How Two Universities Crossed the Border

Lois Spargo <>
Tel: +1 416 979 5000 x7619
Fax: +1 416 979 5249

Barbara Kelsey <>
Tel: +1 416 979 5348
Fax: +1 416 979 5249

School of Administration and Information Management
Ryerson Polytechnic University
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5B 2K3


From September 1994 to December 1995, 18 collaborative projects involving telecommunications students studying at Ryerson Polytechnic University (Canada) and at Syracuse University (U.S.A.) were conducted. One hundred eight students were involved in this project, which resulted in significant learning experiences both for the professors involved and the students. The students learned how to use the Internet as a research and communications tool, and they also were involved in a real-life working experience. The professors learned how electronically linked groups develop and do their work; they also learned what needs to be done to ensure success when connecting student groups over the Internet.


There were two major sets of objectives for this project. The first set was pedagogical, while the second set focused on investigating group processes. The pedagogical objectives of the project were threefold:

  1. To bring geographically dispersed student teams together electronically in order to use the Internet as a teaching tool
  2. To promote collaborative learning between universities
  3. To provide the students with an opportunity to experience global communication in a real-life situation

The group process objectives were twofold:

  1. To determine how electronically linked groups differ from traditional, face-to-face groups
  2. To see if a well-known model of group processes, developed using traditional groups, would apply to electronically linked groups

Current pedagogical environment

There is no doubt that the use of the Internet by educators and students will continue to grow exponentially over the next decade. It is unlikely that this growth could be stopped, even if such action were desired. The reasons for using this media are clear: Instructors can share knowledge and research with geographically dispersed students and colleagues without having to spend scarce resources on travel. Students in one class, school, or country can link with students in other classes, schools, or countries and share ideas, information, cultures, and feelings. In theory, worldwide communication and understanding is possible. On a more practical and economic level, the potential cost reduction for universities and schools is attractive. Courses and programs are now and will continue to be run over the Internet and World Wide Web. No longer is it necessary for all universities to have specialists on faculty, serving a small number of students. One specialist can service many students electronically. Each university no longer needs to be all things to all students since students will be able to access any available course offered over the Internet.

At the present time, however, the offerings are sporadic, disorganized, and lack any strategic plan. There are pockets of packaged courses offered around the world by various universities, but there is little information available about their successes or failures. However, this is a fledgling educational industry, and it will flourish and grow. The first university that can put in place a process for entrance requirements, sound pedagogical practices, and control of the final product will create a financially viable and enviable worldwide virtual institution, attracting the traditional and nontraditional learner.

Universities, of course, will have to give up some of the ownership around the granting of their degrees and the courses that make up their degrees. Standards of quality control will have to be put into place, and the recordkeeping of courses taken and credits granted will be difficult, but not impossible. Partnerships between universities will become the norm; and small, pilot projects promoting collaborative learning models will be the first step toward the "global" university.

Project methodology

A collaborative project between students in the telecommunications program in the School of Administration and Information Management at Ryerson Polytechnic University and the students in the master's telecommunications program at Syracuse University in New York took place from September 1994 to December 1995. While the original intent had been to run the project as a small pilot during the fall 1994 semester, the student response was so overwhelming that the project continued for three consecutive semesters with six teams per semester. A graduate student at Syracuse University monitored the listservs and provided technical support during the first semester. During the winter and fall 1995 semesters, students from Ryerson (members of the original teams) acted as the listserv managers and technical support personnel. Approximately 108 students participated in the project.

For three consecutive semesters, six teams at Ryerson were paired with six teams at Syracuse. Each team had its own listserv set up so that the team members could meet, plan, research, share information, write, edit, and produce one common research paper per team. Different topics were assigned to each team each semester. Because telecommunications was the course content, the topics involved leading-edge telecommunications areas such as asynchronous transfer mode and frame relay, personal communications services, international dialing patterns, call center development, and regulatory issues. The student mandate was to produce a collaborative paper, analyzing the development, deployment, and use of the service or issue and to compare its development, deployment, and use within Canada and the United States.

Two sets of hard-copy questionnaires were administered at the end of each semester. Students were asked to complete these anonymously and return them to the professor who was running the group processes research portion and who would not be involved in grading their work. Only their listserv IDs were used as identification. The first questionnaire had a free-form, short-answer format that collected students' impressions on their experiences, information about technical difficulties, and their opinions about how their groups worked together. This questionnaire provided both pedagogical and group processes information. The pedagogical portion of the questionnaire was designed to supplement the information that the course professor was collecting as she ran the project. The second set of questionnaires collected information on when certain critical events occurred and was designed to provide information on group processes and development.


Usable data were collected from 63 students: 48 Ryerson students (all fourth year) and 15 Syracuse students (all master's level). The average age of the students was 26 years, with the youngest being 20 and the oldest being 56. There were 36 men, 26 women, and one unknown gender respondent. The comments written on the free-form questionnaires formed the basis of the results of the pedagogical research. These comments were supplemented by the observations of the Ryerson professor who managed the research projects. The time lines completed on the second set of questionnaires formed the basis for the group process portion of the research.


Students were generally satisfied with their participation in this project: 72.3 percent indicated they would definitely do this kind of project again, while 13.3 percent indicated that they would not do this type of project again; 10.29 percent indicated that although they found the project rewarding and a good learning experience, the project took too much time and was more demanding than traditional research papers; 4 percent did not respond to the question.


Almost all students indicated that they had learned a great deal about using the Internet functions and navigators. Some of the specific skills learned ranged from understanding the difference between Serial Line Internet Protocols and Shell Accounts to using Internet Relay Chat lines, e-mail, and search tools, such as Gopher and Telnet. The transfer of files between dissimilar systems is awkward and frustrating, but most students reported a sense of accomplishment after successfully completing a file transfer. The majority of students felt that their research topics were leading edge, and they appreciated the opportunity to learn the material. The need for a detailed plan of action was recognized as a must in collaborative learning.

Group process model

The traditional model that was tested in this study was Tuckman's (1965) stages theory, which deals with the developmental sequences experienced by small groups. The developmental sequences are broken into two categories. The first category, referred to as group structure, deals with the pattern of interpersonal relationships and how the group members act and relate to one another as persons. The second category, task activity, addresses how the group as a whole does the work of completing the task. Each of the four stages--Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing--has both group structure and task activity components. The results of our research revealed that while Tuckman's stages did occur, they did not happen in the order in which they were supposed to occur.

Since Tuckman's work comes from the field of organizational behavior and this is the first attempt (to the authors' knowledge) to apply his work to the Internet or any electronic delivery medium, a short review of his theory will be provided to help the reader understand what each phase is about. Then, a short discussion of the phases, as experienced by our student groups, will be presented. A detailed account of the data analysis is available from the authors upon request.

Tuckman's model

In the Forming stage, group members attempt to find out what interpersonal behaviors are acceptable to the group, and each person looks to someone else for norms or guidelines on how to behave. This group structure activity is labeled "testing and dependence" (Tuckman, 1965). Tuckman labeled the corresponding task activity stage "orientation to the task." Group members attempt to figure out what the task is, what its parameters are, and how the group will accomplish the task.

The second stage, Storming, involves intragroup conflict as the dominant group structure behavior. There is a lack of unity in the group, as group members become hostile toward each other and frustrated with trying to balance their own individuality with the demands of becoming a group member. This emotional turmoil carries over into the task activity, which is "emotional response to task demands" (Tuckman, 1965). Group members act emotionally toward the demands of the task as a way to assert their independence. They are attempting to resolve the discrepancy between their own personal orientation and that demanded by the task.

The third stage, Norming, completes the task of resolving these conflicts. Group members accept the group and the idiosyncrasies of the other group members. This stage is characterized by the development of group cohesion. Group harmony is the paramount objective of this phase and is achieved by the establishment of group norms that ensure the group's existence. The corresponding task activity involves "the open exchange of relevant interpretations" (Tuckman, 1965). Information is exchanged and acted upon so that alternative interpretations of meaning and what needs to be done can be developed.

During the fourth and final stage, Performing, the group structure activity involves functional role-relatedness. Group members have now recognized the group as an entity and move on to developing roles for individual members to enact. Since they learned to relate to each other as social entities in the Norming phase, they can now solidify these relationships and use them to accomplish the task. The task activity is characterized by the emergence of solutions. The emphasis is on constructive action, and more energy is focused on completing the task than on establishing intragroup relations.

Internet group development

Our results show that, contrary to what Tuckman proposed, the Internet groups experienced Forming and Norming behaviors well in advance of any Storming behaviors. As a matter of fact, some Norming events actually seemed to occur before the Forming events did. A possible explanation for this apparent anomaly could be the difficulties all groups experienced in getting set up and started on the Internet. Many of the written comments referred to the problems they had getting the listservs to work, making contact with the remote end, and learning the technical ins and outs of using the Internet. Perhaps the local groups started establishing their own norms during this learning period, and only began to feel like they were forming as a group once some efficacy had been gained in communicating with their remote colleagues.

Another interesting phenomenon is that certain Storming activities were beginning even after the last Performing activities had started. This could be attributed to the fact that many of the groups were still having problems coordinating their efforts and agreeing upon what should go into the final product. Part of this problem stemmed from the fact that the Ryerson and Syracuse students had different due dates for their projects. Therefore, it can be concluded that while Tuckman's model was able to describe what went on in the groups, these Internet groups did not experience the developmental sequences as laid out by him. It almost appears that they needed to establish norms before they could storm, or disagree, over them and how to proceed.

Tuckman's model was also incorrect in predicting when the groups would start Performing or adopting the final strategies to complete their projects. The groups began "performing" well before the midpoint. Hence, it appears that groups can produce results, even without having gone through developmental stages.

Interpersonal interaction

Feelings varied from a sense of isolation to elation at being able to research and contribute on their own time at their own volition. Almost all reported that it was more difficult to resolve conflict and that rude messages were more painful when written. They reported that there was a sense of being bound to one's words. They reported missing the face-to-face brainstorming, where ideas can be thrown out to the group and accepted or rejected. Most conflict occurred in the final editing, and students reported a feeling of loss of control over the final product. They also reported that it was easier to blame their remote, unseen group members for work not done to expected standards. Some students also felt that it was easier to ignore someone or be ignored over the electronic medium and that self-esteem could suffer when their messages were not acknowledged or given credit. This led many to conclude that their individuality was not allowed to surface during the project. One group reported that they felt sad in not being able to get to know their foreign partners. Conversely, some groups felt that this was a unique learning experience that was fun, and that it was the most practical academic project they had done at Ryerson. Another group reported that they felt special because they were trying something that had never been done before.

Students also reported that there were system inadequacies. When they could not see the reactions of others, emotions became harder to express; and many complained that the process did feel emotionless. This lack of emotional exchange led some students to feel alienated. Some commented that they were just dealing with a name, not a person. On the other hand, some students liked the freedom of being able to work whenever they wanted to and not being constrained by having to set aside a specific time to meet with group members.

Comparison with face-to-face groups

The consensus was that working electronically in groups was far more stressful and time-consuming than using traditional face-to-face meetings to complete a project. Most groups also reported that the complexity of group dynamics over a distance was far greater than in the normal face-to-face work groups. Frustrations were harder to express, and there was a noticeable lack of social interaction. There was no body language to add context and depth to what was being written, which often made being understood quite difficult. Several group members reported feeling they were being judged by what they wrote, and they just hoped that what they had written was what they meant. The ability to write meaningful messages and the need to be effective communicators were seen as being critical success factors in working electronically.

Students also reported that there was more difficulty in maintaining contact and reported feeling disappointed when no one responded to their messages or to their research contributions. Many felt a sense of powerlessness and hostility when their remote group members did not respond to their electronic mail messages. Delays caused by technical difficulties or conflicting priorities resulted in groups losing their focus; when they were able to reactivate their communications, they had to reiterate what had already been accomplished.

Students reported difficulty in developing group consensus. There was no casual talk that could be used to develop mutual understanding, and trust was hard to establish. The students reported it was hard to get a "feel" for the remote group members and what they really wanted. Often, they felt that being polite was quite a strain. Finally, they felt face-to-face meetings allowed for more directness and a reduction in the amount of redundant information that was collected.

Students' suggestions for improvement

Responses suggested two quite different areas requiring improvement. The first was the need for concrete help with learning the Internet at the outset of the project. Common suggestions included having ready access to reference books, taking an Internet course such as ROADMAP, and having more direct, hands-on involvement by the instructor in the early stages of the project. In addition, strict guidelines for managing the project must be set; and both sides must agree to a contract of due dates and standards for formatting, editing, and the citing of sources for the final product. Professors must clearly define their expectations. It is interesting to note that not one student mentioned problems with finding material and information on their given topic. The content was not a problem, even though the subject matter dealt with leading-edge telecommunications information.

The other area of required support was less concrete in that it dealt with handling interpersonal relationships. Students reported that they would have been more comfortable if they could have seen or talked to their partners. They suggested that introductions should be made by video conferencing at the start of the project so that they could actually see their electronic partners. Other suggestions for improving interpersonal relations ranged from meeting each other face-to-face in the same room, to exchanging pictures, to setting up a toll-free line between the two sites.

Professors' recommendations

This is a very rigorous project for professors. It is far more time-consuming, demanding, stressful, frustrating, and ultimately far more rewarding than a traditional group research project. To assist other professors who want to link geographically dispersed students together using the Internet, the following recommendations were developed:

  1. Professors at both sites must work together and clearly define their expectations for the final research paper, and they must communicate these expectations clearly to the groups.
  2. Coordination on both sides is extremely important. Information given to the groups must be consistent. Professors managing this kind of a project must set their own time lines and be punctilious in maintaining contact--almost on a daily basis--in order to maintain consistency in help given. Daily electronic meetings also save time as problem-solving can be shared and various levels of expertise (technical, motivational, etc.) can be drawn on.
  3. The due date for the submission of the paper must be the same for both schools. This is not always as easy as it seems, because all schools (especially schools in two different countries) do not usually follow the same semester time frame.
  4. Standards for grading the final paper must be agreed upon by both professors at the start of the project and communicated to the groups. This includes not only content requirements but also standards of writing, editing, formatting, and citing sources.
  5. Technical support must be available to the students. Some of the students had never used the Internet, while others were quite knowledgable and experienced. This caused frustrations for everyone.
  6. The listservs must be ready to have the group names activated at the very beginning of the project. It was extremely frustrating for the students to find that the listservs were not ready when they were very keen to get started.
  7. Professors must show enthusiasm and support for the project and be available, either in person or electronically, to provide help, advice, and guidance on both the technical and interpersonal level. This means checking their e-mail several times daily--including weekends, because this is when students do a significant amount of their work.
  8. Professors must take a very hands-on approach. They should work with the teams at the beginning of the project and help them plan a time line by which certain steps must be completed. The professors must use the listserv to monitor the process and keep on top of the group activities. It is very easy to lose control of electronically linked groups. Professors must monitor and make sure that every group member is participating. The challenge is to monitor the groups without appearing to infringe upon the privacy of an electronic meeting. Interim reports, where students are forced to do file transfers, are mandatory for the success of the project.

Concluding remarks

It is apparent that this kind of collaborative project between geographically separate groups was a unique and beneficial learning experience. On the positive side, the students learned how to use the Internet as a research and communications tool; they were involved in a real-life working experience, and valuable knowledge was gained on how to work effectively in geographically dispersed, electronically linked groups. The problems and frustrations that the groups experienced were both "hard" in terms of technical support for learning the Internet and standards for the final product, and "soft" in terms of the lack of development of any form of interpersonal relationships with their team members at the other site. An encouraging outcome was that, for the most part, the final papers more than exceeded expectations in terms of depth of research, knowledge gained of the subject material, scope of sources, writing, and editing. Thus, while working in this electronic environment was more time-consuming and required more effort on the part of both students and professors, the resulting learning experiences were very beneficial.

This research has also revealed that an existing model of face-to-face group development can be applied to electronically linked groups. However, the electronically linked groups do not appear to develop in the same fashion as predicted by the model. While these groups experienced the same kinds of events that face-to-face groups do, they experienced them in a unique temporal sequencing. Further research is required to determine the impact of these unique group processes on how students learn and what kind of additional support is required to foster more solid interpersonal relationships in electronically linked groups.


Tuckman, B.W. 1965. Developmental sequences in small groups. Psychological Bulletin 63:384-399.