Virtual Teams and Collaborative Learning

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

– Andy McIntyre and Derek Bok

Chapter contents

12.1    Introduction

12.2    Definition of a Virtual Team, Community of Practice and Collaborative Learning

12.3    Advantages and Disadvantages of Working in Teams

12.4    The Optimal Team

12.5    Online Tools

12.6    Barriers to Teamwork

12.7    Project Work with Collaboration in Larger Teams

12.8    Collaborative Construction of Knowledge – The Theory

12.9    Case Studies of Virtual Teams Working Collaboratively


12.1 Introduction

Arguably one of the greatest advances made in education in the past decade has been the use of collaborative learning or learning in teams.1 Due to the growth of the internet and more sophisticated telecommunication systems, the expansion of virtual teams seems assured. Students learn better in teams and find it a more enjoyable learning experience.2 The formation of a community of learners is vital for development of successful collaborative work, critical thinking skills and building up the skills for life-long learning.3

As Robert Ubell remarked, “Virtual teams replicate the way industry, commerce and research is practised everyday worldwide”.4

Online forums can drive a very powerful learning experience by allowing the virtual team to engage in both synchronous and asynchronous debate 24/7–something that would be very difficult to achieve in a classroom environment. Instructors still play a critical role in virtual teams by allocating members to each group to ensure optimum results and naturally, also in facilitating and driving the teams to productive results.

In the construction of online learning courses, these virtual communities of practice should be encouraged to develop. Some suggestions on creating and nurturing one are to create projects that teams engage on, and to encourage exchange of contact data such as emails/Skype contacts. In this instance, a code of practice is essential; we had one nasty experience with one participant aggressively trying to recruit others to his company, causing all sorts of problems. Head that sort of behavior off at the pass where possible.

One of the greatest opportunities with online learning on the internet, is the exploration of community, collaboration and the formation of virtual learning communities based on the principle of constructivism where learning is achieved by design and construction activities.5

In research conducted by Open University, in large universities, the individual student’s tutor is a key element in their experience. Unfortunately, good peer-to-peer networks were fairly uncommon.6 It was suggested that at the beginning of their studies, remote (rural) students should be made aware of the availability and usefulness of online peer networks which aren’t necessarily subject-based but are simply based around establishing an online community.

Virtual teams are vital elements of today’s global organization,7 hence skills in working in a team environment should be acquired by the student well before arriving at the workplace. This is recognized by engineering accreditation authorities and for example, the USA engineering accreditation organization, ABET, requires that students have the ability to work in teams and the ability to communicate effectively.

When structuring teams, if there are typical procedures required that need to be brought in, it is best to do it before the team commences operation, at which point training them on new procedures is probably akin to “herding cats”. This process can be achieved by testing students on those procedures and requiring 100% accuracy before being permitted to proceed on the course.

The process of coordinating teams (and the individual members) can put considerably more strain on the instructor with a leap in the associated workload dealing with such issues as administrative details, interpersonal problems and grading papers not only of teams but of individual members.

Collaborative learning works

Engagement theory, which has support from earlier research (but which has not been verified with extensive empirical research) from Kearsley and Shneiderman, states that successful learning can occur when learning activities:8

• Are performed in a group collaborative way. This ensures students have to negotiate meaning and creation of new materials with each other.

• Are undertaken in a project setting. This approach is considerably more interesting than working individually on a problem.

• Are based on authentic real-work activities (which also provide something useful back to the community). This would increase motivation, enjoyment and satisfaction as it is contributing something to the community, is job-based and builds on the student’s career interests.

With the plethora of collaborative tools available these days, this can easily be applied in an online learning context. There is evidence from earlier research that collaborative learning provides superior learning results to that of working on one’s own.

The following sections define the common terms used such as virtual team, community of practice and collaborative learning. Next the advantages and disadvantages of a team are assessed followed by a description of the ideal team. The online tools required for an effective team are then noted. Barriers to team work are then evaluated followed by a discussion of larger team issues. The chapter is then concluded with a discussion of the collaborative construction of knowledge followed by a few case studies.


12.2 Definition of a virtual team, community of practice and collaborative learning

Three terms that are discussed interchangeably in this book are virtual team, virtual community of practice and computer-based (or virtual) collaborative learning. There are subtle distinctions between these three collaborative structures that are briefly discussed below.

What is the definition of a virtual team?9 In essence, a virtual team requires minimal face-to-face physical interaction and is often scattered physically using telecommunications-based technologies (such as email, Skype, web conferencing, etc.) to communicate often in an asynchronous manner. Elements that make a virtual team difficult to structure and to work in, include different nationalities, organizations and cultures. Often a virtual team will be constituted to tackle a particular project (such as to design an item of equipment) and will be wound down when the design process has been completed.

As discussed earlier, we often use informal means of gaining knowledge and skills.10 Many believe that they learn more from their peers on the job and via other informal means. This means, effectively, that highly-structured training courses are not always the way to go. One informal method of gaining knowledge is through communities of practice, and in the case of online learning, this can be modified to include virtual communities of practice. This really refers to a group of participants who share activities, knowledge and expertise virtually (over the web or via phone or web conferencing) over periods of time, with a specific goal of furthering their knowledge in a particular area. Anecdotal evidence shows that the other great attribute of a community of practice for online learning is that it sustains the group and helps to reduce the attrition rate of an online learning course. An example of a virtual community of practice would be a group operating on a semi-permanent basis such as the Industrial Automation group operating on the social networking group LinkedIn. Members informally join and leave as they see the need and information is freely exchanged, debated and criticized on occasion.

Another term used frequently is computer-based (or virtual) collaborative learning, where two or more people work together on an educational project using computers (and the internet) as the interface. These learners are often located remotely from each other and use the internet as the communications medium.11 Typical tools used include email, web conferencing software, breakout rooms, instant messaging, interactive whiteboards and online team virtual workspaces.

Collaborative learning can be very effective because people like working in groups with most effective sizes being between three and eight. This form of learning mirrors current international business practice with the rapid growth of virtual teams.


12.3 Advantages and disadvantages or working in teams

The advantages of working in teams include:

• A far better understanding and retention of the course materials than with a classroom session.

• An appreciation of other team member’s opinions and analyses (“seeing through another set of eyes”).

• Other opportunities including learning to research, identify materials and debate them within a team environment.

• A higher level of critical thinking, analysis and assessment when working on a conflict resolution problem in teams

• Mutual stimulation of each other's thought processes.

• Increased retention of knowledge.

• Higher motivation for learning as one is in a group.

• Greater depth of knowledge due to the group interaction, negotiation, argumentation/challenge, multiple point of view and iterative progression to a solution.

• New ideas and approaches due to the different members of the group.

• Reduced attrition rates in (mainly asynchronous) online learning.

Teams are often used as a device by instructors to minimize their amount of work as it reduces the number of submissions that have to be marked. Admittedly, this is not a good thing if it reduces the overall quality of the learning experience.

The disadvantages include:

• Unequal contributions from different members.

• The usual dysfunctional individual who doesn’t want to work with other team members.

• Work that is broken up to such an extent that the team members don’t gain an understanding of the overall work.

• Instability of teams in the early part of the term, as class enrolment can fluctuate quite significantly.

• Personality clashes and cultural differences.

• Reluctance to undertake group work because of competitive issues.

• Varying levels of ability and knowledge.

• Leadership issues with too many or too few "chiefs".

• Discordant fragmentation of the group.

Effective activities in a virtual collaborative group

Typical activities that would work well in a collaborative group include:

• Analyzing case studies.

• Undertaking a team engineering design.

• Solving a multidisciplinary engineering problem.

• Undertaking discussions/debates with synchronous/asynchronous tools.

• Creating and maintaining communities of practice.

• Constructing reports and documents together (using Google Docs).

• Preparing a team presentation.

• Role-playing.

• Multi-player learning games.

• Working on an online remote lab together.

Techniques to make your virtual team or community work

Students tend to have very strong and opposing views on the use of virtual teams ranging from extreme dislike to enthusiasm.1213

Based on the list of advantages and disadvantages, some suggestions for the class instructor or facilitator on making a virtual team work include:

• Focus on context specific cases such as those relating directly to your engineering work, where there is a real possibility of driving real results from your team.

• Choose members of the team from different areas of business with different skills.

• Allow the students to decide on the team structure. This does have some drawbacks in terms of not optimizing the class, but it allows them to take ownership for their group.

• Simplify projects. Avoid excessively unstructured tasks if you are unsure about the groups.

• Ensure communication tools are effective from the beginning to ensure the group works together effectively. Email is not an effective communication tool.

• Train the groups to use the collaboration and communication tools.

• Ensure the teams are optimally sized.

• Motivate the reasons for the virtual team and why this environment is so relevant in today's world. When working in teams particularly in a distance learning approach with a wide range of students from different backgrounds (e.g. mature age students doing the course through distance learning against “young bloods” on campus), communications is probably the biggest challenge especially when unstructured tasks are required.

• Help the inexperienced members of the team.

• Ensure high quality seamless communications with virtual collaboration tools.

• Ensure the workload is divided fairly with measurable outcomes expected from each team member.

• Expect and drive support from the management of the enterprise.

• Get the teams off on the right foot with a strong commencement. This means that you need to set clear expectations on what is required both in writing and verbally in as many places as possible. Get to your know your students and the teams as much as possible, from their work, career and life story, and get them to introduce themselves to their class peers. Often this requires a person-to-person chat on the phone or a meeting if you are physically close.

• Select your virtual teams as soon as the course starts. Don’t rely on the class to break down into teams. It is the job of the facilitator to optimize the structure of the teams in balanced groups of three to five people.

• Avoid dictatorial team leaders. A team leader is important to motivate and lead the team with all students gaining the opportunity to manage the team. But it is important for the team leader to enthusiastically motivate and achieve consensual solutions to assignments. The team leader plays an essential role in unifying an assignment presentation with a standard style, any gaps filled in and an agreed level of quality from all team members. The facilitator may need to diplomatically intervene at strategic times to ensure that everything stays on track.

• Ensure full participation from all students. Inevitably, there will be the odd student who doesn’t want to participate fully (or at all) for a variety of (often supposedly legitimate) reasons. If the team leader can’t drive this student to engage, the facilitator may need to intervene firmly and directly as soon as possible and well before the assignment is due. This may result in the particular student failing the assignment.

• Empower each team with basic communications technology. Initially, it is vital to set each team up with the necessary technology and an exchange of contact details. This will be typically a room in a web conferencing package, Skype, email and instant messaging.

• Provide guidance on strategies to work together. Hereafter, it is up to the team to make the arrangement work and it is not the facilitator’s job to keep driving the team and the old quoted philosophy of: “sink or swim” is now the name of the game.

• Ensure that team members hold their peers accountable. Rather than having the tedious task of the facilitator trawling through the team work and discussions; it is important that the team members hold each other accountable and this can be either done through peer reviews or providing a specific grade for team discussions. Teams can also critique each other’s contributions. As indicated, students are more accommodating with other student’s opinions than that of an instructor.

• Encourage teams to come up with innovative solutions and to compete against each other and to compare their solutions against that of the other teams.

• Reward risk taking and innovation in teams. It is hard to think and make decisions outside of the “traditional box”; but this should be encouraged as it makes everyone consider more options. This stretches everyone. Obviously this risk taking and innovation has to be reasonably logic and rational.

• Encourage team initiative and independence. Let teams move on at their own pace and avoid getting sucked in or actively participating in discussions unless absolutely necessary. However, provide support and assistance where required.

• Do live presentations and clearly analyze the team outcomes. Ensure each team does a live presentation (using video or web conferencing) to the whole class. Carefully dissect the problem, provide a suggested solution and provide constructive and respectful analyses of each team submission, together with the grades.

Co-operative vs. collaborative learning

A contrast is made between students engaged in co-operative learning and those engaged in collaborative learning.14 Co-operative learning is an activity defined by the instructor as to what students do and how they work together, against that of collaborative learning where students define how they will work together and how they will engage in learning. Successful collaborative work is highly prized by engineering organizations as most projects are created by an often multidisciplinary team of engineers. Hence, these skills are a key attribute in becoming an engineering professional.

Collaborative distance learning

Introductory socialization activities are important for building relationships between members of the group.15 Discussion activities are useful but compulsory contributions to discussion forums should be carefully weighed up to avoid mechanical contributions. Peer assessments should be used to assess contributions. Moderation of discussions can be extraordinarily demanding and the workload should be shared with members of staff (even those who are not subject matter experts). Assessments of activities can be positive if they are done in an open, positive and collaborative way and are authentic representations of the work environment. A method of reinforcing and clarifying the assessments can be by requiring feedback from students.

Ensure everyone understands that failure at one team assignment should be the motivator spurring teams to re-assess their approach and to provide an outstanding project solution on the next occasion.


12.4 The optimal team

Two comments will give some feeling for the optimally sized team.16 Jeff Bezos (CEO of Amazon) apparently remarked that, “If you can’t feed a team with two pizzas, the size of the team is too large”. 19th Century French engineer Maximilian Ringelmann remarked that the more people who were pulling on a rope, the less the individual effort. Research in many different environments has indicated that the optimum size team is four or five. Obviously, this will vary depending on the size of the class and beyond five, there is an opportunity for a team member to hide and to freeload. Overall, one should remember that the aim of the team is to provide a robust learning experience and the precise team size and structure is not the main objective. Another suggestion is that integrated teams (comprising on-campus and distance learning students) should be four to five. Solely campus teams should be three to four, whereas the more scattered distance learning students should have two to four maximum.

Improving harmony in teams

Disagreements are perhaps more likely in a virtual team environment than in a traditional face-to-face meeting, with the rather “thin” asynchronous communications medium (such as email) often used, making misunderstandings quite likely.17 Typical sources of problems range from mismatches in delivery, tasks not delivered by members but perceived as required, quality and timeliness of deliverables, plagiarism, personality conflicts and simply miscommunications. Although it does require considerably more effort from the instructor or facilitator, the process discussed below does improve team harmony.

Even before the team commences, a procedure should be circulated to all members on how the team should operate laying out the expectations in terms of individual contribution, timeliness, copyright and the need for the team to work together. A copy should be signed and returned by each student to acknowledge that they have read and understood the procedure.

Instructors or facilitators can minimize conflict by being actively involved in team sessions, from regular monitoring, motivating and encouraging to correcting deviations from good practice. The grade for a team assignment should be significant to ensure commitment from all members. Typically, this is somewhere between 15% to 30%.

The requirement for a team charter and provision of a grade to its presentation by the team at the inception of the team can be effective. The team charter should contain such elements as objectives of the team, listing skills of each member, ground rules and how they intend to handle conflict. It has also been suggested that a team log should be provided for each deliverable. This would detail the contribution of each member together with a review on the operation of the team.

The selection of team members should be ideally done by the instructor, all from similar time zones and with some balance between strong and weak students. The team should preferably operate in team rooms, which the instructor regularly monitors. Email should be minimized and if it is used, the instructor should be copied on all interactions here.

The instructor should take active steps to watch out for conflict and intervene as early as possible in the process, initially with a general comment to the team and if this still doesn’t provide the necessary result, directly to the offending members. If this doesn’t work, then a team teleconference or web conference will be required.

Building trust

One of the hard-won attributes of working online is building trust and a few suggestions when working in a team are:18

• Communicate openly and frequently.

• Don’t expect trust without giving it freely.

• Be honest and frank in all interactions.

• Demonstrate and practise business ethics.

• Always ensure that you deliver in a timely fashion what you say you are going to do.

• Be consistent and predictable in all your actions.

• Demonstrate from the start that you are keen to interact.

• Ensure you are freely available and respond quickly.

• Keep discussions and interchanges confidential where required.

• Ensure there is social time for interaction with the team.

Team peer and self assessment reviews

Everyone knows, often from personal experience, of the difficulties in assessing the real contribution from each team member.19 A way around this challenge is to get each team member to perform a peer- and self-assessment. This also has the side effect of spurring on the members with a renewed focus on the objectives of assessment (which is hopefully tightly aligned with the course activity). The idea is to use an online assessment system that students would undertake to enter evaluations of themselves as well as those of their peers.

Some suggestions for undertaking these assessments:

• Ensure the groups are not too small, otherwise the results may be inflated due to members being more easily able to identify the source of the ratings. If a small group is formed, the facilitator may need to moderate the results with more careful monitoring of the group.

• Improve the accuracy of the ratings by providing clear instructions on performing the survey and training in the peer assessment process.

• It goes without saying that utmost anonymity and confidentiality is critical in undertaking a peer review. Any compromise here may mean that the results are flawed.

• This process can be useful as a formative assessment tool to spur on team members and to motivate the students who don’t particularly contribute in the early stages of the team.

One of the challenges with team peer reviews is that they generally occur at the end of the course and thus there is no mechanism to improve team performance during the course.20

Whilst there are doubts about the efficacy of group work due to the possibility of having students who are lazy or disinterested, there is definite merit in them for learning.21 The temptation of students not to participate fully in the work of the group has to be dealt with to avoid burdening a group unnecessarily or giving unfair benefits to any member, and there are a few suggestions from Ssemakula.

Initially, group members are expected to police themselves. This means that when a group assignment is submitted, only the names of those who worked on the assignment are included. We are not sure if this is that effective, as most groups would be too embarrassed to leave a member out. Perhaps one approach is to get each team member to give an anonymous score for each member and for the instructors to average this out. The second suggestion is to allocate a significant portion of the final grade (25%) to the group assignments. A third approach is to give a bonus to the group when a group in its entirety achieves above a certain score in a test. This is quite a radical step but the results apparently have been greater student involvement with the materials, more thoughtful discussions by students and greater support of each other in preparing assignments and for a test.

There are a variety of online tools for assessment of group members, such as Comprehensive Assessment for Team-Member Effectiveness (CATME) from Purdue University and the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Peer Review Tool, allowing one to rate one’s team members. Categories for rating team members include attendance, listening skills, communication skills, responsibility, leadership and team building. When all team members have completed the peer review (including of oneself), the results are averaged and emailed to each student. The UCSD tool has been used successfully in introductory and senior level design courses.


12.5 Online tools

Online tools can be particularly helpful in this endeavor. Initially, the instructor should complete a detailed analysis of what is required for the particular virtual team.22 This will require an assessment of what type of training you are providing, your current situation especially with knowledge level of students, what you want to achieve, what tools are currently available and how these fit into your budget.

An assessment of current capabilities includes identifying bandwidth and telecommunications systems of students (and instructors), installed base of client machines and software, security systems and provision of technical support. Other considerations are whether you need a connection with members continuously or on an ad-hoc basis. Finally, it is a very brave team leader who introduces new technologies that are different or incompatible with that which is widely used in the organization.

Typical collaborative communication tools that can be used include:

The traditional approach

Although perhaps not as versatile as other more sophisticated software, email and telephone are probably still the most commonly used method with virtual teams.23 Email is simple, easy to use and it acts as a store of information. It is unfortunately not easy to reference, does have a degree of unreliability (there is no effective way of confirming receipt 100% of the time) and it is not easy to flag a message as urgent. Irritatingly, people with very little input in a meeting or group interaction get copied into spurious email messages, adding to the mountain of irrelevant messages. Email messages can also be easily misinterpreted and any criticisms passed should be avoided.

Immediate interaction between participants

Typical tools here allowing instant messaging include MSN, AIM, Yahoo and Skype. Skype also provides instant messaging as well as audio (and latterly video) interacting up to five participants for no charge. Telephones can be used for urgent exchanges or telephone conference calls. They are ultra reliable but due to their synchronous approach can make things difficult with time zone issues. An ameliorating technology that is nevertheless a phone and eases this problem is in using mobile phones with SMS texting, or the worldwide free texting app, Whatsapp.

Training presentations and meetings

There are a variety of web conferencing tools ranging from WebEx, GoToMeeting (and GoToTraining), NetMeeting as well as Elluminate and Electromeet. With add-ons, Skype can also be used in a presentation mode. Some of these tools are compatible with a telephone bridge allowing one to use the phone for the audio component. It is always useful to have a recording facility for all these presentations or discussions.

Webconferences are useful in introducing team members, breaking the ice, informing everyone as to what is happening and to debate issues. A skillful facilitator is useful to break down the slightly wooden interaction (exacerbated by lower than face-to-face spontaneity due to the time delays in each person talking).

Collaborative work

When working on documents (such as for presentations or research) with many members of the team working together in a collaborative way, packages such as Google Docs may be useful.

Distribution of information

Tools that are useful here include blogs (from weblog) that combine text, images and downloads to other useful information. Podcasts (audio) and vodcasts (video) are useful ways of recording short chunks of information and can easily be put together using free packages such as Audacity.

Wikis are also useful to get everyone involved as they allow one to easily add in and edit content online. Security is achieved by disabling JavaScript and HTML tags. Other useful activities are social networking sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, some of which allow you to create groups.

Surveying the team

You might find it useful to survey the team members or, indeed, a target audience. In this cass, survey packages such as Zoomerang and SurveyMonkey can be useful. See also section 12.4 for discussion of CATME and UCSD.

Google collaboration applications as a tool

Students expect instructors to be applying the latest web technologies, and a growing suite of tools are those providing online collaboration.24 A widely-used set of tools is Google Collaboration Applications which includes Google Documents, Presentations, and Spreadsheets. After creating a free account, you can create and import new documents and share them with others online. An instructor at Tarleton State University used this tool for providing quick feedback to students on their documents and this was reported to increase students’ self-reported level of self-efficacy. Negative comments were the inability to access documents when there was no internet access, having to learn new software, technical problems and the differences between Microsoft suite of equivalent products.

An alternative view of Google Documents was in an engineering project (comprising a state of charge battery indicator) which initially was only using email in terms of developing and then improving documents.25 It was, however, deemed impossible with teams scattered at different locations to collaborate and WebGUI was eventually selected. This was because the group were concerned about protection about their intellectual property which would not be secure with Google Docs (where ownership of IP is surrendered to Google on use of the facility). WebGUI requires no installation of software, uses a web browser and includes a word processor, spreadsheet program, and a presentation editor. It is free, and is interfaced to the usual Google Calendar.

Lessons from a virtual team operating around an online discussion board

As indicated above, working in teams can help students learn valuable skills of problem solving and communications.26 These are directly transferable to the world of work where virtual teams are rapidly becoming a key attribute of many companies (especially those operating on a worldwide basis). Although there are concerns about working in teams (especially virtual ones), the overall learning experience is considerably better than working alone. Problems in working in teams include social loafing and freeloading. Some valuable lessons were learned in conducting a course in the Psychology of the Workplace with the virtual team environment operating through the Blackboard LMS online discussion board. Initially, team members were assigned various roles such as contributor (to initiate the discussions), critic (to critically analyze the problem) and summarizer, who summed up the discussions.

The main problems related to lack of (or minimal) active contribution from team members include domineering personalities and weak social interaction between participants. The benefits of working in a team were manifold and included self-discovery, empathy for others, setting clear work boundaries and communicating effectively through discussion boards. It was suggested that an important first task for the facilitator is to encourage initial team building and thus effective operation, by encouraging introductions and more active socialization.

Social networking

A social network is a virtual location on the web where people construct an open or restricted public profile and exchange thoughts with a list of others with similar opinions.27 Typical exampes of this include Facebook and LinkedIn.

Another means of collaboration or social networking is the use of Twitter. This is one of the most popular social networking sites and allows short bursts of communications (up to 140 characters) between a team, group or social network.28 Research has shown this to be a successful way of professional networking and growth. Four themes emerged from this research: showing improved access to resources, group support, increased leadership capacity and finally, development of a “shared professional vision”.


12.6 Barriers to teamwork

Collaborating on a global basis through virtual teams presents a number of barriers.29 Although a focus of a virtual team in this discussion is in a work related context, bear in mind that significant learning also occurs. These include time zones and geographical locations. The best approach is to define the optimum time for meetings and to allow flexible work schedules. Early morning or late night meetings should be minimized. Another possible solution is to have a rotation schedule, but this can be painful.

Trust can be a significant barrier and needs to be built up in the early stages as quickly as possible through a variety of techniques, including initiating face-to-face meetings, team building activities, humor, vigorous communication, openness, warmth and encouraging one-to-one dialogue between disparate team members.

Language is inevitably a challenge and one should be careful about use of colloquial words and also in interpreting another nationality’s words. Always seek to confirm your understanding if there is any doubt. Finally, take delight in being different in one’s language and be grateful that English is being used as the medium of communications (and thus be accommodating but not patronizing).

Different cultures in a virtual team create interesting challenges, but try and underst and the finer nuances and background of all team members from different countries and cultures. Delight (again) in having different cultures in your virtual team and regard this as a positive against the vanilla monoculture.

Different levels of expertise, interests and enthusiasms need to be identified early in the project and different components of the project aligned with the appropriate individual. Work hard on matching the different levels of expertise to the project and filling the gaps and articulating the overall project goals so that everyone can see what they are working towards.

Ensure that no one is treated like a battery hen and the different work styles are accommodated but nonetheless the project deadlines, achievements and individual responsibilities are clearly and continuously articulated. Ensure everyone knows what the holiday schedule is for all offices and any negative impacts here are dealt with effectively. Celebrate team events virtually (birthdays and other achievements) and discuss non-work related items.


12.7 Project work with collaboration in larger teams

Projects are a key part of assessing senior engineering graduates and comprise research on the selected topic, writing a proposal, status reports, design and presentation for a review by faculty (and their peers).30 This is followed by a final document submission. Traditionally, projects have been conducted on-site, but this can be an isolated experience (with only two or three students undertaking each project) and one (disconnected) report for each project. The online approach allows for the whole class to undertake one connected project with each student completing one aspect of the project resulting in one holistic submission. One example is automation of the appliances in a home with each student working on individual aspects (radio/TV/refrigerator/coffee machine) and connecting back to one graphical user interface that can be viewed through the internet. Along with the project, each student writes a job description for someone who represents a company hiring someone to undertake the project. All students participate in the interviews (on-the-job description and project) using a web conferencing package.


12.8 Collaborative construction of knowledge – the theory

There are eight mechanisms proposed by Dillenbourg and Schneider to build up knowledge while working collaboratively:31

• Conflict or near-conflict (socially learners ignore conflict and try and find a solution using a verbal interaction).

• Alternative proposal (less likelihood of disagreement and thus less bias in search for knowledge).

• Self-explanation (where not only does the less-able party benefit but the process of explanation reinforces the knowledge of the more-able peer through the cognitive process of providing the explanation).

• Internalization (verbalization of knowledge tends to internalize it better).

• Appropriation (by the less able partner of the more able partner’s actions for future work).

• Shared cognitive load (shared working on a problem together where the group spontaneously distributes roles to the members in executing a task).

• Mutual regulation (partners often have to explicitly justify why they have done something and through these discussions, the partners regulate each other’s activities).

• Social grounding (a speaker monitors his listeners’ understanding and when he detects, through cues such as facial expressions and gestures, that there is a misunderstanding occurring, he then attempts to repair this, thus building up a shared understanding).

For collaborative learning to be effective however, these conditions must be established:

• Group composition (small groups better than large groups and some degree of heterogeneity to increase likelihood of different viewpoints).

• Task features (avoiding tasks that cannot be shared and use tasks that lead to shared learning).

• Communication media (ensure that it is adequate e.g. a video link may be key to showing facial expressions etc.).

Suggestions for successful operation of the remote labs for collaborating groups include:

• Hold a warm-up introductory session for the group to exchange non-task related details (including effective contact details) using both asynchronous and synchronous tools.

• During the execution of the experiment, real-time reliable synchronous communications is essential using either web conferencing or MSN and Skype.

• At the conclusion of the experiment, appropriate collaborative tools for a team to work with asynchronously, such as Google Docs.


12.9 Case studies of virtual teams working collaboratively

A few examples follow of virtual teams.

Remote collaboration in welding

It is productive for engineers who are experts in welding technology to be able to access welding cells remotely to assist local welders with a quicker response to problems, improving quality control of the weld, improved reliability and reduced travel time and costs.32 The National Institute for Standards and Technology set up a system allowing for collaboration and monitoring of a welding cell.

When a weld is being performed by the robot controller under direction of the local operator, the system records such parameters as voltage, current and torch position. Netmeeting software from Microsoft allows audio and video streaming (with a remotely controlled pan/tilt/zoom camera) between the expert and local operator. A 3D model can be shown of the welding process with all the data overlaid onto it to help discuss specific issues.

Team teaching

A different approach to collaborative working is to have a team of instructors presenting a course.33 A team teaching approach was used at the University of Utah to present an Introduction to Engineering Design course using videoconferencing facilities. All instructors (typically four) attended the classes with mainly older students located on a number of campuses. This approach fitted in well to theandragogical approach where the student’s life and work experience were used extensively in the course. A strong peer-to-peer collaborative approach was used in the classes.

The course was structured with readings by chapters from the book, “Engineering Your Future” by William Oakes, with readings and quizzes that needed to be completed before each class. A different instructor would then lead the discussions via video conference hookup with homework exercises to be completed before the next class. Every two weeks, an invited engineering speaker from industry would present on their engineering discipline. Lab exercises were also set up at two weekly intervals ranging from working with Excel, testing mechanical quantities such as force and acceleration and simple network analysis using PSpice. The course was concluded with each student undertaking a five-minute oral presentation to develop his or her training and communication skills. Finally, a research paper was required on an engineering topic of interest (such as the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill).

Overall, the feedback from students was good with the following reasons attributed to a successful program: it was presented via distance learning technology, the audience was adult, administration of the program was of a high quality, course content was wide and interesting, the instructors were experienced, enthusiastic and knowledgeable and the course promoted engineering as a career. Future improvements included more hands-on experiences, more case studies in ethics and design, archiving of presentations for later review, improving the coverage of the design process well beyond that of the textbook, increasing level of discussions and driving up the peer-to-peer collaborative activities.

Collaboration with remote labs

It is suggested that remote labs encourage collaborative learning as students have to work together in teams to achieve a successful outcome as there are no lab supervisors to guide them along.34 With the NetLab at the University of South Australia, students are required to collaboratively prepare for the experiment, conduct the experiment and connect up the instruments with a rather messy ambiguous environment of wires, instruments and components. The analysis of the results requires a comparison between the experimental results achieved from the remote labs as against those calculated and simulated using an appropriate software package.

The Netlab has been operating since 2002 with hundreds of students with most performing the labs from home. The critical reviews from students show learning outcomes better than for traditional labs with more lab time, more time in checking calculations and repeated simulations to check results. This resulted in improved understanding, analytical and collaborative skills as compared to earlier generations with the classical labs.


Key points and applications

chapter 12

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Virtual Teams and Collaborative Learning.

1.  One of the greatest advances in education in the past decade has been the use of collaborative learning or learning in teams.

2.  Successful learning can occur when learning activities are:

• Performed in a group collaborative way.

• Undertaken in a project setting.

• Based on authentic real work activities.

3.  A virtual team requires minimal face-to-face physical interaction and is often scattered physically using telecommunications-based technologies to communicate (often in an asynchronous manner). Virtual collaborative learning occurs when two or more people work together on an educational project using computers (and the internet) as the interface.

4.  Some advantages of working in teams include:

• A far better understanding and retention of course materials than in a classroom-based session.

• An appreciation of other opinions and analyses.

• A higher level of critical thinking, analysis and assessment when working on a conflict resolution problem in teams.

• Higher motivation for learning as one is in a group.

• Lower attrition rates in online learning.

5.  Some disadvantages include:

• Unequal contributions from different members.

• Instability of teams in the early part of the term, as class enrolment can fluctuate.

• Leadership issues.

6.  Typical activities in a virtual collaborative group:

• Analyzing case studies.

• Team engineering design.

• Undertaking discussion/debates with synchronous/asynchronous tools.

• Creating and maintaining communities of practice.

7.  Some suggestions for making a virtual team work include:

• Focus on context specific cases where there is a real possibility of achieving results.

• Choose members of the team with different skill sets.

• Simplify projects.

• Ensure communications tools are effective

• Divide workload up equally

• Avoid dictatorial team leaders.

• Ensure full participations of all members.