The Future Soon

It’s an odd connection, but as I sat down to write this post, ostensibly about my preparation for going to grad school online, a song by nerd-folk musician Jonathan Coulton came into my head.  The song itself is licensed, as with all of Mr. Coulton’s work other than covers and works for hire, under a Creative Commons license permitting non-commercial reproduction and derivative works with proper attribution, so I will avail myself of this right and reproduce it here for your edification.

The Future Soon (Lyrics for those who’d prefer to read)

Now, the question you’re probably asking is something along the lines of what this, a glimpse into the mind of a hypothetical nerdy, lovelorn grammar-school upperclassman, has to do with library school.  The answer is probably “not as much as I’ll try to make of it,” but here goes anyhow. What really brought it to mind is the inherently futuristic experience of being a full-time student at a university just a bit shy of being a full seven states away.  I went to high school by mail, nearly a decade ago now, but we didn’t have the level of interactive technologies avaialble in this course of study…there was nothing like Elluminate, fellow students were not heard from, and relationships with faculty members bordered on the parasocial.  In contrast, so far, this looks to be much more like my experiences in college and grad school…exceept computerized.  It is, indeed, the steel and circuits that make our groups whole.

I am no stranger to mediated interpersonal and mass communication – many of my closest friends live far from Chicago or Omaha, and I frequent several discussion fora – but I know from myself and from the lectures we read for 203 that we all feel a bit weak and strange when it comes to small group collaboration online.  It’s certainly easier than if we were doing it through the mail or by telephone, to be sure, but there is still a certain different character to a group where booking a conference room is not an option.  Specifically, my theory is that whatever teamwork weaknesses we may have, whether they are slacking, procrastinating, dominating, politicking, goofing around, and so on, have the potential to be of heightened detriment in the online arena.  As such, we must work perhaps harder than usual to engineer these away.  After all, we don’t need to close our eyes; the future is already here.

Specifically, judging from prior experience and the lectures, we all should be sure to stay on task and ahead of the game, maintain a collaborative outlook, and be sure to remember the tools available to us, particularly Google Docs and Elluminate, which I can see as being of particular value for our assignments.  That said, I’d love to meet all of you in person at some point, even if not for a group meeting, be it commencement, an ALA convention, or simply one of us passing through the other’s town.

As Dr. Haycock stressed in his presentation, effective meetings are key to successful teamwork, though the specific potential issues are dependent on the form the meeting takes.  For example, a drawn-out discussion on a forum will be less likely to have issues with people clowning around, as compared to a real-time meeting, and it is indeed possible that people, by being forced to write their statements, will moderate themselves better when it comes to issues like blocking, power-seeking, undue dominance and tangents, and feuding.  On the other hand, foundering would be more likely in a situation where participants are temporally separated from each other, and on second thought, anyone who has spent much time on discussion fora, and consequently witnessed or participated in a “flame war,” can recognize that only a Pollyanna would think that the written word is impervious to feuding.  Indeed, it is the first phase he identified in team development, that of formation, that potentially poses the greatest concerns in a collaborative distance education environment, as people’s varying schedules could easily lead to a dearth of real-time communication in favor of disjointed conversation on discussion boards or by email.  I suspect that tools like Google Docs are helpful for keeping attention on the task at hand.

Enid Irwin’s presentation touched on similar issues.  She argued on a baser level, however, that the root cause of teamwork anxiety is the uncertainty of lacking control when one is deficient in the requisite skills, enthusaism, and trust for a successful team project — the very things that make us weak and strange when cast into group work.  She argued that the remedies for these weaknesses are thorough discussion, effective use of group communication tools (as opposed to falling back overly on interpersonal emails and phone calls), and remembrance of the essential safety of the environment.  All of these points seem to be on the spot and should be well heeded.  Hopefully, more practice on everyone’s part will vanquish the fear of the unknown that in turn leads to anguish at the lack of control.

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