I am an American professor teaching Business Communication at Mainz University of Applied Sciences, Germany. For several years I have been engaging my German students in global virtual teams (GVTs) projects together with colleagues in the United States, Scotland, and Portugal. More recently, I have joined my classes in Virtual Business Professional (VBP) projects, which have been coordinated by USC Marshall School of Business and involve over 650 students from 14 universities in nine countries.
These projects generally take place over the course of six weeks and are embedded in the course curriculum. Students are randomly placed in groups of 5 to 6 of mixed nationalities. Using digital communication channels and collaborative platforms such as Slack and Zoom, they research and collaboratively produce a report on their findings.
The students have been given pre-project and post-project surveys in order to investigate whether virtual team projects involving students from different countries increase their intercultural competencies. The questions concerning intercultural competence are based on the Intercultural Sensitivity scale created by Arasaratnam (2009) and the Intercultural Communication Competence scale developed by Chen & Starosta (2000). Furthermore, students replied to qualitative questions on their feelings towards the project and whether they feel the project has offered them valuable skills for their future employment.
The findings have shown that students experience a heightened awareness of cultural differences and the need to adapt their behavior when engaging with people from a different culture. However, students also displayed less enjoyment in dealing with people of another culture (Swartz et al, 2019). Reactions from students at the start of projects have generally shown fear of working with people they do not know, anxiety about the impact on their grades or insecurity when using digital channels that they are unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, almost all students recognized the value of GVTs projects for their future careers, found that altogether it was a valuable experience and would look forward to more of such projects in the future (Swartz et al, 2019).
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual teams projects were an anomaly at my university. Colleagues expressed their appreciation of these efforts but were reticent to incorporate them into their own courses. Although I teach at a School of Business, tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams or Zoom were not utilized in or outside class. The general consensus was that education requires synchronous lectures. Little thought was given towards preparing students for the global workplace where remote work is replacing the colocated workforce.
On a Friday afternoon, three days away from the start of the new semester, the state board of education informed us that the university would be shutting down and all courses would go online for at least the next five weeks. Suddenly colleagues, for whom online instruction meant uploading files to the university LMS, were faced with having to go completely digital. There was a scramble for Zoom tutorials, our IT department was flooded with so many requests they had to adopt a ticket system, and colleagues who were more computer savvy were suddenly in high demand. Within two weeks, professors, adjuncts and administrators were entirely online. And so were their students.
Students were faced with greater hurdles than before. First, the necessary hardware needed to be acquired: laptops, headsets, webcams and additional software. Suddenly their student dorms became classrooms, offices and bedrooms. Classes were held via Zoom with quizzes online. Students had to deal with additional papers and PowerPoint presentations with voiceovers. On top of this came the uncertainty: how is my participation going to be noticed, what do I do if the professor insists that all cameras be on but I don’t have one, how do I access books if the library is closed, or what will the final exam look like?
Once the colleagues got accustomed to the new teaching method, more challenges emerged as the fifth week came and went and it became clear that the semester would probably remain online. Questions arose concerning data privacy and adherence to the EU Data Protection Directive. Should cameras be on or off? How can equal treatment be ensured if students cannot afford the same equipment? How can online exams be assessed and how can cheating be prevented? What other forms of evaluating students can be utilized if exams are not realistic?
By the start of the semester, two of my courses had been set up to begin as GVTs projects. As part of the elective Working in Multicultural Teams, German and Erasmus students collaborated with students taking a Social Media Marketing course at Coastal Carolina University. Utilizing Slack and Zoom over the course of four weeks, the students researched the market entry of a brand into Germany and presented their recommendations in the form of a powerpoint presentation with voice over. The presentations together with a debriefing composed 40% of their grade. My colleague from CCU and I created a grading roster and evaluated the presentations together in a zoom conference.
The VBP project involved my Media, IT and Management students and proceeded over the course of six weeks, culminating in a written report, which was marked by several professors from participating universities across the globe. The project resulted in 40% of the final grade for the course. Successful completion of the project was rewarded with a badge, which could be uploaded to LinkedIn.
What would have previously caused anxiety to a seated class became a natural course of events during the pandemic. When all classes were taking place in a virtual realm, where students and professors interacted in zoom rooms and shared screens took the place of blackboards, why would a virtual teams project be out of the ordinary? Data privacy and compliance with EU regulations were already guaranteed through consent forms created in conjunction with the data security officer at university. Alternative evaluations of students occurred through collaborative reports written with the help of Google docs and presentations held asynchronously with PPT or screencast software. Regular updates and collective grading sessions on Slack and Zoom ensured fairness. And not only did students gain knowledge of the subject, but they acquired skills in language, intercultural communication, working virtually across different time zones and with various channels as well as project management abilities.
Pre- and post-project surveys were also given to the students engaged in these projects. While intercultural communication remained part of the investigations, the impact of online learning and the pandemic on students played a larger role. American and German students were asked about their previous online learning experience. Students’ anxiety towards online learning as well as towards the pandemic was measured (adapted from Wheaton et al., 2012). Furthermore, overall satisfaction towards the project was investigated. Regarding the VBP project, students from the US, France, Germany and India were asked how the pandemic had affected their studies, and whether they felt that the pandemic would increase the significance of virtual online education and virtual teamwork in corporate organizations in future. The results are forthcoming but they already reflect an appreciation of the project during these times. As one student writes: “This project has taught each and every one of us that amidst the pandemic and disruption around us we can work virtually with people around the world and share our different cultures and values.”
Arasaratnam, L. A. (2009). The development of a new instrument of intercultural communication competence. Journal of Intercultural Communication, 20. https://www.immi.se/intercultural/
Chen, G.-M., & Starosta, W. J. (2000). The development and validation of the Intercultural Sensitivity Scale. Human Communication, 3, 1-15. http://digitalcommons. uri.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi? article=1035&context=com_facpubs
Swartz, S., Barbosa, B., & Crawford, I. (2019, October), Building intercultural competence through virtual team collaboration across global classrooms, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329490619878834
Wheaton, M.G., Deacon, B.J., McGrath, P.B., Berman, N.C., & Abramowitz, J.S. (2012, April). Dimensions of anxiety sensitivity in the anxiety disorders: evaluation of the ASI-3. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 26, 401-8. doi: 10.1016/j.janxdis.2012.01.002.
Stephanie Swartz is a professor of English and Business Communication at Mainz University of Applied Sciences, Germany. Having grown up in the USA, she completed her Bachelor’s degree from Juniata College, her Master’s degree from Philipps-University Marburg and PhD in American Studies from Paderborn University in Germany. Stephanie Swartz specializes in intercultural communication, drawing from many years of experience in various cultures. Since 2015, she has been engaging her students in virtual team projects where they gain intercultural competence and virtual communication skills, imperative in the global workplace. Stephanie Swartz has published and presented findings on experiential learning through virtual team projects and serves as a consultant for collaborative online international learning.
Recommended Citation: Stephanie Swartz. (2020). Teaching Virtual Teams Projects in Germany amidst COVID-19. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.