In 2016 I learned about a conference hosted by Ashoka U, an organization that supports universities in fostering “social innovation” and “changemaking” on their campuses. It sounded fascinating despite the fact that I had no idea what these terms meant. After reading a bit further, I learned that these are relatively new umbrella terms that include elements of social justice and social entrepreneurship. In a nutshell, social innovation in higher education can include any initiative that exposes students to social justice, intercultural collaboration, and concepts like design thinking and business/nonprofit management.
I wasn’t quite sure how all of this might relate to instructional technology, but I had a feeling it could be relevant to the type of online international collaborations we’re establishing at DePaul through our Global Learning Experience (GLE) program. In GLE projects, our students collaborate online with faculty and students at foreign universities, and I’m always on the lookout for ways to help our students collaborate more effectively with peers from different cultural backgrounds. While I can’t fit everything I learned at the conference in a single blog post, I’ve included a few of my favorite lessons below.
Building Empathy for Speakers of Other Languages
At the start of a session titled, “Using Human-Centered Design to Encourage Inclusive, Globally Aware Education,” the presenters asked attendees to introduce themselves to and learn a bit about the person sitting next to them. It seemed like a perfectly ordinary way to start a conference workshop until the presenters added that we’d be doing these introductions without using our native languages.
After taking a few seconds to process this limitation, my neighbor and I began searching for a common language. None of the foreign languages we’d studied overlapped, so we quickly jumped to pen and paper and began drawing. As we drew, each of us spoke in a language that was not native for the speaker and almost completely unknown to the listener.
This simple exercise was a great reminder of the struggles students face when they attempt to collaborate across language barriers. It’s particularly difficult for some American students to imagine what it would be like to communicate without relying on English as a universal language, and I love the idea of having DePaul students engage in this sort of exercise with their classmates before beginning a collaboration with students who don’t speak English as a native language.
Fostering Introvert-Friendly Spaces
I’d describe myself as relatively extroverted, but I also love having an hour or two each day when I can close my office and enjoy focused, quiet time to work alone. During a session on collaborating with introverts, I made note of several practical tips that I’m planning to put to use and share with my colleagues. Some of these tips should also come in handy in the classroom by helping students appreciate their classmates’ unique strengths.
- Cluster meeting times in the morning or at the end of the day. This helps ensure longer periods focused work time with minimal interruptions.
- Don’t neglect one-on-one meetings. As our schedules fill up, it’s easy to cancel one-on-one meetings to make room for things that seem more pressing. It’s important to avoid this temptation because private meetings give introverts a chance to share insights and ask questions they might be reluctant to address in group settings.
- Give everyone time to reflect and prepare before meetings. Large meetings can be stressful and frustrating for everyone, but they’re especially challenging for introverts. Share an agenda and key questions in advance so that attendees have time to collect their thoughts and do their homework beforehand. For many introverts, being asked to respond to a complex question or make a sensitive decision without warning (and in front of an audience) is a waking nightmare.
- Agree on “do not disturb” signs or visual cues everyone can recognize. For instance, how much someone’s door is open might have a specific meaning in your office. Fully open means anyone is welcome to drop in for any reason, nearly closed means please don’t enter if your question can wait until later, and closed means do not disturb unless there’s an emergency. For employees who don’t have private offices, they might wear large headphones to signal that they need time to focus. (Providing noise-cancelling headphones can be a great perk for any employee, especially introverts.)
- Establishing do-not-disturb etiquette and ground rules is a big help for online collaboration, too. If you use online chat and video conferencing tools such as Slack or Skype, take advantage of the settings in these tools that let others know more about your availability. Your status on these systems can often be customized so that collaborators know if you’re available for impromptu meetings, if you’re only chatting with people by appointment, or if you’re only available for urgent questions.
- Take time to validate what introverts do well. In Western culture, we don’t often think of introverts as leaders, but they bring skills to the table that others might lack. For instance, they can:
- listen actively and deeply when others might become bored or try to dominate the conversation
- encourage reflection and generative conversations when others might be too hasty
- co-create long-term solutions rather than focusing on reactive problem solving and dictatorial decision-making
While it’s great to praise all types of students and coworkers for a job well done, extroverts often get more feedback and recognition because they’re more vocal and harder to overlook. Taking time to acknowledge introverts’ strengths does more than simply boost their morale. It can also remind more extroverted members of the value of diversity in collaborative work.