choose common priorities and concepts.

The remaining eight seminars varied from role-play - reorganising the workplace to get people from different professions talking to each other - to discussions on subjects such as “What makes a good chairperson?”

Once the website was launched in week three, my role was to observe how the students organised, ran meetings and managed the workflow and then to offer advice.

The first thing I stressed was keep a diary, note decisions, however informally, and the reasoning behind them. It is so difficult later to remember later if there is no “paper trail”.

One crucial question I posed to students was how to impose a hierarchy. I was inspired by years of watching teams struggle to work cooperatively and meet their goals. This led to thoughtful conversations about ways of motivating and rewarding work and loyalty. What if the specialists know more than the leader? Is authority absolute or earned? The class can opt to keep a flat structure, but only once they have noticed it and thought about it. Later, they can reflect on how their choices have affected what they do.

One group of 14 students decided they needed two project managers. They argued that two people spread the load, allowed for absence and stopped the possibility of a dictator emerging. Good communication was stressed. Managers were not to bully; they were given permission to impose deadlines and coordinate. They were chosen for their good judgement and even temper - one male, one female. Both were from the hard sciences.

This left someone who wanted to be a manager but who wasn’t chosen. That led to tensions. In the end, the elected leaders found a “difficult and responsible job” to give the individual to assuage some wounded vanity. Everyone assigned themselves a team: editorial, design and production and usability.

I found myself repeatedly acting as management coach. I slowed things down by insisting we reflect on choices of priority so that everyone shared in the managers’ trials. It was frustrating at times watching the students struggle to resolve issues and get a site working. But suddenly it was time to present the site and each person’s contribution to building it. The managers had their hardest job yet - to encourage a bunch of desperate, task-oriented folk to think about what they could say about the development. The dynamics yielded more than enough to fill a diary.

Part of a seminar was devoted to looking at what the process had been, why decisions were made and what students felt were the outcomes. Tired and dissatisfied with the site - there had been no time to make it elegant and usable - the students also talked briefly about the course. It had been an absurd task... they had never worked so hard... but some felt it had been exciting and interesting.

A term later they were still discussing it. Painful, then, but mostly growing pains.

Ann Light is visiting research fellow at Sussex University and editor of Usability News .

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