My day job for the last year has been working on the creation, launch and development of a new degree programme and (we believe) a new approach to education. It has been a complex task, involving a globally dispersed team (with all the issues of synchronicity, language and culture that brings), significant ambiguity and frequent adjustments. It has been hard work, and has involved many conference calls and periodic gatherings in different parts of the world. However, we have launched and are now working on the next iteration, so things are moving forward.
As a student, I am currently part of a team faced with a design task that is much smaller, but I think almost as complex. We have some written instructions, but little briefing or context. We are using some technology tools unfamiliar to many of us. Our schedules make any synchronous interaction (let alone a meeting in person) impossible, and we are all trying to fit this in around full-time jobs, family and other commitments. Any one of these would constitute a challenge and having all of them together means, I think, having the odds largely stacked against you.
Remarkably enough, we have made some progress on our task and managed to collaborate, which I think means we are doing very well – and I have to acknowledge the Herculean efforts of our team leader here in keeping us moving forward. I have managed to get my head around the website, contribute some of the analysis and in some cases get us started on the next phase of the project. We have been asked to reflect on what we have learned from the process so far, and I would highlight the following:
- It reinforces the value to me of all those meetings and conference calls, time-consuming though they are. They serve to build rapport within the team, gain a common understanding of the tasks and issues, resolve problems and plan next steps. These things can probably be done asynchronously online, but they take much, much longer, and I am still not sure they will ever be done as effectively.
- We have experienced some issues with complexity and reliability of our technology tools. At times, I have recalled a scene in the (excellent) film The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg is calling his business partner Eduardo Saverin, who has cut off funding, meaning that the fledgling Facebook may go offline. “You don’t understand”, shouts an exasperated Zuckerberg, “it can’t go down, not for a second!” I don’t know if it a true scene or not but for me it encapsulates much of Facebook’s genius. Facebook seem to me to understand some principles that so many technology companies don’t – most people do not have lots of time to learn how to use new software and it needs to be 100% reliable (99% is not good enough). Facebook is intuitive to use and reliable, which are key reasons why it is so successful. Some of the tools we have been using are not, and this has caused disproportionate problems, in particular having to spend limited time and focus on technology issues rather than the task in hand.
- Sometimes you need to adjust your metrics. This was a point often made in our previous section in relation to MOOCS, where completion is an often-used but probably inappropriate measure. For this project, I and others are trying to hold ourselves to a standard of producing something we would be happy with in our work. I don’t think that is feasible given our constraints. We just need to produce something that is interesting and sparks ideas. The concept of “good enough” is important.