Creating an Online International Construction Culture Educational Experience
Angela A. Guggemos, Ph.D.,
David E. Gunderson, Ph.D., CPC, and Mostafa Khattab, Ph.D.
Colorado State University
Fort Collins, CO
Mohamed Emam, Ph.D.
Arab Academy of Science, Technology & Maritime Transport
The construction industry is increasingly becoming a participant in the global economy. Students must be exposed to the benefits and challenges of working on an international project, particularly the need for cultural awareness. A joint project was created between Colorado State University and the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport to expose their construction students to different cultures using WebCT, a world-wide-web application. The project teamed students from each university to research the similarities and differences in each group’s approach to different topic areas of construction. The project lasted one month in the Fall 2005 semester and will be repeated in the future. Particular challenges to the project included communication, fitting in with existing curriculum, use of WebCT, and scheduling. This work was made possible with support from the Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) in cooperation with the Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development (ALO), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Key Words: International Construction, Cross-cultural Education, Construction Culture, Web-based Instruction, WebCT
The international construction community makes a significant contribution to the global economy. Contractors are increasing the amount of work they perform outside of their home country. “The Top 225 [International Contractors] had combined revenue of $167.49 billion from projects outside their home counties in 2004, up 19.8% over $139.82 billion in 2003” (Reina & Tulacz, 2005, December, p. 4). To compete in today’s increasingly global economy, students must have an understanding of the challenges of international construction. One of the keys to success is cultural awareness. It is important that personnel on international construction projects understand the social and cultural values of the host country (Choudhury, 2000). Unfortunately, only one-third of US international construction firms provide any cross-cultural training to their personnel before a project starts (Maloney, 1982). This makes it even more important for students to be able to adapt quickly to different social and cultural situations. This was an area not currently being addressed in the Construction Management program at Colorado State University (CSU).
The challenge was how to best do this in an educational setting while working within existing construction curricula. The International Construction Culture Project was a joint effort between CSU and the Arab Academy of Science, Technology & Maritime Transport (AAST) to provide a cross-cultural educational experience to construction students from each university in an online setting. Others have suggested online courses as a way to provide instruction to students geographically separated from the instructor (see Malek, 2003). Malek’s paper “Case study for long distance learning between the University of North Florida and the American University” was about evaluating the potential for the University of North Florida (UNF) to offer construction courses online to students at the American University in Cairo that were taught solely by UNF faculty. This project differs in that this is a joint effort to share information between two Universities about their approaches to construction. The primary goal of this project was to expose students to working with different cultures with a secondary goal of learning alternate construction materials and methods. Unlike the one-way learning environment described in Malek’s paper, this project expected the teaching and learning to come from students in both countries with the faculty facilitating the process.
This paper focuses on the methodology, delivery, and challenges in creating the international project. A second paper is in development that will specifically address student outcomes of the project.
University and Faculty Participants
The faculty team for the project included Mohamed Emam, Ph.D. from AAST and Angela A. Guggemos, Ph.D.; David E. Gunderson, Ph.D., CPC; and Mostafa Khattab, Ph.D. from CSU. CSU offers a 120 semester credit hour undergraduate degree in Construction Management, accredited by the American Council for Construction Education (ACCE). AAST offers a 180 semester credit hour undergraduate degree in Construction and Building Engineering. Project content and guidelines were determined by all four faculty members. Although the project was run in an online environment, each faculty member was an in-person contact for students at their own university.
The focus of this student project was construction culture in an increasingly global marketplace. It was designed to be a group project that would be run as part of existing courses at both universities in the Fall 2005 semester. All faculty and student participation would be done through a web-based virtual course environment, WebCT (WebCT, 2005). Each group of students would work together to compare and contrast specific construction topics from Egyptian and US perspectives. This compare and contrast format was designed to focus on construction culture and the differences/similarities between and within each country.
The topics suggested for the students to research were:
These topics were only suggestions; the students were encouraged to pick a construction-related topic that was interesting to them. Any topic not listed above would require faculty approval before the student group could proceed with their research. Only one group per topic was allowed to encourage variation in the issues being studied. Groups could use the same topic if the focus of one group was significantly different than that of another group. Students had the ability and were encouraged to narrow their focus within the topic selected. Groups had to sign up for their chosen topics and received approval from the faculty on a first-come, first-served basis.
The deliverables for the project included a written report and a PowerPoint presentation that each group would post to WebCT for all participants to view. The report was to be approximately 20 pages double-spaced and include 6 – 10 references. The use of case studies, photos, graphs, and tables to illustrate the cultural differences and similarities was encouraged. As an appendix to the report, the groups were required to provide copies of their online group discussion and chat sessions. The PowerPoint presentation was required to be 20 – 30 minutes in length. Students were asked to present a summary of their findings and incorporate some of the photos, graphs, and tables from the report into the presentation.
In addition, each student was required to individually submit a 2-page double-spaced report summarizing the benefits and challenges associated with working with students from another country and working within a virtual classroom environment. They were asked to identify the positive and negative aspects of the project, suggestions for project format improvement, and how they would approach the project differently should they have the opportunity again. This report was only seen by the faculty and is being used to make improvements and changes to the project for the Fall 2006 semester.
Student Group Composition and Topic Selection
The students were directed to work in groups comprised of two students from each university. Student participants volunteered from each university. At CSU, faculty advertised the project in several graduate classes and senior-level capstone courses in the Construction Management department. In total, 10 students from CSU participated: 7 graduate students and 3 senior-level undergraduates. All students were Construction Management majors except for one Civil Engineering graduate student. Eight students were US citizens and two were from India. For each student, this project replaced a single major assignment in one of their existing classes (taught by the participating faculty).
All eight students from AAST were senior-level (5th year) undergraduate students in Dr. Emam’s class. Each student was able to choose their teammate from their own university and they were then placed in the cross-cultural groups based on topic selection. Each group consisted of two AAST students and two CSU students with the exception that two of the four groups had three CSU students. The topics chosen by the students for the Fall 2005 semester were: construction materials and methods, financial management, project controls, and contracting methods.
The original plan was to run the project completely using WebCT. CSU hosted the WebCT site. As a backup and as a prelude to using WebCT, students and faculty began communication using email. The instructors were also available in-person to students at their own University.
It was not difficult to provide the CSU students with access to the WebCT site. There were some complications in obtaining access for the students from AAST. These students (and faculty) needed temporary student identification (ID) numbers from CSU so they could then obtain user ID numbers for WebCT that would allow them to be granted access to the WebCT site. To avoid delaying the start of the project while waiting for CSU to grant temporary ID numbers to the AAST faculty and students, email became the primary mode of correspondence. Even though CSU provided the ID numbers within the first week of the project, many groups continued to use email as their primary communication source. Two students from AAST did not complete the process to obtain a user ID for WebCT and therefore were never granted access to the WebCT site.
The WebCT site had six areas that were accessible from the home page: Project Outline, Team Members List, Student Profiles, Bulletin Board, Chat Rooms, and Student Presentations. Each link was described briefly on the home page. A screen shot of the home page can be seen in Figure 1. The Project Outline provided a description of the project including the required deliverables. The Team Members List provided the names and email addresses for the students (grouped by topic) and the faculty. The Student Profiles section allowed students to create a simple web page with text and photos. This functionality was included as part of the site in the hope that students would post short biographies and photos of themselves so that their fellow students could get to know each other on a non-academic level. On the Bulletin Board each group had access to a designated private space in which to communicate ideas and share files for their report and presentation. There was also a main discussion space on the Bulletin Board that was open to all students. This was available for general questions posed to the faculty or other students. The Chat Rooms provided students with group-specific space where they could have real-time online conversations. Finally, the Student Presentations tool provided a means for students to upload their PowerPoint presentations so that they could be easily viewed by others online.
Figure 1: Screen shot of the WebCT home page for the International Construction Culture Project in Fall 2005.
In addition to having access to instructors through email and WebCT, it was important for the students to be able to have personal contact with the faculty. All four faculty members counseled students in person while the project was in process. This gave students the opportunity to ask questions that they may have been embarrassed to put into writing.
This project posed several challenges for the faculty and students. Main issues centered on communication, use of WebCT, scheduling, and time constraints. The use of existing courses, length of the project, and group selection method are also addressed.
General Communication Issues
Communication issues were the greatest challenge. In planning the project, all communication occurred through email. All correspondence was in English, a language used in both universities. All students at AAST were fluent in English as a second language. Although language was not a barrier, it was still difficult to get ideas across only in writing during the planning process. Often the same terminology meant different things in each culture and it would take several emails to figure this out. Similar experiences were had by the students. Although the project description was written and available to all students, there was still confusion about the deliverables. Several groups submitted two final projects, one by the CSU students and one by the AAST students. This did not meet the project guidelines to submit one unified project for each group. All students did excellent work in researching their topics but many struggled with the collaboration element of the project.
Use of WebCT
WebCT was not used as extensively as hoped. CSU students visited the WebCT site slightly more frequently than the AAST students. The CSU students had 67 average visits compared to 59 for the AAST students. By far, the Home Page was the most visited page within the web site followed by the Bulletin Board. Some students visited the Chat Rooms but they were never used for real-time online discussion. Five students started the process but only one out of 18 students created a Student Profile. None of the groups posted their presentation using the Student Presentations tool. Much of this can be attributed to the difficulty of using WebCT. For example, the instructors had difficulty in creating simple biographies with photos using the Student Profiles tool. The four students who were unsuccessful at creating their profiles had blank pages with no text or photos. WebCT did not provide instructions for how to use the tool. The instructors gave brief instructions on the Home Page but clearly more direction was required.
Use of Existing Courses
Making the project part of existing courses was operationally simpler. New courses did not have to be created at each institution that would have fit within the curriculum for each program. In the Construction Management Program at CSU, students have very few opportunities for electives. The project is worthy of 1 unit of academic credit and typical classes are 3 units, leaving a student in a 2 unit deficit or with an extra unit in an already full schedule.
One challenge for the organization of the project is that although they were both on the semester system, the start of AAST’s semester lags CSU’s by a month. This led to several challenges. The first was in setting the timetable for the project. The project was to be 1 month in duration. To allow as much time as possible for project planning, student selection, and set up of the WebCT site without interfering with existing course final projects and exams, the project timeline was set for weeks 11 through 14 at CSU and weeks 7 through 10 at AAST. This put more pressure on AAST to complete all necessary tasks before the students began the project. Since the project was run so late in CSU’s semester, there was minimal time for one-on-one student evaluation of the project. Each student was required to write a two-page report on their experiences but true feelings and impressions often become clearer in an in-person interview. The AAST students were too polite in their written evaluations and did not provide constructive criticism. When asked in the face-to-face interview process, they provided more open and critical reviews of the process along with suggestions for improvement.
In addition to the offset in semesters, there were also time challenges associated with differing time zones and differing work weeks. Cairo, Egypt is 9 hours ahead of Fort Collins, Colorado. This usually caused a 1 day lag when sharing information. It also made it difficult to schedule real-time online conversations in the chat rooms. An unexpected impact was the difference in work weeks. The typical work week at AAST is Sunday through Thursday while at CSU it is Monday through Friday. This also caused lags in the time it took to respond to requests. An effort was made to check the WebCT site twice a day, every day to respond to any student issues.
The project lasted 1 month. Students had ample time to perform the research, write the report, and create the presentation. In fact, several of the AAST students well exceeded the 20 page requirement by 20 or more pages without including the content from their CSU teammates. In general, students underestimated the time required to combine their group’s work into one unified document. A common recommendation was that more time be allowed for the project giving students more time to get to know one another.
Group Size and Mix
The groups of four to five students had a mix of students from CSU and AAST. This appeared to be a good group size. A smaller group of two students, one from CSU and one from AAST, may have completed the project more easily. Having at least two students from each university set a different dynamic such that there were more people who needed to come to a consensus. Larger groups than what was used would also prove that point but would make it even more difficult to complete the project on time.
Changes for the Next Project
This project will be run again in the Fall 2006 semester. Based on the lessons learned after running the project the first time, several changes will be made. Dr. Emam will travel to CSU as part of the cultural exchange. Part of this visit will include planning and preparation for the next project. Being able to work together in person will make the process more efficient. Although, having the students meet in person would be ideal, the next best option is to have them meet during a video conference. The goal will be to have at least one video conference at the start of the project so that the students can become acquainted and one at the end of the project for presentations. The first video conference will also include some instruction on the use of WebCT. Also, more resources will be added to the WebCT site for instructions on how to use the different parts of WebCT. The length of the project will be extended to add a pre-assignment for the students. The intention of this exercise is for the students to get to know each other on a personal level before starting their research project.
The initial project can be considered a success because it brought together faculty and students from two culturally-different construction programs to learn about each other’s culture from a construction perspective. The challenges the students faced in producing a collaborative effort support the recommendations of cross-cultural education in international construction management and strengthen our desire to incorporate similar issues throughout the construction management undergraduate and graduate curricula.
One goal of this project on international construction culture was to learn enough about cross-cultural collaborative educational efforts to create a full course on International Construction Management. This project was originally planned to be a full course based on the concepts of service-learning and sustainability (Guggemos, Gunderson, Khattab, & Johnson, 2005). Initial coordination efforts were challenging enough that the course was pared down to a project. It will be easier to develop the full course after experiencing the cross-cultural planning, organizing, and operational educational process on a smaller scale.
Choudhury, I. (2000). Cross-cultural training of project personnel for implementation of international construction projects by US contractors. ASC Proceedings of the 36th Annual Conference, Purdue University-West Lafayette, IN, 87-94.
Guggemos, A.A., Gunderson, D.E., Khattab, M., & Johnson, B. (2005). Service-learning and sustainability: the foundation for an international construction management course. International Conference on Industry, Engineering, and Management Systems Proceedings, Cocoa Beach, FL.
Malek, M. (2003). Case study for long distance learning between the University of North Florida and the American University. ASC Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference, Clemson University – Clemson, SC, 91-96.
Maloney, W.F. (1982). Supervisory problems of international construction. Journal of the Construction Division: American Society of Civil Engineers, 108, 406-418.
Reina, P., & Tulacz, G. J. (2005, December). Expanding market offers new niches. Engineering News-Record: 2005 Global Resource Book, New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 225(24A), 4-8.
WebCT. (2005). WebCT campus edition. Retrieved March 6, 2005 from http://www.webct.com/service/ViewContent?contentID=6205796
This work was made possible with support from the Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) in cooperation with the Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development (ALO), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Mr. Brad Johnson was also instrumental in providing technical support for the project.