Effective Collaboration

Creating OER is no small feat, and usually involves concerted efforts of many individuals who have a shared vision and goal. Collaboration is at the heart of open work and has allowed the Open Education community to flourish in numerous ways. In the OER projects that Rebus has supported, engagement and collaboration have been key factors in determining the project’s advancement or success. Most projects saw some initial interest, buzz, and activity during the first few weeks. However, we noticed that this can die down fairly quickly, and in some cases, where a project has stretched out for too long, we’ve lost a few contributors along the way. It falls on the project leads to make a conscious effort to keep the team engaged.

Our most successful projects have had an active community of participants – authors, editors, proofreaders, copy editors, reviewers, formatters, leads, other volunteers – who conversed with each other often with updates about their tasks or the project more generally. These projects found a way to ensure participants knew the work they were doing was valuable and part of a larger effort. They also enabled contributors to connect with a larger community of practice in their subject. We found that public-facing projects with a lot of activity acted as social proof for current and potential collaborators: encouraging new people to get involved with the project, and fuelling those already on board to complete the tasks that they had signed up to do.

While engagement helped drive projects forward, for some participants, it was the connections they made with others, and the conversations/discussions they had that they valued more than the final product. Contact between authors, editors, advisors, etc. create a sense of community, even mentorship, among participants. Ultimately, teams are made up of people, and if you focus on the humanity at the core of our teams, this will lead to deeper engagement across your group and more fulfillment in your work. The project managers for the Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship open textbook formed a community of practice and held fortnightly calls with those adopting or teaching with the book. One of their authors notes:

“Many thanks…for the gift to join you in such a fascinating intellectual and collaborative journey for making the Open Textbook on Media Innovation & Entrepreneurship a dynamic learning, writing, and mentoring experiment. Along with the open textbook and the upcoming instructors’ manual, I think you are also helping to create a very dynamic network and community of practice.”

—Betty Tsakarestou, author and assistant professor at Panteion University

Considerations for Effective Collaboration

To help you on your OER journey, we’ve put together suggestions for effective collaboration so that the team around your OER project remains engaged and committed to seeing the resource all the way through to publication. Apply these tips to ensure the experience is an enjoyable and memorable one for everyone! Remember that there is no clear cut formula or strategy that works for everyone — so take some time as you read to think, experiment, and rely on your team and collective to share some ideas to find what works best for you and your team!

Introduce your team to one another

This sounds very straightforward, but make sure to introduce members of the team to one another, regardless of whether their roles intersect or have too much in common. It’s not uncommon to be juggling several lines of communication between yourself as the team lead and many participants, but creating connections across the project is just as important for keeping people engaged. If you’re located in the same city, you could try to arrange an in-person meet. However, most projects tend to involve participants from all around the world – so a simple email or video call to introduce the team to one another will go a long way!

If you’re not the project lead, but an editor of a particular part or section of the book, you could send a similar email to the authors in your part. The email should welcome individuals to the team, and could even include links to shared resources such as the project’s timeline.

Doing so can remind team members that they are part of something bigger!

Communicate and make plans with your team

If you’re the project lead, it’s especially important to keep in mind that members of your team may not have the same working or communication style. These kinds of things vary across people and cultures, and if you have a global team, you can’t expect everyone to switch to your default. Instead, you should discuss preferences and expectations at the start of the project, and invite members to help plan the project timeline and tasks with you. This may help to avoid conflict or disengagement down the line, and help you better gauge when an issue might be arising.

You should also discuss communication preferences with team members early on – is email okay, or are calls better? What kind of response time is expected? Respect these preferences, and as project lead, ask your team to do the same. Sharing this information up front, to whatever extent possible, will help your team understand one another, leading towards smoother interactions and fewer frustrations.

Share models and examples

Make sure everyone has model chapters/outlines/abstracts or whatever else they’re being asked to submit. This can ease the cognitive load of getting started, and help ensure consistency in what’s submitted. Where possible, it’s also good to select this model content from what has already been submitted or created by a project lead and share it with the others – this also adds the little nudge that others are further ahead, which can help get people moving!

In addition to modelling expectations through documents, we also encourage you to do so in your behaviours and engagement with the team. Participate in team conversations fully, communicate clearly, and treat your fellow team members with respect (this is especially critical if you are a project manager or other lead on the team). You set the stage for your fellow teammates, so model what you’d like to see on your team!

Encourage sharing drafts/posting questions in a shared and central communication space

Wherever possible, we ask contributors to share their drafts or ask any questions that they have on a public-facing channel, such as the Rebus Community forum or in Google Docs shared with other authors. If you find the same questions or concerns are coming up from multiple people, consider putting together an FAQ to share with other contributors. You can give contributors editing privileges, and encourage them to add to the list, so the burden of updating the list doesn’t fall solely on you. Also consider whether any of these questions could be addressed in your author/editor/contributor guide or project summary and add to them as needed. This helps other members of the team keep track of various tasks, reduces the work of having to answer the same questions many times over, gives people examples to work from, and acts as a subtle reminder to those who may be behind on their deadlines.

Keep in regular communication with your team

Communication is the key to a successful project – remember that teams are made up of people!

You may want to hold a call with your contributors, or an office hours-style drop in session. Encouraging attendance at these can also help develop the community feeling, which helps keep people invested and responsible to each other to fulfill their commitments. These calls may be structured around each chapter, connecting authors and instructors giving feedback for example, or each phase of the project (“Two weeks until submission deadline! Help!”) or be an open space for feedback and questions as needed.

If general reminder emails aren’t getting much of a response, try individual emails or one-on-one calls with the team leads. If a particular contributor has dropped off the radar, or you’re not sure they’re seeing the emails you’re sending to the whole team, check in with them personally to see how they’re getting on. A short note can do the trick, and it may just be that they’re having a busy couple of weeks, but the response rate is generally higher with this approach!

Dissuade the drop-outs: instead, encourage participation in less time-consuming tasks…

If at any point it looks like someone might be backing out, suggest that they could instead take on a different role, perhaps acting as a reviewer instead of an author, or help to promote the book down the line. And always ask if they want to stay up to date as things progress! You can contact them again when you’re looking for other kinds of contributions or releasing the book. Sharing updates or notifications when the book is available is a good way to acknowledge their interest in the project, even if they haven’t been able to commit to it entirely. Continue reading to learn about navigating and addressing any challenges that may crop up in the production process.

…but remember that not everyone will stay involved, and that’s okay!

Contributors always have the option to say no and withdraw if they’re not able to participate in a project. If they’re interested enough to have signed up in the first place, it’s worth trying to keep them in the loop, but they might not always want that. It can be disappointing, but if someone does have to bow out completely, remember that we all have competing priorities, and you never know what may be happening on their end. Be respectful of that, and wish them well. There will be plenty more people out there with the time to give to your project to whom you can shift your focus.

Navigating and Addressing Challenges

No project is perfect, and things are sometimes bound to go differently than anticipated. If this happens, don’t worry – it’s normal. Things aren’t always super smooth on every project. Small things are bound to crop up. As team members, you need to be responsive and able to adapt to situations. Remember, good teams require nurturing, attention, and problem-solving!

When these tough situations do arise, here are some strategies you might look to:

  • As project manager, you are responsible for the team overall, and should stand-up against anyone disobeying the team’s ground rules. If a problem emerges with a volunteer, try to set up some time to meet them and talk through the issue face-to-face, instead of over text or email. Your first goal should be to attain clarity over the situation, and not to make a decision or pass judgment. If a volunteer is acting in a crass or rude manner to you or anyone else on the project, it’s within your rights to ask them to leave the project. You can do so politely, but stand your ground and protect your fellow collaborators. Again, look for backup from others on your team if you need it.
  • Depending on the nature of the issue, it might help to go back to your preparatory documents, such as the project summary, outline, MOU, etc. Consider these documents as evidence of your project work, and sift through them for clarity and reassurance. They also provide confirmation if there is disagreement on something that was set out early on.
  • If an issue related to content crops up, for instance if an author wants to back out of the project during the editing/review phase, or if an author doesn’t want to make important changes requested by a reviewer or editor, look back to your MOU and confirm the license on content submitted. More often than not, if the content was licensed CC BY, it can be salvaged in some way to be useful for the project if you decide that’s best. However, depending on the situation, it might not be good form to include contested content even if you have the legal right to do so. Use your judgement, and defer to the content creator.
  • It’s good to acknowledge that in some situations, you might be the person who messed up. In this case, be up front about where things went wrong, and take responsibility for your actions. Then, do what you can to look for solutions and to fix the error. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, from your team and from the community at large!
  • Lastly, look to the community not only for help in situations, but also for advice and counsel. Talk to other project managers, find out their experiences, learn from their successes and failures, and share your own stories. Remember that even if you’re the only manager on your project, you’re not alone in the community!
Fig 3.1: A table of common challenges on an OER project and suggestions on how to address them. 
Challenge Suggestion
Not showing up to meetings Check in with them – is something technical or otherwise preventing them from attending?
Boundary setting (hesitating to pick up tasks)
  • Check in with them
  • If needed, you can assign tasks
Trouble prioritizing work Rely on your documents & spreadsheets
Deliverables and timing
  • Send reminders
  • Other team members can encourage accountability
  • Plan B – cushion room
  • Inform of contingencies
Confusion with tools
  • Point them to info sheet or documentation
  • Set up a call to troubleshoot
  • Connect them with tech support
Unclear expectations of the role or assigned work
  • Schedule time to go through role/tasks with them, offer clarifications
  • Describe your role (be transparent, open) so they know what to expect

Modeling Being a Good Team Member

Being intentional and genuine in your role as project manager will set an example for your team and establish a relationship of trust with them. It’s also good for you to model the engagement you want to see – in meetings and other spaces. If you are helping create a resource that will be accessible, inclusive, and culturally relevant, it’s important that these values show up in your practice with your team – so that they can embody this into what they are creating! A few simple suggestions for ways to start this:

  • Learn how to pronounce team members’ names
  • Start with a territorial acknowledgment
  • Turn on captioning services during meetings
  • Take into account communication preferences
  • Accommodate team accessibility needs
  • Assume the best in people, as OER projects are in production for a long period and you never know the full context of a team member’s life or challenges outside the project

We also encourage you to reflect on other ways in which you can demonstrate your commitment to equity with your team. These are a start, and we hope you can see the value in structuring and leading an equitable publishing process rooted in community and care!

Self-Care

No matter your role in the project, be sure to take care of yourself! OER projects should never come at the cost of you or anyone else on your team. We wanted to end this section with a short reminder to make sure you’re managing your own time and well-being carefully too. Saying this explicitly at the get-go of your project may help you practice more self-care throughout! Be mindful of Finally, your language and communication also counts as you support other team members to take care of themselves or grant them the grace they need if they have to pause or step away from the project for a period of time.

Managing a team is hard work, and you might get used to putting yourself in the backseat and keeping the project or volunteers at the forefront. While the project and other volunteers are important, you are too!

Be nice to yourself along the way, and remember that you are also volunteering your energy on the project. Whatever role you may occupy within your team, be it paid or volunteer, respect your own physical and mental boundaries. Take breaks when you need them and understand that communication is essential – not to share delicate details, but to let others know when challenges interfere with your project work.

License

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The Rebus Guide to Publishing Open Textbooks (So Far) by Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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