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date: 20 March 2018

Computer-Mediated Communication Technology and Cross-National Learning

Summary and Keywords

With the advent of globalization, the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for socioeconomic development are changing rapidly and dramatically. These skills include the need to better understand how to manipulate symbolic knowledge and how to work in global virtual teams. New applications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and new organizational models have helped to create important developments in areas such as e-commerce, e-government, and e-learning. Universities, companies, governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations have worked to develop strategies for dealing with these monumental changes, including developing “global” strategies for building networks, fostering cooperation, and expanding their geographic reach. For all these reasons, it is important to identify and evaluate new methods of teaching international affairs and studies of globalization that capitalize on the tremendous advancements in ICTs. These approaches should take advantage of lessons learned from collaboratories and cyberinfrastructure that allow diverse groups of geographically distributed learners to collaborate in ways that are at times “beyond being there,” or more interactive than if they were located in the same laboratory or seminar room. Six broad and interdisciplinary streams guide the literature leading toward these changes: knowledge creation, education, and learning; group/team dynamics; building trust in virtual teams; culture in global virtual teams; geographically distributed collaborative learning; and infrastructure for distributed collaborative learning.

Keywords: globalization, information and communication technologies, ICTs, collaboratories, cyberinfrastructure, cross-national learning


Over the last decade, information and communication technologies have continued to emerge at an increasingly rapid pace. These technologies are providing an underlying infrastructure to support opportunities for innovative synchronous, asynchronous, and blended cross-national research and learning experiences in international communication. Through the use of these technologies, it is possible for students around the world to work in global virtual teams in collaboration with real organizations engaged in actual policy processes. This essay will trace the development, current status, and future prospects of the literature on information and communication technologies and cross-national learning. However, the reality for scholars working in this area is that the relevant literature is highly interdisciplinary. Thus, in order to address this subject, we must include an analysis of the multidisciplinary literature related to this problem.

Over the past decade, the social, technological, economic, and social processes of globalization have proceeded at a dizzying pace. The transformation of the global economy and the era of globalization have had a significant impact on the organization of global society (see, inter alia, Castells 1996–8). Some scholars refer to this transformation as the emergence of a “global information society” or a “knowledge society” (Mansel and Wehn 1998). One of the most recent important manifestations of these developments was the hosting in Geneva (2003) and Tunisia (2005) of the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, or WSIS ( Other scholars argue that the developments of this period represent a fundamental shift in the underlying techno-economic paradigm of society (Kodama 1994; Freeman 1997).

Regardless of how you characterize this period, it is clear that the knowledge, skills, and abilities required for socioeconomic development are changing rapidly and dramatically. These skills include the need to understand better how to manipulate symbolic knowledge and how to work in global virtual teams (Reich 1997; Cogburn 1998). New applications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and new organizational models have helped to create important developments in areas such as e-commerce, e-government, and e-learning. Companies, governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international organizations have worked to develop strategies for dealing with these monumental changes, including developing “global” strategies for building networks, fostering cooperation, and expanding their geographic reach. Universities are no exception to adaptation.

Universities in both developed and developing countries are struggling to come to grips with these changes and to provide opportunities for their faculty and students to work with and learn from colleagues around the world. They are working on how to “internationalize” their campuses and curricula (Altbach 2004). For students, these changes have far-reaching implications for what they learn while pursuing formal studies, how they learn it and from whom, how they apply what they learn, and how they prepare themselves personally for these challenges. Perhaps more importantly, universities are exploring mechanisms to ensure their students are acquiring the skills necessary to succeed in a global knowledge-based economy. Some of these key skills include the ability to manipulate and master abstract concepts and symbolic information, and to identify, critique, and retrieve vast amounts of digital information (Hiltz 1995a). In addition, regardless of whether students are going into industry, science, government, international organizations, or civil society and nongovernmental organizations, they will be expected to master the ability to work in global virtual teams. Working in such geographically distributed teams requires students to work across multiple time zones, languages and cultures; with persons with different levels of technology training, support, and access; with persons of different disciplinary backgrounds, institutional culture, and expectations; and on teams with highly mobile and transient members (Cogburn 1998).

These requirements are becoming commonplace for successful engagement in the knowledge economy, regardless of whether one is speaking of global and multinational corporations, small and medium sized companies, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, or national governments (Freeman 1994). While the need for this diverse set of knowledge, skills, and abilities has become more pronounced, most students in both developed and developing countries find themselves matriculating without having developed these skills in any significant way.

Reorienting the university toward an institutional model that can handle these challenges has not been an easy task. Traditionally, universities are highly structured institutions, with most of their human capital organized into four distinct categories: (1) administrators, (2) faculty, (3) staff, and (4) students. Further, universities are structured according to schools and colleges or other academic units, and subdivided by departments, programs, and/or academic discipline. Historically, on even one university campus there can be fairly rigid lines among these various divisions, and rarely does significant collaboration occur between these components. There was perhaps even less interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration between universities in a given country, and less still across universities in multiple countries. Of course, there are “exchange” programs, where students, faculty, and on occasion administrators have migrated to other institutions for “study abroad” programs, fact-finding trips, or faculty sabbaticals and research leaves, but these experiences, for the most part, continue to be episodic and focused on experiencing the “other” and taking it back to one's home institution. Today, especially in the sciences, there is increasing evidence of growing cross-disciplinary collaboration on university campuses. What is fundamentally of interest in this paper is the question of whether or not there are ways of structuring teaching, learning, and research experiences that are more collaborative, ongoing, and authentic, across universities and across countries. In a previous paper, we identified what we called a “triple track approach to maximizing collaborative learning” in these complex, cross-national learning environments, and those ideas will also guide our approach to this paper (Cogburn and Levinson 2008).

One organizational mechanism about which we have written and which could serve as a model to facilitate this kind of “authentic” global collaborative learning environment is the scientific collaboratory, which blends the words “collaboration” and “laboratory” (Wulf 1993). In 1989, William A. Wulf called the collaboratory “a center without walls, in which the nation's researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location – interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources, [and] accessing information in digital libraries.” The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council (NRC) further clarified the collaboratory concept and raised awareness within the scientific community about its application in a report entitled National Collaboratories: Applying Information Technology for Scientific Research (National Research Council, 1993).

A collaboratory is more than an elaborate collection of ICTs; it is a new networked organizational form that also includes social processes; collaboration techniques; formal and informal communication; and agreement on norms, principles, values, and rules within the network. To date, most collaboratories have been developed largely in the physical sciences (e.g. physics, upper atmospheric research, and astronomy) and recently in additional areas of research such as HIV/AIDS. Since the emergence of these collaboratories, a substantial and growing knowledge base has emerged to help us understand their development and application in science and industry (National Research Council 1993; Finholt and Olson 1997; Olson and Olson 2000; Finholt, in press). Very recent work includes collaboratories in the definition of cyberinfrastructure, one of the top priorities of the US National Science Foundation.

An additional body of knowledge exists for understanding the application of ICTs to learning at nearly all levels, and for understanding the implications for pedagogical strategies and a myriad of learning styles. These approaches, driven by both public and private sector initiatives, include computer-mediated communications (CMC), computer supported collaborative learning (CSCL), technology-enhanced learning (TEL), and other forms of what might be called “distance” education. It appears that the majority of these initiatives explore primarily asynchronous computer-assisted learning (Hazemi et al. 1998). There has also been an increasing number of studies exploring the use of global virtual teams in education, some of them using a synchronous approach (Harasim et al. 1997; Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998).

While we have advanced our knowledge of technology-enhanced learning, there are still many outstanding questions, particularly related to globally distributed synchronous collaborative learning and the science of learning that should emerge (The Learning Federation 2000). Our knowledge of this area could be strengthened through exploring these concepts at the intersection of research on, on the one hand, scientific collaboratories and cyberinfrastructure, and, on the other, corporate virtual teams, coupled with emerging research on computer-supported cooperative learning (CSCL). This research approach should move beyond the laboratory, taking findings uncovered in these controlled environments and testing them in field settings. Further, even more questions exist about the particular challenges of actively involving developing countries in the conduct of globally distributed collaborative knowledge work.


For all these reasons, it is important to identify and evaluate new methods of teaching international affairs and studies of globalization that capitalize on the tremendous advancements in ICTs. These approaches should take advantage of lessons learned from collaboratories and cyberinfrastructure that allow diverse groups of geographically distributed learners to collaborate in ways that are at times “beyond being there,” or more interactive than if they were located in the same laboratory or seminar room (Hollan and Stornetta 1992). These new methods of teaching must draw upon the best thinking in a diverse group of academic and professional disciplines.

The purpose of this essay is to review the historic and contemporary literature related to communication technology and cross-national learning. It will do so by discussing this literature within the context of a decade-long exploration of using these technologies to create geographically distributed cross-national collaborative learning. From 1999 to 2008, several universities around the world, mainly from South Africa and the United States, participated in the Global Graduate Seminar on Globalization and the Information Society: Information, Communication, and Development, also known as the Globalization Seminar. The Globalization Seminar was created initially between the University of Michigan School of Information (Ann Arbor), the University of the Witwatersrand Graduate School of Public and Development Management (Johannesburg), and the American University School of International Service (Washington, DC). In 2004, the headquarters of the project moved from Michigan University to the Syracuse University School of Information Studies. Working in collaboration with the Web-Based Information Science Education (WISE) consortium, the project branched out to include universities and students in India, Mexico, and Canada, and across the US. The underlying goal of the project was to understand better the sociotechnical infrastructure required to support successful cross-national teaching and learning in interdisciplinary globalization studies. We wanted to explore the degree to which ICTs could support a variety of innovative pedagogical models to build human capacity for a knowledge-intensive global economy. As an organizing framework, the project adapted the “collaboratory” approach, originally created to facilitate geographically distributed collaboration in science, to building a distributed learning environment. We focused on highly interactive, commercially available web-based tools that work well in both low and high bandwidth environments.

In the following section, a brief review of the literature is provided that guides the paper and shapes the theoretical foundation for the study, including the collaboratory model and the use of cyberinfrastructure for distributed collaborative learning. We then describe the structure of the seminar and the synchronous and asynchronous technology infrastructure developed to support the distributed collaborative learning environment. Next, we describe some of the various methodologies used over the years in the study, and then present the findings organized as best practices and lessons learned. We conclude the essay with a discussion of the implications of these findings for university administrators, faculty, staff, and students.

Literature Review

Some of the most exciting developments in international communication today involve the increasing convergence of lessons learned from the diverse but related interdisciplinary fields of computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW), CSCL, human–computer interaction (HCI), and international studies. This convergence is evident in a number of ways, including new studies of how transnational civil society organizations use ICTs to coordinate their geographically distributed participation in global policy processes such as the UN World Summit on the Information Society (Klein 2003; Siochrú 2003; Cogburn 2004; Selian 2004; Jordan and Surman 2005), in distance-based capacity building for such complex policy areas as internet governance (Kleinwächter 2004; Cogburn 2006), and in the implications of ICT use in cross-cultural distributed environments (Cogburn and Levinson 2003; Abbott et al. 2004; Zakaria and Cogburn 2006). Many of these amazing developments are due to innovative applications using the internet as a delivery platform and the increasing availability of advanced commercial and open source information and communication technologies capable of supporting the synchronous and asynchronous needs of diverse, cross-national collaborative learning teams.

Our exploration in this study has been guided by six broad and interdisciplinary streams of literature, which are: (1) knowledge creation, education, and learning; (2) group/team dynamics; (3) building trust in virtual teams; (4) culture in global virtual teams; (5) geographically distributed collaborative learning; and (6) infrastructure for distributed collaborative learning. In this section, we briefly explore some of the key ideas in each of these areas.

Knowledge Creation, Education, and Learning

Around the world, numerous studies point to the impact of the transformation of a global knowledge-based economy on primary, secondary, and tertiary education (see Garmer and Firestone 1996; Brown and Duguid 2000; Duderstadt 2000). The archetype of a traditional student, teacher, and learning institution is undergoing profound changes, not only in the highly industrialized countries, but in the developing world as well. For example, the African Virtual University is a high-profile “attempt to use, on a grand scale, the power of modern information technologies to increase access to desperately needed educational resources in Sub-Saharan Africa” (World Bank, n.d.). In many ways, the “nontraditional” student – one who has to work to support him-/herself, enters tertiary education later in life after significant life experiences, and requires both more flexibility and highly specialized knowledge – is becoming increasingly the norm on college and university campuses. ICTs can have a tremendous impact on meeting the expectations of these students. However, we must be careful as we explore this environment. In many cases, the hype does not reflect the reality and lessons learned on the ground.

Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995:1) argue that “Schools as we know them are designed to prepare people for life in an industrial society,” and that we must try to understand and develop the “kind of [educational] system needed to prepare people for life in an information society.” They suggest that the emerging information and communications infrastructure could have the effect of reducing the need for people to move physically from rural to urban areas, thus easing the burden on overcrowded transportation systems and fragile ecosystems. “The information society may prove to be a telesociety with a revival of rural areas and a return to the cottage industries that existed prior to the industrial revolution” (Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995:2). This project also recognizes the monumental shift in the global economy and the need to equip students with skills appropriate to this era.

Brown and Duguid (2000:208) argue that many colleges and universities are beginning to move rapidly to meet these challenges. They see the pressures on the tertiary system as being threefold: (1) a radically changing student body, with new kinds of requirements of the educational system; (2) increasing competition, especially from nontraditional and private sectors; and (3) the application of new ICTs (Brown and Duguid 2000:208–10). Jamil Salmi, Education Sector Manager at the World Bank, conceptualizes these challenges somewhat differently and focuses on (1) economic globalization, (2) the growing importance of knowledge, and (3) the information and communications revolution (Salmi 2000). James J. Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, argues that “universities must find ways to sustain the most cherished aspects of their core values, while discovering new ways to respond vigorously to the opportunities of a rapidly evolving world” (Duderstadt 2000:3).

In their report analyzing a major think tank initiative on the use of information technology to create a learning society in the United States, Garmer and Firestone (1996:5) argue that “the revolutions in computers and communications technology have given teachers and students an immense array of tools to enhance learning.” Citing a range of new technologies, from CD-ROMs to multimedia applications and wireless delivery platforms, Garmer and Firestone (1996:5) suggest that these technologies can “engage students in discovery through simulation and exploration of new concepts, connect them to people and ideas beyond the classroom, and expand educational content.” They also argue (1996:6) that these technologies can “aid teachers in adapting materials to different learning styles and promote equity in education by providing a diverse range of resources and experiences to students who might not otherwise be able to afford them.” However, Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995:5) argue that in technology-enhanced learning environments, there is the need for “a balance between computer interaction and human interaction. In the future we will need to strike a balance between telelearning and conventional classroom learning.” These arguments have influenced the design of the Global Graduate Seminar model to include in its initial stages a mixture of co-located faculty involvement with virtual synchronous learning, or what we call the “circuit-rider” model.

However, Brown and Duguid (2000) provide significant insight into the challenges for tertiary educational institutions. They point to the tremendous value that such institutions hold in their “credentialing” authority (i.e., their ability to grant degrees that are recognized by the educational establishment; Brown and Duguid 2000:214–15). One strong argument that they make in support of the survival of some types of academic institution is that “knowledge [itself] doesn't market very easily […] it's hard to detach and circulate. It's also hard for buyers to assess” (Brown and Duguid 2000:215). In this project, the Global Graduate Seminar participants will register for the seminar at their respective university. Each respective university handles all certification and “credentialing.”

Group/Team Dynamics

One effective way to facilitate collaborative learning is to introduce teams that have been assigned to work on class-related projects. The dynamics of the teams can have a strong influence on the effectiveness of this method for student learning (Brown and Dobbie 1999; Johnson et al. 2002). Hence universities and educators need to acquire a good understanding of the social and psychological factors (especially cross-cultural communication patterns) that influence team dynamics. We defined team dynamics in terms of the following three components: team performance, leadership style, and the interdependence between team members (House et al. 1971; Jago 1982). In this study, the teams played a critical role in helping to create the learning environment for the students. Each student was assigned to a “virtual” team with no other members from their university. As a result, the global virtual teams in this study were highly diverse in terms of nationality, geographic region, technology and professional expertise, and rationale for taking the course.

Tuckman (1965) highlighted four stages of team formation: forming, storming, norming, and performing. The trust level that is developed in the first several stages of team formation is crucial later for the whole team's performance. In global virtual teams, the diversity of the teams’ backgrounds, cultures, and races impacts the amount of time it takes for a team to build trust in the first three stages. In homogeneous teams, trust can be developed more quickly. Research (McKnight et al. 1998; Rocco 1998) shows that the climate for effective cooperation is not likely to emerge without specific organizational intervention, especially leadership training activities. Leadership learning interventions before and at the beginning of the life of the team that focus on building trust become critical for the success of teams. The concept of emergent leadership is also important to teams that are not assigned leadership (Yamaguchi et al. 2002). Below, we explore in more detail the dynamics of face-to-face (FTF) and geographically distributed groups.

Dynamics in FTF and Distributed Groups

From the social psychological literature on group dynamics, we know that a range of factors affect group work in any environment. Some of the most important factors include social facilitation and social loafing, deindividuation, and leadership style. Other important factors that are known to affect group dynamics are culture, common ground, and trust. In this section, we briefly review and compare this important literature as it relates to our study of group dynamics in both face-to-face and distributed teams.

Social Facilitation/Social Loafing

Social facilitation theory suggests that when people are working in the presence of others, including their group members or co-workers, then they are more likely to perform better on tasks than if they were performing those tasks alone (Zajonic 1965). In contrast, social loafing theory proposes that the opposite occurs: that when people are working in groups, there will be a decrease in the effort put forth by individuals (Steiner 1972; Latane et al. 1979). It appears that social loafing exists in many different cultures on different types of task (Gabrenya et al. 1983), and that it can be mediated by gender, and moderated by one's perspective on individualism or collectivism and task motivation. In this study, we are not testing for social loafing, but have designed the team and its tasks to maximize any possible social facilitation effect and minimize a social loafing effect.


The deindividuation thesis proposes that participation in groups might lead some people to behave in more aggressive, uninhibited, and socially unacceptable ways than they might otherwise exhibit as an individual (Zimbardo 1970; Diener 1980; Rogers and Prentice-Dunn 2008). This uninhibited behaviour has also been shown to exist in CMC environments where “flaming” and “mail storms” are becoming increasingly prevalent (Reicher and Levine 1994). Since we know that this behaviour exists in both FTF and distributed groups, this study will look for evidence of deindividuation and any impact that it might have on other factors being studied.


Another aspect of group dynamics related to our study is leadership style, particularly emergent leadership (e.g., the type of leadership that emerges in natural settings when the group is initially leaderless). The literature on leadership shows two distinct types of emergent leadership, one is called task-focused leadership and the other relationship-focused leadership. On one hand, task-focused leadership is seen as direct. It focuses almost exclusively on accomplishing the task at hand, often associated with dominance behavior (e.g., initiating structure). On the other hand, relationship-focused leadership is indirect. It focuses on improving group cohesion, often associated with affiliative behavior, such as democratic decision making. Task-focused leadership is seen to be more effective than relationship-focused leadership. However, on unstructured tasks, relationship-focused leadership is seen to offer some advantages and may even be more effective than task-focused leadership (Stogdill and Coons 1957; Fiedler 1958, 1967, 1971, 1981), especially amongst mixed gender groups (Yamaguchi et al. 2002).

Culture, Common Ground, and Trust

Several factors can contribute to the degree of ease or difficulty of establishing common ground within a group (e.g., shared cultural background, experiences, previous conversations, surroundings). According to Clark (1993; 1996) this “common ground” of knowledge is required in order for two or more people to understand each other. Similarly, according to Rogers (1999), homophily and heterophily (similarity and difference on certain attributes) influence the degree to which an innovation can be diffused into a group. Distributed teams may have less initial common ground, and the constraints of CMC may make it more difficult to identify or build common ground than in FTF teams.

We also know that communications media affect cooperation and self-reported trust in group work. FTF groups report the highest levels of cooperation, followed, by video, audio, and then chat conditions (Bos et al. 2002). Higher levels of group participation have been found in CMC environments. CMC groups may also be more “disorganized, democratic, unrestrained, and perhaps more creative than groups communicating more traditionally” (Kiesler et al. 1984). However, this increased democratization may lead to more difficulties in decision making in CMC environments (Kiesler et al. 1984). Thus we expect to find differences in these areas in our FTF and distributed teams, and will be exploring those differences in the study.

Building Trust in Virtual Teams

Collaboration in teams requires a significant amount of shared interaction, decision making, and responsibility for the project's success (Ingram and Parker 2002). These collaborative activities are strongly influenced by the level of trust among team members, especially when the completion of one's own work depends on the ongoing cooperation of another person or group of people (Deutsch 1958; Lewis and Weigert 1985; Butler 1991; Mayer et al. 1995; McAllister 1995; Jones and George 1998; Holton 2001; Bos et al. 2002; Zheng et al. 2002). Thus trust is a key factor for interdependent actors to work together effectively.

The initial level of trust among group members is crucial to its evolution. Trust theorists have argued that trust develops gradually over time (McKnight et al. 1998). Thus low to medium trust at the beginning of team construction is usually present, and there is a gradual growth of trust over time. People are not likely initially to have a high level of trust toward strangers. In virtual teams, members are physically distributed in different locations across different national, cultural, racial, and economic boundaries, which further challenges initial trust levels.

To explore these issues, Rocco (1998) argued that trust broke down in electronic contexts but could be repaired by some initial face-to-face activities. Studies by Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) also confirm that two-week trust-building exercises have a significant effect on team members’ perceptions of others’ ability, integrity, and benevolence – these perceived characteristics contribute to the construction of trust. Both of these approaches have been integrated into this study, and specific get-acquainted and trust-building exercises were used during the first two weeks of the seminar, beginning with the second year of its implementation.

Trust and Culture in Global Virtual Teams

In their study of global virtual teams in university settings, Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) examined whether trust can exist in virtual teams, how this trust develops, and what communication behaviors facilitate trusting relationships in virtual teams. The virtual teams participated in a six-week collaborative learning project organized by the University of Texas at Austin. The project involved 350 graduate business students in 24 countries working in teams of between four and six individuals. These virtual teams communicated by email and accessed information from the project's internet site while completing two voluntary individual tasks and one required team task (i.e., developing a new internet site for information systems professionals, and writing a three- to five-page explanation of the site). Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) archived and analyzed all email messages sent to each team's address (team mailing list), and later used this information to prepare case descriptions of twelve virtual teams. The researchers also administered two surveys to measure levels and outcomes of trust in the virtual teams. The survey responses of individual team members were averaged to develop overall team measures of trust.

Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998:23) report that global virtual teams can develop trust but suggest it may take the form of “swift, depersonalized, action-based trust” rather than a more “interpersonal and socially based trust.” As for how global virtual teams develop trust, Jarvenpaa and Leidner found that initial electronic messages were crucial to establishing high levels of trust because they set the tone for team interaction. At the start of the project, high-trust teams conveyed confidence and optimism in their early messages, whereas low-trust teams expressed more skepticism in initial messages (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998). These findings, Jarvenpaa and Leidner point out, are consistent with earlier research on the lasting impact of initial group communication patterns (Gersick 1988; Gersick and Hackman 1990). Moreover, teams displaying the highest levels of trust throughout the entire project generally engaged in frequent communication characterized by behaviors such as making social introductions, supporting each other, taking individual initiatives, providing feedback, clarifying and developing consensus on tasks, notifying team members of upcoming absences, and addressing technical problems (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998).

Lipnack and Stamps (1997:231) stress that virtual teams must work at building trust in all phases of their development because they “have only their shared trust in one another as their guarantee for the success of their joint work.” The people, purpose, and link elements of virtual teams, in Table 1 below, can equally serve as sources of trust or mistrust (Lipnack and Stamps 1997). Ravtiz (1997:363) argues that a “climate” of interaction in which “ideas are encouraged, generated, and expressed freely” is central to the development of trust in virtual collaborative learning environments. Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) also found that high-trust virtual teams exhibited a strong task focus in their communication behaviors, even while engaging in parallel social exchanges. They explain that this finding confirms earlier research (Walther and Burgoon 1992; Adler 1995; Chidambaram 1996) showing that “social exchanges can make computer-mediated groups ‘thicker’ as long as the social exchange is not at the expense of a task focus” (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998:24). Moreover, Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) report that initiatives by individual team members – and, more importantly, team responses to these initiatives – were crucial to developing trust and unity in the virtual teams. Citing Pearce et al.’s (1992) conceptualization of responses as trusting behaviors in face-to-face communication, Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) suggest that team responses to individual initiatives are particularly important in the more uncertain environment of computer-mediated communication. Trust will change within virtual teams based on the degree to which team members keep promises, engage competently in work, express themselves truthfully about important issues, care about each other, contribute to the success of the team, care about the success of the team, have consistent expectations of each other, acknowledge their mistakes, feel comfortable sharing ideas with the team, have developed friendships with team members, can disclose aspirations, confide in team members about personal difficulties, are considerate of others’ feelings, are friendly, and socialize (or would socialize) together.

In terms of the impact of culture, Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998) found that culture did not influence perceptions of trust in the project's global virtual teams. They suggest (1998:25) that “electronically facilitated communication may make cultural differences irrelevant” by eliminating most nonverbal cues such as dress, gestures, greeting styles, and accents. As cultural differences become less noticeable, perceived similarity among virtual team members may rise (Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998). This finding contrasts starkly with those relating to culture in the pilot phase of this study. Atkins et al. (2000) found that cultural differences profoundly influenced the development of trust in the global syndicates, including pronounced differences in economic ideology and attitudes toward capitalism and socialism. Hofstede (1997) agrees with this assertion, calling culture the “software of the mind”: “Every person carries within him or herself patterns of thinking, feeling, and potential acting which were learned throughout their lifetime […] [we] will call such of thinking, feeling, and acting mental programs, or as the sub-title goes: ‘software of the mind’” (Hofstede 1997:4). This study will use Hofestede's (1997) construction of culture as an independent variable to explore its impact on the development of trust, and the effectiveness of global virtual teams.

Geographically Distributed Collaborative Learning

Since the type of knowledge work that we are interested in often requires the ability to learn with others working in collaborative teams, we have explored the literature on distance-independent and distributed collaborative learning. While there have been some notable exceptions (e.g. Jarvenpaa and Leidner 1998; Cadiz et al. 2000), most studies of computer-supported collaborative learning have been of asynchronous approaches (Hazemi et al. 1998). Nonetheless, from this important body of literature, we know that learning is social, and that “peer networks” or collaborative learning are equally important to faculty interaction, and can enhance student performance (Fjermestad and Hiltz 1999; Brown and Duguid 2000). Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995) suggest that the balance between human interaction and computer interaction is a critical factor in the success of a virtual learning environment. Brown and Duguid (2000) suggest that this balance is even more important when the learning environment becomes more complex and geographically distributed. Hiltz (1990b) finds that “collaborative learning” enhances student ratings of virtual courses. Thus we expect that students engaged in virtual teams (global syndicates) that evolve into “learning communities” will have more collective and individual success in the seminar, and will have a higher degree of satisfaction with the seminar.

Brown and Duguid (2000:137) argue that “learning is a remarkably social process. Social groups provide the resources for their members to learn. Other socially based resources are also quite effective.” Their argument suggests that building the seminar participants into a healthy community of practice is the best way – if not the only way – to achieve this rich knowledge management and transfer. They go further, to suggest that as the learning process binds people together, they are able “to form social networks along which knowledge about that practice can both travel rapidly and be assimilated readily” (Brown and Duguid 2000:141). These “networks of practice” are valuable in linking together people working in similar areas, which may actually never meet each other or work together. The global syndicates in this project are designed to provide the space for “learning communities” or “networks of practice” to develop.

Brown and Duguid (2000:221) also argue that the peer networks are an equally important resource to faculty and university technology resources. In their analysis of a Stanford engineering course being taught in the TVI (tutored video instruction) method, Brown and Duguid (2000:221–2) explained that those students participating in the distance-based course were formed into groups that became learning communities and found that they consistently outperformed those residentially based students when tested on course material. This result was true, even though the distance students entered the course with “lower academic credentials”. (Brown and Duguid 2000:221). Further, Brown and Duguid argue that the TVI method

requires viewers to work as a group and one person from that group to act as tutor, helping the group to help itself. This approach shows, then, that productive learning may indeed rely heavily on face-to-face learning, but the faces involved are not just those of master and apprentice. They include fellow apprentices.

(Brown and Duguid 2000:222)

These findings support the understanding found during the pilot phase of the Global Graduate Seminar, that the global virtual teams used in the seminar are critical to a successful distributed learning environment (Atkins et al. 2000).

The implications of these arguments for this project are numerous. For example, Brown and Duguid (2000:136) argue that true learning and knowledge transfer should become much more demand-driven. They argue forcefully that “people learn in response to need.” “When people cannot see the need for what's being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any meaningful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then, if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly” (Brown and Duguid 2000:136). We learn from Brown and Duguid that new information and communications technologies can have a tremendous impact on building communities of practice, but they must be implemented with sufficient knowledge of and attention to social dynamics. Therefore, in this project, we built the global syndicates and the Cotelco participants into a “network of practice” that can share ideas, information, and learning. Further, the Cotelco participants at their respective universities and enterprises slowly became “communities of practice” over the last decade.

Previous research has shown that students who experience collaborative learning in the virtual classroom are most likely to rate virtual course outcomes more highly than traditional course outcomes (Hiltz 1990b). Harasim et al. define (1995:30) collaborative learning as “any learning activity that is carried out using peer interaction, evaluation, and/or cooperation, with at least some structuring and monitoring by the instructor.” Collaborative learning in the virtual classroom is grounded in “a learner-centered model that treats the learner as an active participant” (Harasim et al. 1997:149). Using active and collaborative learning approaches; promoting meaningful feedback; and offering opportunities for intergroup collaboration, resource sharing, and collaborative writing have been identified as fostering collaborative learning in virtual distance education (Palloff and Pratt 1999). In the virtual or online classroom, the “learning community” replaces the traditional lecture as the main vehicle for education (Palloff and Pratt 1999). The development of community assumes equal importance to course content in the virtual classroom because knowledge is collaboratively produced through this community (Palloff and Pratt 1999). As Palloff and Pratt explain (1999:5, original emphasis), learning is driven by “the interactions among students themselves, the interactions between faculty and students, and the collaboration in learning that results from those interactions.”

Jarvenpaa and Leidner (1998:2) define the global virtual team as a “temporary, culturally diverse, geographically dispersed, electronically communicating work group.” Lipnack and Stamps (1997) propose a “people/purposes/links” model of virtual teams working in intra- or interorganizational settings. As shown in Table 1 below, this systems model focuses on inputs, processes, and outputs, and generates nine principles for virtual teamwork.

Lipnack and Stamps (1997) argue that the nature and variety of virtual team links are what distinguish these teams most strongly from traditional, collocated teams. Multiple media constitute “the nervous system for the virtual team,” and the team members’ interactions through these media form the team's “thinking” and shared knowledge (Lipnack and Stamps 1997:104). The boundaries crossed in virtual teamwork include organizations, disciplines, distance, time, and cultures (Lipnack and Stamps 1997). These boundary-crossing interactions offer the basis for building trusting relationships in virtual teams.

Table 1 People/purposes/links model of virtual teams

Foundation concepts





Independent members

Shared leadership

Integrated levels


Cooperative goals

Interdependent tasks

Concrete results


Multiple media

Boundary-crossing interactions

Trusting relationships

Source: Adapted from Lipnack and Stamps 1997, p. 49

Infrastructure for Geographically Distributed Collaborative Learning

As McLellan (1997) explains, Schrage's model of collaboration offers thirteen themes to inform the design of internet or Web-based education: (1) competence; (2) a shared, understood goal; (3) mutual respect, tolerance, and trust; (4) creation and manipulation of shared spaces; (5) multiple forms of representation; (6) playing with the representation; (7) continuous but not continual communication; (8) formal and informal environments; (9) clear lines of responsibility but no restrictive boundaries; (10) decisions not having to be made by consensus; (11) physical presence not being necessary; (12) selective use of outsiders for complementary insights and information; and (13) collaboration's end (McLellan 1997:186). In McLellan's (1997) information-design course, for example, the class listserv provided an informal space where the students discussed class assignments and shared personal information. Frequent short assignments were emphasized to foster active discussions on this listserv. Moreover, different representations (e.g., text and visuals, audio and multimedia) were featured in course learning activities; student input on deciding discussion topics and dealing with technical issues was encouraged; and student biographies, photographs, and email addresses were posted on the course's Web page to help students connect with their virtual classmates.

Some of the terminology used by Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995:10) is helpful in our project as well. They use the term “virtual learning space” (VLS) “to encompass any kind of distributed virtual reality that can be used for learning.” As with our approach, Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995:10) “avoid the term ‘virtual classroom’ because it suggests that the place a virtual class is held is an electronic simulation of a conventional classroom.” Others, such as Sam Hsu and his colleagues, are comfortable using the term “virtual classroom” without appearing to assign the term any of the limitations that Tiffin and Rajasingham were concerned about (Hsu et al. 1999). However, we also recognize the importance of “managing the metaphor” and using a variety of techniques to help familiarize ourselves with a new environment (Norman 1998). Thus the uses of the term “seminar” in the actual graduate seminar under study, and references to the “seminar room,” have been built into the design of the project. However, following Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995) we do not want to constrain prematurely the seminar participants into thinking about a seminar as they always have in the past. This is not what we are trying to achieve at all. In fact, what we want is perhaps a “better-than-being-there” experience (Hollen and Stornetta 1992). Based on this literature, we used the computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) environment of the Global Graduate Seminar to create a learning experience that is difficult or impossible to replicate in a strictly physical setting (Atkins et al. 2000). As Tiffin and Rajasingham put it (1995:12), “what we are seeking is a new paradigm of education with new standards and outcomes, something that may have no resemblance to classrooms as we know them.”

In terms of physical infrastructure, Tiffin and Rajasingham (1995:15) suggest that learners could participate in this virtual learning environment from almost anywhere, including their home, conventional school, or “local community center.” Minoli provides a more thorough analysis of the various types of technology options to consider in modern distance-learning initiatives (Minoli 1996:13–37). The infrastructure used in our Global Graduate Seminar allowed users to participate from anywhere they had access to the web. During the pilot phase of the study, students were able to access the seminar from Canada and Japan as they had to travel on business, thus not missing a day of the seminar that they would otherwise have missed. Ideally, geographically distributed learning environments should be both flexible and robust, and designed to be highly interactive. In these environments, the learner can operate simultaneously at multiple levels and move between them with ease. In their analysis, Tiffin and Rajasingham show some of the limitations of earlier computer-aided instruction (CAI) models. They acknowledge that many early CAI approaches were far too linear, and ignored much of the complexity that actually occurs in the learning process.

Sam Hsu and his colleagues at the Center for Distance Education Technologies (CDET) provide a very interesting summary of the recommended steps to follow in “the process of conceiving, planning, designing, implementing, and maintaining a virtual classroom” (Hsu et al. 1999). They include ten important elements for establishing a successful virtual learning initiative, each of which will be considered in the design of this project, which are: (1) needs assessment, (2) cost analysis, (3) planning, (4) design, (5) preparation/distribution, (6) enabling communications, (7) implementing student assessment, (8) implementing classroom management, (9) systems setup, and (10) maintenance (Hsu et al. 1999:98).

Tiffin and Rajasingham suggest that the addition of virtual reality applications to a learning environment could be instrumental in helping people to experience shared virtual experiences, and thus help them to remember and learn the experiences better. These findings suggest that we should also explore the potential of virtual reality technologies as we design the virtual learning environment for the project. What Tiffin and Rajasingham argue is that CGVR could contribute its rich variety of tools in the creation of a virtual learning environment. This virtual learning environment could help to give birth to the “virtual class,” as an alternative to the physical classroom (Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995:142). This virtual class need not necessarily seek to replace the physical university or other secondary and tertiary institution. Thus we have included amongst the collaborative tools used in the project a low-cost, web-based virtual reality package called EduVerse. Although web-based virtual reality is not as immersive as other forms of computer-generated virtual reality, this package allows the students to engage in socializing activities before and after the seminar, or in their own time.

Garmer and Firestone (1996) also support the importance of public and private sector partnerships in the implementation of distance-learning initiatives, arguing that “partnerships and cross-sectoral collaborations can vastly improve learning opportunities” (Garmer and Firestone 1996:13). They argue that private sector leaders can support these initiatives in a number of ways, including (1) speaking out in support of equitable access to the new tools of learning, (2) seeking opportunities to get involved in partnerships with schools, (3) developing creative funding strategies, (4) creating materials and support networks for teachers and administrators, and (5) educating the public about the benefits of integrating technology into the classroom (Garmer and Firestone 1996:13).

The findings in this literature review support the ongoing approach taken in the Globalization Seminar and in Cotelco, especially the structure of the global syndicates, and the collaboratory infrastructure for Cotelco. These arguments all suggest that it is critical for participating university and industry partners to explore and better understand the implications of these new technologies. This joint project has always aimed to provide a scientific understanding of the potential of geographically distributed learning and global virtual teams that might help these universities to conceptualize targeted interventions that will use information and communications technologies both to strengthen the university, their faculties, staff, and students in their mission to create, preserve, and disseminate new knowledge and to provide service to their local, regional, national, and global communities. The Globalization Seminar and Cotelco are examples of such interventions. They attempt to meet the challenge of a diverse student body, provide a response to some of the competitive challenges in the tertiary sector in South Africa, and seek to understand and apply new information and communications technologies.

Finally, we have explored the tools and social processes required to support the kind of distributed knowledge work under investigation here. Nearly all of the CSCW literature suggests that the appropriate mixture of technologies is important to support the development of distributed collaborative communities. More sophisticated and media-rich CMC environments – such as those that include video, audio, electronic messaging, multimedia visual stimuli, and shared tools – may help to minimize any differences between CMC and FTF environments (Kiesler et al. 1984). Also, students are often more willing to interact with their professors in CMC environments than in FTF (Welsch 1982; Kiesler et al. 1984). However, due to the instantaneous nature of electronic communications, students may have increased expectations for immediate feedback and become frustrated and dissatisfied when that does not occur (Kiesler et al. 1984). As such, there are seven key design considerations to keep in mind for our technology environment. The considerations include the following: (1) creation and manipulation of virtual spaces, (2) multiple forms of representation, (3) continuous but not continual communication, (4) management of the metaphor, (5) diversity of access points, (6) interactivity, and (7) socialization (Tiffin and Rajasingham 1995; McLellan 1997; Norman 1998). We expect to find that the students overcame what may have been initial fears to become comfortable with both the synchronous and asynchronous technologies used in the seminar.

Although it may not be the most dominant factor, the technologies used to facilitate distributed learning play significant roles in the effectiveness of the education. These technologies support cross-national collaborative learning in various ways. One of the most important conceptual divisions in technologies that support distributed learning is between synchronous and asynchronous environments. In asynchronous environments, the focus of the interaction is on different times (e.g., individuals send messages when they want to and receivers pick up and respond to the messages when they want to). Key technologies in this asynchronous space are email and learning management systems (LMS). Email is obviously used to send messages back and forth and to enhance communications among the students. LMS systems are designed to serve primarily as document repositories and as an asynchronous platform from which to build the learning community.

On the other hand, synchronous tools require the participants to communicate at the same time. Basic synchronous tools include instant messenger, chat, and presence-awareness packages, in addition to audio and video conferencing and full-blown web conferencing.

In many ways, the principal trade-off is between interactivity and flexibility – synchronous technologies provide tremendous levels of interactivity among geographically distributed participants, and asynchronous technologies allow for “anytime, anywhere” access to the material. People can choose to engage individually with the learning materials in the LMS when it is most convenient for them. The widespread availability of commercial LMSs like WebCT and Blackboard and open source alternatives like Moodle ( and Sakai ( probably explains why the asynchronous mode of distance education is the most dominant. In contrast, commercial web-conferencing applications are relatively expensive and have no real open source alternatives (Cogburn and Kurup 2006). While asynchronous approaches are popular, their interactivity and support of the growth of trust and other team dynamics may be limited. However, asynchronous approaches may be useful in coping with disparate time zones, work patterns, and university cultures (Cristian 1996; Cogburn and Levinson 2003; Benbunan-Fich and Hiltz 2006).

Research conducted primarily in developed countries suggests that a “blended approach” or the appropriate mixture of various synchronous and asynchronous technologies is important to support the development of distributed collaborative learning (Hiltz 1990a; 1990b; Steeples et al. 1996; Veerman et al. 1999). More sophisticated and media-rich CMC environments, such as those that include video, audio, electronic messaging, multimedia visual stimuli, and shared tools, may help to minimize any differences between CMC and face-to-face environments (Kiesler et al. 1984).

Gaps in the Literature

The literature does not cover in depth the following three key areas to which this project seeks to contribute: (1) empirical studies of specific virtual teams operating over an extended period of time that are composed of members from both developing and developed nations, (2) studies of specific virtual teams that focus on the interaction between cross-cultural communication and team effectiveness, and (3) longitudinal examinations of cross-national virtual teamwork at the university level. This case study provides such a long-term view of cross-national ICT-enabled virtual teams at public and private universities in developed and developing nations.

Background to Collaboratories and Cyberinfrastructure

In 1993 the US National Research Council published a landmark report entitled National Collaboratories which articulated a vision of how information and communication technologies could be brought to bear on the challenges of facilitating scientific collaboration amongst geographically distributed scientists (National Research Council 1993). The report built on earlier work by William Wulf and others from a workshop in 1989 sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and identified the increasing demands for scientists to collaborate with colleagues that may be located in research laboratories all over the world. Wulf called a collaboratory a “center without walls” and urged the nation's researchers to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by modern information and communication technologies to make it possible for closely coupled distributed collaboration (Wulf 1989:7).

Early examples of fields taking advantage of these collaboratories include the space physics community (Olson et al. 1998), oceanographers, and molecular biology (National Research Council 1993). Each of these scientific communities could immediately benefit, in various ways, from its researchers being able to be better networked with other researchers (Finholt 2001; 2002). An NSF-funded project at the University of Michigan, called the Science of Collaboratories (, studied these various collaboratories and identified several common elements to predict the success and failure of these initiatives. One of the most important observations was that those collaboratories that paid significant attention to the social dimensions – not just the technological – had a higher likelihood of success.

While the collaboratory movement started in the National Science Foundation, other federal agencies quickly picked up the baton, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and others recognized the need for increased collaboration amongst their scientists as well (Finholt 2001; 2002). However, in many ways, the collaboratory movement took on the patina of elitism. It was seen that only certain scientists could access and participate in collaboratories, and certainly not beyond these high-profile scientific circles (Cogburn 2003; 2005). This is the opposite of what many of the early collaboratory developers had hoped would emerge through the “distributed intelligence” capabilities of a collaboratory (Finholt 2002:5). In this concept, the increased use of information and communication technologies could allow for increased interaction between scientists at nonelite institutions with scientists at elite institutions (Finholt 2005:5).

Broadening the Reach of Collaboratories to Close the Digital Divide

In 2003, Dan Atkins was asked by the NSF to chair a Blue Ribbon panel to examine the status of collaboratories and to explore ways to broaden the concept to include social and behavioral scientists and beyond. This panel created a new term – “cyberinfrastructure” – to express their desire that collaboratory infrastructure should become much more widespread and could make an even greater impact on science and technology and national competitiveness by getting larger and more dispersed communities involved in geographically distributed collaboration (Atkins et al. 2006).

While the Atkins Commission Report, as the document has become known, broadens the conception of collaboratories to encompass larger and more diverse groups of scientists, others, such as we in our work in Cotelco, have pushed the boundaries of this concept even further. Within Cotelco we have evolved the collaboratory concept to include even larger groups of geographically distributed social actors, in learning environments such as our Global Graduate Seminar on Globalization and the Information Society (taught in real time between three universities in South Africa and three in the United States) (Cogburn and Levinson 2003; Atkins et al. 2000), in policy environments such as our collaboratory for the Task Force on WSIS organized by the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA), and in distributed groups of social scientists. These projects all used collaboratory approaches to enhance the participation of social actors of various kinds, especially those excluded from or less effective in global policy processes such as developing countries and civil society organizations. This aspect of the “digital divide” is one that receives far less attention than the dominant understanding of the concept, which focuses on access to the telecommunications, the internet, and the World Wide Web.

Researchers studying collaboratories have identified three overarching domains around which collaboratory practices have coalesced (see Figure 1). We characterize these domains as: (1) people-to-people, (2) people-to-information, and (3) people-to-facilities. Each of these domains is critical to the needs of the geographically distributed collaborative learners. For example, while physicists conceptualize “access to facilities” as the need collectively to view a telescope pointed at the upper atmosphere, Globalization Seminar participants need to have blended (face-to-face and distributed) access to the physical facilities of a seminar room or lecture hall.

Computer-Mediated Communication Technology and Cross-National LearningClick to view larger

Figure 1 Collaboratory domains


Future Directions and Trends

This essay has attempted to provide an overview of the interdisciplinary literature relevant to communication technology and cross-national learning. It has anchored this overview in our experiences over the last decade using ICTs to create a distributed collaborative learning environment between the US, South Africa, and other countries around the world. We will end with a few thoughts about the future of computer-mediated communication technology and cross-national learning, particularly with respect to research, theory, and methodology.


From a research perspective, we see two important future directions. One direction is the continued need for empirical studies of long-term cross-national learning teams using computer-mediated communication tools to support their work on tasks that are as realistic as possible. These field studies are needed to complement the growing body of evidence coming from laboratory-based experiments and computer simulations of collaboration. Also, lessons learned from these lab experiments should continue to be integrated into the planning and instrumentation of the field-based studies.

A second research direction is to focus more on identifying the factors that influence learning goals in distributed collaborative environments. More research needs to be done on the impact of these computer-mediated communication environments on actual learning objectives.


Conceptually, more research needs to be conducted not only on the ways in which culture affects virtual teams, but on the ways in which a person “transcends” their cultural background when working in computer-mediated communication environments.


From a methodology perspective, we continue to support the idea of taking a mixed-methods approach, blending qualitative, quantitative, and social-network analysis.


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