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Category: Research
Teaching and Learning Forum 2006 [ Refereed papers ]
Helping or hindering: Students' use of collaborative technology in group projects

Goce Simonoski and Peter Dell
School of Information Systems
Curtin University of Technology

Collaborative technology skills are valuable both in the workforce and for students at college or university. Considerable research into the use of collaborative technology between students and lecturers or teachers has been conducted, yet very little is known about how students use collaborative technology among themselves to support group projects. Email and chat services are the only collaborative technologies generally used by students in order to overcome time and distance barriers. Both applications are used to less than anticipated, however, and are perceived unfavourably by students in comparison to face to face meetings.


Introduction

Collaborative technology allows multiple users to work on a single or multiple tasks, even though they may be separated by time or distance (Yu and Yen, 2000; Lerouge et al., 2004). Collaborative technology is now widely used throughout the world and plays an important role in business, particularly in distributed or global organisations (Hawryskiewycz, 2005). Further, growth in the use of such technology is likely to continue as access becomes easier, and as costs continue to decline (Baker, 2002).

Collaborative technology is also widely used in educational institutions, and has been since at least the 1960s (Woolley, 1994). Its use in education can be both imposed by the institution, such as in online learning environments, and spontaneous, such as when students adopt it to support group assignments.

Given the prevalence of collaborative technology, it is important for university students to develop skills in its use to support their education while at university, and to support their careers when they leave university. Clearly, there is a need for universities and other education providers to identify which collaborative technologies their students are familiar with. Further, it is beneficial for education providers to understand how students use these technologies, if such technologies are to support students' education.

Types of collaborative technology

Electronic mail

Electronic mail as developed in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson under Arpanet, the predecessor to today's Internet. Email today is largely unchanged; various new features have been added, such as the ability to attach files and the ability to format messages in HTML, but overall the purpose of email is the same - sending text based messages from one person to another via a computer network.

However, while the service itself is largely the same, the way in which email is used has changed over time. Originally, email was only accessible from computer terminals connected to large, multiuser computer systems, typically in the user's office or in a computer laboratory. Today, email can be checked from devices as diverse as a computer in an Internet cafe or a mobile phone.

Email is generally a free service and only requires a user to have access to the Internet. Employers routinely provide email access for employees, and universities similarly provide access to students. Such accounts usually restrict the number and size of messages that can be stored, and students usually look elsewhere for access to an email service that provides a larger storage capability, possibly at some monetary cost.

Learning to use email is straightforward and email can be mastered very quickly, however it can be a problematic means for collaboration. For example, response times can be slow, as recipients may not receive messages immediately; it is not uncommon for responses to email to take hours or days. Further, collaboration between more than two users can be difficult, as sending messages back and forth to many users can become confusing.

Conferencing

Conferencing technologies are a diverse range of applications, including text based conferencing tools such as chat services, more sophisticated videoconferencing services, and other variations such as document conferencing.

Chat services are by far the most widely used conference tool; the first chat application to become widespread was IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which was launched in 1988. Chat has similar features to email, although while email is designed for asynchronous use, chat services are synchronous and require all users to be logged in at the same time. While this may create greater inconvenience than email, it eliminates problems with response times, and allows chat services to be more easily used by a number of users.

Chat services also allow users to send documents to one another, although in contrast to email, storage is on the user's personal computer, and unlike email is not provided by the service itself. Chat services are generally free, but some services that offer more features are available for a fee. Chat can be a powerful tool to support collaboration over distances, but it can also be used for idle chatter between students.

Video conferencing systems are less widely used than text based chat services, although are increasing in popularity. A wide range of services is available, from the high end systems often found in corporate boardrooms, to low cost systems based on cheap cameras attached to personal computers.

While not as common, video conferencing is becoming increasingly popular, however, and the increasing availability of low cost cameras and broadband connections, as well as the development of video capabilities for mobile phones, may serve to increase the level of video conferencing in use.

Document conferencing is a third type of conferencing that allows users to collaborate on a document from different locations. Typically, the document is open on each user's screen and both users can edit the document at once. This type of application often incorporates a text based chat or video conferencing service, allowing users not only to work on the same document, but also communicate with one another as they do so. However, such services are not in widespread use in comparison to chat or videoconferencing applications.

Instant/short message services

Instant Message (IM) services, and the Short Message Service (SMS) provided by all mobile phone networks, are similar to chat services, although typically provide a facility to send short, private text based messages between individual users. These services do not provide a public forum; that is, while in chat services all users can see the comments of all other users, IM services typically only support one to one interaction.

IM services are generally free, as long as the user already has access to the Internet. SMS services, on the other hand, generally involve a small cost for each message that is sent. Further, while IM services often provide a rich array of features such as the ability to exchange files, SMS provides only a very basic message service due to the limited capability of mobile phone handsets. Variations on SMS that allow the transmission of pictures are available from a number of mobile phone networks, however these are not as widely used as SMS.

Discussion services

Discussion services include message fora such as Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) and Usenet newsgroups, as well as a wide range of websites that provide such capability. Discussion groups combine the features of email and chat services; like email they are asynchronous, but like chat services they provide a public forum for large numbers of users to participate in discussions. Discussion services are often free, although commercial services also exist. Universities often provide and encourage the use of discussion fora by students, and online learning environments such as WebCT and Blackboard include such facilities.

Whiteboards

Whiteboards are a type of collaborative tool that allow users to create and discuss topics and graphics in real time. Users need to have the whiteboard software installed on their computer to participate. Such software is not as widespread as email or chat applications, and while email and chat applications are often available for free, whiteboard software packages are often commercial software. It is likely for this reason that while they may be more supportive of collaboration than other tools, whiteboards are not as widely used.

Benefits of collaborative technology

A key benefit of collaborative technology is that it eliminates the need for team members to be in the same location to work together - users can be in the same room or on different sides of the world (Majchrzak et al., 2000). This is extremely beneficial for multinational or global organisations and for companies that have been arranged in a distributed structure (Baker, 2002).

Similarly, collaborative technologies often facilitate time shifting, allowing users to collaborate even though they may not be able to arrange a mutually agreeable meeting time. Email and discussion systems are particularly suitable for this purpose. This characteristic is not only beneficial to professionals; students can benefit as well. It is often rare for students working on a group project to have identical timetables, and thus it is often difficult for all group members to be in the same location at the same time.

The ability to easily share data, information and knowledge is another benefit that collaborative technology offers. This can lead to increased levels of communication and thus improved decision making and idea generation (Jones and Kochtanek, 2002).

Further, knowledge management can be greatly improved by the use of collaborative technology as documents can be kept in a standard format and central location that all users can access. Users can have access to the latest version of projects in a secure environment, which can be accessed from anywhere, at any time. This can avoid sending large files over email which can be time consuming and insecure (WorkZone, 2005).

Criticisms of collaborative technology

Collaboration - working with others to achieve a common goal - requires communication between team members. Merely transmitting messages between one another is not sufficient; communication between collaborators must allow them to come to a shared meaning and strategy (Baker, 2002).

A common criticism of collaborative technology is that while it may provide advantages such as those described above, it hinders the development of such shared understandings as a result of removing non-verbal information such as body language and voice intonation. Adherents to this school of thought argue that collaborative technology is not a substitute for face to face communication (Lisetti and Bianchi, 2002). A number of theories in this tradition, termed "Cues Filtered Out" theories (Walther et al., 1994; Lamerichs, 2003) have predicted such technologies lead to negative outcomes such as poorer decision making, and impersonal and hostile communication (Kim, 2000; Schultze, 2002; Hancock and Dunham, 2001; Kraut et al. 1998).

However, such theories have not been supported by empirical research (Szlichcinski, 2001; Matzat, 1998; Coleman et al, 1999). Rather, computer mediated applications such as chat services and email can be "rich and nuanced" (Wellman and Hampton, 1999), and can even lead to "hyperpersonal" interactions (Walther, 1996; 1997).

Another criticism of collaborative technology is that the learning curve required to use the tools is steep. The amount of effort required to learn how to use a tool varies according to the complexity of the technology and the range of features provided. Users do not always have time to waste learning new software, and not everybody is confident with technology (Lerouge et al., 2004). Many people also fear change and provide resistance to any change that will affect their routine, especially when it comes to technology - even if it may make their job easier.

Before implementing collaborative technology factors such as cost, implementation time and possible benefits have to be considered. It can also be difficult to introduce collaborative technology without creating the impression it has been imposed onto users; just because the technology works and is available does not mean that people will use it. (Lerouge et al., 2004; Jones and Kochtanek, 2002).

There is also the risk that users will dominate the system, exerting undue influence over discussions (Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Tyran and Shepherd, 2002; Herring, 1996; Shandor, 1995). In an educational context, this can be the case when students from different cultures use the technology (Caspersz et al., 2004).

Further, reliability can also become an enormous disadvantage if a project is completely reliant on a collaborative technology, as system downtime can lead to work coming to a halt. This can be a high risk when it comes to deadlines and requirements being met. (Lerouge et al., 2004).

Students' use of collaborative technology

Students' use of collaborative technology while at university should prepare them for the workforce by allowing them to familiarise themselves with the different forms of electronic communication they will encounter in employment (Neufeld and Haggerty, 2001). To achieve this, students must use the technology appropriately. If it is misused its purpose and benefits are likely to be negated.

However, previous research has suggested that students often abuse computerised tools (Fowler et al., 2004). While the tools assessed by Fowler et al. are not in the same category as collaboration technology, it is likely that similar problems exist. While students may be familiar and comfortable using many collaborative tools such as email and chat services, they may not be using them for study related purposes. Recreational electronic communication is different to specific work related communication, and factors such as the intensity of the communication and the time available to communicate add strain and create a different communication experience.

While universities should be preparing students for the workforce, including the development of collaboration skills using relevant technologies, little is known about the ways in which students use these technologies amongst themselves. Research has focused on teacher - student uses of the technology and the effects it has on learning. (see Ladyshewsky, 2004; Hayen et al., 1999; Vician and Brown, 2001; Lewinson, 2005; Dixon et al., 2005; Hughes and Hagie, 2005; Marks et al., 2005).

This study

This paper begins to address this gap in the research by examining the ways in which undergraduate business students use collaborative technology to support a major industry project undertaken over two semesters in their final year of study. Groups generally range in size between three and five members, and the project is typically the largest they will attempt during their degree.

The project is technical in nature and requires the students to develop a custom software application for a client organisation. The entire process is managed by the students, from initial design of the application in consultation with the client, through to implementation and installation. While not a formal requirement of the project, each group nearly always uses collaborative technology to support their work processes.

The aim of the research is to determine which collaborative technologies student groups use to communicate when working on and organising group projects. Further, this research seeks to understand the reasoning behind the use of those technologies.

A survey of was conducted of one cohort of students completing the project described above. Students that took part in the survey were in either in their final semester of study or had just completed the unit. It must be noted that the sample size of this study is small - there are only 33 students in the cohort being studied. While the response rate was 24%, the small sample size precludes rigorous statistical analysis of the survey results. However, as the purpose of this research is largely exploratory, that is, to reveal likely patterns and issues in students' use of collaborative technology that can then be examined further in later research, the sample size does not render the project meaningless.

The survey was followed by interviews with a small number of students to explore in more detail the issues raised by the survey. Each student interviewed had completed the unit the previous year. Email was chosen as the medium via which to conduct these interviews as it allowed respondents time to reflect on their answers before replying, and had the practical advantage of not requiring the interviews to be transcribed.

Analysis and discussion of results

Students appear to have a high level of access to some collaborative technologies - 100% of survey respondents had access to email, and most (87.5%) had access to SMS and chat services. No students reported access to whiteboard technology. Interestingly, while the university studied provides all students with an email address, only 50% of students claimed to have access to a university email address.

This suggests that a large proportion of students at the university in question either choose not to use the university provided email address, or simply don't know about it. Interviews revealed that the former explanation is likely; students do not use their university provided address for any significant work, and prefer accounts provided by other systems such as Hotmail, Yahoo or GMail. Such systems have greater range of features, and are also preferred over university addresses because students will continue to be able to use third party services after completing their studies.

Yet while access to collaborative technology is high, this does not necessarily translate into high levels of usage. Although most (87.5%) respondents reported that their timetables were dissimilar, and three quarters of respondents reported difficulties arranging group meetings, the opposite was found for arranging group meetings mediated by collaborative technology, yet 100% of respondents indicated this was not difficult. This corroborates the widely held belief that one of the key advantages of collaborative technology is its ability to connect people in circumstances where the arrangement of face to face meetings is difficult.

However, respondents reported that on average, groups conduct four face to face meetings per week, yet electronic meetings were conducted on average only twice per week. Most respondents (87.5%) reported using collaborative technology to contact group members at least 50% less often than meeting face to face. This suggests that while students may find electronic meetings easier to arrange, they prefer face to face meetings. This finding was supported by comments made in the interviews; students expressed that they preferred human contact and felt a deeper understanding after a face to face meeting, and that electronic meetings could not communicate aspects such as body language. As one interviewee stated, "electronic meetings are easier to arrange and carry out but it's not easy to make decisions."

Curiously, this aspect of the students' perspective on the use of collaborative technology mirrors the earlier Cues Filtered Out theories that have been largely abandoned by theorists and scholars. While empirical evidence tends not to support such theories, the students' experience does. One possible explanation is that it takes considerable time for technologically mediated interactions to communicate the same degree of information as face to face interaction (Walther, 1996; Hancock and Dunham, 2001). It may be the case that in the limited time of a student project, mediated communication does not reach the same level of effectiveness.

Another factor that may influence students' perception of collaborative technology is their choice of which collaborative technologies to use to support their teams. 100% of survey respondents cited email as the technology they valued most. The only other technology that received widespread support was YahooGroups (75% of respondents). Other collaborative technologies are largely ignored by students. If students rely mostly on asynchronous technologies such as email and discussion lists it is likely that their perception of the tools as less personal would be amplified.

While reports in the literature suggest that collaborative technology is prone to domination by individual team members, three quarters of survey respondents claimed that this was not a problem in their use of email. Further, nearly all (87.5%) reported that they were happy with the way their group used email. All respondents found response times to be at least satisfactory, and all reported that email was easy to learn and use. The interviews revealed that email is typically used by students for organisational purposes such as arrange meetings and allocating duties, and for sharing data. It is not used by students to discuss issues or topics relevant to their project; rather, face to face interaction is preferred for this purpose.

Further, the interviews reveal that students prefer face to face meetings as they increase the level of productivity and allow more members to participate. Students' confidence levels influence the decision to use or to avoid electronic meetings; students with low confidence using collaborative technology prefer face to face meetings. This verifies the assumption that confidence with technology leads to greater usage levels of that technology, even to the point of pathological over use (Morahan-Martin and Schumacher, 2000; Lerouge et al., 2004).

All survey respondents reported familiarity with SMS. Most (87.5%) respondents stated they were satisfied with the way their group used SMS. All respondents reported the response time for SMS to be least satisfactory, and three quarters of respondents reported quick response rates to SMS communications. All respondents found SMS to be easy to learn and used it for arranging face to face meetings. It was not generally used for any other purpose.

Chat services were extremely popular among respondents for personal use and nearly all (87.5%) respondents reported using chat systems. Of those respondents who do use chat services, all reported using this technology fairly and equally throughout the group when using it for work related purposes. That is, specific group members did not dominate group discussions mediated by chat services. As with email, these contradicts previous findings that users could overpower discussions and censor other participants (Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Lisetti and Bianchi, 2002; Herring, 1996; Shandor, 1995). Students typically use chat services in conjunction with email services. While email is used to coordinate activities and arrange meetings, to the extent that it is used at all, chat is used as a substitute for face to face meetings. Thus, email is used to arrange chat sessions. Further, interviews revealed that students appreciate the storage facility of email, and find the lack of such a capability in chat systems to be a shortcoming. Thus, email is used to take advantage of its storage facility, while chat is used to communicate synchronously as a group while overcoming time and distance barriers.

A majority of survey respondents (75%) reported preferring face to face meetings rather than the use of chat services. Interviews clearly supported this perspective, with all interviewees stating that they felt unproductive when using chat services for work related activity. A key driver for this perception is that chat is primarily used for students for recreational purposes, and interviewees expressed concern that group members would be distracted by non-work activity while using chat services.

This is perhaps unfortunate, as chat services offer features that face to face meetings do not, such as logging of dialogue and the ability to transfer electronic data. The majority of work completed during the project is electronic and may be difficult to distribute or collaborate on during face to face meetings. It may be desirable for educational institutions to provide access to chat style services for students to collaborate electronically without the distraction that comes with third party chat services.

Perhaps surprisingly for students in a technology oriented degree, interviews revealed that students generally have little or no experience using collaborative technology for work related purposes before commencing the final year project. The scale of the final year project practically requires the use of collaborative technology, thus for most students the decision to use it comes as a result of necessity rather than choice. This provides another possible explanation for students' preference for face to face meetings. As has already been suggested, users will avoid using a technology for a particular purpose if they lack confidence in doing so.

A third possible explanation revealed in the interviews is that students felt incapable of expressing themselves thoroughly in chat services. This is surprising, given the level of experience students generally have using chat services for social purposes, and considering that the many reports in the literature on the use of paralinguistic communication to enrich computer mediated communication (Chenault, 1998; Campbell and Wickman, 2000; Hard, 2000; Noblia, 1998). One possible explanation is that language barriers between students from different cultural backgrounds inhibit their ability to communicate effectively in an environment that relies exclusively on language. Students may also experience inhibitions in expressing emotional content in a chat services when the context is work related activity. As one interviewee reported, "I am unable to type me feelings and thoughts on an issue in the chat session". While computer mediated communication in general has a reputation for allowing users to discuss emotional content more openly (Rosson, 1999; Garton et al., 1997), in work related settings there may be fear of repercussions should one become emotional. Thus, while collaborative technology may allow greater emotional disclosure in social usage, in business usage this is less likely to occur.

Recommendations

To increase the level of meaningful and productive collaboration between students, universities need to alter the structure to include collaborative technology. As the research has shown, students are familiar with the various technologies and benefits they can provide users. However students were unable to harness the potential benefits of the available technologies. Universities can counter this by embedding collaborative technology through out the degree so students are able to build their confidence and familiarity in preparation for the workplace. Universities can also offer extra-curricular programs that provide students with training and support to get the most out of collaborative technology. By following these recommendations students can be taught how to avoid misusing the technology and increase their familiarity and confidence which in turn reduces their hesitation towards the technologies and helps lower cultural barriers.

Conclusions

This study has identified the coordination and organisation of tasks as the main purpose for which students use collaborative technology to support group projects. It appears that the majority of students do not use collaborative technologies to facilitate discussion or to support decision making, despite the technology having these capabilities. Students prefer face to face meetings for work related communication as they can develop deeper, shared understandings than is possible in electronically mediated environments.

Further, this study has revealed that for students, collaborative technology is not a functional replacement for face to face interaction. Although students believe the technology can be used as a replacement for face to face meetings, they still favour face to face interaction over electronic communication. Students generally recognise the potential benefits of collaborative technology but are hesitant to commit themselves to using it.

Flaherty et al. (1998) make this same point in a more general sense when comparing Internet communication with face to face interaction; in general, people use computer mediated communication as a means for escape, out of habit, or to enable time shifting. The first two of these reasons are more relevant to social internet use than to task oriented group work. Nevertheless, time shifting is a clear motivating factor, if not the motivating factor, behind students' use of collaborative technology to support group projects.

Students generally have considerable knowledge and experience in using collaborative technology; however they still have difficulty using the technology for work related tasks. In particular, students have generally extensive experience using chat services for social interaction, yet this can lead to misuse of the technology when conducting electronic meetings. This leads students to avoid the technology, thus failing to take advantage of the potential capabilities of chat services.

Language and cultural differences between students may also hinder the effectiveness of their use of collaboration technology, and reluctance to express emotional content online may lead students to favour face to face interaction over technologically mediated interaction for work related tasks.

Students' level of collaborative technology use was less than expected. This is due to their own preferences and unfamiliarity with the technology and not because of the technology's limitations. To assume that limitations of the technology alone are barriers to its adoption is a naive view that overlooks students' attitudes to technology.

For educational institutions to fail to recognise how students relate to the tools they are expected to use can only hinder students' ability to complete the tasks expected of them. By becoming aware of the issues students face when using collaborative technology, institutions can develop strategies to allow students to get the most value out of the tools available.

Further research

The findings from this research are surprising and appear to contradict existing literature in some instances. This may be due to the small sample size in this study. However, the possibility that current beliefs about collaborative technology may be wrong deserves further investigation.

Further research is also required into the ways in which students autonomously use collaborative technology, independent of the supervision and controlling influences of their teachers and lecturers. The ways they use the technology are not necessarily the most efficient, and do not necessarily lead to the best outcomes. As education providers continue to promote the use of collaborative technology, and as the business community continues to require such skills, greater understanding of this issue needs to be developed in order to better prepare graduates for working life.

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Authors: Goce Simonoski is an honours student at Curtin University of Technology. His research interests include collaborative technology and online learning applications.
Goce Simonoski, School of Information Systems, Curtin University of Technology, GPO Box U1987, Perth Western Australia 6845. Email: goce777@hotmail.com

Peter Dell is a lecturer at the School of Information Systems at Curtin University of Technology. His research interests include a range of social and technical aspects of computer networks, particularly computer mediated communication.

Please cite as: Simonoski, G. and Dell, P. (2006). Helping or hindering: Students' use of collaborative technology in group projects. In Experience of Learning. Proceedings of the 15th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 1-2 February 2006. Perth: The University of Western Australia. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2006/refereed/simonoski.html

Copyright 2006 Goce Simonoski and Peter Dell. The authors assign to the TL Forum and not for profit educational institutions a non-exclusive licence to reproduce this article for personal use or for institutional teaching and learning purposes, in any format (including website mirrors), provided that the article is used and cited in accordance with the usual academic conventions.


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Created 26 Jan 2006. Last revision: 26 Jan 2006.