Establishing trust quickly is the key to effective Internet communication, especially when it comes to teaching online, according to researchers at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT).
“While our study focused on trust formation among teachers and students in online courses,” said Nancy Coppola, PhD, associate professor, in the humanities department at NJIT, “our results are applicable for any group or team that interacts online. For example, we think our results could be applied to emergency response teams, which although it may be temporary, uses computer-mediated communication.”
Swift Trust in Virtual Teams,” appeared in Transactions on Professional Communication, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc (IEEE). Starr Roxanne Hiltz, PhD, distinguished professor in the department of information systems and Naomi Rotter, PhD, professor in the School of Management, also participated in the research, which was partially funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Last month, the article received the 2005 Rudolph J. Joenk Jr. Award for best article in 2004 in that journal.
The most effective on-line teachers establish communication early and quickly. “Team members must perceive the instructor’s presence as soon as they enter the course,” said Hiltz. “Instructors do this by providing students with clear course introductory information and personal introductions that set the climate for warmth and responsiveness. By “swiftly” replying to each student’s initial comments, and modeling constructive responses, the most effective professors provide students with a sense that there really is a professor at the other end of the communication link and reinforce responsive behavior in students.
”To become a successful Digital Socrates,” Coppola noted, “the team leader or teacher must work hard to overcome the potential coldness of the electronic medium. The best way is with immediate social communication cues. The most effective online teachers get a good start by the end of the first week.”
How do good instructors develop a positive social atmosphere on line? “They model solidarity, congeniality, and affiliation.” said Hiltz. This means that the leader/ teacher praises, encourages, or approves the efforts of team members/ students, when they meet expectations. Teachers handle students who do not meet expectations with a private email, rather than public scolding.
Good online group leaders reinforce predictable patterns in communication and action. They give students carefully structured activities and regular responses and feedback. They frequently ask a student to expand or clarify task information
Positive group leaders also involve team members in meaningful tasks. For example, noted Rotter, students can be grouped into teams and assigned cases. Within each group, students decide how to tackle the case and resolve disagreements. The engaged instructor monitors each of these groups and acts as a resource to assist the group in staying on track and resolving conflicts. Unlike face-to-face group projects, the entire group activity is transparent to the professor.
“Social loafing, a frequent problem in face-to-face team projects, diminishes in online groups,” said Coppola. “On-line, however, everyone participates.”
Hiltz noted that the researchers also found that establishing swift trust early, contributed to subsequent course success.
Material for this research was taken from the content of course discussion transcripts recorded during a three-year-period in highly rated on-line courses at NJIT. Indicators showing the development of swift trust were examined. The researchers eventually contrasted these results with course results of the worst-rated online courses.
The researchers built on the theoretical work of Debra Meyerson of Stanford University, who developed the concept of swift trust in 1996. Myerson’s theory examined temporary teams who form a clear purpose and common task with a finite life span. To function well and trust each other, interactions in such groups exhibited vulnerability, uncertainty, risk and expectations. Methodologically, the study built on the work of a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and a professor at Baylor University, who studied swift trust in global teams.
Coming up, the group would like to expand their study to include companies organized into global virtual teams engaged in “follow-the-sun” software development, said Hiltz. “In these teams, issues of cultural diversity may complicate the emergence of trust among members,” Hiltz noted.