Ashanti Morgan

Get in Sync! 5 Tips to Better Domestic and International Collaborations

Collaborating across the globe is gaining much-needed traction thanks to the accessibility of  technology tools and internet connectivity. While there are some countries that still suffer from digital inadequacies, the proliferation of mobile device and tablet accessibility is changing the game and thankfully, beginning to level the playing field.

Social media and other mediums have shown the humanizing impact that integrating video into a conversation can have that somehow, makes us feel connected to those that we haven’t seen in years and/or live thousands of miles away. And now, other industries are starting to take notice.

The academic and business world as we knew it decades ago is evolving to new heights. With more online courses at the collegiate level increasing to the exponential growth of global virtual conferencing in the workforce, our brothers and sisters around the world are much easier to engage on a regular and consistent basis.

Make no mistake, if you’re going to connect sizeable groups of college students or colleagues in a meaningful and engaging way, it takes time and strategic planning. Unlike social media, in academia, business corporations, healthcare, and other industries, structured and formal real-time (live) video interactions can take weeks, maybe even a month, to execute flawlessly.

Let’s be real, there’s no such thing as “flawless” when you’re dealing with technology. The inevitable Murphy’s Law creeps in just as you think you have it all figured out. But fear not, preparation and contingencies can help with that.

The following five tips are a compilation of my personal experience running dozens of these types of collaborations at universities in the US and abroad. It’s designed to spell out logistical planning and implementation considerations that should be discussed before, during, and after your collaboration.

Step 1 | Timing is Everything

Busy schedules often equate to a small window of time to plan and implement virtual collaborations. If you want a successful implementation, it’s important that you and your partner or team plan, plan, plan!

Here’s a suggested timeline (see table below) from the planning stage to implementation. It’s segmented into three parts, although different parts can be integrated together. At a minimum, I would gauge that with even the most  aggressive timeline, these phases could take up to 3-4 weeks to complete. Being in sync, motivated, and accountable to one another is what counts.

Phase 1: Planning   Phase 2: Testing Phase 3: Implementation
  1. Identify a date to launch
  2. Create an agenda with activities embedded
  3. Decide on a system
  4. Acquire needed equipment
  1. Test connection to system locally  
  2. 1st collaborative test: test system with international partner  – Goals: ensure equipment is working properly, finalize agenda
  1. Test connection to system locally 
  2. Final collaborative test: test system with international partner and several colleagues  – Goals: test all of the integrated features in the system that you plan to use (shared screen using PowerPoint, breakout rooms, etc.) and the different devices and operating system connectivity within the system
  3. Once you’ve finished, be sure to debrief.

Step 2 | Structured Engagement/Pedagogical Techniques  

The activities that you design for the collaboration are what will make or break the experience. In many of the virtual collaborations that I’ve helped design, there’s a pre and post activity or project done online (typically within a blended or online course) that helps frame the web conference experience.

Whether you have an arrangement like this or not, well-crafted and pedagogically sound activities make for engaging outcomes.

Here are some ideas to consider:

  1. Structured agenda: include introductions, itemized agenda, rules of engagement (if there’s a designated Q&A, mute microphone while others are speaking, etc., and spell out system tools and how they’ll be used  – e.g., raise hand, use of whiteboard, chat room, breakout rooms, polling, etc.).
  2. Engaging activities: if the talk isn’t designed to be lecture, be sure to limit the amount one person is conveying information to a maximum of 5, maybe 7 minutes. Break up talking with activities that engage the audience like breakout rooms, whiteboard exercises, or polls to the audience.
  3. Student-to-student interaction: if students are expected to interact one-to-one in the presence of the large group, make sure that they know ahead of time (e.g., come prepared) what the expectations of the interaction should entail. Limit the time each student speaks to 1-3 minutes.
  4. Record and archive: be sure that you record your session so that you have it accessible to reference at a later date, use parts of it for other needs, and provide access to those who weren’t able to be present.

Step 3 | Viable Web Conference Platform

The first step in selecting a solution is flesh out what you need to have a successful collaboration. That will differ from collaboration to collaboration. In a blog that I wrote in April 2016, I addressed a few pertinent things to consider.  

Here are a few of the major characteristics that

  1. Capacity: how many users can the system host simultaneously?
  2. Quality: the audio and visual quality optimal?
  3. Accessibility: is the system accessible on android, windows, iOS, and mobile devices?
  4. What additional features does the system have integrated (e.g., whiteboard, polling, chat, breakout rooms, etc.)?

⏩ Check this out! Wikipedia has an excellent Comparison of Web Conferencing Software chart that includes an extensive matrix of functionality options of 33 software platforms.

Currently, Zoom is the platform that I use to connect faculty in the US with partners abroad. It’s intuitive, little to no issues connecting over 30 unique users, and free of video lag issues. It’s important to conduct your own research, so the URL from Wikipedia above is one of many places to start.

Once you settle on a solution, be sure to review the minimum system requirements (view sample requirements for Zoom).  Since Zoom doesn’t require lots of plugins that novice users cringe at having to load and guest users aren’t required to have an account, it makes incredibly user-friendly. That was one of the primary factors in moving forward with it as our solution.

Audio/Visual Considerations

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a good internet connection, webcam, speakers, and microphone. Without these tools in place, a collaboration that occurs domestically or internationally is bound to have issues.

I extracted a list of webcams, USB speakers and microphone resources from Zoom’s help center (see below). If you conduct a web search for “hi-def webcam comparison” or the same type of search for speakers and microphones, there are a number of organizations that have developed these lists. Be sure to check them out.

⏩ Check this out! The Zoom help center’s list of suggestions HD cameras, USB speakers, and microphones:

HD Camera Suggestions
USB Speakerphone and Microphone
Other Peripherals

Note: Devices support vary with systems. Please test them first.

Step 4 | Connectivity Testing

If you’re planning to connect a conference or classroom full of participants, it’s important to have a team of folks that have predefined roles and responsibilities during the collaboration.

You’ll need a variation of the following:

  • Tech support: plan to have someone that can be reached by phone or email to support users that try accessing the system. Once the session starts, be sure to have someone that can be online to answer any tech related questions that participants pose in the chat area.
  • Facilitator(s): the facilitator’s role is paramount to the success of the synchronous session. This person (or people) plays an integral role in designing an engaging agenda with corresponding activities.
  • Moderator: if possible, it’s always good to have a person that is responsible for keeping everyone on task and moving the agenda along. In some cases, if there’s more than one facilitator, there can be one person serving in the dual role of facilitator/moderator.

When testing the system, make sure all of the major players listed above are present and if possible, include a few colleagues that can help test the environment in different environments.

You’ll want at least one person to use a desktop, laptop, mobile device, and tablet. Additionally, if you have folks using PC vs. Mac and android vs. iOS, that would be optimal. Having a variety of operating systems and device types present during your testing phase helps to proactively understand what end users may experience.

The features of the web conferencing system that you are your partner intend to use should also be tested. Breakout rooms can be especially quirky, so it’s important that you run a pilot of the activity you envision.

The moral of this story, it’s good to conduct a few test runs to ensure that you have a near “flawless” execution on game day.  

Step 5 | Contingency Plan

The blessing–and curse–of technology is that it can often be unpredictable. That being said, having a definitive contingency plan is paramount.

Here are some contingencies to consider:

  1. Backup presentation: If you’re going to conduct a presentation, be sure that the file is accessible and can be easily shared with your partner and students abroad.
  2. Google drive: If you have a Google account, Google drive is a great resource for sharing and interacting in real-time. It would be easy to add a document or presentation into the drive and share it (making it accessible without having to log into the system) with your colleagues. Students in both countries could then see and interact with the environment without having a Google account. Note that some countries block Google, so be sure that it’s available.

    There are other services that are equally effective and have comparable functionality as Google drive, so be sure to look into those options.
  1. Online discussion: If you’re working in a learning management system, social media group, or some other system that enables large group collaboration, set up an asynchronous (not occurring at the same time) discussion area with questions that challenge students to provide substantive responses.

There is a myriad of contingencies that can be set up to mitigate unforeseen technical issues. Be sure to think through what would make the most sense for the type of activities you have planned for your collaboration.

Final Thoughts

After you successfully executed your collaboration, build in time to debrief directly after the session (if time permits) or within 48 hours. It’s imperative to discuss what the facilitators, moderators, and tech support felt worked and didn’t work during the collaboration. The feedback that is collected can be used in the next iteration of your collaboration and/or can be shared with your colleagues looking to administer a similar layout.

The more practice that you and your partner/team have with delivering these types of engagement, the better you become at detecting new ways to make each one better.

Ashanti Morgan

About Ashanti Morgan

Ashanti Morgan is a Senior Instructional Technology Consultant and Program Manager for the Global Learning Experience (GLE) initiative at DePaul University. She also teaches computer productivity courses online as an adjunct professor in DePaul's School for New Learning. Ashanti has been working in the instructional design industry for over a decade in a variety of sectors including higher education, K-12, and non-profit. In her current role at DePaul, she manages faculty training, strategic planning, and global course development for the GLE program, an initiative that exposes students to intercultural exchanges while collaborating virtually with students abroad. She also provides instructional design expertise to faculty in a variety of disciplines across the university. Ashanti earned her master’s degree in Instructional Technology from Northern Illinois University. She also obtained her bachelor’s degree in Organizational & Corporate Communication from Northern Illinois University.

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